Change needs role models

Oct. 2021

Fritz Lietsch was never a hippie. Nor was he an ardent environmentalist. Back in the 80s, he had a foible for fast cars and he was the editor of a specialist magazine on convertibles. But even in those days he shared lifts. He was also into recycling and environmentalism. As soon as he finished his business degree, he found his calling in life. Today, the 63-year-old is a pioneer of sustainability. For almost four decades, he has fought for the responsible use of our resources. He strongly believes that environmental responsibility and a sustainable society are not incompatible with successful and profitable entrepreneurship. In this interview, we hear from a man who can only be described as visionary, a man who not only lectures and writes about ways to make things better, but also practises what he preaches.

Hello Mr Lietsch. If you search the internet, you’ll find yourself described as a publisher, editor-in-chief, moderator, public speaker, environmental activist and social entrepreneur. Which description do you feel most comfortable with?

I see myself first and foremost as an entrepreneur who takes action in many areas and makes a concrete contribution to leaving behind a world worth living in for our children and grandchildren. I also see myself as an ambassador for the future. I do the things I do because I want to encourage other people to shape the future – though ‘future’ in the singular is not actually the right word to use. We should say futures instead – so talk about future in the plural. This is because we have many futures; it’s up to us to choose one and commit to it.

How do you intend to make the world a better place?

I’d like to awaken enth-YOU-siasm in people and as I suggest with this word, I’d like it to call out to YOU and foster a spirit of change in you. I want to take away people’s fear of change so they stop trying to frantically hold on to old ways of doing things – to bring them into the river of life. And I can do this by not just telling people what not to do, but also by helping them to discover that there are alternatives and they can create new solutions. That’s why I’d much rather talk about solutions than problems. But I can only work out solutions if I create enthusiasm in you and engender that spirit of change. So in that respect, I’m going along with Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

That’s probably easier said than done. How far have you got?

People are often caught up in their ingrained patterns of thinking and behaviour. The willingness to change often comes from a disastrous event or fear, or it’s a motivation or insight. Greta Thunberg and her School Strike for Climate movement are about angst. It might be the right thing to do, because as an emotion, angst is necessary for people to click into action. But I’m different in that respect. I believe in enthusiasm and motivation.

Could it be that the modern generation is simply living beyond its means? And if it is, don’t we need a ‘culture of sacrifices’?

No – a culture of change! It’s about doing things consciously. I don’t have to stop myself doing anything, but where I can, I do less. We don’t have sausage or meat in our fridge, but we do still treat ourselves to a steak every now and again, especially when the local organic farmer is offering fresh meat. But also, I didn’t have a guilty conscience when I flew to Thailand with the whole family on holiday, because my sons still enthuse about the things they experienced as children; but I did avoid flying or driving to places if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. I also enjoy a cigarette from time to time, but I don’t make a habit out of it. The trick is to avoid becoming fixed in your ways or becoming dependent.

“Schools and education have an important influence on whether we succeed in making the future sustainable – and how we do that”

Fritz Lietsch
 

Are we born with this drive to constantly have more?

Maybe. But getting more and more of everything won’t make us happy in the long run. Life isn’t only about growth. You just need to observe what happens in nature to work that one out. The spring comes and you have to sow seeds and tend the land. In the summer, everything shoots up, the autumn brings a rich harvest and winter comes as a time of rest. This tendency of ours to want more and more, our addiction to constant growth – it’s all based on the overexploitation of nature and people. In Germany, we’re among the most affluent people in the world. We’ve got what we need. And actually it’s awful that instead of seeking new ways to live and work, ways that are right for the future, we revel in our luxury and wealth and cling on to the way things are. This is precisely why the latest issue of our Nachhaltig Wirtschaften [Doing Business Sustainably] magazine opens with ‘enough is enough’.

There have never been so many people talking about sustainability as there are now. Heat waves, floods, huge storms – we’re noticing climate change all around us. In what way will change be needed to move things in the right direction?

