Meet the Eco-Business A-Listers: Esther An, CDL’s ubiquitous partnership builder

Esther An spearheaded multiple initiatives to help foster responsible business and partnerships last year. Her efforts secured her a place in Eco-Business A-List of the region’s most influential sustainability executives. In this interview, she reflects on her career and the challenges she faced in 2019.

esther an cdl gala night
Esther An, chief sustainability officer at City Developments Limited (CDL), has looked after sustainability for the Singapore-based property giant for almost a quarter-century. Image: Tim Daubach, Eco-Business

The time to talk was yesterday, the time to act is now, declares Esther An.

The chief sustainability officer of Singapore-based property firm City Developments Limited has long gained a reputation for carrying her commitments beyond her corporate roles, promoting sustainability across sectors, speaking at events around the world, and bringing people together to build partnerships.

This year, An was behind the SDG City Challenge, bringing together Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority, Health Promotion Board and Sport Singapore to promote a green, active lifestyle while raising awareness of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and Incubator4SDGs, a partnership between CDL, UNDP and the Singapore Centre of Social Enterprise to host start-ups that drive the SDGs.

She also set up the Saving Glaciers SG Alliance last October, galvanising Singapore companies to help conserve the polar regions. In September, An designed the first-ever SDG Innovation Loan, a S$250 million loan issued by DBS Bank for innovations that go towards sustainable development.

For these efforts, An made it onto the inaugural Eco-Business’ A-List, a who’s who of the most influential corporate sustainability executives in Asia Pacific, who have done the most to make their businesses and industries more sustainable over the last 12 months.

In this interview, An talks about the challenges she faces in her job, her biggest achievements in 2019, and what she would do differently if she could start her role all over again. 

What sparked your interest in sustainability?

It was probably my first job that sparked my interest in sustainability. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and my first job was with the government to promote the “Clean and Green Hong Kong” campaign. That was probably the first sign that I was destined to work for the environment.

Saving operating costs is a must, but you must also look at what the cost of inaction is.

Esther An, chief sustainability officer, City Developments Limited

The transition from corporate communications, branding and advertising to sustainability felt like a natural progression to me. I joined City Developments Limited in 1995. The property sector has a huge impact on the environment but because of our impact, we are also in a position to drive change.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

The most difficult part is probably that you have to change mindsets and behaviour. It’s very hard to change people’s behaviour when they have believed in certain things since they were young.

What’s the most important thing you did in the past year?

This year, I was very proud of setting up the Saving Glaciers SG Alliance. We live in the tropics, and to a lot of people, glaciers seem far away. You only get to see them if you make an effort to go to the polar regions or cold countries. But the news about the rapid melting of glaciers is very scary.

We have to understand that what happens in the polar regions doesn’t stay there. Glaciers and sea ice that melt in other parts of the world will affect us eventually. Rising sea levels are real. Four out of five people in Asia will be affected by floods and rising seas if business-as-usual [emissions] continues, and many coastal cities will be underwater if we don’t turn things around.

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

We should ask ourselves what sort of solutions can really tackle the climate emergency and how we can take action. There is no point in just talking if you do not take action.

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

At CDL, we have a really strong commitment from our leadership. Our CEO, Sherman Kwek, really believes in sustainability, and is an advocate himself. Not every CSO is as fortunate as me in that regard.

But most importantly, you must show that there is a business case [for sustainability]. You can integrate sustainability in ways that create good branding opportunities and tangible benefits. Saving operating costs is a must, but you must also look at what the cost of inaction is.

You don’t just have to convince your CEO. You have to convince your peers, different operating heads, the chief financial officer (CFO) and also the board. You also have to convince your investors. We must show them that we have a viable sustainability strategy with robust policies that will have an impact and eventually bring them returns.

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

When I started my position at CDL in 1995, very few people knew what global warming was all about. Nobody really talked about the urgency of climate change. There was no Paris agreement, and emissions reduction was not really on the agenda.

If I could start all over again, I would take even more aggressive moves to drive change. I would push sustainability up the agenda early on.

If I could start all over again, I would make even more aggressive moves to drive change. I would push sustainability up the agenda early on. We took very progressive steps, but at the time, people didn’t feel the urgency as strongly as today. I would have moved faster if I had known the world would become what it is today.

Who’s your sustainability role model?

I’d say it was my late mentor, Kwek Leng Joo, the late deputy chairman of CDL. When I joined CDL, we didn’t have a crystal ball. We didn’t know climate change was coming and (hence), we must commit to sustainability. We just felt that that was the right thing to do.

We felt that the building sector had a high environmental impact, and we couldn’t continue this model for long. We took a long-term view and realised we had to transform our business model to one that is more sustainable. That’s how we started, and we still believe in it.

Without Kwek Leng Joo, I would not have been able to do as much because he gave me the endorsement and the resources I needed.

Nobody’s perfect—not even sustainability folk. What’s your unsustainable guilty pleasure?

Definitely, nobody is perfect. I would like to go vegetarian. I haven’t eaten red meat for 30 years, but I haven’t been able to quit eating fish yet.

Why will you never be replaced by a robot?

Robots may be good at collecting and analysing data, but they do not have the emotions and feelings that human beings have. The love for nature, the love for your children and your grandchildren—that’s what drives us to want to save the planet for future generations.

Which sustainability buzzword could you live without?

Ambition. Just having ambition will not make things happen; it is immediate action that we need. You need impact and concrete results. This is why corporate sustainability reporting is so important.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 12-year climate deadline [to reduce emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change]. Will we make it, or are we doomed?

I think it’s 50-50. Change is happening quickly in some areas, and investors have started putting money where their mouths are. But I do not think it’s happening fast enough. 

It’s like a pyramid. The top 10 per cent are the leaders, driving change fast. Further down are the followers. At the base is the majority that either doesn’t really know what’s going on, or doesn’t believe or care about climate change.

I’d like to see the pyramid become more balanced. The top needs grow bigger. It has to. There really is an urgency.

Esther An 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 has really moved the needle for their business and industry? Bare them in mind for our next call for nominations.

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