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I met Stephan Schmidheiny in 1990, nearly a quarter of a century ago. That was two years before the Italian government outlawed asbestos, but 14 years after he began his efforts to his programme to develop asbestos-free products in the factories he held shares in, 9 years after he announced his exit from asbestos processing, and six years after the point where the majority of products were asbestos free. I knew him then, as now, as a pioneer – way ahead of almost anyone else, including the Italian authorities – in alerting the world to the horrific dangers that were being discovered in use of asbestos.
His painful experience with discovering the ghastly downsides of the products of the family business he inherited had made him wary of many other industrial chemicals and processes. That was why he founded the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. That was one of the main reasons why he set up a philanthropic foundation that has poured more money into sustainable development in Latin America than most governments combined.
I saw him at work on all this, from 1990 on. I came to see how genuine he was, and is. Right through the 1990s, I witnessed him fight to change the mentality of the industrial world: to persuade corporations to copy the withdrawal from deadly pollutants that he had long since achieved in the case of asbestos. I watched as he funded project after project to improve and save peoples’ lives. He was, for example, the first high net-worth funder of a charity of my creation, SolarAid. That charity is now changing millions of lives in Africa for the better, replacing another dire product, kerosene, with clean solar lights. This is just a tiny example of what he has done. I am just one of the many campaigning business people that he has inspired as well as funded.
None of this is to take anything away from the hellish tragedy that has been the asbestos cases, and the nightmare of the poor families bringing suit in Italy.
But I ask you, does the Stephan Schmidheiny I know and describe sound like someone who has wilfully committed murder on a mass scale, as the presiding judge said even before the court case started and the first evidence had been presented?
No. The reverse. He more than anyone worked to warn the world about the dangers of asbestos, and back his own commercial interests out of it.
Jeremy Leggett is a British green-energy entrepreneur, author and activist who is founder and chairman of Solarcentury, the UK’s largest independent solar electric company, founder and chairman of the charity SolarAid and Chairman of the Carbon Tracker Initiative.
The program for the development of asbestos-free products was, without a doubt, a true professional and intelectual challenge, but we did it!
The measures for protecting the health and safety of the workers were implemented and followed to the last detail; I feel very satisfied to have worked for this Group for 26 years.
During my time as a board member of non-governmental organizations and as General Manager of companies in the private sector, as well as regional and global business associations, I met a leader renowned for his unconditional and sincere commitment to the wellbeing of people and the sustainability of the planet: Stephan Schmidheiny.
For him, our actions and impact on the planet and its peoples must be positive, and we must give transparent account of them. The improvement in people’s quality of life and the sustainability of the planet are non-negotiable principles.
Stephan was always clear on the fact that business activity has a higher purpose: to be a positive agent for change for social and environmental transformation. And he implemented these principles in the organizations he founded, such as, among others, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Fundación Avina, and in all his enterprises. He always showed consistency between what he believed and what he did.
I am grateful to Stephan for leading by example and for inspiring so many leaders throughout the world.
Julio Moura, Ex-CEO of GrupoNueva
I am Gerardo Ourracariet, ex-General Manager of Amanco Argentina (until 2007) y ally of Avina (since 1997 and with whom I still maintain contact). I hope you remember me.
Every now and then I meet with Carlos March and Pedro Tarak, and old, pleasant memories always tend to come up.
This mail is to congratulate you on the new site and to offer you encouragement with regard to the trial. I, who worked at your companies, based on my own personal day-to-day experiences, can personally attest to the fact that your actions have always taken people into consideration, even at the expense of business opportunities.
I send you a hug,
Of the many things Stephan did in Paraguay, aside from Fundación Avina, I will never forget when he came to visit me in the town of Asunción. I mentioned to him, concerning his “Eco-efficiency” book, that the Mburicaó river was being contaminated by the meat processing plants that dump blood into it.
I remembered how Ubaldo Scavone always said that blood could be turned into hemoglobin and exported. So that morning we went to the river with Stephan and Raul Gauto and we saw the environmental disaster and the idea to establish the Lican factory was born.
Later, Raul attracted Chilean technology and capital and founded Lican S.A. and today the Bertoni foundation collects 13 million liters of blood per year and makes about USD$300,000 a year that pays for the Mbaracayú reserve. As a result of Stephan’s generosity and vision, today an environmental project pays for another environmental project. Very few can refute this.
