Expanding Southeast Asian firms eyeing lucrative opportunities in Europe and North America are finding that sustainability credentials matter when winning business in these markets, where governments and businesses are tightening their policies on sustainability.
Recent high-profile campaigns targeting companies such as Procter & Gamble, palm oil producer Wilmar and Astra Agro Lestari demonstrate visibly the business cost of failing to meet the increasing expectations of consumers for companies to operate responsibly.
Cultivating such practices in an organisation, however, requires a combination of subject matter expertise, engagement with a wide network of stakeholders, and an effective implementation strategy - requirements which may seem daunting to companies just beginning to understand the importance of sustainability.
Enter Robertsbridge. The United Kingdom-based consultancy is one outfit which has helped global giants such as Nestle and Unilever make sustainability a core aspect of their operations - and is now poised to help companies in Southeast Asia do the same.
Brendan May, founder and chairman of Robertsbridge, tells Eco-Business in a recent interview that despite ambitious and bold commitments by some large firms, “many Southeast Asian companies lack the plans and relationships with stakeholders that are required for an effective sustainability strategy”.
Paper and palm oil majors including Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), Golden Agri-Resources, and Cargill are among those who have made impressive commitments to zero deforestation in recent years.
Although progress has been made in these sectors, it is an entirely different picture in those such as seafood, mining, and forest commodities such as rubber, with the majority of companies lagging behind on responsible practices, says May.
Examples of unsustainable and dangerous practices include blast fishing and the use of trawlers - vessels which catch fish using large nets, often trapping dolphins, sharks, and turtles in the process - in Indonesia; forced child labour in gold mines in the Philippines; and clearance of rainforests for palm oil, pulpwood and rubber plantations.
There is an opportunity in Asia for companies to shift to more sustainable and ethical practices, and Robertsbridge is in a unique position to drive change at a business and policy level, says May, who founded the consultancy in the UK in 2009.
To do so, Robertsbridge this year has hired a new Jakarta-based Head of ASEAN, Jerry Winata.
The company has for over two years been helping Indonesian paper goods firm Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) work closely with stakeholders to implement its sustainability strategy.
Over this time, APP has made a major turnaround on its sustainability credentials, says May. The company, which was previously the subject of an aggressive campaign by Greenpeace, is now working in partnership with the non-profit and other stakeholders, and has emerged as a prominent player in the effort to break the link between agribusiness and deforestation, he adds.
One key strength of Robertsbridge that allows them to deliver successful outcomes for their clients is the seniority of their consultants, says May. The consultancy is made up of former campaigners and renowned experts from the corporate and government sector and from a wide range of industries.
For example, May was formerly head of the sustainable fishery organisation the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and served for five years on the board of directors of the Rainforest Alliance.
Others in Robertsbridge’s team include former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper and Nick Rowley, the former climate change advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
NGOs will talk to us in a way that they won’t talk to clients, because they may see other consultancies as mere public relations. That’s why it’s valuable for clients to have us at the table in a crisis situation - we help turn a negative confrontation into a positive collaboration.
Brendan May, co-founder and chairman, Robertsbridge
Activist experience “helps us push for more ambitious policies,” says May. “We do not compromise on sustainability, and we have a clear sense of how to address the structural problems which led to unsustainable practices in the first place.”
The firm’s deep roots in environmental advocacy also come in handy when a client finds itself in the crosshairs of an activist campaign, adds May.
“NGOs will talk to us in a way that they won’t talk to clients, because they may see other consultancies as mere public relations,” he explains. “That’s why it’s valuable for clients to have us at the table in a crisis situation - we help turn a negative confrontation into a positive collaboration.”
For example, a large Latin American tuna company was recently the target of a campaign by Greenpeace, which highlighted its unsustainable fishing practices across the Pacific Ocean. But Robertsbridge was able to step in and mediate between the two sides and develop a sustainability plan that both parties agreed with.
May’s co-founder Christopher Broadbent, deputy chairman, adds that the consultancy’s clients are serviced directly by its senior experts for the entire period of their engagement. “This is a key differentiator in an industry where it is common for junior consultants to take over a project once senior partners have clinched the deal”, he adds.
The team’s knowledge and reach is complemented by access to a global network of sustainable development consultancies spanning Europe, North America, and now South East Asia. Robertsbridge initiated an alliance among these firms called the Transition 500, which offers clients access to trusted partners on the group in many key markets, says May.
May adds that as Robertsbridge ventures ever deeper into Southeast Asia, it is working to improve its understanding of the region and collaborates closely with local public and private sector representatives to effectively engage with clients and other stakeholders.
“We don’t want to be outsiders coming into Southeast Asia and telling people what to do,” says May. “Instead, we combine our extensive global experience with local support.”
The company has already cultivated close relationships with NGOs, businesses and embassies in Indonesia, and plans to do the same in other countries in the region.
He says Singapore is an especially interesting market because of its leadership in sustainable urban development. The firm is looking to help businesses in the city state export solutions in areas such as urban greenery, water treatment, and energy efficiency to other cities in the region that “are creaking under the weight of poor infrastructure and planning”, he shares.
In the initial phases of its venture into Southeast Asia, Robertsbridge is also eyeing opportunities for helping businesses understand and implement sustainability in Vietnam. which is growing rapidly and expanding its production of agricultural commodities, and Thailand, home to many multinational conglomerates, says May.
With all its clients, Robertsbridge offers strategy analysis, goal-setting, and workshops, and aims to become a one-stop resource for companies on all things sustainability related, says May
“We realise that to gain the trust of Southeast Asian businesses we have to do more than simply say ‘we’re good”, he explains. “We have to show we understand the economic, cultural and political context in which our clients operate. Conversely, we think we can bring a similar in-depth knowledge of the same issues in all the major markets and customers that interest our clients. ”