Helle Bank Jorgensen is the CEO of Competent Boards, which offers the global online ESG Competent Boards Certificate and Designation Program with a faculty of over 100 renowned international board members, executives, and experts.
She has a 30-year track record in turning Environment, Social, Governance (ESG), Climate, and Sustainability risks into innovative and profitable business opportunities. She has worked with many global Fortune 500 board members and executives, as well as smaller companies and investors.
Helle serves on:
Helle was the creator of the world’s first Green Account based on lifecycle assessment and the world’s first Integrated Report, the first integrated responsible supply chain management system, and was the principal organizer for the CEO/Investor-network for Business Ethics and Non-Financial Reporting. She led the improvement of investor communication for global companies and has worked on Natural Capital Accounting for IFC/World Bank.
In 2020 she was awarded the Global Impact Award and named one of "5 people in ESG to look out for." She is a regular keynote speaker and author of many thought-leading articles and books.
She is a business lawyer and state-authorized public accountant (CPA) by training and holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration and Auditing. She is a former PwC audit and advisory partner in Denmark and the US leading Sustainability & Climate Practices.
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Note: Voice-to-text transcriptions are about 90% accurate.
Scott Allen 0:02
Good morning, good afternoon. Good evening, wherever you are in the world, everybody this is Scott Allen and this is Phronesis. And I'm really excited today to introduce you to Helle Bank Jorgensen and she is the CEO of Competent Boards, which offers the global online ESG competent boards certificate and designation program with faculty of over 100 renowned international board members, executives, and experts. She has a 30-year track record and turning environment, social governance, climate, and sustainability risks into innovative and profitable business opportunities. She has worked with many global fortune 500 board members and executives, as well as smaller companies and investors. She is on all kinds of very, very interesting boards throughout the world. His Royal Highness Prince of Wales, accounting for sustainability, global expert panel. She's also on the World Economic Forum expert network for corporate governance, leadership in emerging multinationals. Canadian Climate Government Experts a Commonwealth climate and law initiative. She is an attorney. She is doing incredible work around the world. You can look at her full bio in the show notes. And I am so honored to have you today Helle, thank you so much for being with us.
Helle Bank Jorgensen 1:38
Well, I'm so honored to be here with you, Scott, and thank you for that long introduction!
Scott Allen 1:46
That's good stuff right there. That is really, really cool. Now, here's where I want to start our conversation. How did you gain a passion for this work? How did you gain a passion for this work?
Helle Bank Jorgensen 1:58
You know what it actually started 30 years dating myself here perhaps a little bit longer than 30 years ago, I read a newspaper article. And that was a newspaper article where a professor from the Danish Technical University was being interviewed about lifecycle assessment about how could we save water? And how could we save energy by thinking about how do we produce - you know, products? And not looking at it, you know, just now I'm using a computer. But look at it from a lifecycle. At that point, I had my business law degree, and I was actually studying to become an accountant. And I had six months to do my master's thesis. And I was just reading this article. And I thought, what if we could price externalities? What if we could put the price into all of these things? What if we could start really embedding that value into the profit and loss, the income statements, the balance sheets of the companies? Could we then actually value the environment? All of these factors, in a way? So we made informed decisions? So that's where it all started. He sent me that this wonderful Professor Lee Welting sent me to the Danish Steelwork. That was what producing steel, but actually recycling steel. And I was just put there and said, "how can you help us produce a report that shows the stakeholders how much or how little we are polluting, etc.?" And that became the first green account in the world. So that's, that's where it all started?
Well, so tell me about that. So this is, this is 30 plus years ago, this had to have been a completely foreign concept, as you were talking with industry leaders, business executives, talk about some of that work because you are actually actively working to influence people to see value in this. And in some cases, I imagine. Well, I can't imagine you got any pushback whatsoever? It's been smooth sailing, correct?
