Power of One
The environment provides us with air to breathe, water to drink and resources to maintain our way of life. But all of us — from individuals through to huge multinational companies — are destroying it daily through our collective actions. None of these actions on its own is significant but taken together they are a disaster for mankind. We are not just spoiling the environment for our daughters and grandsons,
but also digging our collective mass grave.
Where to start? What can we possibly do when faced with such a huge problem? Whenever I speak of climate action and responsible business conduct with small and medium-sized enterprises — which collectively account for an overwhelming 98 per cent or more of all enterprises in most countries — I hear the same themes emerging: “dollars and cents first”, “no budget” and above all, “we are too small to make a difference” (Vandenberg, Chantapacdepong, & Yoshino, 2016).
The irony is that SMEs are the most vulnerable to natural disasters (AXA Group, UNEPIF, PSII, 2016, p.3). And it is SMEs that will pay most dearly in Asia since it is this continent that will be most at-risk from climate change.
If the SMEs believe they cannot make a difference, we are all doomed. Yet, SMEs are fighting back! I was particularly inspired by Sunfresh, a Singapore-based producer of fruit juices sold across the Asia-Pacific region, who are reducing waste and cost whilst also benefiting the en- vironment with “Actions that doesn’t cost the earth” (Sunfresh, n.d.).
Indeed this is the most compelling reason for doing your part; it’s simply good business.
Over a period of four years, Sunfresh’s initiatives to reduce, reuse, recycle and replace material across operations not only created a positive impact on the environment, but also brought about annual savings of around US$38,000 (Sunfresh, n.d.).
Sunfresh’s biggest cost-saving initiative and the one that also had the largest impact on the environment came from using reusable paper cartons in the transportation of its goods. This simple initiative has saved an estimated 21.7 tons of paper packaging each year, which is equivalent to nearly US$27,000 (Sunfresh, n.d.).
Their award-winning green initiatives have helped Sunfresh to win big clients such as Marina Bay Sands. As Andrew Webster, then COO said in an interview, “People look at going green as a cost centre, but it’s not. It gives us a commercial advantage” (Kan, 2014).
Triple Bottom Lines (3Ps)
It used to be frowned upon to make profits whilst doing good, but times have changed. Today, companies need to think about the 3Ps — profitability (direct and indirect), people (society) and planet (environment). Big companies present their plans to reduce their environmental footprint, whereas much of the plan can also be viewed as big profit generators or plain cost-cutting from resources that are already factored into products and services.
With taxes increasingly imposed on consumers in Asia today (in Europe, especially in Nordic countries, this has been going on for many years), and suppliers reinventing themselves, the ubiquitous supermarket plastic bag may soon become a collectors’ item. The Conversation, an independent news and commentary site, estimates that Australia’s consumption of almost 6 billion plastic bags a year will immediately drop by 80 per cent with discontinuation of free bags bringing savings exceeding US$130 million annually. By offering a more durable version at US12 cents, an intention announced by the country’s two supermarket giants, Woolworths and Coles in 2017, the retail industry is expected to have a new revenue stream with gross profit of US$56 million through sale of 1.18 billion units (Mortimer, 2017).
Singapore telecommunications provider SingTel’s green consumer initiative “Help the Earth, go electronic!” imposes US41 cents per paper invoice. If half of their 4.1 million Singapore subscribers choose paper invoices every month, and the other half goes e-pay, imagine how much more profit and cost-savings are created that help the environment.
Walking the Talk
We don’t choose our parents, children or relatives, but we choose people for almost every other important relationship we wish to establish, including our employer. According to findings of Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, “purpose” is to the millennial what career longevity was to earlier generations, with 76 per cent of them looking to work with organisations that have a clear sense of purpose that impact society in a positive manner (Hurst, 2017). Climate change is an issue of great concern to this group (Thomas, 2015), who look for companies with genuine green credentials, not those that pay lip service to the environment for the purpose of publicity.
Impact Assessment and Communications
❶ Internal processes
The same “track, assess and report” process that is implemented for cost-cutting measures must be applied to measures to reduce environmental footprint in the organisation. They include but are not limited to possibly existing cost-cutting programmes such as moving client documents to e-files, printing on both sides of papers, purchasing recycled ink cartridges, reusable cutlery, turning off lights, air-conditioning and equipment when not in use, redecorating to optimise natural lighting and purchasing large tanks of drinking water instead of small bottles.
Further actions include assessment of how the processes of reducing, reusing, recycling, replacing and/or offsetting can be deepened or intensified across the company. In a brainstorming exercise with a client, their enthused employees came up with a great initiative to collect and track the number of stamps from incoming mail and donate them for sale to raise funds for disadvantaged communities, an initiative that scaled up to involve clients and suppliers, which then multiplied the impact for the beneficiaries. More stamps meant more paper saved, and a great deal of respect all round, that in turned boosted employees’ morale and pride in the organisation.
❷ Close the loop
Responsible business also includes educating the customers, all the way to the end user. Plastic bags for example are not harmful, but it is the consumers who misuse them that is bringing the end to the bag. As Sunfresh says: “We are trying to get our hotel customers to close the loop by putting the [plastic juice] bottle back in the crate to make sure it is recycled” (Kan, 2014).
Nespresso encourages customers to return used capsules in its specially created recycling bag. For each bagful of capsules returned, Nespresso provides a meal to a needy person and a discount for organic goods. The return policy contributes to the company’s efforts to manage carbon footprint, that has reportedly decreased by 20.7 per cent since 2009 (Nespresso.com, n.d.).
