Interview by Estrella Setuain with Clara Arpa, CEO of ARPA, Equipos Móviles de Campaña, one of the most important companies in the world in the field logistics solutions sector. In 2020 she was elected president of the Spanish Network of the United Nations Global Compact, the result of her commitment to sustainability throughout her career, through initiatives and projects such as ARPA Change to guide organizations in their transition to sustainability.
In 2021, Spain was the country with the highest number of participants in the Global Compact with 188 new members. Does this show that companies are now more aware of sustainability than in other countries, especially in Spain?
Yes, there is no doubt that this number gives us an idea of how Spanish companies are becoming more and more concerned about everything related to sustainability. It is true that European policies, all that is the transition, the Green Pact, has a high importance with respect to the best in other countries. In Spain, companies are taking it more seriously and I believe that this is one of the reasons why we currently have so many new members and are the leading international network.
What are the reasons why companies are taking it more seriously here in Spain?
Well, to what I have just said, isn’t it? Everything that is the policies of the European Union, the Green Pact, are aligned with sustainability. So, I think that companies have taken it much more seriously and are more aware of the transition we have to make to the new economic models.
Maybe because there was less work done here than in other countries?
No, I believe that the work is the same, in fact or in deed, everywhere. In that sense, there are no countries at the moment that are much more advanced than others. In fact, Spain is one of the bastions of social policies, as is Europe worldwide, and we all know that sustainability also has to do with social issues.
What role are companies playing in this improvement of society and social or social welfare, the common good, within this ideology of sustainability?
Well, I think we are seeing more and more that companies have a relevant role in society. Companies, at the end of the day, are the economic engine, especially the private part. Most of us work in private companies and also in small and medium-sized enterprises, which is what the Spanish business fabric is made of. These initiatives that they take, these steps forward, these certifications, these certifications both in sustainability and quality, these negotiations of agreements… We have a very advanced social policy in this sense and we have to claim it. So I believe that yes, it is true that companies in this sense, especially the private sector, are taking the lead over the public sector.
You were talking about SMEs, small and medium-sized enterprises, which are precisely the ones that weave the whole, well, excuse the redundancy, our business fabric. Are they precisely the ones that bet more on sustainability?
Well, they are the ones that have it more complicated, aren’t they? Because the more regulation, the more regulation, the more resources they need. We already know that SMEs have limited resources. But it is true that if the fabric is, at the end of the day, ninety-nine point ninety-eight percent made up of small companies, well, without them, the truth is that we are not going anywhere.
What concrete actions are these companies taking?
The companies, first of all, I believe that they have an awareness of social rights in that sense. Trade union rights for workers, equality in Spain is one of the countries where we have the most equality plans within companies. I believe that the issue of flexible working hours is also being taken into account. Of course, everything related to the transition to clean energy. More and more companies are considering self-consumption and reducing their CO2 emissions. Soon we will see how companies will also start talking about the circular economy through their supply chain. In short, I believe that these types of actions are the ones that are taking companies at the moment.
And I understand that all of them contribute to greater profitability, as it seems that many times we only think about the economic aspect and through sustainability we can achieve even more profitable objectives.
Well, I always say that we have to make the profitability of sustainability. We have to understand that profitability is not only economic, it is also social and environmental. And as long as we do not go with this awareness to consume as goal number 12 says: “to consume and produce in a responsible way”, we will not be able to move forward. We always talk only in economic terms. No one, as individuals, as consumers, we have to be clear about that. In other words, when we choose our products or services, we have to take into account not only the price, but everything that goes with it.
To be clear in this sense and to know everything that is involved in order to make a commitment to the SDGs. I don’t know if there is one sector that is clearer than another. Primary, secondary or tertiary. I do not know if there is one that is betting more strongly on sustainability.
Well, I would bet that there are some that have it easier, in the sense that it is true that they do a lot of things, such as the primary sector. We do have to change from a production that is perhaps too intensive to a more extensive production. We have to take into account again those ecological and bio consumption that we are having now as a resurgence. I believe that the big industry has to be given a lot of importance because it really has it and at the end of the day it is one of the engines. Without them we would not be able to move forward.