Martin Burt, Executive Director, Fundación Paraguaya; & Executive Director, Teach a Man to Fish
It is very helpful to have this truth. Thank you! And adding to what Martin said, from the moment they started that fantastic idea to this date, about 90 million liters of blood have been processed, which is the equivalent of 198,000,000,000 liters of water that have not been contaminated—according to research at the time, one liter of blood could contaminate 2,200 liters of water. A lot of that contamination would have ended up in our well-known Ypacarai Lake. We are talking about an extraordinary impact!
Yan Speranza, Chairman of Fundación Moisés Bertoni
I believe it is crucial that people who criticize or judge him should at least take the time to be informed and form a serious opinion about a person who has had an impeccable career as a philanthropist and businessman committed to Latin America’s development, and has contributed a significant amount of resources, projects and endeavors that have been very important for the continent. It is not fair nor right to flippantly judge or criticize and with such misinformation.
We have received enormous and permanent support at Fundación Acción Joven (the Young Action Foundation) and Horizonte Positivo (Positive Horizon), as well as for various other social development projects I have been personally involved with, through Familia VIVA [sic] (the VIVA family) and the Centro de Intercambio de Conocimientos (Knowledge Exchange Center) and thanks to Mr. Roberto Artavia Loria, many initiative and ideas have also been carried out and grown, and these have originated from the contributions and institutions that Mr. Stephan founded.
To sum up, I believe it is important that we be informed before making judgments. This person deserves that at least the relevant details of the case and of his career be known.
José Aguilar Berrocal, Fundación Acción Joven
Stephan Schmidheiny is a needed man. His commitment to Latin America has been both pioneering as well as transforming. Who can forget his quote, “There will be no successful companies in failed societies?” How can we forget it? I met him in person in 2000 when he received an award from Yale University, where I was able to study thanks to his support. He changed my life. He was always willing to support Latin Americans who were working in social and sustainability areas. I trust that the unmerited attacks he has been a victim of will not belittle his legacy in the medium or long term. For now I am happy that this site has been created.
Mónica Araya, Founder and Director of Costa Rica Limpia
Due Respect and Deserved Recognition
In what has been described as a show trial rife with procedural irregularities, a lower court in Turin, Italy, sentenced Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny in February for “intentional omission of safety and health measures in Italian factories”, related to the production of asbestos there several years ago. Although we are confident that higher courts will overturn this decision, we want to make clear our moral support for Stephan Schmidheiny and to express our appreciation for his many contributions to Latin America and to the global sustainability movement.
We know Stephan Schmidheiny as an ethical and visionary business leader who in the 1970s risked his family fortune to responsibly exit the holdings he inherited in the asbestos industry, an effort he completed in 1986, well before there was consensus on the material’s adverse effects or any ban on its production in Italy or anywhere else.
His responsible and forward-looking actions as a businessman gained him the recognition of his peers, and he was invited to be the Commissioner of the industrial sector by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Co-Chair of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (known as the “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The essence of his message was that business leaders should do their part in “changing course” toward more sustainable and equitable development.
Author in the 80’s of seminal articles and books related to eco-efficiency and sustainable development, Dr. Schmidheiny decided to lead by example, becoming the founder and first president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and shortly thereafter the creator of Fundación Avina, a unique philanthropic model in Latin America that has benefitted thousands of social and environmental organizations in the region thanks to his vision, support and partnership.
Committed to sustainability in Latin America, in 2003 he went on to create Viva Trust, an organization with a social and environmental mission to which he donated all his productive assets in the region –including his shares in the companies Amanco, Plycem and Masisa. The financial returns achieved from Viva’s assets and for-profit investments provide a permanent source of funds for sustainable development in Latin America, most notably through support for Fundación Avina and other innovative actions to improve conditions in Latin America.
In addition to his work with WBCSD, Fundación Avina and Viva Trust, Dr. Schmidheiny has been an important source of resources and strategic support to a list of other global organizations such as Ashoka, Endeavor, the World Resources Institute, INCAE Business School and its Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development, FUNDES and the Alliance for Global Sustainability (a partnership of MIT, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the University of Tokyo), among many other projects both of local importance and of global reach.
Through the support of Dr. Schmidheiny and the institutions he founded, thousands of leaders and organizations in Latin America have launched and promoted some of the most relevant environmental and social causes of our time. Examples include Corporate Social Responsibility movement, Social Entrepreneurship, inclusive business, sustainable cities, recycling cooperatives, responsible water management and the protection of the Amazon and the South American Chaco, among many other initiatives of national impact and regional importance.
