SERIES FRONTRUNNERS & FRONTIER EXPLORERS - EPISODE 5
IN CONVERSATION WITH MARTHIJN JUNGGEBURTH, SUSTAINABILITY MANAGER AT SWINKELS FAMILY BREWERS
How do experts view entrepreneurship in times of transition? Trailblazers talks to frontrunners and frontier explorers to find out. Today we speak with Marthijn Junggeburth, Sustainability Manager at Swinkels Family Brewers. Marthijn is one of the pioneers behind the self-developed Swinkels Circularity Index, a model that supports them in achieving full circularity within their business. As a result, Swinkels is fundamentally ready for new EU legislation, the CSRD, which will apply to larger SMEs starting January 1, 2025. How did Marthijn do this and what tips does he have for entrepreneurs who also want to take steps towards a circular organization?
READ THE INTERVIEW
Today we are in Lieshout, in North Brabant. What's going on here?
"You're here at the Bavaria brewery and this is the headquarters of Swinkels Family Brewers. What happens here? We make delicious beer here. And at this location we also make malt, so you're actually in the heart of the brewing world here."
Was this also where it all began?
"Indeed, this is where it started. Over 300 years ago. If you walk back a few hundred meters here, you can see where it started. We really kind of preserved that location, too."
Looking at your trajectory within the organization. You started in the role of safety and environment coordinator in the 1990s and now you're manager of sustainability. What are the major changes that have taken place?
“I do find it remarkable: when I joined the company for over thirty years, Peter and Frans Swinkels, directors of Bavaria at the time, said, "We're going to hire you, but actually you're redundant. If we are good entrepreneurs, we don't need someone like you at all, do we?" And of course they were right about that, but that was a bit of a shock. I've always kept that in mind. Actually, I have a mission to make myself miserable. It was said thirty years ago, and I'm still here. Apparently, then, I am somehow needed after all. There is plenty of work to do, and that is actually typical of our company. Indeed, I started in the area of safety and the environment, and I did that for ten years, a little longer.
What I saw then was that as a family business, we were doing very good things in terms of sustainability. In the late 1990s, early 2000s, this was not as obvious as it is now. I actually thought it was a shame that we weren't doing more with that and wanted to do the things we were already doing even better. And at our company it works like this, if you stick your neck out, you get that opportunity. That's our culture, so I started working on that. At first purely out of personal interest, but also because I saw that the company was too, and that matched.“
"WE ARE GOING TO HIRE YOU, BUT ACTUALLY YOU ARE REDUNDANT. IF WE ARE GOOD ENTREPRENEURS, WE DON'T NEED SOMEONE LIKE YOU AT ALL, DO WE?" - PETER AND FRANS SWINKELS
You also have a great goal. By 2025, you want to be 75% circular. What does that mean?
“That's a fun question. I think it was 6 to 7 years ago that Peer Swinkels, our current CEO said, 'We want to pass the company on nicely to the next generation.' It has to be a well-functioning company. Economically, but it also has to be a circular company. Our company should not deplete the environment and raw materials." So that was basically the start. A circular company, that's nice when you say that, but what does that mean?
That was actually my first big job. Then we started looking, what is there in the world at all on the path of circularity? But there was no good, useful definition anywhere. A definition or method that everyone also understands. Then we started developing a model and definition ourselves. I can still remember that moment very well. We went to the café here in the village and spent two afternoons brainstorming together. Just with a flippo. And we came up with a very rough first model. And we simply said: that's what we're going for. That is also a bit our culture. We are pioneers, we like to be ahead of the curve. This is a model as we think it is and that is what we are going for. And that's how it started.
And so that 75% goal, that's based on our own measurement. We're at about 60% now, and we want to get to 62% this year. That means that 75% is very ambitious. So I think that target is also being abandoned and converted to the goal of becoming circular for the next generation. And that also has to do with the fact that maybe theoretically 100% circular is not even possible.”
I'm curious though, what are the delaying elements that make it harder than you thought anyway, when you made that goal?
"Well, if you look at all the aspects around circularity, you can see how difficult it is. Take a can of beer, for example. There's a large proportion of recycled material in that. If you want to bring that to 100% recycled material, aluminum for example, that's very difficult. That means that that has to be available at the right time. That it has to be available at all, that there are suppliers who can supply it. You just see that it becomes very difficult to get that done at very short notice. Look at barley: 70% of all our barley is purchased sustainably based on international criteria. The other 30% will be very difficult, because then a lot has to happen in the world in the field of agriculture. So hence that objective becomes circularity for the next generation."
