Science - Stephan Schmidheiny



“Earth Summit 1992”

 In 1992, the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro. The Earth Summit in Rio was a large diplomatic event and marked a turning point in society of the 20th century. The main point of discussion was the question of reducing pressure on global eco-systems through the introduction of the paradigm of sustainable development. This new principle is based on the realization that environmental problems and social issues cannot be considered nor resolved separately. illustration-top-11-2200px   Stephan Schmidheiny was very actively involved in the preparations for the Earth Summit. In 1990, he met the general secretary of UNCED, Maurice Strong, on the fringes of a conference in Norway. Based on Stephan Schmidheiny's experience as an entrepreneur and especially thanks to his reputation as a pioneer in phasing out of asbestos processing, Maurice Strong appointed Stephan Schmidheiny as his chief advisor for business and industry. In order to tackle the work, Stephan Schmidheiny decided to create a business council for sustainable development (BCSD). In less than a year, he managed to recruit 50 top executives from different industries and regions. The outcome of the BCSD's work was the bestseller "Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment", which was published in 1992 and translated into 15 languages. In it, Stephan Schmidheiny explains the entrepreneurial concept of eco-efficiency. The book shows how enterprises can combine environmental protection with economic growth. The prefix ‘eco’ refers both to economics as well as ecology. On June 5, 1992, Stephan Schmidheiny presented the results of the work at the Earth Summit.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Leaders of top global companies head the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The organization provides trendsetting impulses and effective advocacy to allow for constructive solutions for a sustainable future to be implemented. Today, the WBCSD is a forum for some 200 member companies from all industries and continents who exchange best practices in sustainable development. The origins of the WBCSD lie in the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), a body founded by Stephan Schmidheiny in 1991 in preparation for the U.N.'s 1992 Earth Summit. Following the Earth Summit, Stephan Schmidheiny and the members of the BCSD decided to continue and to intensify their cooperation. In 1995, the BCSD merged with the World Industry Council on the Environment to become the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and opened its secretariat in Geneva. In the year 2000, Stephan Schmidheiny was named honorary president of the WBCSD. At the U.N.'s "World Summit on Sustainable Development", held in Johannesburg in 2002, the WBCSD played again a prominent role. Among other things, with "Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development", another ground-breaking book, co-authored by Stephan Schmidheiny, was published.

OECD High Level Advisory Group on the Environment

In the late 90’s, the 34 countries, which are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD, began dealing with issues of sustainable development. In 1997, the Secretary General of the OECD, Donald J. Johnston, appointed a High Level Advisory Group on the Environment and assigned Stephan Schmidheiny and the President of the World Resources Institute, Jonathan Lash, to co-chair this committee. The High Level Advisory Group elaborated a report, whose principal recommendation was a new interpretation of the mission of the OECD. The concept of sustainability should be the general principle of the OECD to retain long term the human capital, the environment and the economic capital. The High Level Advisory Group recommended a framework to integrate economic, environmental and social policy, with the purpose of a sustainable economy achievement. The report served as an important basis for debate at the OECD Ministerial Meeting in 1998, in which the ministers agreed that sustainable development is a priority for the OECD countries. The ministers’ mandate resulted in the OECD publication “Sustainable Development. Critical Issues”, which expanded on the findings of the High Level Advisory Group.


With the “Alliance for Global Sustainability” and the “Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development”, Stephan Schmidheiny laid the foundation for two groundbreaking centers for the study of concepts on social and ecological sustainability. Stephan Schmidheiny also contributed significantly to the creation of the IMD Global Family Business Center that performs fundamental research and training in the family enterprise field.

illustration 1-1440px

Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development

The “Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development” LACCSD is the leading research centre at the INCAE Business School in Costa Rica and one of the most important institutions of its kind in Latin America. It serves as a think tank for the regional governments, private sector and civil societies and supports the shift towards a socially and ecologically more sustainable society.

Stephan Schmidheiny founded the LACCSD in 1996, together with Roberto Artavia, at the time the rector of the INCAE Business School (until 2007). Through his Avina Stiftung, Stephan Schmidheiny contributed a substantial start-up support; through the years, the contribution of Avina was gradually replaced by profitable projects of the think tank and successful fundraising. Thus, the LACCSD achieved financial independence and operational sustainability.

IMD Global Family Business Center

In 1986, Stephan Schmidheiny was appointed Chairman of the International Management Institute IMI in Geneva. Founded in 1946 from Alcan, the IMI specialized on the training of managers and therefore is active in a similar area as the neighbouring Lausanne Institut pour l’Etude des domiciled Méthodes de Direction de l’Entreprise IMEDE, which was founded by Nestle in 1957. Soon after taking office, Stephan Schmidheiny recognized that a bundling of forces would be of great benefit for both institutions and therefore he actuated the merger of the two institutions.

Then in 1989, the merger of two institutes to the International Institute for Management Development IMD was announced. The IMD, domiciled in Lausanne Switzerland, is now one of the world’s leading institutions in the field of management education (MBA, Executive MBA, Executive Education).

Already at the IMI, Stephan Schmidheiny launched together with the Canadian Entrepreneur Frank Tilley the Family Firm Institute (FFI), which conducted research and training in the field of family business. After the merger of IMI and IMEDE, this initiative led to the IMD Global Family Business Center, which offers a unique training program today: “Leading the Family Business”. In 1990, Stephan Schmidheiny donated to the IMD the Stephan Schmidheiny Chair of Family Enterprises. This chair, which today is called Stephan Schmidheiny professorship of Entrepreneurship and Finance, is to conduct research and training in the field of sustainable entrepreneurship. In 1992, Stephan Schmidheiny withdrew from the Foundation Board of IMD.

Alliance for Global Sustainability

The Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS) was an international partnership between four of the world’s leading scientific research universities: the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, the University of Tokyo and the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. The objective of the AGS was to provide a platform for interdisciplinary teams to work towards solutions to the major environmental problems society is increasingly facing.

Stephan Schmidheiny laid the groundwork for this unique partnership in 1996. He formulated the idea for the Alliance for Global Sustainability and selected MIT, ETH and the University of Tokyo as partners for the organization. Stephan Schmidheiny provided significant support in the development of the Alliance, in terms of both content and financing, via his Avina Stiftung foundation. He served as the Chairman of the International Advisory Board of the AGS from 1996 to 2001. The alliance was dissolved in 2011.