Talking ESG and sustainability with Zoljak from Hipther

Zoltan from Hipther interviewed me on the 29th of June 2023 for his podcast ‘Hipther Talks'. Watch it below, or read the transcript. Apologies for the camera angle. I correct it at the 6 minutes and 40 seconds mark.

Zoltan: Hi, everyone, Zoltan here. We're back again with Hipther Talks. Today I have with me Floris Assies, founder and CEO of Hi, Floris. It's nice to have you here. 

Floris: Hi, likewise. Great to be on this show. 

Zoltan: All right, so before we dive into the questions, I would like to ask you to share a few things about yourself and, of course, about Better World Casinos.

Floris: Yeah, for sure! So, yeah, my name is Floris Assies. I'm Dutch, but I live in Spain. I had quite a global life, [having] lived in many different places around the world. 

I started my journey in the gambling business in 2016 when I was living in Malta. I came into iGaming via SEO and since summer 2017 I have been running casino affiliate websites – managing and building them, for clients ever since.

But I've always had a passion for sustainability. I've lived in the Middle East as a child, and I've travelled around the world. I've been [to] India, and I've been [to] China and other places. And I've seen real poverty and always had this feeling that I wanted to do something about making the world a little bit better.

So after many years in gambling and having looked around in the industry, I hadn't seen a lot of movement when it came to corporate social responsibility, besides, of course, responsible gambling, which rightfully gets a lot of attention. But there's much more when it comes to sustainability. 

And, so, it was a very logical choice for me to combine these two things. And this is where the idea of Better World Casinos came from. So first, the idea was just for the players to show that there are brands that have ESG and sustainability higher on their agenda than others, but over the last year I also realized that it's very interesting to focus on the B2B side of things and get companies involved. I've been the driving force on having the dialogue and entirely on the agenda.

So besides my small SEO agency that I run, where I help clients with SEO, I've been working on this ever since. 

Zoltan: Yeah. Alright, since ESG is high on your agenda, and so is ours, we also featured another ESG talk this year. 

It seems that your passion for sustainability led you to a new business, and congratulations on that. And so, I would like to check and ask you, how do you see the connection between ESG sustainability and [the] iGaming industry altogether?

Floris: So, as most people who are interested in this topic are likely aware, we face a lot of challenges in the world. A good starting point are the sustainable development goals of the United Nations regarding pollution and social challenges. There's a lot of tension given to this in order to understand what the problem is and how we can improve the situation.

There's a lot of room for improvement, and all industries in the world need to play their part. Of course, also the gambling industry.

So this comes on one hand down to the environmental aspect. You know, their footprint, their scope, 1, 2, 3 emissions, and the choices they make and the impact that they have on society, not only for responsible gambling, which is, of course, very important, but there's so much more to it.

And this can definitely be put higher on the agenda and given more attention, I think. 

Zoltan: All right. And maybe you can explain to the audience how Better World Casino serves as a bridge between conscious gamblers and sustainable iGaming brands. 

Floris: Yeah. So just to be a bit prudent, it's a startup. It's an idea in progress. So, the website is there. It started with the idea that players in any country, preferably regulated countries, have a lot of choices of brands and gambling operators to choose from. And honestly, more or less, many of them have the same offerings.

You know, you play more or less the same games for the same providers, the same payment methods. So where can the brands pretty distinguish themselves? The attention to ESG they give and what role they play in society. All this information is there, but it's very opaque. It's not easy to find and make a decision on which brand is more sustainable than the other. 

So this was my idea to make this information more transparent, more accessible for the players, and, eventually, create a ranking where we say, “Okay. This casino brand or operator does more about either environment or social than another.”

So if you have the choice between casinos A and B, and they more or less offer the same user experience, but one does more about sustainability than the other, then, then for me as a conscious consumer, it's an easy choice than I would rather choose brand A than B. And I think other players, if they have this option, if they have this information clearly presented to them, would make the same choice.

And there's nobody really offering this kind of information. And everybody talks about how to play the games and where to get the best bonus and what's the best customer service. But where the brands can really distinguish themselves is on this topic. So this was the one hand. Also, my background as a casino affiliate was very obvious.

But then, on the other part, it's the business-to-business side, the B2B, where I would love to be seen as an authority on the topic and be involved in the dialogue and put this topic higher on the agenda. 

Zoltan: Yes, certainly. 

Floris: And connecting people, building the network where people can [discuss], where, why do you want to go or what do you have to think about when you deal with ESG as a gambling operator or as a provider, or as a payment provider or any stakeholder in the business?

