Ellie Tang was a force behind Asia’s transition to sustainable urban landscapes this year.
Head of sustainability for Hong Kong real estate, infrastructure and hotels conglomerate New World Development, Tang was behind the launch of the Nature Discovery Park, Hong Kong’s first urban biodiversity museum and sustainability-themed education centre, which focuses on raising awareness about sustainable lifestyles.
Last year, she also rolled out the company’s sustainability vision, and spearheaded Hong Kong’s first green loan.
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It is her commitment to creating green spaces that qualified her for the inaugural Eco-Business A-List, a who’s who of the most influential corporate sustainability executives in Asia Pacific; people who have done the most to make business less harmful for people and the planet over the last 12 months.
In this interview with Eco-Business, Tang, whose career includes a long stint as Asia Pacific sustainability manager for banking giant HSBC, talks about recreating urban habitats to teach people to respect and protect biodiversity.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Demonstrating the value of sustainability to different stakeholders. Everybody talks about integrating sustainability into the business. But that could mean different things to different companies. We need to be adaptive, always listen and try to understand who our stakeholders are and what they are saying, and provide responses that make sense and resonate with their expectations.
The scope of sustainability is constantly broadening. My company is growing fast—we are a conglomerate and the portfolio is diversifying. To define sustainability in a way that is applicable to all the businesses within the group, and to speak to different stakeholders in a language they understand, is a constant challenge.
What’s the most important thing you’ve done this year?
The most important things I’ve done were also the hardest. I was given a large company portfolio for which to define sustainability. I started the department and function for the New World Group from scratch a couple years ago. We have a 2030 sustainability vision in place, and we follow all the global best practices, like reference the Sustainable Development Goals, and look at our business risks and priorities, but that was still a conceptual framework until this year.
This year, we set quantifiable targets through to 2030 for all of our business units, including property, construction, transportation, and infrastructure. The process of setting targets, getting buy-in, doing technical audits, and dealing with internal stakeholders of varying levels of awareness was extremely difficult. But we managed to power through, and come up with something aspirational at a group level.
What are the some of the targets you’re hoping to hit?
We want to reduce our carbon intensity and energy intensity by half before 2030.
We’re making above-market commitments, and for a group that literally went from zero to now, being at least on par with a lot of international companies, I think that was quite a feat for 2019.
And we want to drive the last mile of effort in what we call a lifestyle management approach to building a sustainable community.
A lot of my peers in the real estate sector focus heavily on the technical side, like getting certifications, driving energy targets, and leasing strategies that resonates with sustainability.
We have taken those steps, but we still felt like there was a missing link. Our new real estate projects have a heavier focus on retail, like the K11 site, which is about engaging with millennial customers and creating an educational journey. So we created a nature park to promote sustainable lifestyles.
Even visitors who frequently come to Hong Kong notice there’s beautiful nature, but people tend to think you need to go to the suburbs or the countryside to see the hiking trails and mountains. What’s most unique about Hong Kong is that, as busy and urban as it is, the biodiversity is remarkable. A quarter of China’s fish species are found in Hong Kong waters, and a tenth of the butterfly species, for instance.
So it’s very important that as climate change intensifies and as more buildings are being built in the city centre, we recreate urban habitats that teach people to respect and protect biodiversity.
What do you think is one big question sustainability leaders should be asking this year?
What are you going to do that makes the most impact over the next 10 years?
What’s the most effective way to persuade your CEO to take sustainability seriously?
Think long term, and have different plans in place [to navigate different challenges as they arise].
If you could start your job all over again, what would you do differently?
I would pick a more technical field. My training is in environmental policy and management, and the public administration side of things. My career started in research and sustainable finance, including carbon credit projects. Then I dove into finance, and managed sustainability for HSBC for a long time, but mostly my career has been about advocacy and policy.
Once I joined the real estate sector I felt strapped of knowledge of the technical building stuff. When I was younger I had a lot of interests. But I wish I had spent more time picking a technical focus while understanding and pursuing the big picture so I could have a better blend [of expertise].
Nobody’s perfect—not even sustainability folk. What’s your unsustainable guilty pleasure?
Why will you never be replaced by a robot?
Some of the important factors that drive success in sustainability are engagement and relationship building. I don’t think robots can get better at that; it will really be difficult or just take longer. Soft skills are hard to be replaced.
Which sustainability buzz word could you live without?
Sustainability. It’s an awkward word that doesn’t translate easily. In Chinese it sounds very clunky.
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?
I don’t think we know. When people ask me is it really going to be so bad in 10 years, or will the world be flooded by 2030, honestly, no one knows. Not event climatologists can tell you with complete certainty.
But when I try to explain this to friends or people outside of the industry, I usually say our role to drive change is to make the transition less bad, and raise awareness and make sure people are as prepared for the challenges that face us as we can be.