In recognition of the above and in response to the disinformation surrounding the trial in Turin, we simply want to express our appreciation and respect to Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny as an ethical entrepreneur, visionary leader and humanitarian, who has demonstrated by example what it means to be social and environmentally responsible.
We sign this declaration as a sign of support for him and the causes he has championed, and as a sign of recognition for the key role he has played in the history of the global sustainability movement.
With the creation of a brick factory in Heerbrugg, Switzerland, Jacob Schmidheiny, Stephan’s great-grandfather, lays the foundation of the family business.
Brown, Boveri & Cie. is founded in 1891 in Baden, Switzerland, by Charles Eugene Lancelot Brown and Walter Boveri.
The Eternit company is founded in Italy, a corporation with numerous local shareholders and a few foreign shareholders.
Ernest Schmidheiny I, Stephan’s grandfather, invests in the emerging cement industry through Holderbank (now called Holcim) and then in the processing of asbestos, through Eternit Switzerland.
On October 29, 1947, Stephan Ernest Schmidheiny is born in Balgach, St. Gallen, Switzerland. He is the second of four siblings, the children of Max Schmidheiny and Adda Schmidheiny – Scherrer.
Stephan Schmidheiny works in an Eternit factory in Brazil, performing tasks that bring him in direct contact with asbestos.
After studying law, he obtains a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
The Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) becomes the largest shareholder of the Italian company Eternit SpA. The ILO convenes a meeting of experts to debate the safe use of asbestos. Subsequently, the international body publishes the report “Asbestos: Health Risks and their Prevention”.
Stephan Schmidheiny is formally named Head of Sales for Eternit A.G in Niederurnen, Switzerland.
Schmidheiny is named General Manager and member of the Board of Directors of Eternit A.G. in Niederurnen, Switzerland.
Schmidheiny succeeds his father as General Director of the Swiss Eternit Group (SEG), becoming responsible for a conglomerate of companies with factories in more than 20 countries.
He promotes the “New Technology” program, a pioneering, innovative initiative to find a substitute for asbestos in the manufacturing of panels and other products, as well as to set up safety measures to protect workers in Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) plants across the world.
Schmidheiny becomes a member of the Board of Directors (1978 – 1996) of the Union Bank of Switzerland (which later becomes UBS).
The ILO convenes again with an emphasis on the need to adopt international standards for the prevention and control of the risks caused by exposure to asbestos, as well as the urgent need to produce a set of practical recommendations for the safe handling of asbestos. The document “Safety in the Use of Asbestos” is published in 1984. The majority of the recommendations had already been put into practice voluntarily by Eternit before the ILO published the code of practice.
Schmidheiny publicly announces that the Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) will stop manufacturing products that contain asbestos due to the potential human and environmental problems associated with the mineral. SEG takes this radical step before the majority of European countries adopt legislation banning asbestos and certainly before the rest of the world, given that in several countries in Latin America the use of asbestos as a raw material for construction products is still legal and quite prevalent to this day.
Schmidheiny joins the Board of Directors (1981 – 1997) of Brown, Boveri & Cie., a position from which he promotes a merger with Asea, forming Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) in 1988. Schmidheiny steps down from the position in 1997.
He starts to diversify his investments and acquires the Swiss newspaper kiosk company, Distral Group.
Schmidheiny enters the Latin American market for the first time, investing in the forestry industry in Chile through the company Terranova.
Six years after Stephan Schmidheiny started a workplace safety and innovation program at Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) plants, and months after Schmidheiny issued the order for SEG to exit the asbestos industry completely, Sweden becomes the first nation in the world to prohibit the use of asbestos.
His father, Max Schmidheiny, hands over control of the Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) to Stephan and turns the cement company Holderbank (later called Holcim) over to his brother, Thomas.
The Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) plants manage to manufacture numerous asbestos-free products, replacing it with a component based on paper pulp. SEG becomes less competitive due to the high production costs.
Stephan Schmidheiny and the archbishop of Panama, Marcos McGrath, create FUNDES, a foundation to build the capacity of small and medium sized businesses in Latin America.
Schmidheiny acquires a third of the shares of the SMH group, the largest manufacturer of Swiss watches. He actively participates in the restructuring of the company, which leads to the formation of the successful Swatch Group.
The mayor of Casale Monferrato, Italy sends a personal letter to Schmidheiny, explaining his concern about the effects that the closing of the Eternit factory in his town could have on the labor market.
Schmidheiny becomes a Board Member of Landis & Gyr, a firm dedicated to energy management. One year later he becomes the majority shareholder and in 1995 he sells his shares to Elektrowatt. He steps down from the board in 1996.
