When Norwegian engineer Sam Eyde and scientist Kristian Birkeland met at a dinner party in 1903, the world changed.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was on the brink of famine. Natural fertilisers were no longer enough and soil quality had degraded until it was close to being unable to yield crops essential to feeding Europe’s growing population. However, the possibility of mass famine could be dispelled with novel technology that could add nitrogen – a key plant fertiliser – to the soil.
Putting this theory into practice would prove incredibly challenging, but also world-changing.
Soon after their chance meeting, Eyde and Birkeland began developing innovative technology that would allow them to bind nitrogen in the air. In 1905, Norsk Hydro was founded and achieved something that would dramatically change the 20th century: the use of hydroelectric power to create the world’s first industrial fertiliser – and an entirely new industry. Today, Hydro still extracts and develops natural resources but it does so to meet the needs of our modern world, such as creating the materials needed for the green transition.
From its beginnings over one hundred years ago to the present day, the Norwegian industrial company has had purpose embedded at its core. The result is an organisation that is a world-leading figure in sustainability, with a unique perspective that many don’t have: longevity.
When Eyde and Birkeland created a new solution to fertilise soil, they were undertaking a complex and unprecedented challenge – but they were also doing something very simple: solving a problem to improve people’s lives.
“By being in the industry for a very long time, we have really learned that if the societies around us don’t succeed, it’s very difficult for us to succeed as a company,” says Nina Schefte, Head of Social Responsibility at Hydro.
That philosophy continues to run through the fabric of the company. From the very beginnings, Hydro invested not only in itself as a corporation, but in its employees and the communities it operated in. Eyde made sure that employee housing, built by Hydro in the new industrial towns that it created, was of the highest standard.
“A hundred years ago it was about food. Today it’s about energy.”Jostein Søreide, Head of Hydro’s Climate Office
Hydro invested in creating communities that employees and their families actively wanted to live in because it understood the value that fulfilled and happy employees would bring to the organisation.
“People need to feel safe and have access to basic needs,” Schefte comments. “If that’s not in place, it’s very difficult to run a responsible company.”
The eight-hour work day
In 1918, Hydro employees advocated for an eight-hour work day and Hydro became one of the first industrial companies to recognise the benefits of a more sustainable and structured work day for its employees. The following year, the eight-hour work day was introduced as law in Norway.
Almost 50 years later, Hydro was again a leading figure in an important cultural revolution when management created a forward-thinking partnership with workers’ unions: a corporate democracy. Employees at all levels were given increased levels of responsibility and it had a far-reaching impact on the way that businesses across Europe viewed their own corporate structures. From its cultural origins in 1967 to the present day, Hydro’s inclusive approach to its employees’ involvement in company decisions, dialogues and strategies signifies its commitment to cooperation.
Schefte is also confident in the authenticity that Hydro’s longstanding history lends to its purpose today: “It’s clear in our purpose to create more viable societies by developing natural resources, products and solutions in innovative and efficient ways. It shows that we really understand who we are.”
Looking to the future, Schefte is excited about how Hydro’s historical perspective can contribute to a more sustainable world. “When Hydro was first started, we built entire communities. Now, we are present in communities that have more complex needs.”
“We have learned that if the societies around us don’t succeed, it’s very difficult for us to succeed as a company.”Nina Schefte, Head of Social Responsibility at Hydro
A sustainable initiative
In the state of Pará, Brazil, Hydro runs one of the largest alumina refineries in the world. “We have invested in three different types of social programmes: supporting public infrastructure, like investing in the building of a new technical school for 1,200 students; collaborating with local authorities and NGOs, as well as other industry peers, on entrepreneurship programmes; and prioritising long-term initiatives like the Sustainable Barcarena Initiative, which was set up in 2019.”
It is a collaborative approach that provides a platform for people to speak to authorities, businesses and NGOs operating in their communities. Schefte stresses that Hydro is not the sole founder of the initiative, and that makes it all the more important: “We are just one sponsor – we cannot solve all the challenges on our own, but we can take the initiative and be a catalyst to inspire others to get involved.”