Zoltan: All right, so you have our full support in the media. And you mentioned that many of the affiliate businesses run on reviews ranking casinos, which are doing better jobs, having positive reviews, and most probably some negative reviews as well.

And so you have a unique focus on sustainability in the gambling industry. What specific factors does consider when selecting sustainable iGaming brands and recommending them to the players?

And maybe point out some of the negative aspects as well if you're going to have a naughty list.

Floris: Yeah, it's to come up with the concept was very easy, but to put it into practice is very hard. What I've started with Better World Casinos at the moment, we only focus on, on on the UK, being a very regulated market with very high standards, and of course, gambling being quite popular there and [it has] good value of players.

So I've made a list of the 20 top operators within the UK, and for those, I'm now working on creating reviews. So basically, on my website, you can also read it, there are three types of reviews. Tier one, tier two, tier three. So, tier one is just your basic review, as you would find on any affiliate casino site, which bonus, which games, which customer service, which licenses, et cetera.

Tier two is really a dive into the literature research where we go for the public, registered companies – it's easier because they have the annual report, the financial report, which often nowadays concludes the part of sustainability reporting – so we can, or I can get an idea of where they stand on their emissions, on their contribution to society, on taxes and all those kind of things.

But these documents are long, and they're difficult. I'm not yet a real expert on the topic, so it's really hard to make this complex language to [be easily] understandable for a player who probably never really gave it much thought. So this process takes a lot of time. 

And my focus right now is on the tier two reviews, where the first step really comes to transparency. So, how willing they are as a company to talk about this topic and make this information available. Because a lot of them, especially the private companies, they don't really share this information. So there's already step one if, if they're not transparent. My basic thought on this is that nowadays, with the online means we have, it's so easy if you don't share information.

If you're not transparent and you're purposefully opaque, then maybe you have something to hide, you know? So that's already step one. If you're transparent, then that's a good step. And it's also impossible to already be very sustainable. I mean, it's a very complex matter.

Nobody in our current society, and with how the economy works, can claim to be a hundred percent sustainable because society just doesn't facilitate that yet. This is the transition that we need to go through.

So then the second step is looking into their values. What do they give importance [to], and how high is ESG on the agenda?

So this is what I'm now trying to map out and make transparent from the brands that I'm focusing on. And then in the future, next year, when hopefully I'm able to build a team and then start to get more resources, invest more resources into this. 

Then we'll be the tier three reviews where we really start to get empirical information, go out there and do surveys with the brands or with the players, and then update these things yearly to see also who makes progress.

Because it's easy to say that you want to be sustainable, but you have to show it, you know. Your actions speak louder than words. 

Zoltan: So you have experience in search engine optimization and affiliate marketing, something I wish I had in 2007 when I was an affiliate, but back then was the Wild West.

We were building things as we went. Managed to survive many Google updates. But then, I exited the affiliate world but kept the experience of search engine optimization and hence built our news website. So what I want to ask is how does all this experience influence the design and functionalities of Better World Casinos?

Floris: Yeah. that cool question. I am not a developer or a designer. I'm also not a content creator. I see myself [as] more of a content facilitator. I've studied international communication, and marketing was a part of my studies, and I always had this version [of] marketing.

It's like creating [a] need, creating a desire, and then just stuffing products and services down somebody's throat and making them buy [them]. That's really not how I think. So this is also [why I instantly actually fell in love with SEO because people are searching with an intrinsic motivation for some kind of answer to solving a problem.

And you have to facilitate the content and the information that you provide in such a way that it can either, on the one hand, be understood by the algorithm and then presented and then defined as being better than the competitors. So you high end up high in the ranking. 

And once they find that, and once you are able to provide that information, and that solves the problem that they're trying to solve, then you build this relationship, trust, and that helps them convert to buy whatever product they're looking for. So in our case, where to play poker or slots or whatever. 

[I was] saying I'm not a builder or designer. So for my website, I really just kept it to the basics work with the tools that I'm familiar with. On my website, I've always run on WordPress. I chose a WordPress theme that I've been using for all my other clients as well and that my developer is also very familiar with, and I just keep it as simple as possible. 

Yeah. I mean, of course, it would be [more] beautiful at some [point in the] future when we have the resources to really build a site. And this is also [something that] I'm struggling with, you know, my rating system is not your standard bonus games.

I want to make this more complex, and these are things that would require modification to the theme and to the same as maybe that I'm using. But for the time being, just keep it simple to be able to focus on the content. You know, it's basically very easy.

Zoltan: Yeah. Because you mentioned that beyond being a guide for players, you mentioned that you also aim to facilitate conversation and best practice sharing and inspiration around the ESG, especially in relationship to gambling. Could you share some more about the initiatives or programs you have in place to achieve this?

