Positive, sustainable culture: do small things a little better

How to combine sustainability with a positive organizational culture? Let’s learn from Ynzo van Zanten, the former Head of People & Culture at Tony’s Chocolonely and former head of Innocent Drinks in the Benelux. The short answer: let’s do small things with great passion, and: have fun!

Where to start? The IPCC reports send a clear message: we must take action to slow down global warming and reduce our greenhouse gases. Ynzo is very passionate about sustainability but also organizational culture – just like we are at OCAI Online. In the end, a positive culture is a sustainable culture, and vice versa.
Culture is an organization’s foundation, so how can you make a culture future-proof?

Ynzo studied economics and turned into a consultant in a grey business suit. Then, the Internet became mainstream and everyone was raving about e-commerce. But Ynzo wasn’t. He found himself wondering – there must be something more meaningful than this…?
As he didn’t know what he wanted, he started traveling for some time. When he was diving in the ocean he was surrounded by millions of fish and he decided he wanted to learn more about our beautiful planet. He read Charles Clover’s book “The end of the line” and right there, his journey toward sustainability started.

He launched the continental branch of Innocent Drinks in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. As the company states: We might make little drinks, but we have big dreams to make the world a better, healthier place to live. That’s why we’re on a mission to be carbon neutral by 2025, give 10% of our profits to charity, and pack our drinks full of good stuff from Mother Nature.

Later in his career, he worked at the Dutch impact brand Tony’s Chocolonely which was created to ban slave labor in the cocoa business. Tony’s Chocolonely shows that creating impact and financial success aren’t mutually exclusive, but can reinforce each other. A company that puts people first, both within the company and in the value chain. Because together we can make all chocolate worldwide 100% slave free.

Can we be content with what is?

Ynzo starts the interview by stating that organizations and people are too much focused on growth. “It’s weird that the economy is front and center in our societies. Endless growth is not possible on earth. Why should we grow all the time? How about being content with what is there? Why do we always want more instead of better? Why is quantity seen as more important than quality?”
He thinks that enough is enough. Life is not about money, at the end of the day, but about being happy and leading a meaningful life, and contributing to a great cause.

So, let’s not aim for more without reflecting. What kind of growth are we looking for?
Can a positive culture contribute to people’s quality of life? For sure. Financially successful companies can also be sustainable, responsible, and positive. According to Ynzo, the controversy between financial success and sustainability is a false dilemma. It’s not or-or, it can be and-and!

Can we have fun and perform?

The key to a positive, sustainable culture is having fun together, also when you’re working hard.
“At Innocent, our website stated that fun was important and that we loved the song Una Paloma Blanca – that a great hit in the Netherlands. We challenged clients to call us if they wanted to sing. Some did, testing if we were for real. It was great fun. It enticed people out of their spreadsheet programs, picking up that phone and singing that song.”

The key is to do small things with great passion. You can improve by 1% each day – and after some time you have changed big time. The point is not just talking about it, but doing it. Whether people take action depends on their organizational culture. That’s the reason why things happen or not, why you succeed or fail.
Is your culture ready for action – or is it normal to just talk about things? Or is it the culture to walk your talk?

The best thing is to consciously build the culture, proactively. Don’t wait until a culture emerges. Consciously build healthy and positive routines in the organization. Engage people and be a coaching leader or influencer for others.

Ynzo is shocked by the 10% of Dutch employees that are super engaged – the global percentage is 13% “That percentage is so low. Imagine, 80% of people at work are just going through the motions. Such a loss… If you can increase the percentage of positive, passionate people in your organization you can create a huge difference!”

That resonates with my book Developing a positive organizational culture. Even a small increase can make a huge difference.

Can we be positive or not-so-negative?

Another question is whether or not sustainability is always positive. There’s a lot of debate about greenwashing and for good reason. How innocent is Innocent Corporation? It’s great that people drink organic fruits, but it’s not so great that they drink from plastic “pet” bottles.
While producing 30,000 bottles per 24 hours the company may be disputable, the indirect effect of increasing the consumption of organic fruit and paying the farmers well is nice. Ynzo: “The dilemmas are always tough”.

“Consumers and employees are becoming more critical and they check their brands. So, a product can be so-so but not as bad as another choice. Or, a product is great, but if you sell more of this product, your greenhouse gas emissions increase, so its impact is negative. We should always look at the context, it’s nuanced.”

This can be discouraging sometimes, but using positive thinking we can learn from these dilemmas and improve. Let’s stay open to the critics and learn, let’s encourage each other and our companies to be as sustainable as possible – within realistic time and money constraints.

“We need everyone to do small things a little better – positively and sustainably. We don’t need just a few people who are perfect. We need enough people to proceed and build momentum in our societies.”

Ynzo’s message aligns with my book Developing a positive organizational culture.

If you influence one other person to improve something, you have doubled your impact!
Or, if you don’t eat meat for half the week, you have halved your meat consumption!
And so on…

Small things go a long way, as they are feasible even if you are tired or busy. We don’t need to be perfect, but we need to make progress. We need each other and our organizations to empower that movement.

Ynzo is now spreading the message as a speaker in the Netherlands. “Just by myself, I can do only so much. But if I can inspire 500 others the impact will be much greater!”

  • What is your positive contribution to your organization’s culture?
  • How can you double your positive impact?

This article is based on a Dutch interview with Ynzo van Zanten and the Dutch Positive Impact Podcast.

© Marcella Bremer, 2023

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