Helle Bank Jorgensen
Well, let's just say it's much easier now. No, you're right. At that point. I actually started in accounting, you know, PriceWaterhouse. And at that point, and was probably a little bit different...they asked many questions, and try to see how do we, how do we really again, you know, at that point, we were talking mostly about the environment, how do we embed that into the way we audit and everything else and for some reason, I was allowed To use 50% of my time actually building the practice, and I got to work with a ton of companies. And actually also the Danish legislature. Those that make the law, okay, in terms of reporting, and how to. So that came into saying that companies in Denmark at that point needed to report on environmental, social issues, and they got to help the EU in terms of directives, etc. So it was quite fascinating. But yes, you're right. There were a lot of people that were "Why are you doing this?" And to be frank, I mean, when when we started the competent boards movement in 2019 to two years ago, in Davos during the World Economic Forum, and where I said, "I believe that the board members need to be the stewards. And therefore, we need to ensure that board members actually have the insight when it comes to the environment, social issues and embed that into the governance" and I'd point you know, again, to be honest, I had you know, Paul Polman, wonderful Paul Polman with me, the then Chair of Unilever, Michael Tresco was behind me and others, but was few many was saying, "why do you want board members to understand this, isn't this the job of the CEO or the sustainability person?" So again, fast forward now, you know, there was a few days ago, I saw an article where nominating committees on boards and are looking hard for people with ESG experience to oversee ESG and sustainability and climate change matters in the boardroom. And clearly now what I'm trying to do is, how do I educate? How do I help those board members, both those that are right now and in the boardrooms, but also those that will be a board of directors to have this insight to have this mindset and make the right decisions? Because otherwise, we're sitting in a situation where we have board members that are now appointed to a new committee called sustainability or ESG Committee. But if they don't have that insight, it is very, very hard to make informed decisions if you're not informed. So that's basically what we're trying to do now. And so far, we're hearing a lot of good feedback from Board of Directors all over the world who know the value and, you know, some of them are saying that they're being re-elected, which, you know, other board members around the world are not being reelected at the moment because they don't have this insight.
I'm going to go back again because I want to come back to boards for sure. How does your background in accounting and in law, inform your work? I think it's a beautiful combination of law, accounting, did you have any sort of background in the environment or just a passion for the environment? Because I'm sure you've learned a great deal about that space over the years. But coming at this from with those two perspectives, specifically, that's a powerful combination. Would you agree?
Helle Bank Jorgensen
Well, thank you. Yes, I will. And I'm telling often when I have no younger people telling me Oh, they really want to work in a sustainability department, etc. I'm saying, you know, what, go and work in another department. And I think you're right, because, you know, when I was out auditing, you know, you get to know what else is thinking, you get to know what procurement thinks, you get to know what the production, you get to know all of these different functions. And if you don't understand that, you don't really understand how the business works, and therefore you can't really help. So what I often unfortunately see is that it's the language right? We might be speaking English. But from time to time, I'm saying, Well, you know, if I started now, saying something to you in Danish, well, you might understand with respect, but you know, I could shout as loud as I want to, you'll still not understand it. And that's what I see from time to time. Then you have these people within the business sustainability-minded, but they don't understand the language of the board and the board do not understand the language of sustainability, people It's we're getting closer and closer. But that's such an important thing to really understand. And yes, you can say I'm using my business law - don't, don't go out and test me! I am using my neck at my accounting. And what's the fascinating thing now is actually in this master's thesis 30 years ago, I was writing about how do we embed the environment into the financial statements? And what's happening right now? Is that the global standard-setters, the global financial standard-setters. Exactly doing that, right now, we expect that when we get to November, that the IFRS on International Financial Reporting Standards, will, you know, together with some of the different standard-setter setups within a sustainability area, actually will come together and form a way where it's not sustainability on one side, financial on the other side, how do we integrate? And that's going to be powerful.
Oh, that's incredible. That's incredible. And to have been witness to that spectrum of experiences, I have to imagine that feels really, really rewarding. That that you've been a part of that work, that you've been a part of that work, right?
Helle Bank Jorgensen
Of course, it does. I think we have so much more to do. And, yes, we can sit and sit and say yes, you know, be part of the work. But we do need to move much faster. This is not about oh, let's see who can do something first. I can tell you yes, I did the first green account. And we'll actually also did the first integrator report in the world. And I can sit here and say, well, be proud of that. But right now we are on various, you know, we are on a timeline when it comes to also climate reporting, something we didn't even think about. At least most did not think about, you know, 30 years ago. And now I think we all see it, you know, industries and being countries all over the world with fires, drought, flooding, you know, you name it. And we really need to move from a climate and biodiversity point of view. Step up and we need to reduce again, why I think it's so important that we need to embed this into not as a thing at the side but really embedded into the way we do business is no longer a sideshow, this is something we need to think about, we need to do we need to budget for, and we need to report on in a transparent way.
