Antonia Ax:son Johnson, founder of Axfoundation, and Alexandra Mörner, Chairman of the Board (Photo: Peter Jönsson)
Over the last 30 years, what started with the idea of “the good company” has evolved into a “do tank” aiming to connect actors with Big Hairy Courageous Goals. Meet entrepreneurs Antonia Ax:son Johnson, founder of Axfoundation, and her daughter Alexandra Mörner, Chairman of the Board, in an in-depth conversation on Axfoundation’s raison d’être.
Let’s go back to the start: What prompted you to establish Axfoundation?
Antonia: The story begins in the 80s, when I took over the Axel Johnson family business from my father. Our business was investing largely in retail at the time, and the goods we sold went to the homes of approximately one and a half million customers every day. With such a presence in people’s everyday lives, it dawned on me that we have a different kind of responsibility for the kind of goods we sell. This is when I started to talk about “the good company” — a company that takes responsibility. Not just for its customers, suppliers and employees, but also for the community and place where it operates. Around the same time, the environment became a hot topic. However, the environment was widely considered to be something that the authorities, state, or someone else should care for — certainly not businesses.
“Forty global business leaders from large international companies stared at each other and said; What can we do for the environment? Isn’t this someone else’s responsibility? That is when I decided to get to work.” – Antonia Ax:son Johnson, Founder of Axfoundation
Before the first UN global conference on sustainable development in Rio, I was invited to meet with the international business community and formulate what they wanted to contribute. Forty global business leaders from large international companies stared at each other and said; “What can we do for the environment? Isn’t this someone else’s responsibility?” That is when I decided to get to work. When I talked about the environment with our CEOs, they looked at me like I was crazy. “Should we be responsible for what we sell? We sell what the customer wants with the goal to make as much profit as possible.” At this time, concepts such as corporate social responsibility were not widely discussed and not many people listened or understood the potential impact.
We were headed into the last decade of the 20th century and there I was, my whole mind concerned with environmental issues and how we could influence the communities where we operated in a positive way. This is when Axel Johnson’s sustainability journey began and the idea for Axfoundation was born.
Antonia Ax:son Johnson founded Axfoundation back in 1993. (Photo: Peter Jönsson)
“We have been very loyal to the thoughts and ideas from 2006. The urgency to act, our drive to change the world, and do things in a different way. That vision has only gotten bigger and stronger over the years.” – Antonia Ax:son Johnson, Founder of Axfoundation
It is 2006, by which time we understood the power of Axfoundation. An independent non-profit organization with an initial focus to shed light on sustainability challenges and conducting research into causes and potential solutions. As the Chairman, you felt the need to move in a different direction: How come?
Alexandra: There were, and still are, many exceptional foundations funding research. Around that time we became interested in finding another way of working for Axfoundation. We wanted to shift our focus to identifying practical solutions for sustainability challenges, ones which sparked our curiosity and that we knew we had the potential to solve. We wanted to work hands-on and make use of our strengths as entrepreneurs. As an example one of the first cases we decided to look into was; “How and why is organic cotton better than regular cotton?” The investigation took us along the entire value chain; from the cultivation methods of raw materials to the finished products.
We focused on findings that could shape future purchasing and production. This indepth approach is the same way we work today. We saw the benefit of working in parallel with the family business, testing and rolling out practical solutions while remaining independent to freely work across industries.
Alexandra Mörner decided in 2006 to move Axfoundation in a new direction. (Photo: Peter Jönsson)
“We need people with big hairy courageous goals to tackle the huge and complex questions involved in a sustainable transition. These people also need some place to connect. Hopefully, Axfoundation can serve as a practical “do tank” to unite actors across sectors and provide power and strength to work toward a common goal. – Alexandra Mörner, Chairman of the Board, Axfoundation
What do you think is the strength of Axfoundation as it operates today?
Antonia: We have been very loyal to the thoughts and ideas from 2006. The urgency to act, our drive to change the world, and to do things in a different way. That vision has only gotten bigger and stronger over the years. More doing, less talking. We have found that our role is between research and practice between thoughts and dreams, analysis and reality. This is why Torsåker Farm, our test and development center, is so important. Here you get to step out on a newly harvested field, perhaps one where the experimental perennial wheatgrass developed for mid- and northern European conditions is growing. We see how sweet lupins, the Nordic soy, flourish or don’t flourish. We test what works and what doesn’t both in the field and in the test kitchens. We collaborate with researchers and practitioners and experiment together.
Alexandra: Our team at Axfoundation consists of generalists and specialists, all sharing an entrepreneurial approach. Pooling our collective and diverse strengths is what makes us strong. Our drive to create positive change, to find new paths and common goals unite us. We believe in business as a force for change and in the importance of collaboration. Today, we have a powerful network of actors across all sectors and several industries. Our partners understand how we work and what we can contribute — and vice versa. It has taken a while to get to this point.
“One of my most profound concerns is how quickly biodiversity is disappearing; how many species of insects, mammals and plants are going extinct before we collectively implement concrete measures that are significant enough to halt it?” – Antonia Ax:son Johnson, Founder of Axfoundation
What will the scenario look like in 30 years time?
Alexandra: I strongly believe in the power of best-case practice and innovative pilots. To show that it can be done. I like to work methodically, something we’ve always done. Step by step, close to the ground. We know that it works and delivers results. Over the next 30 years, I would like our “do tank” and our way of working to spread. Maybe having further strengthened our network by establishing Axfoundation hubs across the world. I would also like to see greater practical collaboration between researchers and entrepreneurs, investors and businesses working side by side toward a common goal. There are already many initiatives today, but we need more, and we need them now.
With your long-term perspective, what message do you want to give future generations working on the transformation to a more sustainable world?
Antonia: I am extremely frustrated. The sustainable transition is far too slow. One of my most profound concerns is how quickly biodiversity is disappearing; how many species of insects, mammals and plants are going extinct before we collectively implement concrete measures that are significant enough to halt it? That’s why what we do and will continue to do within biodiversity is incredibly important. One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the consequences of their everyday lives and that we have to be smarter about the planet’s finite resources. Nature needs us to understand the extremely delicate balance of our planet. Many believe that what they do doesn’t matter, but it does. Change has to happen at every scale. It is so difficult to change behavior, but we have reached a point where we urgently need to change our ways of living and consuming. I believe that an organization like Axfoundation can help make an important difference.
This interview was first published in the Progress Report 2023, a summary of results and innovations from Axfoundation’s recent sustainability initiatives.