Meet the Eco-Business A-Listers: Dr Lee Hui Mien, responsible tourism steward

Dr Lee Hui Mien, vice-president and team lead for sustainable solutions at Singapore's Mandai Park Development, entered the field before 'sustainability' became a buzzword. In this interview, she says her role is ultimately about bringing people together.

Lee Hui Mien
Dr Lee Hui Mien did her PhD in sustainable product development. Image: Eco-Business

Dr Lee Hui Mien made her foray into sustainability before the term became a buzzword.

When the electrical and electronic engineering graduate was awarded a scholarship to pursue her doctorate in 2003, she married her passion for the environment with her professional training, and did her PhD in sustainable product development.

She went into research, examining the life-cycle impact of products and trying to get small and medium enterprises [SMEs] on the sustainability bandwagon.

In 2013, she took a “leap of faith” and became furniture retailer IKEA’s sustainability head in Southeast Asia when the opportunity came along.

Four years later, Lee joined Temasek-owned Mandai Park Development, which is turning the Mandai area of Singapore into an eco-tourism hub. It was a period of heightened scrutiny due to several high-profile incidents of wild animals that had been killed by vehicles in the area.

Her work—which has resulted in, among other things, a new wildlife bridge across Mandai Lake Road to facilitate animal crossings—earned her a place on the inaugural Eco-Business A-Lista who’s who of the most influential corporate sustainability executives in Asia Pacific, who have done the most to make business less harmful for people and planet over the last 12 months.

Lee, the vice-president and team lead for sustainable solutions at Mandai Park Development, explains why she would not change any part of her career journey to date.

What sparked your interest in sustainability?

I started at the age of 14 through environmental projects at Bedok South Secondary School [in Singapore]. Three significant projects were the McDonald’s Earth Effort Award, Protect and Clean Pulau Ubin, and the National Youth Achievement Award Singapore-Northern Ireland Environmental Youth Exchange.

I realised that the cause itself is meaningful, and my passion grew as I volunteered for more projects.

I was with Nanyang Technological University’s (student environment club) Earthlink. I studied electrical and electronic engineering and when I was awarded a scholarship to do my PhD, my professor asked what I wanted to do. I asked if I could combine my passion with my professional training.

That was why I did my PhD in sustainable product development. I did closed-loop product life cycle management, looking at product design that takes into account a product’s end of life.

No one can solve sustainability issues alone. So, you need the human touch to bring people together, brainstorm solutions and, as cliché as it sounds, build a better world.

What is the hardest part of your job?

It’s really just trying to change people’s mindsets to naturally think about incorporating sustainability within their work.

The likely scenario would be me repeating myself 10 times before people really start listening and start thinking about the issue, but it’s part and parcel of the job. It also makes the job all the more fulfilling when you start to see  little changes from this same group of people, or what I call their “aha!” moment.

What is the most important thing that you have done this past year?

In addition to Mandai Park Development, I took over the sustainability portfolio of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (which manages the Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, River Safari and Singapore Zoo) in July 2019. I brought together the sustainability teams of both entities and merged them into one that effectively looks at the sustainability of the whole precinct, from development all the way to operations.

What’s the biggest question sustainability chiefs should be asking themselves this year?

The perennial question we ask is, when will my job become irrelevant? Because if everything is integrated well, and everyone has adopted the mindset [of prioritising sustainability], theoretically, our job is redundant.

The second question is, how can we leverage the current momentum [of greater awareness of climate action and increasing actions by businesses, government and civil society] to push further and achieve more?

What’s the most effective way to persuade your CEO to take sustainability seriously?

Crafting a very good business case to allow him or her to understand the balance between profitability and sustainability. And being able to share case stories that are relatable to the business.

If you could start your CSO role again, what would you do differently?

I think the journey so far has been great.

After my PhD in sustainable product development, I did post-doctoral work at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and Linkoping University in Sweden, looking at electronic waste collection systems.

I then spent five years at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, helping local SMEs manufacture in a more sustainable way.

And when I had a chance to move to IKEA [in 2013], I told myself to give it a try and take a leap of faith. Because IKEA has millions of customers and whatever I do would directly influence people. I told myself that when sustainability gains more traction, I could maybe go back to do research, or teach at universities.

When the Mandai opportunity came about [in 2017], it was another exciting opportunity that stretched me beyond the usual [issues related to] corporate sustainability and retail; there was now the added dimension of environmental management and ecology.

There have been ups and downs, as well as challenges, as with any other job. I would say I’ve enjoyed the journey. I’ve gained something from everything I’ve done.

Who is your sustainability role model?

Steve Howard, the former chief sustainability officer of IKEA [from 2011 to 2017]. I had the privilege to listen to him a few times and every time I listened to him, I felt inspired. During his tenure at IKEA, he brought a lot of momentum and took sustainability to a new level.

[According to the World Economic Forum, Howard led the development and implementation of IKEA’s People and Planet Positive sustainability strategy. He put in place strategies that led to more than three billion euros of investments, such as in wind power, recycling and sustainable forestry, among other achievements.]

What is your unsustainable guilty pleasure?

Travelling—I enjoy visiting other countries for leisure but, at the same time, I am aware that flying leads to a fair bit of carbon emissions.

So, I make conscious decisions such as choosing a flight that is as direct as possible and purchasing carbon offsets for my flights, wherever possible. I also try to reduce single-use plastics when I travel by carrying a shopping bag and coffee mug and choosing greener options during my trips, such as renting electric cars and taking public transport.

Why will you never be replaced by a robot?

I think sustainability is a very complicated and interesting role. At the end of the day, it’s all about stakeholder engagement; getting people to act together.

No one can solve sustainability issues alone. So, you need the human touch to bring people together, brainstorm solutions and, as cliché as it sounds, build a better world.

Which buzzwords in sustainability could you live without?

CSR (corporate social responsibility). I really don’t like people equating CSR with sustainability, which encompasses a lot more.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 10-year climate deadline to reduce emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Will we make it, or are we doomed?

Sustainability professionals are the most positive people in this world, which is why we’re in this role. You see the worst of the situation, but you want to do a lot more. I think we should at least strive to do something about [climate change].

Dr Lee Hui Mien was one of nine sustainability executives selected for the EB A-List this year. Read our other interviews with the A-Listers here

Eco-Business will be calling for nominations for the 2020 A-List next September. Do you know a corporate sustainability leader who is really moved the needle for their business and industry? Bear them in mind for our next call for nominations.

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