Helle, what, what I'm excited to hear your perspective on...you were just saying, Look, I'm really excited this November, some of these shifts might occur, which would be wonderful. What are some other things right now that are really exciting for you in the work and paint us a picture of you said we're on a timeline. This is not as we speak and record in mid-July, Germany is experiencing massive flooding. The American west is on fire again. And this we could kind of take a tour of the world and there are some things that are happening that are not good science of what's to come. So what else is happening that excites you? Look, these are small wins. We're making progress. This feels good. Okay, we're not there yet. Here are some things that also have to happen. Would you paint that picture for us?
Helle Bank Jorgensen
Well, you know, when we're talking about November, we're talking about the big climate meeting. That's going to happen in Glasgow - UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) - And clearly, the world is looking at it and I'm very excited to see how many that are stepping up and setting goals, and setting targets, and really want to green the world and transformation in that respect. Of course, sorry, there's a flip side to this. The thing is that I'm also seeing there's a lot of greenwashing and there is what say green wishing is actually the good Mervyn King that that's a "greenwashing" and "green wishing" and I have added on we "green walking," you know, we need to walk the talk is not enough what we do at the moment and saying yo by 2050, we do this and this, if we don't put the budgets in, if we don't put the resources in, if we don't have the plan and have the accountability and to transparency, aligned to it, it's just like, Oh, hey, I always wanted to run a marathon.
Scott Allen 15:27
It would have been nice!
Helle Bank Jorgensen 15:30
And EU, you actually now came up with this new "Fit for 55." And I'm going like, I did try to tell me something that I need to be fit for 55. Of course, that is the European plan in terms of climate, right. But if I don't train, if I don't put the time and effort into it, now, it's never going to happen. And it's probably never going to happen, then I probably need to say, "Hey, I'm really happy with the half marathon that I did." We just can't do that. When it comes to climate, we can't say "oh, I'm happy with where we at." That's, that's just not enough. We need to look at it. And I think we are seeing not only on the streets and flooding, etc. But we're starting to see the stranded assets, we're starting to see that the asset managers have voted out board of directors that are not fit. We really like that, not for fit for 55. But fit for that we are seeing that you know, young leaders, young talent, are taking companies to court. We're seeing this duty of care being looked at and even, you know, Australian climate minister now in terms of your duty of care to make the right decisions. So so we're being held to account for it on a totally different way of looking at it. But I think we need all of us need to look at ourselves and saying, "Okay, what, how can we really bring this forward? In... going back to mind that not just a wish? But put the resources, put the budgets, but the plans and you know, walk to talk ours just wrote an article about this or run like your life depends on it? Because it seems like we are, we need to stop talking and start acting.
Who has impressed you in there? It could be a country, it could be a corporation. But who's on your radar is someone who genuinely thoughtfully is putting these pieces into place, building the infrastructure, and leading the way I'd read an article about Denmark, it was a maybe could have been three or four years ago that the country was running on clean energy. Is that accurate? Is that an accurate statement?
Helle Bank Jorgensen
One of my home countries, I've you know now both the egg Dane and a Canadian at the same time. So dual citizenship, and a lot of amazing things coming out in Denmark. And I think what is fascinating is that, that it's this way of thinking and it hits also the incentives. Right. So very early on, there was put a hefty price. If you look at you know, other places around the world, on energy on water, etc. What does that mean? It means that people start innovating. And I think that's another thing we need to think about. So definitely Denmark, I have just interviewed the Minister of climate and biodiversity from New Zealand. Another place that really has put the foot forward. And TCFD which is a Taskforce for Financial Related Climate Disclosure, I always get that one wrong.
Scott Allen 19:24
And by now, how many you have a lot of acronyms in your head?
Helle Bank Jorgensen
Oh, my goodness, there's a big alphabet soup in my head.
Can I tell you the story really quickly on New Zealand? I was interviewing a professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand a couple of days ago. And she mentioned that a river had been given "personhood," legal rights, personhood, a river in New Zealand. Isn't that interesting?
