A letter from the Netherlands: The Pandemic Year well spent

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One of the reasons for doing many different events around the world is that doing so brings you in touch with extraordinary people. One we were lucky to encounter is Nic Jooste, a South African long living in the Netherlands and long established in the Dutch produce industry. In time, Nic became a font of information and inspiration, helping us engage with the global produce trade. He has written many pieces and given many presentations. As we move into 2021, Nic shared with us a quick recollection of a pandemic year — still well spent.

nic_joosteNic Jooste
NJ Immersed
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

January 2020.
I start off January 2020 a really happy person. In my spare time, I have just written and published an article called ‘Keep it simple, for goodness sake’. It is all about putting sustainability in everybody’s reach.

I am reading Rutger Bregman’s great book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’. The idea that ‘it is realistic, as well as revolutionary, to assume that people are good. The instinct is to cooperate rather than compete, trust rather than distrust. This makes me even happier.

I begin to focus on the fact that I have dedicated the past 20 years to sustainability. There must be good that comes from this. How do I make it happen? 

February 2020.
Early in February, COVID-19 hits us. The then obscure virus intrudes aggressively in the freedom that the Dutch hold so dear. People start dying, and we go into a lockdown. The days blur by.

March 2020.
In South Africa, a total lockdown is enforced. A large part of the population in the country of my birth lives on daily wages. No work means no pay and no food. I receive frantic calls from friends about lots of people going hungry. 

I come across a quote by the late Jules Deelder, a Dutch poet and musician: ‘De omgeving van de mens is de medemens’, meaning ‘The environment of mankind is the fellow man’. 

Africa is in my blood; I cannot ignore that fact. Partly therapeutic to give myself something to do, together with my wife, we start a food relief scheme in South Africa. The Balls-n-Books Foundation that my friend Jan Greeve and I set up in 2016 commits all its resources to this project. Instead of giving money, we make a deal with a fresh produce distributor to buy vegetables at rock bottom prices. We engage our wonderful coaches of the Stars in their Eyes to start cooking and forming soup and food kitchens. Friends donate money. Businesses make contributions.

Within 4 weeks we have 20 feeders who are actively cooking and caring for the poor. People like Ricardo Phillips, Ricardo Kermis, Sharon Lombard, Theo Craven, Steven Jooste, Anri Jooste and Avril Adams become what I call ‘food angels’. Unknowingly, we are creating supply chain collusion in the purest sense. People and companies are caring selflessly for people they do not even know. 

Being of value becomes my driving force. Soon we are feeding more than 10,000 people twice a week. My sense of purpose in helping others makes me strong again.

April 2020.
COVID-19 shows no signs of letting go. To create some head space, my wife and I withdraw into nature, cycling 680 km from the southernmost point of The Netherlands to the northernmost. Nature brings peace to our turmoil. We become much more thankful for what we have, instead of worrying about what we do not have. Our relationship changes. We come across a sign that says ‘Bij ware vriendschap is stilte niet pijnlijk’. Translated: ‘Silence is never painful when you are with a true friend’. I value the silence as we cycle through nature. I understand that my wife is also my truest friend, and that the challenges of this past year made our friendship so much stronger. During this amazing cycling trip, I become quieter as a person, and much more aware of my resilience, both mentally and physically.

May 2020.
I establish NJ Immersed, a consultancy for strategic sustainability. I hope to attract clients whom I could inspire to go with me on a journey of discovery into the wonderful world of sustainability. I decide forcefully that I will only accept assignments on the following conditions. (a) I must actually like the client; (b) Regardless of the type of assignment that I am hired for, the client must take a firm standpoint in favour of sustainability; (c) I must be convinced that I can add value. 

Very soon, I am tasked with developing a website for a solar energy company. I immerse myself in the world of sustainable energy and, together with creative genius Igor Moulder, we create the website www.jaguarnewenergies.com. My first project is born. 

In the same month, I publish an international article on the most sustainable supermarket in The Netherlands — Plus Retail. This opens my eyes to what can be achieved by a business that operates with the clear purpose of integrating sustainability into every facet of its activities. I become even more excited about advising companies on the benefits that sustainability brings. I am energised to make a real difference in the world.

On 11 May, I am abruptly reminded of how fragile life is. Five young surfers from an adjacent village drown in a freak accident. My son is also a surfer, and the realization hits me hard: life is never to be taken for granted. The Netherlands mourns. 

Then George Floyd dies. The world burns. I look at the energy that my sons display at being passionate advocates against racism and senseless violence. I feel proud but realise that it is not just their battle. If I want my sons to respect me, I have to be serious in my standpoint against racism, gender bias and violence.