He is elected as President of the International Management Institute (IMI) in Geneva. In 1989, he promotes a merger with IMEDE to form the International Management Development (IMD) business school in Lausana, Switzerland. Schmidheiny steps down from the Board of the IMD Foundation in 1992.
Eternit SpA Italy declares bankruptcy. An official receiver takes control of the company, eliminating the Swiss Eternit Group’s (SEG) role in its administration. The bankruptcy liquidation lasts until 2008.
Schmidheiny becomes a Board Member of Nestlé (1988 – 2003).
Eternit Switzerland sells its shares in Eternit Brazil and Amindus Holding to the Saint Gobain firm. After these sales, Schmidheiny no longer holds any shares in these companies.
In 1988 Schmidheiny starts the process of selling the Swiss Eternit Group (SEG), which concludes in 1989. The shares are sold to the legal buyers with all the corresponding rights and responsibilities.
He acquires Wild-Leitz, a company that in 1990 merges with Cambridge Instruments, creating Leica Microsystems, which currently has factories in five countries and sales and services in more than 20 countries.
Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), names Schmidheiny Chief Advisor for Trade and Industry, due to his reputation as a pioneer in social and environmental issues, in preparation for the Earth Summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Switzerland bans the processing of asbestos, nine years after Stephan Schmidheiny announced that he would eliminate its usage in Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) plants.
Schmidheiny founds the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), along with high ranking executives from different industries and regions, to inform his work as chief adviser to the Secretary General of the UNCED. The first meeting takes place in The Hague.
Together with Hernando de Soto, he publishes the book “Las nuevas reglas del juego: Hacia el desarrollo sostenible en América Latina” (“The New Rules of the Game: Towards Sustainable Development in Latin America”).
Stephan’s father, Max Schmidheiny, passes away.
Italy introduces national rules according to the regulation issued by the European Union in 1983 regarding the maximum concentration of asbestos fibers permitted for industrial uses.
Italy bans the processing of asbestos six years after Eternit closed its Italian factories.
Schmidheiny publishes and is the main author of the best-seller “Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective for Development and Environment”, with the results from the work of the BCSD.
Stephan’s younger brother, Alexander Schmidheiny, passes away at an early age and leaves Stephan the Daros art collection, which was created together with Thomas Ammann in the 1980s. From 2001 to 2008, some of the pieces from the Daros Collection were shown at exhibitions in Löwenbräu-Areal, Switzerland. Since
Schmidheiny is designated as a member of the Board of the World Resources Institute (WRI), headquartered in Washington (1993 – 2001).
Stephan receives an honorary doctorate from the INCAE Business School, Costa Rica.
Schmidheiny founds Avina Stiftung in Switzerland, a foundation that promotes social and ecological sustainability, combining philanthropic work with an entrepreneurial spirit.
Together with Bruno Fritsch and Walter Seifritz, he publishes the book “Towards an Ecologically Sustainable Growth Society: Physical Foundations, Economic Transitions, and Political Constraints”.
After the Earth Summit, the members of the BCSD merge with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to form the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
In honor of his brother who passed away in 1992, Stephan creates the Alexander Schmidheiny Stiftung, a foundation to support cultural, social, and environmental projects and activities.
Schmidheiny establishes the Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS), a partnership among the four most important scientific and technological universities in the world. He serves as president of the International Advisory Board between 1996 and 2001.
He creates the Centro Latinoamericano para la Competitividad y el Desarrollo Sostenible (Center for Latin American Competitiveness and Sustainable Development - CLACDS) at the INCAE Business School in Costa Rica, together with Brizio Biondi-Morra and Roberto Artavia.
Stephan receives an honorary doctorate from Yale University, New Haven.
Together with Federico Zorraquín and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Schmidheiny edits “Financing Change: The Financial Community, Eco-efficiency, and Sustainable Development”.
He publishes the book “Sustainable Development: The Financial Markets in a Paradigm Shift,” together with Rolf Gerling.
Stephan Schmidheiny recieves the “Ordem Nacional do Cruzeiro do Sul” (“Order of the Southern Cross”) award from then president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Schmidheiny is named co-president (1997 – 1998) of the OECD’s High Level Advisory Group on the Environment. His recommendation to make sustainability a general principle of the organization serve as the basis for a Ministerial Meeting of the OECD in 1998.