Helle Bank Jorgensen 19:57
That you know, and I think that I was not aware and it just starts to, you know, question the way that we have valued different things. So going back to what is that that the Danish Technical University and lifecycle assessment, I was asked to look at these lifecycle costs, right? But if we start to think about all of these, you say the river water, it's all interrelated. It's all connected. And, again, going back 30 years ago, we build higher smokestacks or longer pipelines. And so I'd like "oh, okay, pollution going away!" Now, we start to understand that no, it does not. And I think that understanding that you know, pollution does not respect borders, they do not read all our commitments, they do not read all our goals, we need to do the work on that. I think that is so important. And, you know, you mentioned in terms of Yes, Denmark, yes, New Zealand. But with all due respect, wonderful countries, but quite small. We need the whole world, we need the global governance around this, we need to say, what is the price on carbon and have the global price and then again, embed that into our financial systems, that the US clearly now doing a lot China's doing a lot, right? But we need to have that global commitment alone, but actually doing and, again, this the article that I just put out, I went in and look at the commitments that we countries did years ago, also ahead of the big meeting in Paris, where we got the Paris Agreement. And unfortunately, there's a long way from what was committed, really, to what is actually funded. And so again, it's so easy to come up with the commitments and the nice speeches, etc. Another thing is to do it. I do think, you know, I'm Paul Polman, as I said, one of those that have supported from the start and from when he was the CEO of Unilever and Michael Tresco, who was the chair of Unilever, at that point, a company that walked the talk and been very open saying, hey, there's a lot of things still to do. But have to bet the courage to go ahead and say, No, I'm not going to do this, because we're going to do this had the courage to go out to different stakeholders, and really made changes had the courage to go out and work together with competitors, because that's another thing this partnership, right. So I think there are a lot of companies at the moment that's doing a lot. I just want to make sure that it's not we're doing a lot up to 26 in November, and after that, there's probably something else we're going to then do. We need to commit and we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable.
Scott Allen 23:44
Well, Unilever, I mean, even their purpose, values, principles. I mean, it's right there. "The highest standards of corporate behavior towards everyone we work with the communities we touch and the environment on which we have an impact." It's there. And it's good to know that in your, in your experience, they're putting in the infrastructure to help live that. So how do we form a leadership standpoint...How do we influence? I've watched that the documentary and Greta Thornburg and her frustration, right, she'll get to these large meetings and just challenge because it's a lot of talks, it's a lot of verbiages - and what would your thinking be three or four or five things that kind of need to happen to really influence countries and organizations to really start putting action behind those words. I'm sure it's any number of tactics, the law, correct?
Helle Bank Jorgensen 24:51
Yes - of course, you can say okay, it's the law and let's behave compliance Great, but we also all know that that that's a little bit later in the game. We need the mindset. And we need, as I said, and the whole reason why we are educating the board of directors and executives is that we need to have that understanding. Not that this is now. Okay. I should probably also look at that. But this is the part in the middle that we need to look at. We need to have, we put out a report about, you know, the brain, the heart, and the hand in terms of actions. We need leaders to be able to say, I don't understand this. Try to help me understand what can I do? We need, we need to probably start sunsetting different activities, instead of just selling them off to someone else and saying, "Oh, see, now we don't have that in our portfolio anymore." Well, if you have someone else that is taking even worse care off it, then then you you actually as a global system, worse. So I think we need that we need to have this competence. Yes. And, and but also be courageous. We need to say what are the what's the transition plan. Let's look at what is it that we have that that stranded assets or could be stranded assets? Let's, let's hear from, you know, our stakeholders from our employees. What can we do? There's so much innovation out there. But we often talk about the diversity of thought. But do we really allow it in the organizations? Do we really value and encourage? No, that person to say, oh, couldn't we do this in a different way? Unfortunately, all too often, we have "like, well, we tried that, or No, that would never work." I think we need to use all of these. Yes, the law. Yes, you know, shareholders are asking. Yes, talent is asking and, frankly, walking away if they don't. Customers are demanding it. But I'm going back to my board of directors. Yep. They are the ones that are the Stewards Yes. And I mean, I'm writing a book, and it's going to be called stewards of the future. So in my mind, they are really those of the board of directors that have that responsibility. They have to be asking us the CEO asked the management team, what are we doing? understand it? Do we have enough set off a budget? What kind of innovation are we looking for...really encourage that? I think that's a huge, huge, huge opportunity that, frankly, most if not all, Corporate Directors and companies standing right in front of that. I agree with you. Laws and regulations? Yes. But that's not really going to drive this. You have way too many countries that need to come up with laws and regulations. Yes, you can say in terms of Europe, where and how do we, if you start exporting to Europe, or importing it, if you're in Europe, yo, yes, you can start putting things on that. But why go through all of this? And wait for it, instead of starting right now to do that innovation right now to look at your transition plan right now to say, how do we commit to making this work? Not when I am, you know, I have retired? But now, Michael Tresco once said to me, you know, making the long term decisions, the right long term decisions, meaning-making the right short term decisions, this is not something we can say, oh God, now we have a 2050 goal. So we'll wait until 2049 to actually do something about it. We need a plan and we need that plan right now. And we need to follow up on that plan. We need to report on that plan. We need to tell our stakeholders about what's our plan, and we probably need to see it every single year, how can we perhaps do it even better?