Does the Swinkels Circularity Index look very much at what the organization itself does? Or do you also look more broadly at the chain?
"It indeed started with: what are we doing ourselves? That makes it manageable and easy to start with, but it was very quickly extended to the chain. We cannot do without our suppliers or knowledge partners, for example. You then also see that the model evaluates."
What changes have you seen internationally in terms of circularity?
"I think the change is that more and more information is becoming available. About materials, raw materials, energy, water. Take water as an example, what is circular water? Eight years ago no one had thought about that. Now you see that people are thinking about it and researching it. You also see that the Netherlands is a bit of a frontrunner in this, which is great to see. We are a water country by nature. And if you talk about it with the government, also with knowledge institutes such as KWR (Kiwa Water Research Institute), you see that models are already being created. Because what is circular water? In principle, of course, water is never lost on the planet, but you can lose fresh water. And you don't really want that. So we also have a model for that, that if we take water out of the ground to make our tasty beer, then we want the water that's left over after cleaning also to go back into the system. And that way of thinking is becoming commonplace, which I think is really nice to see."
How do you see Swinkels' role in society?
"I see the role of Swinkels, us as a company, being in the middle of society. We are not that far yet, but ultimately below the line we are going to give more than we take. Let me take our brewery in Ethiopia as an example. It is located in an area surrounded by 50 families. We provide them with electricity, water and drinking water. They get Bostel, a residual product they use to feed their cattle. We have training programs for the women in those communities. And what we get in return is happy people and prosperity in the area. People who also want to work at the brewery."
"THAT STANDS IN AN AREA WHERE 50 FAMILIES LIVE AROUND IT. THEY GET ELECTRICITY, WATER AND DRINKING WATER FROM US. THEY GET BOSTEL, A RESIDUAL PRODUCT THAT THEY FEED THE CATTLE WITH. WE HAVE TRAINING PROGRAMS FOR THE WOMEN IN THOSE COMMUNITIES. AND WHAT WE GET IN RETURN IS HAPPY PEOPLE AND PROSPERITY IN THE AREA."
That social character, is that also something embedded in Swinkels' values?
"Yes, we are a family business. It may sound a little haughty, but we consider the whole world around us to be our family. And from that mindset, we do the things we do."
In an earlier interview, you indicate that your colleagues in the finance department have broadened their view from short-term profit maximization, to long-term multiple value creation. How did that process go for you?
"It's not so much my process, it's a process you go through as a company. We do want to grow, but we want to do it in a sustainable way. And sustainable does indeed mean that you just have to make money, but it also means that you have a very clear eye for your environment, people, partners and stakeholders. And you can't have one without the other. And that realization is now in the capillaries of the entire company."
Are you completely ready for the new EU legislation, the CSRD, or do you still have a lot of extra steps to take?
“Let's just say, the CSRD is not just about the environment. It's also about the S and G, of social and governance. It's the complete story. The environmentalpart, we've already made the step in that. With the S and the G, we are still busy. We are working on a gapanalysis to see where there are still gaps that we need to address. And that's mainly in gathering data and eventually turning that data into a good report. I think that that data is often available, at the local level, but it has to be translated. That is still a challenge. That also has to follow certain standards. You see that more and more information is becoming available, so you know better and better what is minimally expected of you. We're working on that now.
And the governance part for me is about integrity. About the way you treat people and the way you manage people. The way our directors are in life at all. You have to articulate that well, too, and that's not always easy."
"THE CSRD IS NOT JUST ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT. IT'S ALSO ABOUT THE S AND G, OF SOCIAL AND GOVERNANCE. IT'S THE COMPLETE STORY."
It also does touch on culture.
"You touch 100% on culture. That's a complex concept, though. It should not be the case that culture changes because of legislation. No, we have to look: what elements we can use from that to indeed comply with legislation. “
If we look at innovations, that's obviously a time when you can do things completely differently. How do you guys do that?
"Well, you have different ways of innovating. We innovate a lot on products. How they look, how they taste, how they smell, how they are experienced. So more marketing. But in addition, we innovate a lot at the process level. We are actually constantly changing our processes. For example, using less water, using less energy, so we need less burdensome packaging. Yes, that is a continuous process. And then I think we are quite pioneers and also challenge each other. That's what defines our culture. Sure nice if you ever want to become circular and you see that the culture of a company supports that, but also the colleagues really enjoy working on it.“
You guys have had a collaboration with the Seaweed Company. Can you tell a little more about that?
