Swedish companies lead by example, making sustainability and human rights matter.
The term sustainable business is used to describe the work companies do that has a positive impact on society, the environment or the economy.
Efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, promotion of equal career opportunities and involvement with local communities are examples of sustainable business initiatives.
International investment company RobecoSAM, which specialises in sustainability investments, ranks Sweden second of 150 countries in their RobecoSAM Country Sustainability Ranking (last update April 2023), based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) indicators.
17 global goals
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) address the global challenges related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. All 17 goals have to be achieved by 2030.
The environmental aspects of sustainable business are very broad, including areas such as paper recycling, the sustainable use of resources, minimising environmental footprints and reducing water consumption.
Cleantech – a term used to describe products or services that improve operational performance, productivity or efficiency while reducing costs, inputs, energy consumption, waste or pollution – is another important part of sustainable business.
Internationally, Sweden continues to fare well in energy and environmental technology, coming fifth of 180 countries in the 2022 Environmental Performance Index.
Gender equality is an important aspect of the way companies work with sustainable business. Companies can promote equality by making it possible for parents to combine work and family, encouraging shared participation in childcare, and giving women and men equal opportunities to rise to leadership positions.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report assesses and compares national gender gaps based on economic, political, education and health criteria. In the 2023 report, Sweden was ranked fifth of 146 assessed countries.
Corruption has been identified by the World Bank as one of the greatest threats to growth. Sweden ranks as the fifth least corrupt country in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2022 (published in 2023), together with Singapore – surpassed by Denmark, Finland and New Zealand and Norway. The index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption.
In 2012, the Swedish law against bribery was updated to categorise the giving or acceptance of bribes as serious crimes. The legislation was largely a result of Sweden adopting anti-corruption conventions in collaboration with the EU, European Council, UN and The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Since 1997, the OECD has had a convention prohibiting the bribery of overseas public servants in international business relationships.
Sida is a government agency working on behalf of the Swedish parliament and government to reduce poverty around the world. It oversees roughly half of Sweden's development aid. Its remit also includes sustainable business.
Promoting sustainable initiatives
The Swedish government owns/co-owns 43 companies of various sizes, two of which are listed companies. Altogether, these companies employ some 134,000 people.
The Swedish government’s management principles for state-owned companies largely follow the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance of State-Owned Enterprises. These OECD guidelines aim to help governments ensure that state-owned companies act efficiently, transparently and responsibly.
Reports and goals
Since 2007, Sweden demands sustainability reports from state-owned enterprises. The reports have to comply with guidelines from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Indicators include:
- Economic: results, market presence
- Environmental: materials, energy, emissions (air and water), waste
- Social: work methods and processes, human rights, society, product liability
In 2012, Sweden also asks state-owned companies to set several sustainability goals. Specific and measurable targets are to be set by the company boards, with focus on diversity, environment issues, human rights, working conditions, anti-corruption measures, business ethics and gender equality. The targets must also be relevant to the companies’ operations.
Human rights – a priority
The Swedish government expects all Swedish companies, private or state-owned, to respect human rights in all their operations. It encourages the private sector to follow the OECD’s guidelines for multinational companies, to apply the ten principles of the UN Global Compact and follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (pdf).
In the end, however, sustainable business practice should be driven and owned by the private sector, with each company deciding if and how it will work with sustainability.
The IS0 14001 certification for environmental management systems is used by several thousand Swedish businesses. And more are continuously being certified, according to the Swedish Standards Institute.
Innovating for the better
In Sweden, many companies have been quick to seize the opportunity to innovate for the better, not least through green conversions. Here are a few examples:
HYBRIT – a joint initiative by Swedish steel manufacturer SSAB, mining company LKAB and electricity producer Vattenfall – aims for steelmaking that is entirely fossil-free by 2045.
The technology under development replaces coal – traditionally needed for ore-based steel production – with hydrogen gas, which changes the by-product from carbon dioxide to water.
In 2021, HYBRIT made its first delivery of fossil-free steel, to Swedish truckmaker Volvo AB, as a trial run.
HYBRIT aims to deliver fossil-free steel to the market in 2026, with a full-scale solution in place by 2035. The goal of being totally fossil-free by 2045 is identical to the government's goal for all of Sweden.
At music streaming company Spotify, all employees are eligible for six months of corporate-funded parental leave with full pay – regardless of where in the world they work. The leave covers any parent, regardless of the employee's gender or parental form.
Spotify also encourages all employees to exchange any public holidays for days of their choosing in line with their personal beliefs or religions. These global policies recognise the importance of a healthy work and family life balance and aims at giving everyone equal opportunities to combine family life with career ambitions.
There is also Volvo Cars, which in 2021 introduced an all-gender, paid parental leave policy to all its employees – more than 40,000 – across the globe. Volvo's ‘Family Bond’ gives all employees with at least one year’s service a total of 24 weeks of leave at 80 per cent of their base pay by default. The leave can be taken anytime within the three first years of parenthood. This policy includes all legally registered parents.
Maintaining industrial ethics
Atlas Copco, a leading supplier of industrial equipment such as compressors and assembly systems, has nearly 40,000 employees, serving customers in more than 180 countries. This kind of global reach translates to a lot of responsibility, especially when setting out to grow only in ways that are ethical.
To stay the course, Atlas Copco trains employees in how to recognise conflicts of interest, bribery, fraud, harassment, discrimination and other forms of misconduct. The company encourages not only its employees but also business partners and other stakeholders to report any suspected wrongdoing or misconduct.
Atlas Copco has an established process for reporting actions perceived as violations of laws, regulations or the Atlas Copco Group Business Code of Practice, which is often stricter than local laws. Reports can be made in any language, written or orally.
Fast food, slower climate change
Max Burgers is a fast food company that is committed to changing its industry into something sustainable. The company works consistently to shrink its climate footprint by reducing emissions. One way is to offer five times as many green meals and increase sales of vegetarian meals, which have smaller carbon footprint.
Max conducts a comprehensive and continuous analysis of their climate imprint in which emissions for the entire value chain are calculated. They even include employees' trips to and from work, guests' trips to and from the restaurant, as well as their own business trips, including air travel.
For emissions that cannot yet be reduced, Max has used carbon offset initiatives since 2008.