Scott Allen 30:07
What is your assessment as to why it seems to me Europe is far ahead of other continents? Why is this? You know, why would you agree with that or no?
Helle Bank Jorgensen 30:21
Well, it depends on what kind of things we're looking at. If it comes to the regulation, yes. If it comes to some of the innovations, yes, I actually think that you can, you know, I was asked to, when, when we could travel to go to China to do a series of keynote speeches. And if you look at the rail system, and you go like, oh, okay, that's smart. You know, there's a lot of things happening in different places, that is really something that we ought to to see other places as well. Europe. Yes. And again, I've been asked many times, perhaps in other areas, as well as like stakeholders and why is it that a country like Denmark? You see so much innovation - but all that is so far ahead. Yes. Talking about a small, small country that doesn't have that many resources.
Scott Allen 31:42
Well, I had just read the other day that Lego had some of the first, you know, Legos were being made out of recycled products.
Helle Bank Jorgensen 31:53
Oh, yes. And Lego. Sorry...how could I forget. And I had to, I had the great pleasure of working, both playing and working with Lego for many years, and actually traveled all over the world with them. So and IKEA, if you go to Sweden, right? You have many of these companies. And I think maybe it is for the simple reason that it is a small country. So you can't just pollute and say, "Okay, I'll travel somewhere else." If you pollute your back garden, you're not going to get, any crops out of that next year. If you don't understand what you need to look into next year, you're not going to get food on your table next year. If you're, you know, if I really, back then if you're not good to your neighbors, Sweden, Norway, you might be in war. Right? And while if you can, think about this, now, I'm in Canada, and yes, south of the border, I have the US. And if you're the US, you might say, okay, I've walked on one side, or on the other side, I have Canada. Thank you. We really feel appreciated Canadians, and you have Mexico and yes, we appreciate them as well. But not that big of a threat. And you have so much land. If I pollute the river here, if I pollute the ground here...well, we just move somewhere else. I'm not saying that. But I think there is some mindset. That perhaps has been, if that is true or not? No, but my own little pocket philosophy here.
Scott Allen 33:48
Well, but I love, I love a couple of things about you. I love that...as we said earlier, I love the combination of law, accounting, and the language of business. And then the mission of, of how do we focus on showing that our organizations are doing good and, and doing well but doing good, and leaving this planet intact? So there's a triple threat there of just you how you look at the world. I think that's absolutely wonderful. And then you've honed in on, again, these individuals who have they're the stewards. And these board members who are placed in these positions, many of whom I would imagine knowing very little about the space very little depending on where they are in the world. By no fault of their own, it just wasn't necessarily an area of expertise 20 years ago, 25 years ago, it would be similar to digitization in some ways that, you know, I'm sure a number of these corporate board members do not understand artificial intelligence, blockchain, sensor technology, quantum computing, etc. Yet those are having a major impact on business. So focusing there and trying to help these individuals understand and become more educated and shifting as you said, that mindset, it's God's work, whatever God means for you or a listener, it doesn't matter, I'm not putting any version of that you're earning karma points. The universe is happier because of your existence, whatever it is.
