Björn went from being a climate activist to working for the UN
The former grassroots activist has stepped into the rooms where the real climate decisions are made. Alumnus Björn Fondén has worked towards the transition to a sustainable world in non-profits, businesses and in the UN. Where does he see the greatest opportunity to make a difference?
The commitment to the environment is like a common green thread in much of what Björn Fondén does. In upper secondary school, he became aware of climate change and its impact on our future, which led him to start an environmental organisation in his hometown of Lidköping. And when the Paris Agreement was signed, he was in the crowd of activists outside the negotiations pushing for a more ambitious deal. Now, he has gained a space inside some of those rooms where the critical decisions on climate and environment are made. His journey took off when he joined the Programme in Environmental Social Science at the School of Business, Economics and Law in 2015, where he chose to specialise in business administration.
“I find it exciting that the programme combines business, economics and politics with environmental science to answer some of the most important questions about our future. For me, it felt like the perfect choice," says Björn.
Getting started in the voluntary sector
Being an organiser at heart, he saw a chance to broaden his perspectives and network through the many student associations available at the School. In the association Handels Students for Sustainability (HaSS), he and other students arranged study trips, networking evenings and lectures with various people from the business world. Together with friends, Björn also started the student association Handels Entrepreneurs.
“If there isn’t already an association in your field of interest, the university environment offers both the structure and the network needed to easily start your own,” says Björn.
It was also very much thanks to his involvement in these associations that new opportunities opened up. During his final year at the programme, he was nominated by an environmental organisation to be the youth representative for Sweden at the United Nations, which gave him an opportunity to go to New York and present an evaluation of how Sweden had succeeded in achieving the global goals of the 2030 Agenda.
“It was an extremely exciting and important assignment, which I was given largely thanks to my previous sustainability commitment. In my experience, meeting people who share your interests will often lead to something new,” he says, and continues:
To be able to get your dream job, volunteer work is a superb asset.
“This is advice I would like to pass on to students: To be able to get your dream job, volunteer work is a superb asset. It shows that you have an interest, allows you to establish new contacts and makes you stand out from the crowd.”
Through his studies at the School of Business, Economics and Law, he realised the importance of the business sector in the transition to a more sustainable society. This realisation guided his choice of employer after graduation, when he took a job at the consultancy and accounting firm Grant Thornton with the mission of establishing a brand new sustainability department. The aim was to offer companies advice on sustainability accounting, climate services and strategies for sustainable development. He also participated in the development of an internal sustainability strategy for Grant Thornton International.
“I really had a great opportunity to influence both internally and externally. Our point was that all companies today need a sustainable strategy to grow and maintain profitability in the future,” he says.
The similarities are greater than the differences”
After two years at Grant Thornton, he had the opportunity to return to the UN. This time as a Climate Change Specialist working with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - the organisation that, among other things, leads the international climate negotiations. He was positioned at their regional office in Thailand, whose operations span all over Asia and the Pacific. Björn’s task was to help countries reach their climate targets and implement effective climate policies in preparation for the COP26 climate summit.
“For many people, a job at the UN is high on their wish list, and I was no different,” says Björn.
At the same time, his various assignments have made him realise that the similarities between NGOs and business are often greater than the differences.
You can have a big impact wherever you decide to work
“Businesses and NGOs both need to create value for their customers, members or funders in order to last. The big difference lies in why they exist in the first place. Whilst NGOs principally are organised around a higher social purpose, the general purpose of companies is to meet market demand and generate profit. However, this depends entirely on the owners, and the business sector can be seen moving towards a more society-driven approach. In my opinion, you can have a big impact wherever you decide to work – the key is about finding your own platform to make a difference.”
Continued involvement in the UN
Since last autumn, Björn is pursuing a one-year Joint Master’s programme in Global Economic Governance and Public Affairs, which is organised in Rome, Berlin and Nice by the LUISS School of Government & CIFE. Alongside his studies, he continues to be involved with the UN and was recently selected to a Youth Task Force aiming to support young people's inclusion ahead of the Stockholm+50 International Meeting in June this year. The UN conference will be held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm - the UN’s first ever environmental conference. In addition, the conference aims to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable societies.
“We are right now at an inflection point in human history. The critical decisions leaders take today will be the ones shaping our common future on this planet,” says Björn.
Remind yourself of the end goal
For students aspiring to work in the UN, his advice is to begin by identifying and getting involved in the issues they want to impact, and to work through NGOs or other organisations on a voluntary basis. After that, internships or junior positions, like the one he got, can be a way in. Where he himself will be heading after graduation is still an open question. “The most important thing is to remind yourself of what you want to achieve,” says Björn.
“We need people at every level - from the activists on the ground to the decision-makers in politics and business - to move the world in a better direction. It’s not your position that matters, but what you can do based on where you are right now. As the old saying goes: If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.”
Lives: Currently in Berlin
Education: Programme in Environmental Social Science, specialising in Business Administration, at the School of Business, Economics and Law, 2015- 2018,
Joint Master in Global Economic Governance and Public Affairs organised by LUISS School of Government & CIFE, 2021-2022
Positions after graduating: Sustainability Strategy Consultant, Grant Thornton (Stockholm); Climate Change Specialist, UNFCCC Regional Collaboration Center for Asia & the Pacific (Bangkok)
In his spare time, he likes to: Go to the pub with friends.