Investing in sustainability for the long haul

Jeannie Ong, StarHub chief marketing officer, talks to Eco-Business on the firm’s commitment to sustainability and how they engage their staff to the cause with ‘green KPIs’

StarHub's Jeannie Ong
Jeannie Ong, StarHub's chief marketing officer and sustainability reporting committee head, hands out a free mobile phone and SIM card to a foreign worker affected by last year's oil rig disaster. Image: StarHub

Singapore telecomms giant StarHub is distinguished from its competitors by its lime-like hue, and in recent years, the firm has embraced greener practices since the launch of its six-point commitment and environmental policy in 2009. But by her own admission, the firm’s chief marketing officer Jeannie Ong says: “We certainly didn’t ‘go green’ just because green is our corporate colour, although that certainly helps!” 

Earlier this year, StarHub joined the ranks of the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations for the first time, landing in the 66th spot. Ong, who led the firm’s first sustainability report last year and was recently promoted from her post as senior vice president for corporate communications and investor relations, shares that choosing to transform the firm into an environmentally and socially responsible company is a long-term strategy. Aside from reducing environmental impact, it also makes good business sense in terms of profitability, she adds.

She has been at StarHub for more than a decade, and even takes the green philosophy home: “My family all walk the green talk at home. For instance, my kids know that they cannot throw away their toothpaste till the very last drop when they cut it open. We also categorise our waste so that we can recycle as much as possible at home.” 

In this interview, Jeannie Ong shares with Eco-Business the sustainability initiatives StarHub has implemented and why such a commitment is worth going the distance. 

StarHub made its debut on the list of the world’s 100 most sustainable companies this year, only one of three companies from Singapore. How did you do it?

We are honoured to have been one of the few Singaporean companies to have ever made it onto this prestigious list, and to have achieved the highest ranking for any Singapore company making it to the list for the first time. But this achievement was only possible because StarHub has long considered ethical and sustainable business practices to be essential to our operations. We believe in being ethical and transparent, in taking care of both our staff and the communities in which we operate, and in being responsible for the environment. It is a longstanding and concerted effort at all levels of StarHub that has helped us achieve this honour. 

Telecommunications companies actually have a huge impact on the environment. For example, an average base transceiver station (BTS) uses enough electricity to power 3.5 five-room HDB flats [Singapore’s government housing units], based on the national average consumption for that flat size.

Why is sustainability so important for StarHub? What prompted the company to go green in 2009? 

We certainly didn’t ‘go green’ just because green is our corporate colour, although that certainly helps! Sustainability is important for any company that seeks to be more than a flash in the pan. In our case, StarHub has a vision to be Singapore’s first choice for information, communications and entertainment services. We are not the dominant market player in terms of all our lines of business and the journey, we know, is a marathon: we are definitely in it for the long haul.

We acknowledge that for a company to be profitable in the long term, it needs to address issues such as environmentalism and corporate social responsibility. Implementing our Corporate Green Policy and 6-Point Commitment in 2009 was merely our formalising of that belief. In fact, our Corporate Green Policy came about five years after we were listed [on the Singapore Exchange in 2004] and, as we interacted more with the investment community, we asked ourselves how else we could add value and make a positive impact as a listed entity. The decision to go green was a natural progression and we have not looked back since. 

You are the head of the sustainability reporting committee and just previously the senior vice president for investor relations. How do you balance both roles?  

Investors are increasingly looking beyond the bottom line when evaluating a company for investment. Risk management, for example, which includes social, environmental and health and safety risks, is examined. There is actually a fair amount of overlap in the two roles’ scopes as both are concerned with the long-term viability and profitability of the company. Juggling the two is tough which is why I hired a corporate sustainability and responsibility manager to help me with the CSR portfolio! 

Going back to the Global 100, StarHub is only one of four telecommunications companies in the list. What do you think is the role of the industry in the sustainability movement?

Telecommunications companies actually have a huge impact on the environment. For example, an average base transceiver station (BTS) uses enough electricity to power 3.5 five-room HDB flats [Singapore’s government housing units], based on the national average consumption for that flat size.

The communications we have with our customers also involve huge amounts of paper. Finding ways to mitigate these environmental impacts, through energy-efficient technology for instance, is therefore the right thing to do. As such, StarHub was the first telco to introduce a solar-powered BTS in August 2009 at StarHub Green. We deployed a second one at Ikea in Alexandra Road in June 2010 and we even have a solar-powered BTS-enabled Greenergy vehicle.

All these help us to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel. StarHub is also currently modernising our BTS network, a move that will save about 1,445 kWh per BTS per year. We also removed Business Reply envelopes from our correspondences with recurring credit customers, saving 14.74 tonnes of paper in 2012. 

One of the company’s biggest initiatives, especially in reaching out to the public, was the e-waste recycling programme. How effective has the programme been?

StarHub’s electronic waste recycling programme, launched in March 2012 and expanded in August 2012, is still on-going. To date, we have collected over 6.6 tonnes of electronic waste from our 38 bins in 20 locations across the island. We have received feedback from the public, corporations and government bodies requesting for bin locations and additional bins at other locations. We are evaluating the need for more bins to be produced and will definitely do so if we see the need for it. Given the constancy of recycling and the public feedback, we would like to think that consumers are more aware of the importance of the need to recycle their e-waste. 

What has been some of the biggest obstacles StarHub has faced since making its green commitments? 

While not the largest obstacle, an interesting challenge has been staff engagement. As with any organisation, there are many environmentally conscious staff and there are those who need some encouragement to be involved in greening the company. Part of our efforts to address this would be our green corporate KPIs. Five per cent of every staff member’s bonus, from the CEO down, depends on four environmentally themed KPIs. These include reducing paper consumption, recycling paper, minimising electrical use and conversion of StarHub customers to go paperless by using My StarHub eBill.

The Sustainability Leaders Series is a regular interview profiling sustainability leaders from the Asia Pacific region.

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