Helle Bank Jorgensen 35:27
Well, and I should, you know, on that you all of those things you actually don't just say now, but also like cybersecurity, responsible use of data, AI utilization is actually things that we now have in the program, but all of it with this ESG and good governance lens. And it's because of all of these, you know, over 100 global leaders that are all the time both bringing their insight to all of these global board members that are joining the program, and executives, and, but also saying, Helle, you need to have something about this and this in your program, because this is something we're discussing. So we are keeping this program up to date on a constant basis, I have to admit, from time to time, I'm trying to tell the world could we just stop for 15 minutes?
Scott Allen 36:21
Do we need quantum computers just yet? Can we hold off for just a moment?
Helle Bank Jorgensen 36:26
Exactly. But but but at the same time, that is what's so amazing, and fascinating. So we are on a, you know, constantly updating the material. And, clearly, I have 70 or more, I guess, more than 70 global board members, executives that are joining me each week, right? So I'm learning from them. And they're from all over the world, right? So I get to know what's happening in Latin America, I get to know what's happening in Africa, Australia, Asia, India, Europe, North America, joking from time to time, I really need someone from Antarctica, then I would have all the continents represented. But then again, I'm not really sure I want that because I like to have the ice.
Well, okay, so as we wind down, as we wind down our time, is there anything that you've been watching or listening to or streaming that's caught your eye in recent months? It could have to do with what we've discussed today? It may not have to do with anything we've discussed today. But what would you like listeners to learn about or know about?
Helle Bank Jorgensen
Well, unfortunately, we're seeing in Canada, a lot of unmarked graves being found in terms of the indigenous and the residential schools. So actually watching at the moment, series called Future History. And, and I would say probably about crimes against indigenous people over many, many, many years. And, and I think it's also about the wisdom, you know, that and that that indigenous people bring, and I'm actually, you know, if you really think about it, I say stewards of the future. But if you think about many of them, it's the stewards of the land, stewards of the air, steward of the, you know, the animals that what we call biodiversity, right...of the water. A lot of the things that, that we are now struggling to bring back and I think it's the respect and in this, you know, honoring of the, of the surroundings that that, so So I mean, I'm living now in Canada, it's big, it's a, you know, it's a big thing of the history and needs to be something that that that we all learn and learn from and have that respect for the wisdom because it's basically a lot of Wisdom.
So it's mind-boggling to think that the last of those schools were shut down in 1997. They are just in the United States today, I was literally just watching Reuters and they exhumed I think it was 20 bodies if I'm not mistaken, have children near the US at the Army War College. I believe that's in Pennsylvania. And it's, it's mind-boggling. It really is.
Helle Bank Jorgensen
And it tells you that...You can question how can anyone ever go there but I think, I think again, no, we really need to learn as humans to speak up, right and say, "Oh, that's wrong," you know or and I think we need as humans to learn to l also in other settings right but to be to respectfully disagree Speak up, have the courage to say, no, that's not wrong not just saying hey, that has nothing to do with me...I can't say the full name but Gopal was was a former director of Tata in India, and that's why I can't say the full name Gopalakrishnan, me and in Gopal said, you know, in Board of Directors need to think that it's like, like their children, right. And mother would never, you know, just look at saying, oh, okay, well, let's see what's going to happen in the future here if something was wrong, but all too often you hear people saying that, oh, I knew that that was, but I didn't really do anything. We need to step up and actually do something. And I think, you know, hey, it's easier said than done. But
Scott Allen 41:27
But you are, and thank you, for the work that you do. It's incredible. Again, we could spend, we could spend a long time kind of surveying what you have seen over the last few decades and the progress that's been made, but then the work that still needs to be done. Because as you said, we're on the clock, and how do we build those pieces in that infrastructure to ensure that these words that we walk the talk, and thank you so much for your leadership? Thanks for the work that you do Helle.
Helle Bank Jorgensen 42:03
Well, thank you so much for the work you do and you're your leadership.
Scott Allen 42:09
Well, be well and take care. And I look forward to having another conversation down the road.
Helle Bank Jorgensen
And likewise, thanks so much.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai