Leadership by example: What are the policies of Europe’s most sustainable countries?

Cliff notes

  • Caring about sustainability is good for business competitiveness.
  • 62% of executives consider a sustainability strategy necessary to be competitive today, and another 22% think it will be in the future.
By Sam Freedman
Mar 2019

Sustainability has been a real buzzword in global and national politics this decade.


It covers a broad range of topics, including; the education and well-being of peoples; the creation of platforms for prospering economies and infrastructure; the responsibilities of all aspects of the market (consumers and producers); and the cleaning and maintaining of the world’s environments (water, forests etc.) as well as many other things. It has been such a hot topic this decade that the UN set out their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda lists a total of 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets within these goals to encourage “bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path”. So, how have countries been reacting to this urgent need to shift and what are the policies and schemes they are beginning to implement? It is worth going through some of the most sustainable countries across different continents. This article is going to focus on Europe’s most sustainable countries, namely Switzerland, Sweden and Latvia.




The Green Economy Action Plan was adopted by the Swiss Federal Council in March 2013. With a primary view to supporting the business sector in its efforts, the measures contained in the Plan take effect where gaps still exist or where there is particularly extensive potential for conserving resources. Aiming to advance the Swiss economy, it sets out a total of 27 measures in line with 4 priority areas; consumption and production; wastes and raw materials; cross-cutting instruments; and target, monitoring, information and reporting. For purely practical purposes, this article will highlight some measures within the priority areas of consumption and production (C+P) and wastes and raw materials (W+RM).


The Plan notes that C+P patterns use large quantities of resources and cause serious environmental impacts at every stage of a product’s life cycle. To bring about change, it is not only necessary to improve information on the ecological aspects of products and company product lines, but to increase innovation as well. Likewise, the aim of focussing on W+RM is to use them more efficiently and closing material life cycles, i.e. by recovering waste from C+P processes. In addition to increasing efforts to prevent waste, there is some major room for improvement in the efficiency of waste treatment plants and production facilities.


One of the initial measures for C+P is the improvement of environmental information on product packaging. The Plan states that most consumers are not aware of the environmental impacts and resource consumption involved in their purchasing decisions. The goal is therefore to improve the ecological transparency of markets by providing relevant, scientifically-based, easy to understand information about the environmental impacts of all products, specifically ones which are bought often or have a high environmental impact. Couple this measure with another one for C+P, minimum requirements for releasing products in the market, and you can begin to see the Plan emphasises the effect of consumer knowledge.


In the Swiss Environmental Protection Act (EPA) there is a new provision that authorises the Federal Council to issue minimum environmental requirements for releasing products into the market. The overall arching theme of these 2 measures is to place reasonable pressure on commercial establishments and manufacturers to ensure sufficient information of the environmental impacts of their products is immediately available for consumers to access. The thinking behind this is likely to be that the Government does not want to legislate against business and instead allow the consumer to essentially legislate for them, presuming the consumer makes the ecological decisions.


Moving on to W+RM and it is important to remember that Switzerland is a country without significant sources of raw materials. As such, the Plan states that the growing use of secondary raw materials, i.e. materials salvages through recycling, can substantially reduce Switzerland’s dependence on imports and the environmental impacts caused by extraction and transport. So, one measure for W+RM is to increase the efficiency of waste treatment plants and production facilities. Municipal solid waste (MSW) plants have been required to expand their primary focus of incinerating waste to include recovering materials, such as by increasing the number of separate MSW collection and sorting systems.


The new regulations governing waste incineration are aimed at increasing Switzerland’s capacity for heat and electricity productions and recovering raw materials from incineration ash. One tonne of MSW contains roughly the same quantity of energy as 300 litres of heating oil and around 30kg of metals such as aluminium, iron, copper and gold. Again, couple this with another measure – the mandatory take back of consumer product packaging – and the Plan’s belief in the potential ecological and economic impact of MSW becomes clear. Within this measure it notes that periodic analyses of MSW composition reveals that packaging materials make up a large portion of the waste and, therefore, have great recycling potential. Instead of adopting an ordinance on packaging, the Plan recommends that retail businesses ought to take back their consumer product packaging as this would be a simple way to create incentives for designing packaging that uses fewer materials and reduce waste without excessive regulation.


*Environmental impacts of Swiss final consumption, by area of consumption


The Spatial Planning Act 1999 (revised as of January 2018) does not contain principles of land law which are important for spatial planning, such as those on taxation and expropriation. The Swiss Confederation, Cantons and communes are jointly responsible for ensuring economical land use. Regulation of these principles are therefore left to the Cantons unless provisions of constitutional law apply. Spatial planning in Switzerland is rather understood to mean state responsibility for the living space in a wide sense, so functional spatial planning includes, in particular, infrastructure law, agriculture law and nature and habitat law. The Act’s primary aim is economical use of the limited land area of Switzerland. The importance of this aim can be better understood if one considers that only 30% of the comparatively small area of the country, 42,000km2, is suitable for intensive human use. High mountains, forests and water bodies take up a large area of the country and this 30% of the land area has to provide adequate space for all needs such as housing, employment, transport, leisure, agriculture, nature conservation etc.



