Jebsen & Jessen Chairman Started His Sustainability Career in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea

Mr Heinrich Jessen was a tropical biologist who did research in Central and South America prior to succeeding the family business in 1995. Today, the chairman of the giant global corporation is helping to drive the organisation’s approach towards sustainable development.

Throughout one’s career, the first job always holds a special place in our memories and has the biggest impact in shaping our professional future.

Mr Jessen was lucky to have experienced both. He dropped out of business school in the first year and made a bold switch to take up an interdisciplinary programme on environmental sciences in the United States.

As if that was not enough, he would spend the extra time on research, coursework and travel in Central and South America during term breaks to fuel the interest and passion. “After graduation, I worked as a research assistant deep in the jungles of central Papua New Guinea. When my assignment was completed, I was getting ready to go back to university to do a master’s degree.” One of his first jobs was working in the education department of WWF Italy.

It was also during this time that he had a conversation with his father about helping the company to move towards sustainability.

The Start Of An Uphill Yet Rewarding Journey

The Jessen family business started as a trading company. However, it shifted its focus and became more engaged in engineering and manufacturing during his father’s chairmanship. “With this trend came increasing direct environmental risks and impacts from our activities,” explained Mr Jessen.

With a calling in his heart, Mr Jessen joined the family business in 1995 as its first environmental officer. He has never looked back since.

“In the first few years, Jebsen & Jessen’s primary focus was managing the risks and impact our business activities were having on the environment. This included exiting several businesses, establishing environmental management systems (according to ISO14001 standards), setting up crisis prevention and emergency response plans, and bringing our activities across Southeast Asia up to global environmental standards.”

As conversations steer towards climate change as a global emergency in recent years, Mr Jessen wanted to play a bigger role in tackling one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. “We began measuring our carbon footprint in 2007. This resulted in decisions that specifically pushed us to look at emission reduction opportunities in the company and to pursue them wherever financially justifiable,” he added.

His forward-thinking approach has led Jebsen & Jessen to become one of Asia’s first carbon-neutral industrial companies in 2011. Since then, the entire family enterprise (including its sister groups) have gone carbon neutral.

“I believe that a far more ambitious and globally aligned carbon tax structure globally would be beneficial. When carbon tax approaches vary between countries and are implemented inconsistently and without meaningful global coordination, we will not achieve the level playing field needed to get buy-in from the business community to adopt a carbon tax.”

But the journey wasn’t all rosy. Mr Jessen expressed his greatest frustration being there were very few other companies pursuing carbon neutrality initially. “While in business you are usually proud to be the first or the only one on any initiative, you often find yourself being the only one in your “neighbourhood” when it comes to allocating resources in helping to combat climate change.” In this case, it appears understandably easier to be tempted into thinking whether your efforts are worthwhile. Though the brighter side is that more and more companies (and countries) are now adopting similar policies.

“The biggest reward (in running a sustainable business) is knowing that your efforts are bringing benefit to others. This is an immensely fulfilling and motivating factor.”

Supporting First-Hand Encounters With Nature

Education is best delivered through first-hand experiences. As part of a partnership with WWF-Singapore, Jebsen & Jessen’s Meet A Green Need Programme allowed its employees and volunteers to experience on-field elephant conservation efforts in a national park. They were able to see first hand how the grant supports the biodiversity and local communities.

Held in Kuiburi National Park in Thailand, the partnership aimed to improve elephant protection and management, restore natural resources and maintain a healthy ecosystem for elephants, mitigate human-elephant conflict and reduce poaching and illegal activities. The partnership also contributed directly, but not limited, to the maintenance of the grasslands, cleaning of the water pools and installation of camera traps within the national park.

In October 2019, 20 delegates from Jebsen & Jessen were given the opportunity to experience the elephant conservation efforts in the national park.

With guidance and support from the park rangers, Jebsen & Jessen staff also took on the role of rangers within the national park and contributed to activities such as wildlife habitat management and monitoring work.

Khin Nyein Chan, one of the 20 participants, described the experience as unforgettable. “I will never forget the experience of walking the whole day to install camera traps in the park. It was hard work with challenges.”

“We had to dig, cut, remove the weeds, pour the mixture into the hole, remove the dirty trash, clean the pools, and refill the water in the pool for the elephants.”

Looking Ahead

Aside from supporting climate actions, Mr Jessen wants the business to be actively involved in addressing other pressing environmental issues. Today, they are exploring meaningful ways to support global efforts in preventing plastic waste from accumulating in the natural environment.

For businesses who are just starting in their sustainability journey, he provided a great piece of advice: “Never let the discouragement that you are alone or one among the very few stop you from pursuing what you believe to be right.”

“My inspiration is the Swiss entrepreneur and World Business Council for Sustainable Development founder, Stefan Schmidheiny. He was a pioneer in this field and an inspiration to many individuals, including myself, who were convinced that business success and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive.”

Some activities the team has accomplished: created 10 mineral licks, maintained 12 grassland areas, cleaned 12 water pools, installed two camera traps.

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