Floris: Yeah, of course. So again, this is all still in [the] startup phase. So the first thing that I'm working on is creating my own podcast where I will be discussing these topics with people in the industry. I already recorded twice, and I mainly learned how not to do a podcast, so that was so I'm hopefully re-recording those.

I wanna have this podcast to have the conversation and for people to be inspired.

Zoltan: Okay. 

Floris: If there's something about ESG and gambling, what are the topics they talk about? How do you put this into practice? 

Then the second, of course, is building the network. Getting the people involved that are responsible for ESG, for sustainability within the companies, within the operators, and the providers.

Last year I came into touch with SD certified, and we've been working closely together, and we have a partnership now. They are really B2B focused on making any casino operator more sustainable. So they assess, they audit, they help with strategy, they help with training and measuring, benchmarking. And then to take it beyond compliance specifically, because there's a lot of talk about compliance always if you go to the events.

But my standpoint on compliance is if you're not compliant, you're out of business. So nothing to brag about there. If you have your business in order, you're able to operate; then you are compliant. But you need to go beyond compliance. And not just compete, but you want to be a leader.

I mean, we see that. We hope, I hope, that the players are demanding this, but we also see it from employees, for example. A lot of the new generation, they wanna work for companies that do something that is sustainable. So there's always a lot of competition in iGaming to get the right talent for marketing or iGaming for a product, for whatever.

If you want to compete, the young talents wanna work for sustainable companies. So this is another reason for a company to put this on their agenda. 

So yeah, the podcast, building a network. And then just sharing those stories, creating them into content. So written, spoken videos. It's all out on the table. It's just that it's a one-man show at the moment, and also running an agency on the side. So it's a lot to do.

I hope that, little by little, I'm making progress. I definitely have momentum now. And these opportunities of being a guest on a podcast are very welcome.

Zoltan: Alright. Alright. 

Floris: Also, shout out for people to join me. You know, if anybody's out there listening to this exactly like I wanna do something at sustainability and gambling, then please reach out to me. I would love to hear from you and have a conversation. 

Zoltan: Exactly. Yeah. That's why we are using this podcast to promote people.

You must have already been talking to people about your project and about promoting sustainability within the industry. And, I just wanna ask, were there any challenges when you faced while trying to promote sustainability within the iGaming industry? And how did you overcome these?

Floris: The first time I really started talking about it publicly was in the IGB Amsterdam in 2021 and just carefully pitching here and there and see what people would think because, you know, we don't want people to run off with your idea.

But I'm not afraid about it anymore because most people are like, “Alright, that's interesting.” But that's what I wanted. People tend to laugh a bit about it and make fun [of] it. Like, “Yeah, come on.”

Because we are in a great entertainment industry. I think if most people in the industry are very honest with themselves, they're not in here to entertain, to make good money. You know, once you're in, it's hard to get out because we get used to the money going around in this. I mean, [it’s the] same for me.

But two months ago, I was in Malta Casino Beats, and I was at IGB for a client, but this was really for me, for Better World Casino, to really start pitching and talking about it.

And [I] had a lot of conversations. And what was fascinating. You know, as I just mentioned, the first reaction is a bit like, “Oh, okay, funny and or original or maybe a bit strange.” Then, I had this very clear three clear points.

First, it's for the player. Consumers want sustainable fashion, sustainable tourism, and sustainable everything. So why not also sustainable gambling? 

Then, [the] second, the new generation coming into [the] workforce wants to work for sustainable companies. And third, maybe most importantly even is that from regulators, from legislation in the EU, they're working now on the corporate sustainable reporting directive, which will be implemented as of next year where big companies with 20 or 40 million revenue and over 250 employees need to report on their sustainability, materiality. So that means that the impact it has on you and you have on the environment and on society, and this is becoming mandatory if you don't comply.

Yeah. Again, with compliance, you can get fined and et cetera. So yeah, companies need to start doing this. So to come back to your question, what, what is the challenge? When I was explaining these things to people during the conversation, I, at some point, realized that [their] eyebrows started to drop a bit.

And people start to think about these things, and maybe some people even start to think about this and never thought about it before. And that was really satisfying. That was really cool. 

Zoltan: This was this year? 

Floris: Yeah. This was this year, in 2023. Because in 2021, most probably nobody cared about it.

I know that there was something on ICE London as well. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it. But yeah, I think we see this coming back more and more at the events, at the summits, and [I would] love to be part of any round table discussion or maybe have a small talk about this [at] any event, hopefully.