"We are currently still doing a trial where we are using a product from the Seaweed Company, a kind of extract of seaweed, in growing barley. We have reintroduced barley cultivation here around the brewery in Lieshout, so barley is being grown again here in the area. And with some farmers we have now done trials with seaweed extract instead of fertilizer, as an alternative to manure and protection. It has a dual function. We did the first trial last year and now we've done it on a larger scale. And we hope to see the results of that soon. We are also working with ZLTO (Southern Agriculture and Horticulture Organization) with the farmers to see if we can, for example, fix more CO2 in the soil, Carbon Farming." Carbon Farming. “
And another such initiative is Farmer, Beer, Water. An initiative of which you are one of the founders and project manager. Can you tell a bit more about that?
"Farmer, Beer, Water was founded together with a local farmer ZLTO. The initiative has existed for over ten years and was born out of an interest of all stakeholders. In this case with local residents and they are also farmers. And actually we have a common interest; sufficient and clean water for the next generation, to grow in the case of the farmer and we to make beer. So how can we organize that? That's where the Farmer, Beer, Water Project came out. We got to work looking at what water we have. Purified wastewater from the brewery, which is beautiful water. Back then that was just discharged into a local stream. Can't we repurpose that?“
"ACTUALLY, WE HAVE A COMMON INTEREST; SUFFICIENT AND CLEAN WATER FOR THE NEXT GENERATION, TO GROW IN THE CASE OF THE FARMER AND WE TO MAKE BEER. HOW CAN WE ORGANIZE THAT? THAT'S WHERE THE FARMER, BEER, WATER PROJECT CAME OUT."
What does that water look like?
"That's just clean water. There are even rare fish swimming in it. It's just nice, clean water. For example, together with KWR and others, we designed and later applied a model to reintroduce water into the soil with reverse drainage. So normally drainage is used to dewater very wet areas with those perforated pipes. We actually do the reverse and send the water back into the soil.“
So is that at surface level or deeper?
“No, that sits just slightly above the groundwater level. The first one sat at about one meter. And that water came directly from our treatment plant. For that, a whole system was built underground in a very nice way, without disturbing the ground. Those are all new techniques. And then we also started measuring a lot. We looked at groundwater levels, looked at all kinds of nutrients and looked at crop yields.
That was the first experiment. That was realized in 2015 and it worked. Surely it is very nice that there is one farmer who wants to take that step. That is actually quite important. I'm still grateful to him for that. It wasn't a risk for him, we had that completely covered for him, but he did take that step. And then everybody saw that it works. So we started with 30,000 cubic meters a year and now we're almost at 1 million cubic meters a year, which goes back into the soil. And there are 21 farmers participating very actively.“
What tips do you have for readers or listeners who are inspired and also have circular ambitions?
“I don't think circular ambition should start with the Sustainability Manager. It does belong there, but I always say; circularity or sustainability should not be a department. It should be in the whole company. So it is very important that the CEO, in our case Peer Swinkels, actually preaches the message and acts accordingly. That is where it starts. I see around me that there are companies where the CEO indeed says: I think it is very important, but then does nothing with it. The management really has to keep involved, really commit to it. We have even gone so far as to have an individual sponsor for all major themes in the board. So one for packaging for example, one for agricultural raw materials, one for water.
That is a development we are going through. I understand that when you start, you don't get that far right away. But it starts with commitment from above. That is one tip. The second is: there are a lot of people in every company who are intrinsically motivated. There are here, but there are at every company. You have to bring those people into your story first. You can make them even stronger in this. They are also often willing to go the extra mile.“
"CIRCULARITY OR SUSTAINABILITY SHOULD NOT BE A DEPARTMENT. IT SHOULD BE IN THE WHOLE COMPANY."
And you were one of those here. Suppose you have a board that has ambitions and they're looking for the right person to get involved in this. What traits or skills do you think that individual would have to have or develop to do that well?
“I think, looking mostly at myself, it's important to know what's going on in the company. That's where it starts. You have to understand how the company works. That's not only technical, but also the culture of the company. And in addition, you have to have feelers to the outside world. So you have to know very well what is happening in society, in the environment, and how you can translate that to the company. You have to have that feeling. I also think it is important to be a good interlocutor for the stakeholders you work with. But I also think you still need to have a certain basic knowledge of the process and the products.“
What do you think should be the norm in 2030?
"I think we have to be careful that we all say we have to be 100 percent circular by 2030. Let's at least remain realistic. The norm should be, though, that all companies are already working on it. They focus very much on CO2 now, but let's not forget circularity.“