Interview Leadership Sustainability

Creating a Sustainable Future with Rebecca Henderson

Rebecca Henderson is a professor, author, and respected researcher and economist. She teaches an award-winning MBA class at Harvard University, which carries the name of her book Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire. Her teaching and research focuses on purpose-driven and sustainable capitalism and the role of business leaders in changing the current system for the better.

Rebecca will be live on stage at Nordic Business Forum 2023 in Helsinki on the 27th of September. This year’s theme is Be:Change, and with this theme we want to encourage leaders to create the change they want to see in the world rather than just survive or manage it. At the event, Rebecca will give a keynote on Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, taking us deeper into change and how to lead it.

In preparation for the event, we asked Rebecca a few questions about her work and how she views change. Take a look at her answers below and get to know this brilliant mind on organizational, strategic, and positive change!

Looking Forward to Change

We asked Rebecca to explain what changes she would like to see in the world during the next 5-10 years. Her answer did not leave us cold:

“The big change I’m hoping to see is that everyone, and I do mean everyone is on fire with the need to address problems like global warming and the decline in biodiversity. That many millions of people have internalized the idea that we are burning down our only house, and that emitting greenhouse gases, eating meat, and destroying the remaining wilderness is as morally dubious as employing child labor.”

The issue of climate change touches all of us, and there’s a lot we can do as individuals. However, Rebecca pointed out that the responsibility is not on individuals alone:

“My hope is that it would be commonplace for business people to spend time thinking about how they can (profitably!) help address these issues, and that we’d see the emergence of extensive partnerships between firms, and between firms and governments, to solve these problems. Because they are fixable.”

Rebecca suggests that businesses and leaders need a change in attitudes, which will lead to a change in actions. However, fixing this crisis won’t be solved by individual actors, but through collaboration.

Sustainable Capitalism

Many of us have heard the term sustainable capitalism, but few know what it means exactly. Rebecca gave us an answer and introduced some of the key principles of sustainable capitalism:

“What does sustainable capitalism look like? Well, it’s sustainable. It is focused on innovation and great service and introducing fabulous new products, not on racing to the bottom and destroying the natural and social worlds in the process.”

That sounds amazing, but how does this look like in practice?

“Under sustainable capitalism, there’s lots of competition, but things like green house gas pollution is regulated or priced, there’s a strong voice for labor so that labor markets are genuinely free and fair, democracy is celebrated, and the ways in which firms can engage in politics is strictly controlled.”

The picture is getting clearer, and we like what we see. However, what about free markets?

“I’m a huge fan of free markets, and I believe capitalism has created enormous benefits for the human race – but markets must be balanced by strong, capable governments and well functioning civil societies if they are to create genuinely sustainable (and genuinely shared) prosperity.”

Loud enough for even the biggest capitalist in the back—there is a way for businesses to operate and take advantage of the free market sustainably, and they might even make the world a better place while doing so.

Interest in Sustainability

Rebecca has a long and respectable career as a researcher and professor. Therefore, we wanted to know what led her to research and teach about sustainability and sustainable capitalism:

“I first got interested in sustainability when I was on sabbatical nearly 20 years ago now. My brother, who was an environmental journalist at the time, sent me a bunch of the science around global warming. I read it, and I thought, Oh, this is an easy problem. Not dealing with it will create all kinds of terrible problems, while solving it will cost less than 3% of GDP, will pay for itself relatively quickly, will save millions of deaths from air pollution, and will create many millions of jobs. I thought it was going to be easy. And that’s how I got interested in sustainability!”

Based on those facts, it seems like it should’ve been easy. But here we are, 20 years later, and although many things have changed and improved, we’re still struggling with the same issue.

The World is on Fire—But We Have Hope

As her book title says—the world is on fire, and we need change urgently. It would be easy to simply give up, but Rebecca keeps striving to make those changes and inspire others to do so aswell. We asked her what is her source of hope, inspiration, and optimism:

“What are my sources of hope, inspiration and optimism? I have almost too many to list. So first and most obviously, we can fix the problems we face. All we have to do is fix the politics (!).”

Rebecca backed her claim by explaining the concrete things that enable businesses to tackle the issue of climate change and become sustainable:

“We have the technology, we have the resources and hundreds, if not 1000s of firms are demonstrating that renewable energy is cost effective, that you can build a circular economy and that you can pay people decently and still have a great business. So we know this can be done. There has already been an explosion of innovation, and if we got serious about moving quickly we would see much, much more.”

Although change has been stagnant in the past, we see that this isn’t the case anymore. Furthermore, we have a new generation that wants to fight for sustainability with more strength and willpower than before:

“The young people of the world are pushing us really hard, and their passion and commitment is inspirational. And last but not least, the world is so, so beautiful. Being alive is such a gift. How can we not do all that we can to leave our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren a world that is already beginning to heal?”

Indeed, how can we not?

We can’t wait to see Rebecca in Helsinki at Nordic Business Forum 2023 this September! We will hear more about her ideas and advice on sustainable capitalism and effecting positive change. If you don’t have your tickets yet, you can get them here.


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