Antonia’s Sustainable Story
“In the beginning, when I had just taken over the family business, I often asked myself what my driving forces were. Was it being responsible for a long-standing family business? Was it good balance sheets and income statements? Or were other values important? I soon realized that what motivated me was something more than finances.”
Antonia Ax:son Johnson took over the family empire A. Johnson & Co. HAB in 1982. Even then, during the golden age of greed, she spoke about the “good company” and of the corporate world as the greatest potential changing force in society. Not many people listened. Today, some decades later, concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainable development are at the lips of every forward-thinking corporate leader.
Antonia Ax:son Johnson began working specifically towards sustainable development within the corporate world when Percy Barnevik from ABB contacted her in 1989. Coming up to the major UN meeting Earth Summit, also known as the Rio Conference, the corporate world had been requested to submit ideas on issues of environment and sustainable development. Forty prominent business leaders from around the world met in Holland, not really knowing how or where to begin, as the subject was new. Despite initial confusion, the meeting ended up being successful and Antonia went home, inspired to make a change – home to a management team that had not yet caught on.
“The general attitude among my managers was that business leaders should not get involved in these issues. The very thought was considered bizarre. Rather, these were the responsibilities of society and the authorities. No-one understood that businesses are very much part of society.”
The crisis of the 1990s arrived. The Axel Johnson Group struggled to survive and sustainable development issues were set even further back in the minds of the managers. In order to ensure continuity within sustainable development issues, Antonia decided to start a foundation. In 1993 The Antonia Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Sustainable Development was registered, with an aim to support scientific research on sustainable development as well as its practical application.
From the very start, the foundation’s work mainly focused on creating encounters across barriers. An important discussion about sustainability issues was initiated by inviting speakers with opposite points of view. Those critical of the Axel Johnson Group were also invited in order to enable discussions from different viewpoints on an academic level.
Initially the foundation’s focus was on bringing light to sustainability issues, since these seldom or never figured in public debate. Today, several of these questions have been brought to the agenda, allowing the foundation to work in practice-based projects in an increasingly goal-oriented way. But new challenges keep arriving and are always in need of being highlighted.
“Sometimes a long-term perspective on issues that lead the way can be rewarding. Sustainability issues were at one time anonymous, but today they are a natural part of everyday life. But the limitations of the commitment to sustainability within companies and the people in them must continually be stretched, tried, reviewed and reformed. Within the foundation, we want to be at the forefront, challenging and translating good thought to practical implementation. Unabated.”