Stephan Schmidheiny creates the holding company Grupo Nueva, which encompasses his investments in companies in Latin America —Terranova (later called Masisa), Grupo Amanco, and Ecos— and is committed to the three areas of corporate responsibility: financial, social and environmental.
Together with Jeff Gates he publishes the book “Ownership Solution: Toward a Shared Capitalism for the 21st Century”.
Schmidheiny is named Honorary President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
Schmidheiny, together with Ruth, his former wife, create Daros Latin America, an art institution headquartered in Zurich with the goal of creating and conserving a collection of contemporary Latin American art. Since 2013, it offers activities for the public at the Casa Daros (Daros House) in Rio de Janeiro.
In line with his humanitarian mission, Stephan Schmidheiny tasks Becon A.G. with a plan to analyze possible ways of helping with situations caused by asbestos.
Stephan receives an honorary doctorate from Rollings University, Florida.
Stephan receives an honorary doctorate from Universidad Católica de Andrés Bello in Caracas, Venezuela.
Schmidheiny establishes Fundación Avina in Latin America to promote social and business leadership for sustainable development in the region.
Schmidheiny publishes the book “Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development,” together with Chad Holliday and Philip Watts.
Together with Erika Knie, he founds Fundación MarViva, a non-profit entity focused on the conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal resources in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
Through Grupo Nueva, Schmidheiny acquires a majority stake in the forestry company Masisa, headquartered in Chile and with forestry and industrial operations in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela.
Schmidheiny establishes an irrevocable trust, VIVA TRUST, donating all of the stock and investments of the Grupo Nueva holding group, a cash sum, and other liquid investments. The donation, with a total value of more than 1 billion USD, ensures the long-term sustainability of Avina and Fundes and the continuity of their philanthropic activities in Latin America. After the creation of this trust, Schmidheiny announces his gradual retirement from executive functions.
The shareholders of Terranova approve a merger with Masisa. The new company is named Masisa S.A.
Stephan Schmidheiny publishes an autobiography titled “My Path - My Perspective.”
Becon A.G. starts to give out humanitarian aid to the former employees (or the families of former employees) of Eternit SpA in Italy.
Amanco, part of Grupo Nueva, is sold to Mexican firm Mexichem.
Plycem Company, also part of GrupoNueva, is sold to Mexican company Mexalit Industrial. After these sales, the productive activities of the companies in VIVA TRUST are concentrated in the forestry industry.
Schmidheiny participates in the creation of Fundación Latinoamérica Posible (LAP) with the goal of promoting the growing and responsible participation of the productive sector in the sustainable development of communities and nations.
Schmidheiny expands the humanitarian aid program that was first started in 2007 through Becon A.G. to people affected by asbestos living in the areas surrounding the Eternit SpA industrial plants.
In Turin, Italy, the Criminal Court of first instance begins criminal proceedings against the Belgian Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne and against Stephan Schmidheiny, in his capacity as shareholder of the Italian company Eternit SpA.
The authors René Lüchinger and Ueli Burkhard publish a biography about Stephan Schmidheiny titled “Stephan Schmidheiny: The Long Journey to Find Himself. Heir - Entrepreneur – Philanthropist.”
On February 13th, The Criminal Court of Turin rules in the case of Eternit SpA and sentences Baron Louis de Cartier and Stephan Schmidheiny to prison. The ruling sustains that they were responsible for causing an “intentional disaster” and for “intentional non-compliance with safety measures” in two of the four Eternit SpA production plants.
Upon hearing an appeal of the sentence, the Court of Appeals in Turin pronounces a new ruling confirming the sentencing of Stephan Schmidneiny, changing the charges and increasing the length of the sentence. Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne passes away before the sentence is handed down.
In order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of VIVA TRUST, the Centro de Intercambio de Conocimientos (Center for Knowledge Exchange - CiC) is launched, with the goal of sharing lessons learned by the organizations created by Schmidheiny and to inspire a new generation of social and business entrepreneurs in Latin America and around the world.
By this date, more than 1,500 people affected by asbestos from the north and south of Italy have received humanitarian aid from Becon A.G. since 2007.
On November 19, Italy’s highest court, the Corte Suprema di Cassazione in Rome, overturned the June 2013 verdict of the Turin Court of Appeals and acquitted Stephan Schmidheiny. Italy’s General Attorney denounced that the process had no legal grounding and requested the complete annulment of the trial with no possibility of reopening the cause. The defense attorneys held that the process severely violated the right to a fair and equitable trial, as well as the principle of “there can be no penalty without law” as stated in article 7 of ECHR.