A sense of social purpose and responsibility has been a core part of Hydro’s identity from its creation through to the present day. It isn’t merely talking the talk; the evidence is found in its actions, strategies and policies – and it’s been there from day one.
Hydro’s unique perspective granted by its historical vantage point is not limited to social purpose. It has developed a novel approach to how a business should operate in society by pairing its investment in socially sustainable business practices with environmentally viable and innovative products.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Hydro began producing aluminium – now a key material in the transition to a circular economy – and today is a leading figure in the renewable-energy sector. Despite its origins being in nitrogen fertiliser, Hydro has risen to meet new problems that need solving in the modern world.
“A hundred years ago it was about food. Today it’s about energy,” Jostein Søreide, Head of Hydro’s Climate Office, says.
“For us, sustainability is all about delivering solutions that the world needs with minimal impact. That has been in the DNA of Hydro since the very beginning when we started with the fertiliser production, and it continues now as we are expanding into new business areas like hydrogen, renewable batteries and renewable energy.”
Doing the right thing
Longevity as a company has given Hydro insight into the importance of honesty, integrity and doing the right thing – not just the thing that looks right. With ‘greenwashing’ becoming an increasingly talked about corporate misstep, the company’s transparent approach provides a refreshing dose of authenticity.
Søreide believes the company has a social responsibility to provide transparency about their environmental strategies: “We try to be as transparent as possible across our thinking, targets and approaches in order to help customers – and society – make informed choices.”
“If we cannot say that what we are doing contributes to the green transition, then we are not doing the right thing,” he says. “We are part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution. That’s our moral compass.”
Its aluminium production is driving an important transition – both on an environmental level and a cultural level when it comes to collaborating across industries. Søreide thinks of Hydro’s role not just as a metal producer, but also as a metal receiver: “We need to move away from the traditional purchaser-seller relationship into more of a partnership.”
“We transform all the time, but our core values don’t change.”Hanne Haugen, Head of Brand Management at Hydro
Having recently celebrated 25 years working on sustainability at Hydro, Søreide believes that the primary difference since the company was founded is not in the fact that it is producing renewable energy instead of industrial fertiliser, but rather that the rest of the world is waking up to environmental sustainability as a core part of business strategy.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in my career is that environmental sustainability is now being seen as a business opportunity and not just a compliance issue. It’s extremely exciting to consider the possibilities when the world realises the value in prioritising sustainability.”
As the world rapidly tries to make the built environment more sustainable, Hydro is way ahead of the curve. Its unique historical perspective, combined with its 100-year-long commitment to social and environmental sustainability, provides it with a distinct edge when it comes to addressing the needs of the future.
“We transform all the time, but our core values don’t change,” Hydro’s Head of Brand Management, Hanne Haugen, tells us. “Sam Edye, our founder, was a businessman; he wanted to make money. But he realised that he could make money while also solving social problems. And he had the visionary idea of using hydroelectric power to do that.”
Eyde’s innovative solution from 1905 is still embedded at the core of the company today. “His idea to harness natural resources for the benefit of societies and people remains a really big part of who we are as a company,” Haugen says.
It’s aluminium and renewable-energy production offer exciting solutions for the green transition that the world is increasingly keen to start. Haugen stresses the importance of the long-term mindset that Hydro gleans from its history: “You have to have foresight and to be able to look far into the future in order to succeed in the societies you operate in.”
“Despite its origins being in nitrogen fertiliser, Hydro has risen to meet new problems that need solving in the modern world.”
Hydro’s longstanding and deeply integrated purpose has evolved, adapted and shifted to meet new challenges in the present day, and it will continue to do so in order to address fresh challenges presented by an unknown future.
But fundamentally, the company retains the unique purpose that has helped it to thrive for over a century: the belief that with a combination of innovative solutions developed from natural resources, it can help to create a more viable society for everyone.