Business has a huge impact on our lives. You can make a big difference in this area – that’s where you have to start. But instead of punishing people, you should encourage them to follow best practices, to create a future we can live in and love. Sustainability isn’t a burden. It’s a playground for innovation. It’s a powerful part of branding, one that offers an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition. More and more companies are now recognising this and repositioning themselves by getting involved in ESG activities. In that respect, I’m pleased that foundations like the PATRIZIA Foundation are also gaining a whole new importance in the world of business.

The PATRIZIA Foundation gives children access to education. Is that the key to a sustainable future?

It most certainly is! You see that by the mere fact that a higher level of education – and the prosperity that brings – correlates to people having fewer children. That might sound a bit strange to some people, but population growth and the anticipated levels of overpopulation are also one of those issues that will have a lasting impact on the planet. That’s not the only reason why education is really important, however. Schools are a place of gathering and togetherness. Ignoring all the maths equations and poetry, you meet people at school, you interact with classmates during breaks, you’re there for each other during lessons. The way I see it, these kinds of social skills are much more important. But this entails re-learning how to show solidarity, how to work together, and how to engage in social activities. At the moment it’s like we’re falling back into a new kind of selfishness, with phrases like ‘America first’ and ‘me first’. What we should be focusing on is pulling together – otherwise the divisions in society will keep widening. So schools and education have an important influence on whether we succeed in making the future sustainable, and how we do that.

How do you think Germany is doing in terms of sustainability, especially compared to other countries?

Germany was very early in starting to think about sustainability. For a long time we were like model students, but now we’re certainly below average. If we’d really taken the issue more seriously at the beginning, there are so many forms of sustainable technology where we’d be doing a lot better right now, especially when it comes to economic viability. But also, we would have had to be more rigorous about introducing environmental technology in certain areas to avoid being squeezed out, like with solar technology. BMW was already working on designs for the first electric vehicle in the 1970s. But their plans were mothballed because no-one dared do anything and we didn’t have the foresight to actually go through with it. I think we were caught sleeping in lots of areas and failed to make proper use of our role as a pioneer. Germany is the fourth-largest economy in the world, so it’s still in a position to make a big difference. In fact we have to if we want to help everyone and stop the ship sinking.

Is there anyone you consider a role model?

I’m impressed by people who don’t take life too seriously. If you ask me, we should do more to celebrate life. We are insanely fortuitous. Our generation has never experienced war. We’re well nourished. We’re well educated. We’re not threatened by any existential dangers. So what we need to do now is value this fortune of living in a peaceful and plentiful corner of the globe, and work on new models of society that are fit for the future. For a long time the western world was a shining example of unbridled consumption and hedonistic living. Now it’s time for us to become a new role model and show that things can be even more beautiful if you live life differently, i.e. more sustainably in economic terms – so truly meaningfully and enjoyably.

Fritz Lietsch

Born in 1957, Fritz Lietsch is CEO of the publishing firm ALTOP-Verlag, which he helped to establish in Munich 35 years ago after graduating in business administration. As one of the pioneers of the environmental movement, in 1986 he published the first edition of ECO-World, an alternative business directory that provides a comprehensive overview of the market for ecologically sound products and services. In doing so, he laid the foundation of a network bringing together companies and consumers in German-speaking countries, thus making a crucial contribution to the promotion of sustainable living. An important point of interchange for this network is ECO-World.de, a website launched in 1996 that now comprises a database of over 20,000 suppliers of sustainable products and services. In 2007, Lietsch founded the sustainability website www.forum-csr.net. As editor-in-chief of the management magazine forum Nachhaltig Wirtschaften [The Doing Business Sustainably Forum], he is helping transform business and society. In 2010, he won the prestigious B.A.U.M. Environmental Award. Fritz Lietsch would like to encourage business leaders, politicians and consumers to consciously act in ways that are environmentally responsible and sustainable. He is also committed to these visions in his private life. He is often involved in local environmental campaigns and enjoys attending in person and allowing others to tap into his expertise.