Communication's part of the sustainability story

Sustainability professionals at the inaugural Responsible Business Summit Asia in Singapore speak on the challenge of communicating a company’s sustainability efforts.

Sustainability strategies may be increasingly adopted by a growing number of companies worldwide, but communicating these efforts and engaging both internal and external stakeholders remain a challenge for many, especially if they want the stakeholders to come on board and be part of the efforts.

About 100 sustainability professionals from all over Asia shared best practices, listened to ideas and discussed controversial issues in the region at the first Responsible Business Summit Asia held in Singapore earlier this month (6-7 May).

Among the speakers were Rob Coombs, chief executive officer of Interface; Mark Devadaso, global head of sustainability at Standard Chartered Bank, William Anderson, head of environmental and social affairs Asia Pacific at Adidas, and Ramil Burden, vice president, development countries Asia and external affairs Africa with GSK.

One of the issues discussed was the need to get a company’s sustainability efforts understood by its target audience – whether it is an internal or external stakeholder group. This is because a company’s ability to communicate its efforts and engage stakeholders could determine the success of its sustainability efforts.

“We have been doing a lot of work for a while but what we are trying to do now is to tell our story better,” said Holy Ranaivozanany, head of corporate social responsibility at Chinese firm Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker.

“This way, we can grow our partnerships, work with more people and have an even bigger positive impact in the communities we operate in,” she said. “We can’t do it on our own.”

Huawei’s sustainability initiatives include training programmes in developing countries for women and children, as well as university students, and equipping these groups with technology so that they can improve their lives by finding jobs and increasing employability.

The Shenzhen-based firm also works with local organisations to provide remote areas with communications technology, as it did after the Nepali earthquake on 25 April, Ranaivozanany said.

The company quickly deployed temporary solutions while its engineers worked around the clock to try to restore communications networks, which are crucial in post-disaster relief work.

Indeed, engaging communities was a key part of the conversation at the event. It was the case for Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits whose brands include Smirnoff vodka, Guinness beer, Johnnie Walker whisky and Pimm’s liquer.

“Let’s not pretend that alcohol abuse isn’t a huge problem in some parts of the world,” said Georgie Passalaris, skills and empowerment manager of Diageo’s sustainable development department. “We have a business that cannot exist if we don’t have strong families and communities, so we ran 400 programmes last year just to address the issue of responsible drinking.”

Much of Diageo’s corporate social responsibility work revolves around strengthening communities through empowering and educating women.

It sponsors training for women in the hospitality industry – who make up 80 per cent of the global hospitality workforce.

It also trains women in financial literacy so that they can make better decisions about their lives, she added.

Sometimes, engaging stakeholders means telling customers about the impact of their behaviour, for example, in the hospitality and the public transit industries.

Janice Lao, sustainability manager of MRT Corp, which operates public subway systems in Hong Kong, London, Stockholm, Beijing, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Melbourne, said it began reporting on its sustainability efforts 8 years ago.

In the beginning, it was just tagging a section on sustainability at the end, Lao said.

“We pushed it a bit year by year, and now our reporting is integrated into our general reporting efforts,” she said.

“It’s important to tell our customers – the millions of people who take our trains every day around the world why their transport choices really have a huge impact on the environment,” She added.

For Natalie Chan, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, at the top of her priority list is engaging internal stakeholders such as employees and management to change the way they view their work.

Once that is in place, she plans to slowly communicate to customers about the importance of sustainability.

For example, she wants the laundry rooms to use 10 per cent less water every year, and all kitchens at all its luxury properties to serve sustainable seafood. The group runs 10 hotels under the Peninsula brand in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok, Manila, New York, Chicago, Beverly Hills and Paris.

“This may sound basic but I don’t believe there’s any point in talking about sustainability until I can get my back-of-house right,” she said, referring to all aspects of running a hotel that customers cannot see. “I want that sustainability culture ingrained in all of us.” 

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