The Act has 2 main objectives: to use available space more economically and to combat the excessive spread of building zones. It understands these as effective ways to limit urban expansion and construction on arable farmland. As such, excessively large development zones have been reduced and better use is to be made of existing land reserves. There is also a focus on the protection of arable land and better spatial harmonisation of infrastructure. Soil is an essential part of environmental cycles and facilitates, in particular, the absorption of rainfall and replenishment of groundwater tables. Nevertheless, urbanisation and natural reforestation are reducing the total area of available fertile land every year. The Federal Council has responded by now supporting farmers by offering them the tools to limit permanent damage cause by their use of the land and trains specialists who advise building contractors on major development projects. The Confederation identified the countryside as one of the key factors of any development project. This includes, for example, the definition of zones where the conservation of the countryside takes priority over every other project, even those concerning energy, industry or transport.


One aim of the Act demands that the activities of the authorities which have spatial impact be orientated towards a desired spatial development. In pursuing this aim, the needs of people and the environment are considered equally. It’s not simply an instrument for promoting economic development but also one of precautionary nature conservation and environmental protection. Spatial planning also makes an important contribution to a number of other areas; housing construction policy; promoting the county’s disadvantaged regions; agricultural policy and national defence. Furthermore, another aim of the Act places emphasis upon the co-ordination of all activities with spatial impact carried out by the Federal, Cantonal and communal authorities. The ‘appropriate land use’ and ‘ordered settlement’ laid down in the Federal Constitution requires such co-ordination.






Fossil-Free Sweden is one of Sweden’s primary sustainable schemes. It was started as an initiative by the Government before the climate summit in Paris 2015 with the goal that Sweden will become one of the world’s first fossil-free welfare countries. It is open to all actors who support the declaration drawn up for the initiative. The declaration stipulates that actors participating in the initiative share the view that the world must become fossil free and that actors who participate must be able to present concrete measures to reduce emissions. Today, the initiative brings together more than 350 actors who are open to anyone who makes the declaration. The Swedish Riksdag (the supreme decision-making body of Sweden) has decided that the target for Swedish emissions of greenhouse gases from activities outside the emissions trading system must be reduced by 40% by 2020, compared with 1990. In 2013, the use of renewable energy amounted to 52%, while the target was to achieve 50% of the total energy use by 2020.


In line with the scheme, several industries are pledging to completely eliminate or significantly reduce their use of fossil fuels. The mining and minerals industry are carrying out an electrification and automation program that, together with a transition to biofuels, will make mining operations fossil free by 2035. The food retail sectors goal is for all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2022 and all plastic to be produced from renewable or recycled raw materials by 2030. The road haulage industry reduced its emissions between 2010 and 2016 by 25%. They aim to further this by switching fuel and they see potential for further reductions in route optimisation planning and digitalisation of the industry. One last industry that’s worth highlighting, although there are many other industries that have made pledges, is the construction industry. They aim to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2030, 75% by 2040 and to have net zero emissions by 2045. The total fossil fuel usage of Sweden’s industries can be seen as a percentage below.



Administering the UN 2030 Agenda is approached by the Swedish Government in an intricate and well thought out manner. Sweden’s recent environmental and sustainable policies have been very much centred around the goals and targets set out by the UN in their ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. A unique aspect of the Swedish approach to sustainability is that they consider a prerequisite for an adequate and coherent implementation of sustainability is for it to take place at all levels of public administration, based on both a horizontal and vertical perspective.


The Minister for Public Administration is responsible for coordinating and promoting the implementation of the Agenda nationally in Sweden. The Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate leads the work with Sweden’s contributions to international implementation through the Policy for Global Development (PGD) and Swedish development cooperation. The PGD is a central tool for contributing to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. All ministries have produced action plans in accordance with the Government’s communication of PGD in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  Immediately under the ministers there is a smaller consultation group for the 2030 Agenda with state secretaries from the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Environment and Energy and the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation. Furthermore, the Government offices has an inter-ministerial working group for the 2030 Agenda, in which all ministries participate. An All-Party Committee on Environmental Objectives advises the Government on strategies, policy instruments and measures to achieve the objectives. It consists of MPs supported by experts, representatives of stakeholder organisations. The aim is to secure broad political consensus on issues requiring long-term policy deliberations. The Committee engages in a broad public dialogue with researchers and stakeholders in the environmental field.


A large part of their plan is to introduce extensive dialogue and research within both academic and professional settings. As such, in July 2015, the Government decided to establish the Scientific Council for Sustainable Development. The Council includes a panel of prominent researchers representing different multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches. The Council’s tasks are to be an arena for dialogue between the Government and the scientific community and to help provide sustainable development policy with as solid a scientific basis as possible. In March 2016, the Government appointed a national delegation with a commission to support and stimulate the work with Sweden’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda, both national and internationally.





