Major shifts needed to drive global sustainability

Individual actions are important to global sustainability, but governments and businesses must also change how they operate and work together to preserve natural resources and avert climate change, said experts at the Eco Action Day panel discussion.

World Environment Day is an occasion for every individual to take steps to reduce his or her environmental impact, but achieving this at a global scale will also require policymakers and businesses to go beyond simple actions to implement necessary legislation and change existing business models.

This was the view of sustainability experts at a panel discussion held on Friday as part of the Eco Action Day campaign, Singapore’s largest business-led environmental outreach effort.

The event, held at Singapore’s Mapletree Business City and organised by Japanese electronics multinational Ricoh and Eco-Business, was held to celebrate the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Environment Day (WED).

The theme for this year’s WED is sustainable consumption and production, and UNEP has chosen the slogan: ‘Seven billion dreams. One Planet. Consume with care’.

UNEP’s campaign seeks to highlight the detrimental rate at which natural resources are used, saying that current patterns of consumption and the environmental impact of economic growth are unsustainable in the long run.

At the discussion, speakers from the public, private, civil society and academic sectors agreed that policy change, cross-sector collaboration,and making the business case for sustainability were essential to making progress on breaking the link between economic growth and natural resource use. 

Ronnie Tay, chief executive officer of the National Environment Agency (NEA), told the 100-strong audience that Singapore’s sustainability efforts over the past few decades - consisting of a mix of regulation, industry partnerships, and incentives - have paid off, as the city-state today stands as Asia Pacific’s most “globalised, investor-friendly and green city”.

Singapore’s goal of becoming a zero-waste nation, for example, requires both public and private sector action said Tay.

On one hand, laws such as a mandatory waste reporting requirement for large hotels and shopping malls help companies keep track of and minimise the waste they generate. But in other areas such as electronic waste recycling, the government is still looking into introducing legislation.

Here, industry can step up to help move things along, said Tay, adding that many such initiatives already exist in Singapore. These include: a voluntary partnership on e-waste recycling between NEA and companies; the Singapore Packaging Agreement - an agreement companies voluntarily sign up to reduce packaging waste; and the Energy Efficiency National Partnership, where NEA supports corporate energy efficiency efforts through offering relevant resources, incentives, and recognition.

Such programmes, which foster public and private sector collaboration, “have positive outcomes such as allowing companies to share best practices with one another and recognising companies that are doing well in these areas,” he said.

Despite the benefits of introducing sustainability measures such as cost savings, many companies remain reluctant to take the first step, observed the panelists.

In such cases, a good starting point is helping businesses understand the relevance of sustainability to their long-term survival, said Ariel Muller, Asia Pacific director of UK-based non-profit Forum for the Future. The organisation, which set up a regional office in Singapore last year, helps businesses worldwide develop sustainability strategies.

When starting a conversation with a company, Muller noted that more broad-based questions such as “Do you agree that the future is getting more uncertain?” and “Do you agree that there are strategic risks to your business?” helped to open up conversations with businesses and paved the way to introduce sustainability concepts.

There is a huge opportunity for ideas that successfully decouple growth from resource use, but it does require out of the box thinking and moving away from traditional business models.

Ynse de Boer, managing director, Accenture sustainability and strategy services

Another key challenge is how to get organisations to accelerate the speed at which sustainability solutions are adopted, said Muller.

She added that to achieve this, business leaders must engage employees in the organisation and ensure that they make sustainability a priority in their daily work. Another key solution is fostering cross-sector collaborations to replicate the change across an entire industrial or economic system, she added.

Ynse de Boer, managing director, Accenture, strategy and sustainability services, said that sustainable production and consumption principles was crucial to a company’s long-term survival, because dwindling natural resources and high costs of raw material threaten a company’s bottom line. Adopting strategies to use resources more efficiently also present a huge business opportunity, he added.

The sharing economy, for example, which encourages people to make better use of existing items such as cars, homes, and consumer products by sharing them rather than buying new ones, could be worth US$335 billion by 2025, up from US$15 billion today, according to research by consultancy PwC.

The rising prices of natural commodities such as metals, grains, and other agricultural crops and livestock, will push businesses to find ways to reduce their dependency on these limited resources, said de Boer.

There is a huge opportunity for ideas that successfully decouple growth from resource use, but it does “require out of the box thinking and moving away from traditional business models,” he added.

The panel discussion was the highlight of Ricoh’s Eco Action Day 2015 initiative, which was launched for the ninth year running on April 8.

With the slogan ‘Green the Red Dot, Join the Movement’, the initiative aimed to encourage individuals, companies, and schools to pledge actions with a positive impact on the environment.

This year, a total of 165 companies, 40 schools, and 449 individuals committed to actions that have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 42,000 kilogrammes, reported Ricoh.

The company on Friday also gave out Eco Action Awards to schools and organisations with the most outstanding efforts at raising awareness about sustainability. Prizes were given out to Crescent Girls’ School for having the most creative and fun initiatives, while Loola Adventure Resort, based in Bintan, Indonesia, won for having the most inspiring efforts.

Winners in other categories also included telecommunications provider Starhub, construction group Samwoh Corporation, and semiconductor firm Systems on Silicon Manufacturing. 

It was an honour to have so many organisations and individuals join Ricoh in its effort to drive the sustainability agenda in Singapore, shared Tetsuya Takano, managing director of Ricoh Asia Pacific. 

“The Ricoh Group will proactively work to increase sustainability, thereby achieving the growth of its businesses, boosting its corporate value, and consistently meeting the expectations of all stakeholders,” he said.

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