I don’t know if the pandemic has also had an influence in this sense.
Well, the pandemic has influenced everything, for better and for worse, and in many ways. On the issue of sustainability, almost, I think the pandemic has brought forward the whole issue of awareness. We have seen the vulnerabilities to which we are subjected by this economic system, which is the one we have to change in order to have circular resources. I think we are more aware than ever of the risks we face and we are aware that we are going to end them in some way sooner rather than later.
You were saying that we are more aware, I guess not only in terms of business, but also as a society. I don’t know if in general we have to improve something, besides through companies. Institutions, for example.
Let’s see, I always say it, companies are not a strange entity or a foreign entity. That is, companies are made up of people and people make up society. When we talk about companies or society, it seems that we are talking about a third party, a stranger, someone alien, when in fact we are each one of us.
When you were elected president of the Spanish Global Compact network, what goals did you set for yourself back in 2020? It hasn’t been that long, but I suppose a lot of progress will have been made. As you said, the pandemic has accelerated everything. I don’t know what the framework is and which ones have already been met.
Well, the objective I set myself was to try to ensure that the companies that had already signed up to the pact would continue to do so, because logically there were many companies that were at a significant and severe economic risk. Thank God, not only did we have very few withdrawals, mostly of companies that unfortunately had to be extinguished, but we have also had an increase in the number of members, which is a source of satisfaction. Man, the objective that the presidents of the Global Compact set ourselves at international level is that our initiative, which is the largest corporate sustainability initiative in the world, becomes more and more known by everyone, especially by companies, logically, and both public and private organizations, and that they join and begin to make the transformation that we need so much.
We are talking about the United Nations Global Compact, but perhaps there is someone listening to us who does not know what it is. Can you explain a little more about the actions you develop?
Well, I am on the Board of Directors at the international level. The United Nations Global Compact is an initiative launched by Kofi Annan in Davos in January 2000. Why? To give the market a friendlier face in the face of globalization, since it was becoming increasingly clear that it did not entail any collateral damage, such as non-compliance with human rights, labor rights, especially corruption, which was increasing and there were many cases of corruption, as well as climate change and the environment. So, well, the Global Compact is an initiative, as I have said, to which organizations voluntarily adhere and which want to work and do business, but above all giving importance to four major areas such as human rights, labor rights, the fight against corruption and environmental rights. Based on this, when the Sustainable Development Goals are also published by the United Nations, they are placed under the umbrella of the Global Compact so that companies can also implement the 2030 Agenda. And we are there, helping companies in this transition to prepare their sustainability reports, to prepare their progress reports and to gradually move forward on this long road, so that we hope that by 2030 we will all be on the right path.
Has it been easier since an Agenda 2030 and specific goals or wishes have been established?
I believe that the agenda is a tool that helps us to really raise awareness. It is not easy, it is complicated, there are many of us at the international level. Well, there are almost eight billion inhabitants on this planet, but I really believe that although there is not much awareness of the agenda at the international level, because there is a lot of inequality between countries, it is true that the first world countries, those of us who in theory have the obligation to lead the way, have to make this change, this transition as soon as possible. And the agenda is in some way a guide that tells us what objectives we have and what goals we have to achieve.
You were saying that there is not much knowledge on an international scale of the agenda and the objectives, but do you think that they are still something unknown to society, for example, in Spain?
Well, unfortunately, yes. At the moment, although there has been a significant increase, I would say that more than half of the population still does not know what the sustainable development goals are. In fact, when we go to give talks to universities, which is what concerns me most and also worries me at the moment, I see that at the academic level, at the youth level, they are not as involved as they should be at the moment.
Is it due to a lack of pedagogy? I don’t know if the institutions should also do more for its dissemination.
Well, I don’t know exactly what we are doing wrong, but it is clear that we are doing something wrong when we go to give talks at the university and only 20 students show up in the classroom when there are four or five thousand students on that campus. When you go to present a progress report to a university, where there are thirty thousand students and five thousand professors, and in the meeting there are only 30 people between professors and students. So, I don’t know if it is the lack of involvement of young people, or because there has never really been more information or more access to information than at this moment.
