The Singapore property giant that's building a sustainable world

Singapore property firm CDL's green credentials include being ranked the most sustainable real estate firm in the world as well as a leader in sustainability reporting. Now, it is one of the first companies in Singapore to align its operations with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

For decades, the building and construction industry has occupied an uneasy position in sustainability discussions, where experts acknowledge its role in providing homes, offices, and infrastructure for a growing global population but, at the same time, worry about its destructive environmental impact.

From reducing the energy consumed by buildings and minimising construction waste, to ensuring that timber, cement, steel and glass sourcing does not lead to natural resource depletion, the challenges surrounding environmentally-sound construction practices are many.

It may therefore come as a surprise that one of the 10 most sustainable companies in the world - according to the 2016 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World, a prominent annual ranking by Canadian firm Corporate Knights - is Singaporean property developer giant City Developments Limited (CDL).

For Esther An, CDL’s chief sustainability officer, this honour validates more than two decades of making environmental protection a top priority in the company’s operations and the effort put in to meet the highest global standards to report on its progress.

The company started its sustainability journey in 1995, hiring An to set up its corporate communications department and subsequently establish the company’s sustainability portfolio. CDL was driven not so much by external pressure but an internal conviction that the business had to be responsible to the environment and community as well as to its stakeholders, An tells Eco-Business in a recent interview.

“Sustainability became part of our DNA and corporate culture when our late Deputy Chairman Mr Kwek Leng Joo established our ethos to ‘Conserve as we Construct’ at a time when the building and construction industry was deemed to be destroying the environment,” notes An. “He steered the company ‘to do good, and do well”. 

She adds: “Today our leadership continues this commitment with our chief executive officer Grant Kelley directly supervising the sustainability function and putting greater emphasis on value creation through sustainability integration.”

Back then, “some called us crazy”, An recalls. “Today, they call us visionary.”

Over the years, CDL—which has ranked on the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World for seven years running and is also listed on sustainability benchmarks such as the FTSE4Good Index Series and Dow Jones Sustainability Indices—has accumulated a track record of leadership in green building and innovation, stakeholder engagement along its value chain and sustainability reporting in compliance with the highest global standards.

Most recently, CDL was also listed on the inaugural SGX Sustainability Indices, and remains the only Singapore firm listed on the Global Compact 100 Index.

Last year, the company became the first property developer in Singapore to adopt an integrated approach to sustainability reporting by connecting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance with the company’s business and financial impact for a more holistic communication of value creation, rather than regarding them in isolation.

Back then, some called us crazy. Today, they call us visionary.

Esther An, chief sustainability officer, City Developments Limited

In its recently launched 2016 Integrated Sustainability Report, titled “Integrating our Strengths, Creating Future Value”, CDL announced yet another major milestone: It is one of the first companies in Singapore to align its material ESG issues with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a set of 17 universal targets that balance the environmental, social, and economic aspects of development.

The goals, which were adopted last September and officially took effect this January, aim to, among other things, achieve outcomes such as universal access to modern energy, making cities resilient and sustainable, and combating climate change by 2030.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Image: GlobalGoals.org

Adopting the SDGs agenda

“As an international company with presence in 26 countries, CDL wants to do our part to advance the Global Goals,” says An.

The company has identified nine SDGs that are relevant to its core business and operations and hopes more companies will follow their lead to find collective solutions to fight global climate change and sustain economic and social development.

To meet the goal on ensuring access to affordable, sustainable, and modern energy for all, for example, many of CDL’s properties come with green features, energy efficient technologies and renewable power, all with the aim of championing green lifestyles and sustainable living.

For instance, the vertical garden at its Tree House residential project at Chestnut Avenue in Singapore, which set a Guinness record for being the largest in the world in 2014, provides natural insulation and helps to lessen heat absorption, thereby lowering the energy required to cool indoor spaces. This is expected to achieve energy savings of between 15 and 30 per cent arising from reduced use of air-conditioning.

Over the years, CDL has also increased the adoption of solar technologies – as seen in the installation of solar panels in some of its latest residential developments, including the 97-unit Haus@Serangoon Garden, which was completed earlier this year; and the 912-unit d’Nest condominium, which will be complete next year and entered the Singapore Book of Records for the “Largest Solar Panels In A Condominium”.

Its 7 & 9 Tampines Grande also embraces one of the largest and most extensive use of solar technology in a commercial property in Singapore in 2009.

For CDL, sustainability integration is proven to create real benefits for its business, stakeholders and the environment, shares An.

