CSR Middle East, CSR dedicated platform with 3.555 corporate members in the Middle East.

Featured Member: Meet with Maria Sillanpaa : Founding Director - Sustainability Advisory Group

Meet with Maria Sillanpaa : Founding Director - Sustainability Advisory Group, Dubai / UAE


CSR Middle East : Can you tell us a little bit about your background and experiences in the CSR Sector?

Maria Sillanpaa : I have basically worked on corporate responsibility and sustainability issues since I graduated from university well over 20 years ago. My interest in the topic was first peaked in the mid 80s by my exposure to The Body Shop, and especially to its founder, Anita Roddick.

I ended up working for The Body Shop in Finland, where I originally hail from, along my university studies. This experience revealed a very different way of doing business to what I was being exposed to as part of my business studies – the interest stayed and I gently ‘bullied’ my professor to allow me to explore the concept of CSR and its link to corporate strategy in my Master’s thesis. This, in a roundabout way, led me to work for Anita. She called me in early 90s and said – “We have just published our first environmental report, I now what a social audit and a social report. Come and help us!”As a young professional, I simply didn’t have the nerve to tell this global superstar that I didn’t have glue what a social audit was or what a social report might look like - but then, back in those days, no one did, and I decided to grab the bull by its horns and dive into what looked like a very exciting opportunity to explore CSR in a practical and applied way. I was blessed to have the opportunity to work on something so pioneering at such an early stage of my career.

By mid 90s we were ready and published the first set of The Body Shop’s Values reports – a combination of the company’s environmental, social and animal welfare reports. As far as I know, the social report was the first externally audited social report by a publicly listed company. There had been previous experiments into social reporting by e.g. some co-operatives and fair trade organisations, but coming from a highly recognised international brand, this was the first exercise that aimed to move towards a holistic way of reporting on a company’s sustainability performance.

The Values Reports caused a bit of stir when they were first published – many referred to them as oddball experiments by an eccentric business leader. Most commentators didn’t think that such reporting would ever become common practice and be adopted my mainstream business. We now know differently with some 90% of the world’s largest companies reporting on their sustainability performance in one way or another.  

Anita’s ambition was not only to get a report published on The Body Shop’s activities, but to support a process that would help the development of a standard for social reporting. So, we asked her to put her money where her mouth was and support the setting up of a standards development organisation that would focus on professionalising these early experiments. In 1995, AccountAbility was borne – the first multi-stakeholder initiative that specifically sought to develop standards for sustainability assurance and stakeholder engagement. The AA1000 Series of Standards is now well established and applied by numerous leading companies. The Global Reporting Initiative followed suit shortly after AccountAbility. It has been great to have had the opportunity to contribute to both of these important initiatives in various ways along the years.

Next my journey took me to KPMG, where a small group of partners had made a call that sustainability would be a significant business issue going forward and that the firm would need to start building capacity in this space. So in the late 90s I joined a small group of professionals scattered around the globe to start this work. By the time I moved on in mid 00s, KPMG had a network of over 400 professionals with diverse sustainability skills serving a multitude of clients internationally.

My journey continued, and in 2007 I decided that it was time to strike out and set up Sustainability Advisory Group.

CSR Middle East : What does Sustainability Advisory Group do? Can you tell us more about your activities..


Maria Sillanpaa : Sustainability Advisory Group is an international alliance of sustainability strategists and specialists. We are a network based consultancy bringing together leading experts on diverse sustainability issues. We are essentially change catalysts and our work is always grounded in a robust understanding of business realities and our ultimate aim is to translate the often fuzzy CSR and sustainability ideals into practical and value adding strategies and programmes for action.

Sustainability and CSR, if well managed, can bring significant business benefits to those who wish to pursue them – our job is to help our clients to realise these and make sustainability into a fully business aligned proposition. To reap the benefits, sustainability needs to move from being an add-on to built-in and from ad hoc to strategic. 