And speaking of the contribution to the SDGs of the Spanish society, I do not know if you can specify a little bit what Aragon is doing for the 2030 Agenda.
Well, Aragon has several projects. It has a very interesting project which is the Aragonese Social Responsibility Seal and there are 1,400 Aragonese companies, more than 1,400 companies involved that receive its seal. Logically, the project of the Seal, the elaboration of the objectives that the companies have to carry out when committing to the seal, are totally linked to the Sustainable Development Goals. And I would encourage because I think there are only 180 of those companies that are adhered to the Global Compact. I would encourage them to adhere to the Global Compact and in this way give tremendous visibility to the Aragonese community, because it would be the most important organization at international level and within the most important organization at international level, we would be the most numerous community at international level, and of course that would put Aragon once and for all on the map in this sense.
Does that position us internationally?
Absolutely. That is why I encourage the companies of the RSA Seal to adhere to the Global Compact to make the capacity of this autonomous region much more visible.
You are the CEO of one of those companies that is a member of the Global Compact and has been working on sustainability for a very long time. How do you respond to the complex problems of environmental impact that exist in the world today?
Well, what we are clear about is that our activity has to be as emission-free as possible. There are activities that the company carries out directly, and in that sense I have to say that in three or four years we will be a company that will have 100 percent self-consumption. We have worked on them, we have a beautiful project to convert the surpluses, because we have a photovoltaic installation and we only work 220 days a year, so the rest of the days we have to do something with it. And we have to say that we have made a small green hydrogen generation module that we use later for our own facilities and to provide hydrogen fuel cars. It is a milestone, it is really a super innovative project, it is very pioneering, it is very advanced, very innovative and we hope that soon we will be copied. We hope that we will be a reference and predictor of this type of facilities so that wherever we go to the industrial parks we can see that we are really capable of having zero emissions in our own production units. We are very proud and very happy about that. We are really very satisfied and we continue to work on it.
Are you the first private company that is working for the popularization of hydrogen here?
Well, I think so, at least with a self-consumption model in its own facilities. And well, and in alliance with other companies, such as the Zoilo Ríos group, so that this hydrogen can soon be dispensed in their facilities as well. Let us be among the first, among the pioneers in Aragon, as we have been in many other previous situations.
With ARPA Change, you also try to guide organizations in their transition to sustainability. Can you tell us a little more about this project?
This is an initiative within what is the activity of the company that has moved us to provide solutions like the one I am telling you about. In ARPA Change we have all the hydrogen developments. We have also provided solutions to water purification issues, especially in areas of less than 5,000 inhabitants. We really have a big problem in Aragon and in Spain, with a lot of small municipalities that do not have a water treatment plant, and we have developed a system that is 80 percent more efficient than the traditional one, than the traditional technology that has been developed until now. We also have developments for farms, for the very important issue of slurry. Within our pork industry, we are working to improve the environmental circumstances of the farms and in this area we are working to help other companies and other public and private organizations to solve their problems or their environmental problems, so to speak, by means of new technology.
I see that you are knowledgeable about the pork sector, which is now in the spotlight here in Spain because of all the statements that have been made about it. I understand, from what you say, that you are working on improving the sustainability of the slurry from the processes. Is it really a sustainable sector?
Of course it is sustainable. What happens is that it depends on the business model, it has to be attacked or a series of solutions or others have to be put in place. If we really need the industry to be powerful and to be a reference, as we seem to be at a national and international level, we have to make all the means available to the companies so that they can really do their job, complying with all the environmental requirements that are needed.
Clara, just to finish, how do you imagine Aragon in terms of sustainability in 2030?
Well, I would like us to have really integrated those 1400 and all the companies of RSA and all those that will come until 2030 in the Global Compact. I hope that all of them have joined, that we have solved the issue of the municipalities, of the small municipalities with respect to their waste, both water and solid waste. And I would also like us to really be an international benchmark for the entire meat industry. There is no doubt about it.