Maybe I can already spill the beans, but I'll be at SBC in Barcelona this year. And definitely, we'll be talking about this. So if anybody's interested and try, want to meet me, come meet me there. 

So that's the challenge. To make people think about it and how to deal with it one conversation at a time. Just look somebody in the eyes, and they're like, “Okay, how do you see life? What's our role in it?”

And I sincerely believe with the reach that we have in the whole gambling industry and the [number] of player players worldwide, and the [number] of people working in it, that we can have some serious impact without, you know, [fear].

People are always immediately afraid. Like, “Oh, sustainability, I have to give up something and it's gonna cost me money.” But that's not the conversation to have. It's the opportunity and also the necessity to adapt to changing times.

There's so much money going around with it. Just with a little bit, we can make a [really] big change. So and that's the conversation I want to have with the people to make them enthusiastic about the future and see how they can contribute to making things better.

Zoltan: All right. And how do you vision this future of the iGaming industry in terms of sustainability that's constantly changing? 

Floris: Yeah. I [need] to refer to a book I've just picked it up for the second time from the Dutch historian, [Rutger Bregman], “Utopia for Realist.” What was it again?

Utopia is not a real place. It's not something that's defined. It's not a blueprint. I mean, you can see it as a blueprint, but then it's always unrealistic. But to have a spot on the horizon to travel towards and to aim towards. 

And I think that there are still many people [who think] it's a little bit of taboo [to discuss] the gambling industry. It generally creates more problems. Most people are blind [to] the amount of entertainment and fun most people have with it. You know, most people enjoy gambling responsibly. 

It's not a big problem for most people. Just a percentage has problems with it, and that's, of course, very serious, and we need to deal with it. But if you see, for example, lotteries have been around for [hundreds] of years, and they were also often organized by governments to fund social projects in society to make public buildings.

In the Netherlands, for example, my country, I'm not an expert on other countries, but I know in the Netherlands that the lotteries there are worse. They are owned or are still owned, but [a] big part of the revenue needs to be donated to charity. 

Another example is how the Native Americans [gave the licenses] to some casinos on their land. Completely changed societies. Due to the casinos, there was more employment, there was more money coming around, and the revenues were being shared among, or the profits were being shared among, the community, which dropped crime, improved education, and decreased violence. You know, it has [a] huge positive impact on society.

This is something that I envision for gambling, to come out of the negative view of the people who don't gamble, basically. Because I think those are the ones that may mainly have this view and use it as leverage for change.

Zoltan: All right. So what actions or steps would you like to see the iGaming industry stakeholders take toward sustainability? 

Floris: Baby steps, maybe. Baby steps. Well, as I mentioned, transparency, talk about it. Don't be afraid not to be perfect but also don't use it as greenwashing. So put your words into action. 

Step one, make an inventory or have a clear idea of who your stakeholders are and the effect you have on them and how you can help them, and also on your environmental impact. Start with your scope. 1, 2, 3 analysis. Within the gambling industry, it's mainly scope three.

And for the ones who are not familiar with the scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. So one is what you produce in-house. Two is what is being produced. For example, from the energy company, you use energy, which is produced somewhere, and there is an X amount of emissions of that. 

And scope three are your suppliers. So your whole supply chain, and especially in the supply chain where the biggest sum of emissions are, [like] all the hardware we use, the office equipment, the, the electronics, the servers, all these kind of things. We can make real changes in procurement. How we buy those things from who we buy. So many people underestimate that.

As a consumer, personally, I can buy an organically grown product or fair trade product, and for my personal footprint, that has very little impact. But the impact you make is by supporting those brands, those companies who make those choices, they can evolve their business and eventually make their product more will become cheaper. And that way is also available to others who can then also make the choice.

And this is especially in gambling. If we choose for office equipment, you put carpentry on the floor or on the walls or something, choose sustainably sourced materials. Choose products that are circular, that can be completely reused, and not only downcycled and or just burned. These kinds of decisions, that's where the first steps are.

Awareness and becoming aware of the things you can change, the choices you make, and the impact they have. Just take it from there and just try to do a little bit better every year. Either way, most gaming companies will be affected by CSR reporting.

Because if you take operators who have retail, they're definitely having plus 250 employees for sure. They fall into that category. Definitely. 

So most gaming companies have a large base of employees, and they will [be] bound to do the reporting. 

Zoltan: Do you think that the current trend towards ESG in industries worldwide, not just the gaming industry, can signify an influence [on] the iGaming industry in the near future? Or it doesn't affect it? So, the industry trends globally influence iGaming when it comes to ESG?

