Frequently Asked Questions

What is VIVA Trust and what is its connection to Grupo Nueva, FUNDES, and Fundación Avina?

VIVA Trust is an irrevocable trust created by Stephan Schmidheiny in 2003 and established by bequeathing all of Grupo Nueva’s shares. Schmidheiny’s total donation to VIVA Trust was approximately one billion dollars. His goal was to ensure the long-term sustainability and continuity of his philanthropic ventures in Latin America.

VIVA Trust is managed by an advisory committee specifically designated and comprised of social and business professionals from around the world. It supervises and guides the business and philanthropic ventures of the Latin American group. VIVA Trust finances the growth of the production group, as well as the operations of Fundación Avina and FUNDES with the profits and dividends from Grupo Nueva. Instead of being connected by one founder and shareholder, the Fundación Avina, FUNDES and Grupo Nueva are linked by an innovative organization that combines productive and philanthropic ventures into one strategy.

As of 2003, VIVA Trust has worked towards Latin America’s prosperity and sustainability. It is a new model for business and philanthropy, an innovative proposal which hopes to encourage the region’s development with the alliance between financially, socially and environmentally successful companies, and philanthropic organizations that promote leadership and innovation for sustainability and the inclusion of more competitive and sustainable small businesses.

Click here to watch a video about VIVA Trust.

Has Stephan Schmidheiny proven his solidarity with the asbestos victims?

As of 2001, when he retired from the business world, Stephan Schmidheiny charged the Becon AG company with monitoring the asbestos issues. As far as anyone knows, it is the only organization that is looking after the asbestos victims in Italy. In 2007, Becon AG began an initiative for the former employees of Eternit SpA Italy, motivated by humanitarian reasons. It compensated workers or their families if they became ill due to asbestos exposure at the Eternit Italy factories during the “Swiss period” between 1973 and 1986. In 2009, the initiative was extended to compensate the residents of the surrounding areas who were affected. More than 1,500 people in Italy accepted the humanitarian offer. The amount of compensation given was calculated according to the international standards for compensation for damages, among others, that are being used by SUVA (Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund).

As of 2014, Becon AG has contributed six million Swiss francs—close to seven million dollars—for the in situ support of the applied research associated with mesothelioma. The total amount paid until 2014 is approximately 50 million Swiss francs (56 million dollars). The city of Casale Monferrato was also offered twenty million francs (almost 25 million dollars) – originally accepted by the local authorities and then rejected during the trial.

The offer made by Becon AG does not imply that the Swiss Eternit Group or its management are assuming responsibility or admitting guilt regarding the illnesses caused by asbestos; it is out of a sense of solidarity with the asbestos victims and Stephan Schmidheiny’s philanthropic ideals. Becon AG’s offer is still valid.

When did Stephan Schmidheiny completely retire from the asbestos industry?

He retired in 1989, after having invested millions of dollars in programs for the safe handling of asbestos and in research to find a substitute material. This led to the loss of viability of several of Eternit’s plants, which were shut down due to his decision to eliminate asbestos. He decided to sell all his shares in Eternit and completely and definitively retire from the asbestos industry.

Did the Swiss Eternit Group comply with the safety laws for workers?

Contrary to what has been stated, in the ten years that the Swiss Eternit Group was the sole majority shareholder in the Eternit SpA Italy, it did not fail to comply with the safety laws, nor did it intentionally or in any other way cause a disaster to the environment or the health of its collaborators.

On the contrary, it made several investments in order to eliminate the exposure to asbestos dust. Consequently, the health risks that Eternit Italy’s workers were exposed to were much lower compared to those of its competitors’ and even compared to its own company in the almost 70 years of operation preceding Swiss Eternit Group’s takeover of Eternit SpA Italy. As a result, human lives were saved.

The Swiss Eternit Group did everything out of its own initiative; it was not until 1991 when the Italian authorities approved laws regarding the handling of asbestos.

What investment did Stephan Schmidheiny make to eliminate the use of asbestos?

Due to Stephan Schmidheiny’s conviction to eliminate the use of asbestos, beginning in 1976 several projects were started to improve safety and make products with alternatives to asbestos. An equivalent of 70 million Swiss francs was invested—almost 80 million dollars—from increased capital contributions and loans from shareholders. SEG never received profits from the investments made in Italy.

As a result of the investments, exposure to the dust that caused asbestos-related diseases was drastically reduced at the Italian plants. The enormous investment and new work methods led to Eternit SpA’s lack of market competitiveness, and was subjected to controlled management and went bankrupt in 1986.

What was Stephan Schmidheiny’s contribution to the elimination of the use of asbestos?

