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Sacha Göddeke Mulder: ‘I want to transform NS from a company that does sustainable things into a sustainable company’

Paul

by Paul van Schie

Over the past years, the Dutch Railways (NS), have often been recognised for their commitment towards sustainable business practices. For those who feared that these sustainable plans had reached their final destination because of the consequences of Covid; we’re here to calm you down.

Director of Sustainability Sacha Göddeke Mulder embodies NS’s continued commitment towards sustainable transformation. As it has been about a year after her taking on this role, we spoke with Sacha about her purpose, ambitions, and sustainability challenges at NS.

Distilling 1000 answers in one second

When we ask Sacha what her purpose is, her eyes move back and forth as she quickly replies with ‘There are about 1000 answers to that question…’, only to quickly analyze and distill a convincing answer within a second:
‘…but really the main thing that comes to mind are my kids. I want to be able to give them a good life, the ability to grow and become responsible and good people. When I think about it it’s not just my kids, but all children. I’m highly motivated to create a better world full of opportunities for them.

As my big hairy audacious goal is to make the world a better place I aim high… but to make my goal a little bit more tangible I like to tone it down to a lower level of ambition. I think that for me it would suffice to leave the world as green and as good as it is at this moment. That’s already a huge challenge!

There is also a business side to my purpose where I want to make organisations more logical and efficient. I feel that organisations are what make people come together and unite, and I want to contribute to that feeling of unity.’

Beside Sacha, we’ve interviewed 7 other leading women of purpose and distilled their insights in an ebook

We’ve had some great, personal conversations about what has inspired these inspiring women throughout their life and career. There’s much to learn from their journey of personal and business purpose.

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A recent realisation about an old memory

One of Sacha’s earliest memories around sustainability is a discussion that she remembers her grandmother and grandfather having.

‘It was about whether to buy a car with or without this brand new technology called air conditioning. My grandmother was against getting it as it used up so much fuel, and fuel was bad for the environment. In the end they decided to buy the air conditioned car, with the strict agreement to only use it when absolutely necessary.

“One of my earliest memories on sustainability is a discussion that I remember my grandmother and grandfather having. It was about whether to buy a car with or without this brand new technology called air conditioning.”

Sacha recently realised that this discussion and subsequent decision reflects in a large part how she thinks about sustainability.

One sustainable change we can ALL make

‘In line with my grandparents’ way of thinking, I think it’s not necessary to always make the collective choice, to always act in the most sustainable way. We are free to make individual choices sometimes. One change I think we DO need to make, is that we need to always CONSIDER the sustainable option.

This holds true for business as well as personal decisions. Before you make a decision, consider the questions which options do I have? What’s the most sustainable one? And subsequently: what do I need? What does the organization need? What does my family need, questions like that. Then, after this careful consideration that includes the sustainable option, make a conscious decision.

If everyone adds this consideration as a standard then I’m confident that a whole lot more sustainable choices will be made.’

Sacha is on a mission to embed this type of thinking into NS’s culture.

‘Until recently, our employees had been trained to take two questions into account with every decision: 1) what does it cost? and 2) what effect does this have on our employees and the people in society? I Want to add a third one: what’s the impact on the environment?’

To this end, Sacha is actively working on embedding the above consideration into every decision at every level at NS. Part of her approach is to motivate people to make small changes in their day to day work. She firmly believes in facilitating all kinds of small changes, by giving all people a concrete acting perspective.

The idea is that people can contribute to the five pillars that Sacha’s strategy is built on: 1) becoming fossil free, 2) becoming circular,3) becoming green, 4) accessibility and 5) diversity and inclusion.

‘We’re really taking a look at every aspect of our business. From our trains (they now drive on green energy throughout the year, but not on an hourly basis yet. That’s what NS is working towards) to the type of paper that we use in our printers, to the circularity and recyclability of (the materials in) our trains, to the types of food we offer at railway stations, to what we do with the land and the real estate we own, to how we treat our passengers and people.’

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Visibility versus sustainability

Her approach of small incremental changes initially led to some critical feedback by the board. Being responsible for about 95% of all train travel in the Netherlands, NS is a hugely visible company. As such, sustainability can play a major role in the company’s reputation. Sacha’s predecessor gained a lot of positive coverage by smartly addressing some of NS’s larger sustainability commitments.

Sacha: ‘When the board asked me, what’s the next big thing? I replied that there are not going to be big things, but there are gonna be a whole lot of small things. I know this will not directly lead to a lot of visibility or an enhanced reputation in the short term, but I believe that if we really want to be sustainable, that’s what we need to do.

“I want to transform NS from a company that does sustainable things into a sustainable company.”

I feel that we are a beautiful company, and we’re doing beautiful, sustainable things. But we’re not a sustainable company yet. That’s the switch I want to make. I want to transform NS from a company that does sustainable things into a sustainable company; a huge leap.’

Train versus plane

With the flight shame movement reaching new heights, one popular sustainable consideration many consumers are already making is taking the train as the preferred method of international travel. We couldn’t help but address the issue of international train travel in Europe.

“Every extra train deployed would take about six planes out of the sky.”

Sacha: ‘Although every extra train deployed would take about six planes out of the sky, international train travel in Europe is currently not as attractive as I would like it to be. European railway systems do not align, which is why travelers have to switch trains at almost every border crossing. Also, as flight tickets are heavily subsidised train tickets are far from the most economical choice for consumers. Add to that a huge increase in travel time and you see why the majority of international travelers opts for higher emissions. As the biggest challenges lie in the field of international politics, tackling them in the short term is currently outside my circle of influence. And thus not on NS’s short term sustainability roadmap.’

A people-centered vision

To achieve her ambitious goals, Sacha does not work alone. One next step in her vision to transform NS to a sustainable organisation, is involving more people on her plans.

‘A lot of people work with NS because they want to make a difference in society and I can’t blame them; it’s why I have chosen to work here as well. Many of our colleagues reach out to us with sustainable ideas. Still, I think there is a lot of untapped potential here. Involving more people on our sustainability agenda is a huge field to be discovered. Now that we’ve got clear outlines we’ve got a lot of opportunities waiting for us.’

We are confident that Sacha will take NS’s sustainable strategy to the next level, and will stay in touch to see which opportunities she is going to grab!

Read the other interviews in our interview series: