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Finland does not have the option of pushing back its climate objectives, even in difficult times

Ylva’s CEO Leea Tolvas summarizes the results of Ylva’s responsibility work in 2022.

It has been a historical spring, culminating in Finland’s accession to NATO in April 2023. The decision has already had many positive impacts in the short term, including giving companies a more predictable investment environment. Finns have been remarkably united in their support for NATO membership. Only a few years ago in 2019, more than 60 per cent of Finns opposed joining the military alliance. The shift has occurred in an astonishingly short space of time, and why is crystal clear.

Virtually overnight, the war of aggression launched against Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 changed not only Finnish people’s positions on NATO but also the country’s communication culture. The war in Ukraine is likely the first humanitarian crisis to prompt companies to publicly take a stance regardless of the nature of their business or the places they operate in. Roughly half of respondents in FIBS’s corporate responsibility pulse check believe that the war in Ukraine has changed their company’s attitude towards conflicts around the world.

At Ylva, corporate activism and taking a stance on environmental and social issues have been a natural part of our operations for decades. We haven’t delayed our action or skirted around taking a stance – not even when we know they’re going to illicit controversy. Unlike many of our competitors, we also want to talk about our failures. We believe that radical openness is more beneficial to our operations than dressing up our actions and singing our own praises.

Like any company, Ylva has its sights set on growth, but we have a greater purpose than just profit: facilitating a happy and active student life for the 25,000 members of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki. Beyond that, we also aim to benefit out environment. We work towards that goal every day by developing our home city: the Helsinki of the future. Ylva’s commitment to the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement is written into our Articles of Association. We are unaware of any other Finnish company that has made such a commitment.

Ylva’s carbon emissions fell 47 per cent in 2022

One of our key goals is achieving carbon neutrality by the end of 2025. We worked hard towards this goal in 2022, and our results speak for themselves. One the first day of the year, we transitioned to emission-free energy in all our properties, making all of them fully carbon neutral and effectively halving our total emissions.

In summer 2022, we calculated the carbon footprint of all meals served in our student restaurants. Typically, calculations like this in the restaurant industry are based on common databases or averages. At UniCafe, we did the legwork far more thoroughly. We broke down all our recipes and determined the carbon footprint of each individual ingredient using data from peer-reviewed studies. Our science-based approach allows us to take our emissions into account far more accurately than before when designing our menus and to transparently communicate the environmental effects of food served at UniCafes to our customers.

Reducing the carbon emissions of our food also plays an important role in the new restaurant concepts we launched during the year. Our Well Catering online shop, launched in April 2022, makes vegetarian and vegan options a fixed part of its normal product selection, which means customers don’t have to ask after them separately. In December 2022, we opened Myöhä, our very first fully vegan student restaurant, in Kaivopiha, where it serves as a lunch restaurant by day and a karaoke bar in the evenings.

Our values also have an impact outside our work community

We also worked to promote social responsibility, inclusivity and equality in 2022. We declared that discrimination was not welcome in our work community or any of our spaces. We were an official partner of Helsinki Pride for the third year in a row. We organised diversity training for all of our staff to educate ourselves on diversity, accepting it and living with it. We also participated in helping the victims of the war in Ukraine and gave young Ukrainians studying at the University of Helsinki a home over the summer at Domus Academica.

Ylva’s operations are completely intolerant of corruption. In 2022, we added a responsibility appendix signed by all our tenants before the start of their tenancy to our rental agreements. Of course, an agreement by itself is not enough to make our tenants perfect environmental actors. Nonetheless, it is an effective way of communicating our values and naturally including the issues of corruption and human rights in the conversation before the rental agreement is signed. We also continued our efforts to combat the construction sector grey economy through our Inclusive Construction Site project. The project is active on the Lyyra and Grand Hansa construction sites.

Figures that describe progress towards our sustainability goals are included in our financial statements

Our corporate responsibility work is and will continue to be focused on tangible actions. Because we want to conduct ourselves in a transparent and open manner, we disclose progress towards our corporate responsibility goals every year in our annual reporting, even though doing so is not required of companies of our size. In 2022, we made figures describing our corporate responsibility work part of our Ylva’s Board of Directors’ Report and Financial Statements for the first time. Going forward, the carbon emissions of our properties and the portion of vegetarian and vegan meals in our total sales will be verified as part of our auditing process.

The war in Ukraine has played an exceptionally large part in reshaping the field of corporate responsibility. Even more exceptional and unpredictable have been the overall effects of the war on the environment companies operate in. The war has impacted the supply of energy, ingredients and labour, and prices have risen with general inflation. In addition, starting in autumn 2022, raised Euribor rates have increased financing costs in an unprecedented way. Companies, including Ylva, have been placed in a situation in which both predicting the future and carrying on profitable business are becoming increasingly difficult. As a result, some voices in Finnish politics are opining that now is not the time to invest in sustainability or that sustainability targets need to be pushed back.

Before Finland’s historic decision to join NATO, the NATO option was a longstanding point of conversation. Throughout this time, Finland felt secure in the notion that it had the option of joining NATO in the event the country’s security situation worsened. Those advocating for pushing back climate goals present it as a similar option – one we can take whenever it’s convenient.

Naturally, we at Ylva completely disagree with this framing. When it comes to our shared planet, our options were expended long ago. Decisions and acts in defence of the climate must be made now, even if it is tempting to delay them to alleviate economic pressures. Over the course of the past year, we have adjusted and adapted, created innovative new solutions and abandoned old ones. We have not compromised when it comes to sustainability. We simply cannot afford to.

Leea Tolvas, CEO

Find out more about Ylva’s corporate responsibility actions. (in Finnish)