Businesses in Asia should lead the sustainability movement: experts

Speakers at the recent Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development called on the region to drive the change towards a green economy

Corporate leaders at a forum last Monday said it is no longer an option for businesses to be sustainable, but an imperative, and shared case studies on how their firms were embedding sustainability in their operations.

Top representatives from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Conservation International, ABB, Monsanto, Levi Strauss, and Ricoh said that companies must collaborate on sustainable operations, scale up environmental initiatives, innovate better products and services, and compete with other firms using such ground-breaking solutions.

Ron Popper, global head of corporate responsibility at ABB, said, “It is time to stop talking about business and sustainability as two separate entities.”

The time has come to “really harness sustainability in all aspects of the business”, he told delegates at the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development held at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

“If you want to focus on the economy, you have to focus on the environment,” echoed Paul Gilding, long-time environmentalist and former executive director of Greenpeace, who gave a keynote address after the panel discussion.

He noted that among businesses worldwide, those in Asia should lead the change, citing how the businesses in the West haven’t really changed the way they do business in the past decades.

“If Asia doesn’t change on this issue, the world will not change. Furthermore, if Asia doesn’t lead on this issue, the world will not change,” he said.

Philippe Joubert, WBCSD senior advisor, lamented, however, how businesses did not have a say in the climate negotiations at Warsaw, even though it was generally agreed that businesses “need to be part of the solution”. He explained that he was simply at a side event where the private sector convened.

More and more Asian companies are becoming global players, and people look up to them

Usha Rao Monari, IFC director of sustainable business

“I think this is why for the first time I am not pessimistic, but slightly depressed,” he said jokingly.

But both Popper and Usha Rao Monari, director of sustainable business for the International Finance Corporation, who spoke prior to the panel discussion, pointed out the abundance of sustainability programmes and efforts in the world.

“There’s so much work going on out there, so many initiatives, so many excellent initiatives that even where I sit, I don’t know enough about. But I’m saying to myself, there’s all that stuff going on out there, why isn’t the needle shifting?” Monari asked.

This is where companies must step up, by doing more collaboration and greater engagement, she said.

In India, international agribusiness Monsanto has effected an ecosystem approach to make agriculture sustainable while providing increased livelihood for the rural communities, said Gyanendra Shukla, chief executive officer of Monsanto India.

They partnered with 14 Indian seed companies, sharing technology and expertise, to revive the cotton production industry, which slowed down in the late 1990s due to uncontrolled pests and overuse of pesticides. By collaborating, they did not only improve an industry, but they were also able to reach out to a greater number of farmers, he explained.

Similarly, in North Sumatra in Indonesia, the simple act of providing different cutting tools to the local communities helped increase their farming yield, said Simon Badcock, chief of party, Conservation International.

He added, “Part of sustainable production is increasing revenue generation for the local communities and it doesn’t need sophisticated technology.”

On the other hand, technological advancements also serve their purpose, Popper noted. He explained that ABB has recently developed a new type of circuit breaker for a high-voltage grid, which can revolutionise the energy efficiency of power grids, connecting countries and continents in a low-cost manner.

Technology can also be sustainable at the onset of design, explained Lynelle Cameron, Autodesk senior director of corporate philanthropy and sustainability, who gave a special case study presentation on a design-led green revolution after the panel discussion. 

“We at Autodesk have an incredible opportunity to influence other companies with big environmental footprints to design things from a sustainability perspective, embedding sustainability principles into the software, so that it’s easy for any of our customers to design a green building, or an energy efficient car, or a different kind of lighting without needing to be sustainability experts,” she said to Eco-Business on the sidelines.

If we can produce abundantly, but produce greenly, then it’s a net positive. So think of what if our buildings were producing all the energy they needed for that building and then some?

Lynelle Cameron, Autodesk senior director of corporate philanthropy and sustainability

In the same manner, global Japanese office equipment firm Ricoh is a company that has embedded corporate social responsibility as a corporate value, channelling this mind-set through the products they create to their corporate clients, explained Ienobu Kakegawa, Ricoh advisor on environmental sustainability, business solutions group.

He said: Short-term profits are good but it is the long-term success that is important, by helping other companies’ business to be more efficient and productive through innovative products that are “space-saving, energy-saving, resource-saving”.

However, sustainable operations doesn’t automatically entail reducing production or stopping construction, Cameron pointed out to Eco-Business. “If we can produce abundantly, but produce greenly, then it’s a net positive. So think of what if our buildings were producing all the energy they needed for that building and then some?” 

Innovation, implementing sustainability strategies and managing operations better will propel the change, the panel stressed.

“More and more Asian companies are becoming global players, and people look up to them,” Monari highlighted.

If they commit to conserve natural resources and operate with minimal environmental impact, people will follow them, she added.

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