Is Sustainability Sustainable?


During a recent visit to the cinema, amidst the pre-movie trailers and advertisements, I noticed that 80% of the advertisements played to the theme of sustainability.  Terms like sustainable fashion, plastic-free living, waste reduction, circular economy, etc were bandied about in slick videos to the captive audience.  One bank leveraged on its longstanding slogan in a new campaign to show how it can be a “force for good” in the fight against wildlife poaching.   Are all these saving-Gaia and other feel-good sustainability messages merely a marketing tool?  Does prefixing a product or service with “eco“ or “green” automatically make it sustainable?  Or this period is truly sustainability’s zeitgeist moment?

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The first widely accepted definition of Sustainability was coined in the 1987 Brundtland Report[1] as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations too meet their own needs”.

This definition serves to balance resource usage against limited supplies over a period of time, or as one writer described it “sustainability assures inter-generational equity”.  Since then, there have been various terms and criteria used to more clearly define this noble, but rather nebulous, concept of sustainability: Economic, Environmental, Social; Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, Profits); or the preferred criteria used by socially conscious investors to assess potential investments, ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance).  Whatever the definition used, the general consensus is that there must be a balance between performing well economically and improving social inequality, at the same time ensuring that we do not deplete the planet of its finite resources.

Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released “The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C”, which highlighted the climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, compared with 2°C or more.  These impacts include extreme weather changes such as prolonged drought, more severe storm patterns, and accelerated melting of polar ice caps which will increase sea levels, threatening low lying civilizations.  The report noted that rapid and far reaching transitional changes would be needed in land, energy, industry, building, transport and cities, to limit this global temperature increase.  Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would also need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by the year 2030, targeting to reach “net zero” by 2050.  This would require extracting carbon dioxide out of the air by gadgets that have not been invented yet.

Obviously, turning off all non-essential lighting globally for an hour each year is not going to help much, other than symbolically drawing attention to our collective global plight.  The Earth Hour event organised by the WWF raises awareness of the issue and hopefully encourages the man in the street to seek ways to reduce carbon emissions in their lifestyles.  What is more important, however, is to encourage the large power consumers and sources of carbon emissions to consume less power and generate less waste.

 

Many companies started their sustainability journey with the Social aspect of ESG, getting on the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) bandwagon, as a practice to give back to the community, and as a public relations strategy.  As consumers become increasingly attuned to climate and waste management issues, their demands are changing how products are made and how they are sold.  New markets such as impact investing have emerged from this demand.  Companies need to evaluate how raw materials and resources used in production are sourced, how fossil fuel energy can be replaced by clean energy from solar, wind or water sources, how architecture can be designed to incorporate natural elements like sunlight or air circulation, and how the final products are marketed and packaged for sale.

These operational changes have to begin with a review of the organisation’s values and priorities, as part of an overall corporate strategy for governance and management ready for a sustainable developed world.  As with financial targets, sustainability performance must be monitored and reported, and be a catalyst for action beyond the organisation’s boundaries.

Understanding the power that consumers and conscious capitalists wield today has not been lost on governments and corporates.  Companies and societies that continue to ignore ESG issues or abuse natural resources for profit are shunned, even named and shamed.  Remember a certain sportswear company that was taken to task when news emerged that their clothes were made in Third World country sweatshops, some by children as young as 10 years old?  They took almost a decade to recover and rebuild their reputation, publishing reports acknowledging the issues and putting in place measures to prevent similar occurrences in other factories they outsource work to.

Regulators too are doing their part to help drive the sustainability agenda and hopefully protect their markets.  Carbon pricing mechanisms have been implemented in some 40 countries to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, either as a carbon tax or some emissions trading system.  Public-listed companies in many jurisdictions are required to report on their sustainability efforts on an annual basis, backing up their glossy narratives with objective measures of agreed metrics.  Many companies treat this as an exercise in compliance, but there are the enlightened ones that have taken this opportunity to re-look and re-prioritize their values and processes, not just to meet their regulatory obligations, but to take advantage of actual cost savings some of the re-engineered solutions offer.

City Developments Limited (CDL) was one of the first Singapore companies to integrate sustainability into its business.  In March this year, they reported savings in excess of S$24 million over a 6-year period from 2012 – 2018, thanks to energy-efficient initiatives and retrofitting at eight of their commercial buildings.

Sustainability is not just the domain of large manufacturing and building sectors or multi-national corporates.  Small and medium enterprises have a part to play and can benefit from these efforts.

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing and the RHT Group recognized our role in sustainability during our early years.  We eliminated the use of disposable cups and single-use plastics, introduced policies to limit printing documents to a minimum, engaging with clients and vendors to use electronic versions where possible.  Over the years, we invested in Information Technology to improve document management and sharing, making plans to allow our staff to work from anywhere.  This allows them to better manage their time and reduces their carbon footprint, as we work towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals SDG 3 and 13.

Looking outward, the RHT Rajan Menon Foundation (RHT RMF) has organised events to raise more than S$2 million to directly support 11 beneficiaries in Singapore.  Beyond our borders, the Foundation has supported efforts to build bridges in Lombok Indonesia; provided much needed humanitarian aid during the 2018 Lombok Earthquake; and contributed to upgrading works for a school kitchen and canteen at a primary school in Vietnam.

We aim to be the catalyst for our clients, business partners and friends to converse and discuss how we can build a more sustainable future.  At the recent RHT RMF GAIL[2] Sustainability Day, opinion leaders, sector specialists and industry practitioners held in-depth discussions on conscious capitalism and sustainable leadership in Asia, in industries as diverse as power generation and building development, to agriculture, food systems, and fashion.

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Sitting in the darkened movie theatre watching those adverts, I was reminded of how sustainability has featured in previous Hollywood productions – Erin Brockovich, Avatar, even Wall-E.  All these painted a very bleak picture, but they always ended with hope for the future, when conscious efforts are made.

Sustainability may have started out as marketing hype on the part of many companies.  As consumers matured, and corporates recognized their roles in society and the environment , they have had to evolve to meet changing market demands.  This includes embracing and embedding sustainability as a key pillar of their businesses, to create value not just for the company’s stakeholders, but for the society and environment in which it operates.  In doing so, companies have discovered that they can do well financially and still do good, realizing not just cost savings but also improved social capital with their customers and the environment in which they operate.

Sustainability is, and must remain, sustainable.

[1] “Our Common Future”, World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED)

[2] GAIL – Greening Asia: Initiatives and Leadership.

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