The key reasoning behind our network based model is that I strongly believe that every client’s situation is different. Every organisation has its own challenges and aspirations and sustainability needs to be tailored bearing these in mind. This requires us to be able to design teams dynamically and bring the right skills and knowledge to the table – whether technical, sectoral, regional or cultural. Also this model allows us to credibly claim that we can help our clients with a wide range of tasks that this agenda brings to them. To give you an idea, we have worked on the following types of assignments in this region:

ü  Sustainability / CSR strategy and programme design

ü  Environmental management, including Green Buildings

ü  Sustainability governance, management systems and standards

ü  Communications and reporting

ü  Human Resources and Organisational Development

ü  Capacity building and learning and development

ü  Stakeholder analysis and engagement

ü  Philanthropy and community involvement

ü  Responsible investment and due diligence 


Our network now spans from Australia and Asia to the Middle East and Africa and from Europe to the United States. We are deeply committed to the Middle East and have been active here since we started in 2007.

CSR Middle East : What are some effective ways for a business to become more sustainable, especially in our region?

Maria Sillanpaa : The first step is to recognise that corporate responsibility and sustainability are business issues – they are not just about now we contribute to our communities by getting involved in occasional initiatives or how we donate money or time. Ultimately it all boils down to a shift in thinking as to how we make money in the first place, not just how we give it away.

This appreciation is clearly emerging in this region, as reflected in the two regional executive surveys we have carried out (for more info – see http://www.sustainabilityadvisory.net/cms/index.php?page=keep_in_to...). But we still have some ways to go to embed this thinking amongst our executives and to help them to appreciate how to translate this appreciation into practical, day to day business action.

Awareness raising is the key, followed by capability building. And here, networks like CSR Middle have an important role to play. We must find executive friendly ways of articulating the need for and the benefits that can be gained from a thoughtful approach to sustainability management. For many executives, seeing what peers and competitors are doing internationally can be a real eye opener, and a robust benchmarking exercise can often lead to swift decisions about getting on the journey.

One thing I would challenge is the ‘yes, but things are different in this region…’ argument. I have worked in some 20 plus countries along the years and have heard this argument in every single country. However, I counter this by the very clear evidence that wherever you look at leading practices, the same principles and elements of good practice emerge. These elements – or pillars, as I call them – all stem from common sense good management practice that applies to any business discipline. In this sense, sustainability management is not rocket science. The issues that we need to tackle certainly differ from company to company, from sector to sector and from region to region, but the pillars of good management are pretty universal. What supports this argument is the fact that there is now clear convergence of key principles amongst the different sustainability standards.

Also, in this context, it is interesting to note that many of the most innovative practices and initiatives now come from emerging markets – look at Brazil, India, South America etc. These countries are increasingly seeing corporate responsibility as part and parcel of their competitiveness agenda, not just at individual company level but at marco level policy design as well.  

CSR Middle East : Would you please share with us best CSR practices from the region

Maria Sillanpaa : What pleases me most is the clear shift in the level of awareness and debate about the topic in the region. This has happened swiftly especially after the financial crash, and we are now seeing another jump following this year’s events in the Arab region. Sustainability is everyone’s business and companies are clearly realising that they have a major role to play in how our societies develop for better or worse.

In every region, culture and religious context, the CSR journey has always started from a notion of philanthropy. This, of course, is important and should continue. However, giving money away as the only CSR activity won’t suffice. Our global sustainability challenges are so severe that corporate philanthropy on its own won’t sustain our environment, our societies or our economies. And, as Jorma Ollila, the chair of World Business Council for Sustainable Development says, “Business as usual is not an option and only those companies that develop products and services that address our global sustainability challenges will be around for the long haul.“ Based on our two surveys, there is clear evidence that regional executives increasingly acknowledge that this is the way forward. We now need to focus on translating this view into practical business strategies to progress from awareness to action.

CSR Middle East : What do you think about CSR Middle East and your recommendations for future…


Maria Sillanpaa : Platforms such as CSR Middle East are hugely important in getting the message out there and, importantly, building shared knowledge and capability locally. CSR now being the buzz word, we need to be careful to avoid the band wagon effect and quickly help the market place to appreciate what a value adding programme looks like and what type of skills are required to tackle the various challenges that we need to address.


Maria Sillanpaa's profile at CSR Middle East

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Comment by Nadia Al-Shadir on August 16, 2011 at 10:22pm
Thank you Maria. I really enjoyed reading your article.
Comment by Prithvi Datta on August 12, 2011 at 6:03pm

Founding Director - Sustainability Advisory Group

Dear Maria Sillanpaa

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Prithvi Datta UK

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