Stephan Schmidheiny, pioneer and leader in the elimination of the use of asbestos, was one of the first industrialists in the world to realize the health risks resulting from asbestos processing. In 1976, soon after becoming director of the Swiss Eternit Group, he established a program to develop asbestos-free products. That same year he met with managers and boards requesting that they face the challenge of implementing better safety measures when handling asbestos, a policy that developed from the implementation of the “New Technology” program.

At that time, the industry applied a safety standard for processing called “safe use.” In most industrialized countries, the laws at that time determined acceptable levels of asbestos concentration in the environment (maximum concentration in the work place). “Safe use” was also supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the European Union.

In 1981, before any State laws or policies, Stephan Schmidheiny announced his decision that Eternit would stop manufacturing with asbestos, and in 1984, a significant amount of Eternit’s production replaced it a paper-pulp based material. Stephan Schmidheiny was ahead of the competition and most government laws.

It has been proven that exposure to asbestos and the number of illnesses dramatically decreased during that time, compared to previous years. Unfortunately, despite the progress made by research confirming that asbestos poses health risks, it is still being processed in two-thirds of the world’s countries. Switzerland banned the processing of asbestos in 1990; Italy in 1992.

How long was the Swiss Eternit Group the majority shareholder of Eternit SpA italy?

Eternit SpA Italy began production in 1906 and for many years operated without the Swiss Eternit Group. The company’s so called “Swiss period” began in 1973, when the Swiss Eternit Group went from minority to majority shareholder. Schmidheiny took over the leadership of Eternit three years later.

What arguments support Stephan Schmidheiny’s innocence in the trial being held in turin?

a) The prosecution based its charges on the fact that Stephan Schmidheiny was the “employer de facto” of the Italian company Eternit SpA, a public company with multiple shareholders. The fact is that Stephan Schmidheiny did not serve in an active role, neither as manager nor on the company’s Administrative Council.

b) By proceeding the way they did, the Turin judges condemned an individual shareholder of a company that had several local shareholders and executives, in a case that has been considered unique in criminal law worldwide.

c) The Turin judges condemned the shareholder based on a regulation that did not exist in 1986, when the company shut down. The regulation was enacted in 1992, but the courts applied it retroactively to Schmidheiny, who, once he suspected asbestos could pose a health risk for the workers, became a pioneer in its elimination as a raw material in his company’s manufacturing processes.

d) In 1976, Stephan Schmidheiny was 29 and assumed leadership of the Swiss Eternit Group. Under his management, the Italian company Eternit SpA made several investments in order to increase safety at the work stations, thereby protecting the workers’ health. These actions have been documented in detail by the defense and were not refuted at the trial.

e) During the Turin trial against Stephan Schmidheiny, due process was violated and access to a fair trial, as a fundamental right, was hindered. The results of the evidence presented were inexplicably ignored and the case was argued based on “presumed guilty.”

f) The defense had no access to the medical reports on which the charges were based, nor was not allowed to present studies that corresponded to the time between 1973 and 1986.

g) All the efforts made to preserve the environment between 1973 and 1986 were not taken into consideration during the trial, a clear denial of justice.

h) The bias against Schmidheiny with which the trial progressed was also noted in the fact that Eternit was the only company in Casale Monferrato being accused, even though there were another six companies that manufactured with asbestos.

i) Italy is the only country that expects to resolve the effects of asbestos via a continuous legal process against one individual. In most of the industrialized countries where asbestos has been banned, governments and industry have found ways to mitigate the social tragedy, those affected have been fairly compensated through joint programs, and asbestos has been safely eliminated.

j) From the beginning of the trial, objectivity and justice were put in doubt when the president of the Court of Appeals in Turin gave an exaggerated and partial example by putting Stephan Schmidheiny on the same level with Hitler, when he compared the Nazi extermination of Jews to the measures taken by Schmidheiny to protect his workers.

The trial and sentence in Turin were geared at the wrong person. Nobody was more cautious than Stephan Schmidheiny when it came to addressing the health risks related to processing asbestos. His decisiveness saved many lives. If the situation in and around Eternit’s old factories, with the numerous and unfortunate victims, is the historical legacy of the Italian industry in the production of cement with asbestos, it is impossible to solve that social tragedy with a criminal trial against one individual. Based on his own convictions and without admitting guilt, Stephan Schmidheiny has been helping the victims of the catastrophe for years. More than 1,500 people have accepted his proposed assistance. It is possible to expect that the Supreme Court of Rome, the highest court in Italy, will recognize Stephan Schmidheiny’s contribution as an industrial pioneer and philanthropist and absolve him of any charge or offense.