June 2020.
My 23-year-old son writes me a letter. ‘As a Generation Z citizen, I believe that we are sure to see a mass revolution of the mind very soon. This letter is not about foreign politics; it is aimed to give you a look into my mind. The power of Generation Z is that one day we will be your only clientele. We will be the ones who will need to be marketed to. We will have to be provided with reasons why we should buy your products. I urge you to listen to the younger generations; we are on the frontlines of the social and environmental revolutions.’ I understand that I really have to listen to the new generations in order to understand where businesses should focus in order to build a sustainable profile.

July 2020.
I am honoured when the iconic South African sportswoman Desiree Ellis asks me to become a Director of the Desiree Ellis Foundation. The wheel has come full circle as I join my long-time friends Desiree and South African lawyer Elton Hart in this nonprofit organisation. Desiree’s profile as a community leader is amazing. 

Desiree Ellis is the current coach of Banyana Banyana, the South Africa women's national football team of which she was a founding member, and captained for a record 10 years in the period 1993-2002. Desiree was appointed head coach of Banyana Banyana in February 2018. In the same year she coached her team (then ranked 50th in the world), to a second place finish in the Africa Women Cup of Nations. In 2019 she led Banyana Banyana to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in history. Desiree received the Confederation of African Football Women's Coach of the Year Award in 2018 and 2019, and also received the Presidential Silver Sports Award in 2000. She was a FIFA Ambassador during the 2010 World Cup and is still an ambassador of the prestigious Laureus Foundation. In December 2020 Desiree received the Sports Lifetime Community Award at the Hollard Sport Industry Awards. She is also a football analyst on television.

On 8 July, my wife and I get on our bicycles again, and in the hottest June ever recorded we cycle 375 kilometers in Friesland, the province that is famous for the ‘Elfstedentocht’ (the ‘Eleven Cities Skating Marathon’). The last one was held in 1996. It feels as if the Netherlands has become a tropical paradise. I become much more aware of environmental sustainability, and start immersing myself in this topic. The book ‘Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto’ by Adam Werbach becomes my bedtime companion.

August 2020.
Igor and I create websites for Oxodias, a company that manages the affairs of highly skilled labour migrants, and for Raad International, a financial and taxation advisory services company. I have great fun with people who run a very serious business with laughter AND integrity. ww.oxodias.com and www.raadinternational.nl go live. 

The wheel of goodwill keeps turning. My physician (Dr Joost van Der Sijp) is also fully into sustainability and asks me to create a website for his company, active in circular medical instruments. We are really proud when we launch www.greencycl.org

My ex-colleagues Arie Havelaar and Sander Kleinjan task Immersed with creating a corporate logo, a website and new packaging for their garlic and ginger. Sawari becomes a pride of joy for Immersed! 

I base my next article on the quote that ‘Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because you aren’t affected personally.’ Having just experienced the effects of global warming in my own country, I am very aware of the fragility of nature. Shortly after publishing this article, five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history start, burning more than 2 million acres, and killing 22 people. Yet, at a political level, there is still denial that climate change is creating havoc with our nature.

I write an environmental policy for one of my clients. I realise that such a statement is not only the first, but probably also the most crucial step for a business to take in terms of environmental sustainability. The title of the policy? RESPECT AND PROTECT.

September 2020.
USA Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies. While many people would not immediately link her to sustainability, for me she sits way up there with the icons. She changed the playing field with her passionate advocacy of women's rights, civil liberties and the rule of law. She never budged: her purpose in life was solid as a rock. 

During September, my sons and I discuss a complex issue that seems to be the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ in the business world: discrimination against people who are regarded as ‘being different’. My son shouts: ‘How can a business owner tolerate ANY form of discrimination in the workplace??’ I write a policy on creating a safe workplace in which employees can thrive, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or religion. I call it LOOKING IN THE MIRROR.

October 2020.
I listen to a great song by John Miles. ‘Music was my first love/And it'll be my last.’ Then the news breaks that Dutch-born rock legend Eddie Van Halen, 65, has died following a decades-long battle with cancer. I stand still in thankfulness that 8 years ago, I survived the dreaded disease. I remember how friends from all over the world supported me when I decided to walk 1 kilometer for every chemotherapy tablet that I had to swallow. Seven months later I had swallowed 784 pills, and walked 784 kilometers. During this time I was carried on the shoulders of 74 friends all over the world, who collectively walked, cycled or swam more than 57,000 kilometers to support me. Show me your friends, and I will show you your strength.