Floris: Yeah, for sure. Again, it's all about making choices and not necessarily maybe putting profit first. I think this is something that a lot of businesses need to adjust to.

As I mentioned earlier, like sustainability, you would cost money, and the bottom line means less profit, and that's bad for business. But let's go back to where it all started.

Businesses and work is about solving problems. And problems are either by satisfying a desire or averting suffering. You know, it's always one of those two. That's just [the] first principle of human behavior. To satisfy desire or avoid suffering.

Now, in our case, we are satisfying [our] desire [for] entertainment. So brands should be competing on what's the best entertainment, and then also in the most responsible way, the moment you start focusing on money, you start taking shortcuts because if somebody else focuses on this, and you can take a shortcut and then make more profit out of it.

Then, of course, that's your incentive. As long as we're only working for our shareholders, we can't blame anybody [for] doing this. This is how the rules of the game are right now and how they've been, how they've developed for the last x hundred years.

But this is the mindset that is very slowly changing. And this will happen in all industries. And again, an office uses furniture, so the furniture production industry will become more sustainable, and it includes circularity and circularity in those. It's a whole chain.

Zoltan: Yeah. Yeah. 

Floris: And then the gambling operator has an office and needs furniture. So where you're gonna buy your furniture from? This is, again, your scope three emissions in your supply chain. You have to choose at some point. And this is also where again, the legislation is very important, where companies are being held responsible [for] the problems down their supply chain.

So if there's somebody down there who's doing something in a way that is causing some kind of harm, and there is an alternative that does less harm, then you should be making that choice very soon. 

Zoltan: All right, so before I ask you the final question, I'm just curious, what is your opinion about carbon offsetting?

Floris: Interesting. In theory, a nice concept. We can say a lot about it. The shame is that, in practice, it's just a way for people to make money. And there's a lot of scams, even with the certification. You can be platinum-certified offsetting, and, in the end, you have to go to zero.

So as an [intermediary] option, offsetting is, you know, there's so much bullshit. Sorry for my language.

Zoltan: No worries. 

Floris: A couple of months ago, in some country in Africa, they had reserved this huge amount of rainforest for not being cut down.

What's the first thing that we should not be doing? You know, we should not cut it down. Like, yeah. By not cutting it down. We saved so much, and then we got credit out of some guys. When the aim is earning money and not solving problems, then you come to this kind of construction that [is] just plainly wrong, but people make money [from] it.

The system allows it. They're not doing anything illegal, so they get away with it. And again, this is the mindset that so slowly needs to be changing. It's not money first. It's problem-solving first.

That's also what's satisfying in the end. When you die, it's not like, “Ooh, I made so much money.” No, it's like, ”What cause did you have?”

Money is a means to an end. It should never be the goal.

Zoltan:  Yep. So my final question is, your website will be up and running with all the reviews very soon. Until then, what is your advice for conscious players looking to make more sustainable choices in their gaming experiences?

Floris: Yeah. So just first to come back to my website. It is up and running. It's more or less a proof of concept right now. But within the next two months, we are getting these 20 UK operators' tier-two reviews published. They're being written as we speak. 

Then, players can come to my site and see, “Okay, based on social and environmental factors, whatever you find most important, which one scores the best.”

And then please sign up via my website because I have a cap on profits and on salaries. So most of it is going into a foundation to invest the money back into society and good projects.

Until then, [please play] in regulated countries. The gray [and] the black markets, stay away.

And especially if you go for what a player can easily do if you go for a [publicly] traded company operator, like the 888 and Betsson or Kindred, whatever, go to their corporate website, have a look at their annual reports. There's a sustainability section in there.

This is dry stuff to read, though. For me, it's my daily bread. I consume it because I find it both interesting and then because I have value for it. But yeah, that's where you can start. I can just already give a little bit of a shout-out to companies that are doing well.

Kindred is doing [well] so far in the initial analysis coming out this week. I've been working on 888 Holdings, the betting shops, and the brick-and-mortar shops. Because of them acquiring William Hill, they just grew, and their emission exploded because they have all these things. So there's a lot of development going on. 

[Then we have] Aspire, who became [Neon], who became [Aristocrat]. This also makes my work very difficult, but last year I wrote a tier two review about Aspire, and then it became Neon. So then I have to review them, and now they're Aristocrats, and I have to look into them.

And now they're beyond online. They're in bingo and lottery, and land base and everything. So this stuff becomes really complex, really fast. So I really hope I can grow my team soon and get some people involved with this to help me with crunching all the data and making it consumable for players who are interested in these kinds of things.

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