Latvia 2030, the Sustainable Development Strategy of Latvia was adopted by Saeima (the Latvian Parliament) in 2010. It’s the main long-term policy planning instrument of Latvia – every other strategic planning and developing document in Latvia has been and will be elaborated in accordance with the priorities and action directions of Latvia 2030. The strategy outlines the sustainable development objectives of Latvia for 20 years (now 10) and recommends solutions for efficient and sustainable use of culture, nature, economic and social capital as well as human capital. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on its priority of ‘an innovative and eco-efficient economy’.


As far as innovation is concerned, The Latvian Investment and Development Agency has recently added an innovation and technology development modality that promotes start-ups, business development, innovation and technology transfer, as well as cooperation between research and business. It is building Latvia’s start-up ecosystem with a wide range of support services. The state-owned development finance institution ALTUM supports business development and the Government provides tax incentives for modernisation of companies to attract capital investment. Furthermore, Latvia has established and continues to expand its start-up support programme. It understands start-ups as an important link in the innovation system, contributing to the paradigm change to the modern economy as they promote investment, contribute to the evolution of new business models, nurture talent and strengthen the venture capital industry. In 2018, Latvia opened a start-up representation office in Silicon Valley.


Moving on to eco-efficiency and climate change adaptation has been integrated into sectoral policies. The Latvian Government are working on a national climate adaptation strategy and a low carbon development strategy, as well as the development of alternative fuels and more efficient energy policy. The share of energy from renewable sources in Latvia is increasing (37.2% in 2016). Latvia intends to achieve its national target of 40% of renewable energy in gross consumption and a 10% threshold of renewable energy in the transport sector by 2020. The Industrial Support Programme includes a series of measures to promote energy efficiency and reduce energy costs. For example, from 2018, the financing model for the Mandatory Procurement Component, a support mechanism set by the state for electricity producers generating electricity at cogeneration plants or from renewable energy sources, has been modified to ensure competitive electricity prices for Latvian manufacturers in the European region. Finally, Green Public Procurement in Latvia is currently contributing to a gradual transition to sustainable consumption and production.



The National Development Plan of Latvia for 2014 – 2020 (NDP) – is hierarchically the highest national-level medium-term planning document. NDP sets the most important medium-term objectives, priorities and performance indicators, areas of action, outcomes and responsible institutions. The NDP lists three priorities; growth of the national economy; human securitability; and growth for regions. Again, for practical purposes, this article will focus on human securitability and the strategic objectives laid out within it. There’s a total of 5 strategic objectives that human securitability is concerned with, however, this article will focus on 2 of these, namely: decent work and development of competencies.


For the strategic objective of decent work, the NDP initially notes that in countries with greater income equality there is less social tension, the trust levels in others is higher, the physical and mental health of the population is better, educational achievement is higher and there is higher mobility and less crime. As such, the NDP outlines 2 primary goals for this objective. First, to implement measures to raise the standard of employed persons by reducing the proportion of employees exposed to the risk of poverty in the 18 – 64 age group from 9.5% in 2010 to 5% in 2020. Second, to increase employment in the 20 – 64 age group from 67% in 2011 to 73% in 2020. There are a number of individual measures listed to be carried out within this objective and its goals.


One of the most prominent ones is the promotion of youth employment, including; a careers education system; integration of young people into the labour market following the completion of vocational or higher education; support measures for unemployed youth to obtain work experience; and improvement of the infrastructure and facilities of vocational institutions. Another measure is the promotion of competitiveness and access to the labour market for residents’ subject to the risk of social exclusion and unemployed persons by providing access to current motivational, skill improvement, competency building, educational and social support services.


As for the strategic objective of development of competencies, the NDP observes that, for a person to be able to obtain and maintain decent employment, to take care of themselves and their family and to contribute to the development of the country, various competencies are required. These include language skills, knowledge and command of information and communication technologies, entrepreneurial ability, critical thinking, to assess risks and plan finances and identify solutions to such risks. As such, the NDP outlines 3 primary goals for this objective. First, to provide all children and young people with high quality and competitive elementary and secondary education and with access to activities outside the formal education system.


Second, to create an adaptive and competitive system of vocational education based on international trends and labour market projections. Third, to develop adult education promoting an increase in labour productivity in accordance with the needs of the labour market. Again, there are a number of individual measures listed to be carried out within this objective and its goals. One of these is the creation of opportunities for talents to be discovered and developed, including support for youth science and technology centres, academic summer camps for pupils, provision of science workshops and competitions and research projects. Another measure is the improvements of the competencies of the teachers and work experience advisers involved in vocational education in accordance with trends of the labour market and capacity building of vocational education institutions with respect to adult education.


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