Sustainability Leaders Series: City Development’s Esther An

At the frontline of CDL’s sustainability efforts is Ms Esther An, head of CSR, who set up its CSR division long before sustainability became fashionable.

Esther An
CDL's head of CSR Esther An

Property developer City Developments Ltd (CDL) has built up a reputation over the years as one of Singapore’s forward-thinking businesses that has embraced sustainability - and has an impressive suite of properties with the highest green building awards to show for it.  

At the frontline of their sustainability efforts is Ms Esther An, head of corporate social responsibility (CSR), who joined the firm in 1995 to set up its corporate communications and CSR division, long before sustainability became fashionable.The Singapore-listed developer was the first Singapore company to be included in three leading global sustainability indexes - the FTSE4Good Index Series, Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations.  

Ms An has an arts degree from the University of Hong Kong and has over 20 years of experience in corporate and community communications in the public and private sectors. In the second part of the Sustainability Leaders Series profiling sustainability leaders in the Asia Pacific region, Ms An speaks to Eco-Business about CDL’s sustainability journey.

CDL was recently named in the 2012 Corporate Knights Global 100 list of sustainable companies for the fourth consecutive year - how has CDL been able to achieve this?

Since the 1990s, CSR has been an integral part of CDL’s corporate vision and mission. Mindful of the impact the real estate industry has on the environment, we re-evaluated our business approach and decided to act on a vision to conserve as we construct. We believe in conducting our business responsibly so as to build an enduring and sustainable organisation. Since then, we have never looked backed.

To date, we have over 60 credited BCA Green Mark properties in our portfolio. (The BCA Green Mark is Singapore’s green building rating system administered by the Building and Construction Authority.) Our corporate vision is to maintain industry leadership in innovation, product quality, service standards, profitability and CSR. We seek to be both a leader in business and a champion of CSR.  CDL’s business strategies and policies are aligned with our CSR commitment.

From design, construction, procurement, maintenance and even user engagement, the entire cycle has been aligned with environmental sustainability in mind. Driven by this CSR conviction, one of the examples of our commitment to sustainable development is our advocacy for Green Buildings and best practices in sustainability in the building industry in Singapore.

We are grateful that our firm commitment to embracing the triple bottom line has accorded us local and global recognition as a leader in CSR and sustainability.

Once CDL made the list, what are some challenges you faced in maintaining your sustainability standards? Do they get tougher each year?

Many companies still do not see the benefits  for embracing CSR… this lack of knowledge and understanding of CSR to kick-start any initiatives actually impedes the development of CSR standards for Singapore as a whole.

Esther An

The CSR landscape is constantly evolving and we continually refine our management approach to adapt and to align ourselves with international best practices. Demonstrating our commitment, a company-wide CSR Committee was established in 2008  and since then, CDL has been voluntarily publishing an annual Sustainability Report.

Our reporting framework is aligned with ISO 26000 and covers seven key areas, namely: Environment, Fair Operating Practice, Corporate Governance & Risk Management, Stakeholder Engagement & Consumer Issues, Community Involvement & Development, Human Rights and Labour Practices & Employee Relations.

The challenge is actually not in maintaining sustainability standards but rather the somewhat slow CSR take-up in Singapore which in turn becomes an obstacle for us as we are unable to make CSR improvements as quickly as we would like. Many companies still do not see the benefits or economic imperative for embracing CSR and the drivers here are not as strong as in other parts of the world. This lack of knowledge and understanding of CSR to kick-start any initiatives actually impedes the development of CSR standards for Singapore as a whole.

Therefore, much of CDL’s efforts continue to be focused on engaging stakeholders such as the supply chain, contractors and consultants as well as consumers to convince them of the benefits that our CSR practices brings to them and the community at large. For instance, as a litmus test on true commitment towards CSR, only 71 listed companies in Singapore have done some form of Sustainability Reporting, out of a total of over 750 companies listed on the SGX.

The changes in frameworks also pose a challenge as we try and keep up with these global trends. For instance, we have just managed to achieve a Level A+ Sustainability Report checked by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) using the GRI G3.1 guidelines and the Construction and Real Estate Sector Supplement and now, the GRI G4 Guidelines and Integrated Reporting are already being discussed.
CDL is also listed on both the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes and FTSE4Good Index Series. In your experience, does being recognised for your sustainability efforts translate into better earnings for the company? How so?

This has definitely brought about reputation benefits and enhanced CDL’s international presence in the sustainability arena, and more importantly, helped place Singapore on the global sustainability map.
It certainly makes CDL more attractive to international investors looking to invest in companies that are more socially responsible, in particular the SRI Funds.

In terms of financial benefits, while the green economy is still in its infancy and demand for green buildings is only just starting to grow, we hope our position as a pioneering green developer will give us a first-mover advantage when the age of socially responsible consumerism dawns.

In the residential market, customers are also more appreciative of the green features in our developments in recent years, especially since there is a direct impact for them in terms of utility cost savings.  In the leasing market, there is a growing demand especially from MNCs whom we are starting to see include green buildings as a criterion when sourcing for office space.

Having said all these, we measure ROI (return of investment) of our sustainable practices not simply by the financial impact or by awards received. These best practices in sustainability will bring about priceless environmental and social benefits such as reduced or more efficient use of natural resources to achieve a lower carbon footprint.
You are known as one of Singapore’s leading CSR pioneers - when CDL began its journey on sustainability, what were the biggest obstacles you and your team faced and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge in sustaining CSR practices is the nurturing and integration of this conviction into a company’s DNA and operations.

Esther An

The challenge of a pioneer is to start a journey in uncharted territory.  When we first started integrating sustainable practices in our business, climate change or CSR were not familiar concepts to many in this part of the world.  Hence, in the beginning, achieving buy-in from both internal and external stakeholders was one of the major challenges, with many obstacles as CDL faced the scepticism of stakeholders.

To help sceptical stakeholders to understand and support our CSR vision and mission, it took much time and efforts to communicate to them our goals and expectations.  Our EHS policy, the CDL 5-star EHS Assessment System and Green Procurement Guidelines have been some key platforms that we use to communicate, educate and achieve buy-in from our contractors and suppliers.

With consistency and tireless efforts, our contractors learnt about our commitment and also saw the benefits of such practices.  Under peer pressure, all contractors now support our approach and extend the same good EHS practices to other developers. In a way, this has helped raise the standard of EHS practices in the construction industry in Singapore. Today, I’m glad that CDL is regarded as Singapore’s leading green developer and sustainability pioneer.   

Lastly, what would be your advice for companies today who want to embark on this journey? What can they learn from you in order to leapfrog some of the growing pains in becoming a responsible business?

The biggest challenge in sustaining CSR practices is the nurturing and integration of this conviction into a company’s DNA and operations.

Leadership commitment is crucial for the mandate and resources needed.   A committed team of champions taking the lead in strategic planning and implementation across the entire operations is important for effective application of sustainable business practices in an organisation.   Active stakeholder engagement with clear communication of direction and targets is also vital in putting effective processes in place and achieving goals and continual improvements.

Building green developments is more than just placing a couple of eco-friendly features within a property. It takes concerted and sustained efforts that cut across the entire supply and development chain. For CDL, going green makes business sense, resulting in strong branding and environmental benefits which are priceless apart from financial savings. CDL’s sustainability strategy has proven to be successful in achieving the triple bottom line.    


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