How to balance the environmental and social

José Soares dos Santos, Non-Executive Director of a major family-run retail and distribution company in Europe and South America, on the delicate decision-making processes of leading in both social and environmental responsibility, and the potential of the new marine economy.

The Leaders - José Soares dos Santo

One of the key questions facing any corporate leader is how to balance the social and environmental elements of an ESG strategy. What is good for one may not be good for the other. A company sourcing goods responsibly from across the world and supporting local communities in impoverished areas, will face the dilemma of whether to source more locally and take the social and economic enrichment – and socio-economic multiplier effect – away from communities who may need it more. 

For Dos Santos, the choice is clear: you cannot abandon people. “We need to analyse the human conditions of the people we support [through social responsibility programmes] and find how we can best help them. There are a lot of problems around the world, and sometimes you must forget about carbon emissions, to allow people to get a dignified life. There is no dilemma. When it’s business you need to be more tough, but when it’s about human life and communities and they need help, then you need to be more reasonable about that.  

The Dos Santos family’s 56% holding of Jerónimo Martins is held by the Sociedade Francisco Manuel dos Santos BV (SFMS). The investment arm of SFMS, Movendo Capital, has joined with Faber Capital and the European Investment Fund to launch the Blue Pioneers Fund, which invests in deep tech startups aiming for high positive impacts on ocean sustainability and climate action, with a focus on blue biotech, food and feed from the ocean, ocean health and decarbonisation.  

Through its philanthropic Oceano Azul [Blue Ocean] Foundation, SFMS also runs a biotech accelerator hub focusing on innovative biotech investments in the key sectors of algae, bivalves, biomaterials, feed, fish, food and textiles. The biotech accelerator hub is a virtual one. Dos Santos explains: “In the 20th century, you needed a location. What you need now is a nucleus and a network that is working in the same direction. We put together seven good companies that lead sustainable projects. There are now over 100 organisations that are linked to these projects, which will provide biotechnology solutions to these kinds of companies. These are companies that have good strategies, good balance sheets, good concepts, good responsibility – really good Portuguese international companies that are within the process.”

José Soares dos Santos is passionate about the potential. “This is an issue we are trying to develop as a thinking process. We call it blue capital, and we should treat the environment as we treat our investments. There is a period where we invest, we don’t get returns, and we call this period blue capital. We are trying to prove that if we invest properly in nature, natural capital, we should be able to extract from nature – of course with the necessary precautions – what we need to maintain and improve our standards of living for the whole world.”  

The key is to pioneer new industries that can make more from the ocean while allowing it to thrive, than existing damaging industries such as trawling and mining. “We have just promoted the creation of the Blue Pioneers Fund, of which we are the main private investor. The fund has already raised a total amount of around €32million. We also started an initiative for a blue biotechnology hub. I think we should be able to demonstrate the value of the whole column of water [in each part of the ocean] from top to bottom.  

“At the moment, if you extract from the bottom, you destroy the column of water, and we are now starting to demonstrate that if we better invest in the ocean, we better protect the ocean, because we have so much more to extract on a sustainable basis than we think.” He sums up his philosophy thus: “We should be able to have businesses that are profitable and at the same time can sustain their mission in the environment.” 

The Dos Santos family’s work does not stop there: they also manage the Oceanário de Lisboa. Widely regarded as the most significant oceanarium in Europe, it runs educational and research programmes and is on the itineraries of both world leaders on state visits and leaders in ocean philanthropy.  

The Oceanarium also has another purpose: it helps bring the ocean to life for fellow business leaders. “When you take someone to the Oceanário, they get there and they look and they understand. People change because of it. It’s a place that produces an emotional relationship with the ocean. I think it plays a big part in the overall picture.” 

Dos Santos tells the story of a major world leader, on a private tour of the oceanarium, who stopped and engaged him in a long conversation about the marine life in front of him, shrugging off his staff who were urging him to move on to his next meeting. “We point out the solutions, because it’s not enough to say there is a problem, we all need to find the solution and work on the solution. Then it tends to work.” 

José Soares dos Santos is also Chairman of Unilever Fima, Lda., Gallo Worldwide, Lda., JMDB Representação e Distribuição de Marcas Lda. and miMed, Cuidados de Saúde S.A.

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