Turning companies into allies

She was involved in developing the world’s most accurate clock, and now she helps companies adopt more sustainable business practices: Petrissa Eckle, Executive Director of the Sustainability in Business Lab at ETH Zurich.
Petrissa Eckle

The physicist Petrissa Eckle could in theory enjoy her own private space in her roomy office with its large window. But she waives this privilege, as she prefers to share the office with her colleagues. “I want to be with my team,” she says. In ETH Zurich’s Sustainability in Business Lab or “sus.lab”, everyone is working hard on current problems, but they don’t let it affect the team mood. “You can hear for yourself,” she says as laughter echoes from the corridor. “We try not to take everything so seriously, even if we are working on heavy topics like climate change.” Sometimes Eckle says she and her colleagues – most of them female – are quite overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems they face. A little bit of gallows humour stops them from getting too dejected about their work.

sus.lab was founded in 2016 by Volker Hoffmann, Professor for Sustain­ability and Technology, in response to the growing urgency of sustainability issues. Eckle’s group wants to build a bridge between ETH research and industry: by sharing scientific knowledge, she helps companies to become more sustainable. The themes they tackle range from food waste management to the use of CO2 emissions and the use of blockchain technologies for climate-relevant initiatives.

Developing and implementing ideas

sus.lab has recently completed a project with Swiss Saltworks, the state-owned national salt supplier. The CEO, Urs Hofmeier, wanted to embed sustainability in all areas of the business, based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Using a series of workshops, Eckle’s team brainstormed with Swiss Saltworks to develop over 300 ideas, which were then condensed into 20 concrete projects. “They range from solar panels and water tanks on factory roofs to social projects concerning gender equality and the health and well-being of employees,” Eckle says. Many of the smaller projects have already been launched at Saltworks, while others will run over a five-year timescale.

Developing and implementing ideas: that’s exactly what Petrissa Eckle likes to do. “I think it’s fair to say I’ve got lots of ideas and I’m fairly pragmatic when it comes to their implementation,” she says. This quality is very sought after when it comes to speeding up the transfer of knowledge into industry and society.

«I’ve just turned 40. But even just the changes that I have actively been aware of show how important it is to take action»      Petrissa Eckle

All the team members have a great deal of experience in research, consulting or industry. Eckle herself studied physics in Munich before completing a doctorate in experimental physics under Ursula Keller at ETH. “We built the world’s most accurate clock,” she recalls. She then moved on to postdoctoral research, working as a senior assistant at the Paul Scherrer Institute, where she was involved in the analysis of different forms of energy as a basis for guiding policy decisions. But she found the work too theoretical: “We wrote reports, but all the action was going on elsewhere,” she says, summing up the situation.

Eckle grew up in a family where the environment was an important topic. “My grandmother was a member of Greenpeace,” she says. And one thing was clear to her: “I want to do something that is socially relevant.” In 2011 there was a meltdown in three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, and Ger­many launched its energy transition policy – and Eckle wanted to be in the thick of it. So before joining sus.lab, she spent five years working in consulting, where one of her priorities was always to ensure that the research could be put to practical use. “Every sector was targeted, from banks to pharmaceuticals,” she says.   

Dream job at ETH

She has been Executive Director of sus.lab since December 2017. “I have found my dream job,” she says. It really is important for her to do something positive. “And without wanting to sound arrogant: my background clearly provides a good platform to drive things forward.” Even so: is it not frustrating to work in a field that is so vast and when no quick fixes can be found?  Eckle ponders for a moment. “I’ve just turned 40,” she says. “But even just the changes that I have actively been aware of show how important it is to take action.” She notices the changes during her free time, for example, when she is often out in nature, sailing or hiking in the mountains. Or around Heidelberg, where she grew up: in the surrounding vineyards, the vines have to be planted a few metres higher up the slope every year due to rising temperatures. At the same time, figs are now ripening on the tree in her parents’ garden. “That would have been inconceivable earlier,” she says.

On the other hand, in her daily work she sees how attitudes are changing and what individuals can achieve. “Our customers are often individuals who are intrinsically motivated and then implement projects with our support. All you need is a couple of determined allies.”