Between 2008 and 2015, CDL’s 57 Green Mark certified buildings have recorded energy savings of more than S$31 million. A significant portion of the savings has also passed back to its home buyers and tenants.  

Combatting climate change is also a key concern for CDL and the company unveiled a target last year to reduce its carbon emissions intensity by 22 per cent in 2020 and 25 per cent by 2030, compared to a business-as-usual scenario from 2007 levels.

CDL defines carbon emissions intensity as the amount of emissions per square metre of floor area it builds.

By 2015, it had already reduced its emissions intensity by 19 per cent against the 2007 baseline and also cut its energy usage intensity by 27 per cent in the same timeframe, exceeding its target of a 25 per cent reduction by 2030.

In terms of reduction in water use intensity, CDL reported a 17 per cent reduction in 2015 compared with 2007. It aims to cut water consumption intensity by 25 per cent by 2030 as well. 

The firm also sets target for 35 per cent of all its building materials to contain recycled content, come from low-carbon sources, or be certified by recognised environmental organisations from 2016 onwards, a policy that will help fulfil the SDG goal on sustainable consumption and production patterns. 

An adds that CDL’s long standing environmental, health and safety (EHS) policy established in 2003 and Corporate Statement on Human Rights, rolled out in 2012, also align themselves well with the SDGs on inclusive economic growth and societies.

This is because CDL works with its builders to ensure safe, clean, and dignified working conditions for construction workers, employs non-discriminatory hiring practices and takes a zero-tolerance stance on fraud and corruption, she explains.

The global goals present opportunities for companies to innovate their products and services to address sustainable development needs, and benefit from multi-stakeholder partnerships around a shared set of global priorities.

Esther An

Ahead of the curve

Aligning the operations of a multibillion dollar global company with the SDGs is no small task, but CDL expects the benefits to outweigh the costs.

 As An puts it: “The global goals present opportunities for companies to innovate their products and services to address sustainable development needs, and benefit from multi-stakeholder partnerships around a shared set of global priorities”.

She adds: “As the SDGs are expected to form a global standard that will impact future policy decisions and legislation, businesses that support the SDGs are more likely to be aligned with emerging policy priorities, potentially enhancing their license to operate.”

Furthermore, if businesses are in the future expected to pay a carbon price, minimising its carbon footprint and meeting global climate goals will help the company maintain its bottom line even if such a law exists, notes An.

“Global studies have also shown that green buildings can more easily attract and retain tenants, especially among MNCs which themselves are committed to sustainability,” she adds. “We have seen this among our own tenants.”

Increasing consumer awareness, the rise of green consumerism and the willingness to pay for sustainable green spaces, especially among millennials with rising earning power, is expected to drive more businesses to develop new norms and invest in leading-edge innovations to reduce the carbon footprint of their products, notes An.

With more stakeholders on board, companies will benefit from greater economies of scale and lower costs of adoption, she adds.

Our reporting can only help us grow from strength to strength, raising the bar for more robust ESG performance for greater stakeholder value.

Esther An

CDL is also constantly tightening the rigour of its sustainability reporting procedures.

The sustainability reports which it submits to the UN Global Compact (UNGC), officially known as a Communication of Progress,  has consistently met the UNGC’s highest ‘GC advanced’ level for reporting, making CDL the only Singapore company to have attained this status since 2012. 

In April this year, CDL also became one of the first companies in Singapore to verify its greenhouse gas emissions data against the International Standards Organisation’s ISO 14046-1 requirements.

This standard involves stringent audits of processes such as emissions from the use of diesel, petrol, refrigerant gases, electricity usage, employee commuting, and business air travel.

“Our reporting can only help us grow from strength to strength, raising the bar for more robust ESG performance for greater stakeholder value,” says An.

For one thing, global and regional stock exchanges are increasingly making it mandatory for listed companies to adopt sustainability and environmental reporting, she explains. Institutional investors are also placing emphasis on strong ESG performance before making funding decisions.

Ultimately, integrated reporting is an essential tool for CDL to retain its advantage in a very competitive industry, notes An. This is because measurement of ESG impact is key to maintaining the balance between delivering both business and community value, she explains. 

“We will continue to build upon our strong track record of sustainability for a stronger licence to operate, and greater trust and preference by land and building owners, governments and potential investors especially as CDL expands our global footprint and moves ahead to deliver on our corporate vision ‘Building Value for Tomorrow, Today’”, she says.

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