November 2020.
A wonderful thing happens. I am tasked to ‘sustainalize’ a group of companies. I start with the focus on turning their corporate headquarters into an energy-neutral facility, radically reducing the use of paper, and minimizing waste. This project will run for six months and include a communal herb garden, as well address all aspects of employee wellness.

On a personal level, my youngest son decides that we should no longer buy pre-packed milk for our household. He buys glass bottles and fetches fresh milk from an organic farm. He removes this product’s packaging waste from our household. He says that if all consumers in the Western world would do the same thing for just one item, we could indeed save the world.

I decide to start studying at Harvard Business School. In the ‘Sustainable Business Strategy’ course, I have to answer difficult questions. ‘Can the actions of one company make a difference? Is ‘purpose’ all just mushy talk? Does it matter if a company is purpose-driven? Is purpose an advantage or a liability?’ I lie awake at night thinking about the countless opportunities we all have to be powerful catalysts for sustainability.

December 2020.
We start experiencing the first sub-zero temperatures in The Netherlands. When I read an interview with the British social geographer Alastair Bonnett of Newcastle University, I am reminded that 2020 has been the hottest year ever since The Netherlands started recording daily temperatures. Bonnett says: ‘The ice slates of Greenland and Antarctica contain enough water to raise sea levels by about 65 meters. The caps have not been melting so far, but the finding in 2019 that the Greenland ice sheet is melting four times faster than previously thought is extremely worrying, even threatening. It is not that we have not been warned’. I rest my case for environmental sustainability. 

On 10 December, I am extremely happy to secure a sponsorship for the Desiree Ellis Foundation. Kees Rijnhout, CEO of Dutch fresh produce specialist Jaguar The Fresh Company, commits to funding and supporting Desiree in her mission to empower rural women in South Africa in issues relating to gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, leadership and community development. It is a bold move by Kees, a fresh produce visionary. On 16 November, we kick off this partnership by hosting a Christmas meal for 500 underprivileged children. Caring means sharing....

Our last project for the year is concluded when www.raadbarendrecht.nl goes live on 17 December. 

LOOKING BACK
The year 2020 blessed me with a powerful purpose: to carry the flag for social and environmental sustainability. I started off the year with panic and depression. I am ending powerfully, taking Winston Churchill’s words with me into 2021: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

Wishing you the best in 2021!

Nic Jooste, The Netherlands

PS: I wish that I could publish a list of all the people who played such an amazing, positive role in my life during the past year. Thank you all! You know who you are. 


We would like to hope that we too would be on Nic’s list of those who played a positive role in his life. He certainly did in ours.

There are many interesting things in a list such as this. Some of it is how difficult it is to know what the right thing to do is.  Every parent cannot but admire the earnestness of Nic’s son, buying organic milk fresh from a farm to reducing packaging and help save the world. So many questions arise: How does avoiding milk cartons actually impact the world? Are fewer trees planted because there is less profitable business to be had growing trees? Could his son’s time be used more productively elsewhere?  Would that time better save the world? Does Nic’s son drive out of his way to the farm or is it on his way to and from work? If so, what is the carbon footprint of such a trip?  We will enjoy thinking he is bicycling and using the time to get some exercise as well!

So many issues are challenging and interesting. ‘How can a business owner tolerate ANY form of discrimination in the workplace??’ It seems like a no-brainer to be opposed to discrimination. But what does that actually mean? If one is starting a business and chooses a partner, is it wrong to select someone one feels comfortable and compatible with? What if one is hiring a CEO? Isn’t compatibility and shared values with the owners a reasonable criteria?  What if one’s customers will feel more comfortable with a certain type of person and so will patronize one’s establishment if you hire that type of person? Is that discrimination or shrewd business or both?  

As an American, the mention of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminds us of our global impact and responsibility. They have surely had great jurists in the Netherlands, and the Netherlands is an important country, yet we doubt that 99.99% of the US population could name even one Dutch, or even European, jurist.

So when we have situations such as the attempt to occupy the US Capitol Building, it is not just the end result that matters – there was no take-over of the government, and Joe Biden was confirmed. But all over the world, world leaders see and they judge, and they fear and they support. Some will misunderstand and, at the highest levels of government, they may make a mistake. Foreign governments could assume we are too divided to defend ourselves or our interests.  Say China, for example,  could assume we are distracted  and be unable to respond if it invades Taiwan. It can be very dangerous.

In a difficult year, Nic’s month-by-month diary presents the story of a year well-lived. We pray that living well will be something each of us gets to do in the year ahead.

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