❸ Talk your walk
Action has to come with communication, and too often, we implement and carry on programmes and agendas with a lot of presumption that our actions speak for themselves. On the contrary, without sufficient time allocated to communicating change, consistently, to our stakeholders, the most promising programmes remain promises or failures. Sharing creates clarity, inspiration, inclusivity and accountability and buy-in.
Amicorp, a boutique fiduciary services firm, acquired land to plant trees to offset flying emissions as a group. Part of the budget for this initiative came from reducing flying, especially for internal meetings and training, using instead video-conferencing.
The firm began its Ami-Carbon Offset initiative in 2013, tracking, reporting and offsetting the production of air travel incurred by employees in the course of business. Bookings were centralised to its travel desk, and in the nature of SMEs where ownership and management are not separated to the extent seen in large companies, travel required approval of its Singapore-based founder and CEO, Toine Knipping. After doing the math on oxygen consumption in air travel based on CO2 per flight, and based on the speed at which trees grow in Chile, the chosen destination to plant for offsetting, and the amount of oxygen they can be expected to produce over their lifecycle, they committed to planting one tree for every 1,000 kilometres flown by their employees and began making financial provisions of US$5 per tree for land, planting and nurturing.
E-tickets issued to the travelling employees are accompanied by the following (sample) advice:
Soaring High, Living Green
This 9,729-kilometre trip produces 989.60 kgs of carbon from jet fuel emissions that harm the environment. It takes the oxygen produced by 10 trees during a year to minimize this impact. The company commits on your behalf to plant one tree for every 1,000 kms of all your air travel. We will do this for you and with you in a joint effort to stand out for a greener tomorrow. Fill these miles with smiles.
Wishing you a safe trip – Fly, Plant and Rebalance
Three years of tracking found that air travel amounted to an estimated 10,109,451 kilometres annually, incurring 808,564 kilogrammes (808 tons) of CO2 that required oxygen released by 10,109 fully grown trees annually to offset. In 2016, nearly 50 hectares of land (slightly larger than the Vatican City) was acquired and mass planting com- menced in 2017.
In 2010 in China, I developed an environmentally friendlier MICE (Meeting, Incentive, Convention and Events) programme that enabled clients to track (reduced) emissions, channel percentage of their revenue into green education and receive instant recognition The budget to launch and promote the service came from reallo- cating funds for advertising and promotion, human resources and sales divisions, with the justification that the initiative would forge closer division collaboration, and achieve multiple bottomlines with one action, e.g., boost in employee pride, acquire new talent and clients, and radical though it might be, self-generate funds for green education, and save time from organising multiple events that could be channelled into employees’ work-life balance time, delivering yet another edge over the competition in talent acquisition. The business case made it possible to engage a big MNC as a client, which in turn validated my then employer’s leadership position in this unique service offer in the city. Early takers of the programme included GE Capital Aviation Services, and the Climate Change Department of China’s highest planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission.
Resources come in kind too. They include human, i.e., the management, board members, clients and suppliers; and companies in the same building and their collective concern for climate change; their passion; time; expertise; connections; experience; products and services. Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruits are the employees, the millennials that are expected to comprise 46 per cent of the work- force by 2020, mostly burning to make a difference with their careers (Jayaram, 2015).
Working with the trade and commercial chambers can also scale up impact, create dialogue and networking to share best practices. For example, a study conducted about CSR and SMEs found that envi- ronmental policies of small businesses in the Netherlands exceeded international agreements due to the support of trade associations that served as advisors and information providers (Linh, 2011).
Renowned Kenyan environmental political activist Wangari Maathai’s devotion to the cause of saving the forests of Kenya made her the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She shared a story about a hummingbird:
There’s a huge fire in the forest and all the animals run out to escape. But the hummingbird stays, flying to and from a nearby river carrying water in its beak to put on the fire. The animals laugh and mock this little hummingbird. They say — the fire is so big, you can’t do anything. But the hummingbird replies — I’m doing what I can. There is always something we can do. You can always carry a little water in your beak.
- AXA Group, UNEP Financial Initiatives, Principles for Sustainable Insurance Initiative (2016). Business unusual: Why the climate is changing the rules for our cities and SMEs. Retrieved from https://cdn.axa.com/www-axa-com%2F7e2388b2-6399-4a8da5a7-776f9989f7a7_axa_resilience_cities_sme_brochure.pdf.
- Hurst, A. (2017, March 25). Six ways to help millennials find purpose at work. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/leadership-lab/six-ways-to-motivate-millennials-at-work/article18912174/.
- Jayaram, S. V. (2015, December 31). Top 3 Workforce and Hiring Trends in 2016. HR in Asia. Retrieved from http://www.hrinasia.com/recruitment/top-3-workforce-and-hiring-trends-in-2016/.
- Kan, F. (2014, January 9). Sunfresh squeezes out an advantage. Today. Retrieved from http://www.todayonline.com/business/sunfresh-squeezes-out-advantage
- Knipping, T. (2017). Tantric impact: Let us be authentic and leave our mark for a fair and sustainable community, just because we can. Houston: Keystone Publishing.
- Mortimer, G. (2017, July 17). The conversation: Getting rid of plastic bags a windfall for supermarkets but it won’t do much for the environment. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/getting-ridof-plastic-bags-a-windfall-for-supermarkets-but-it-wont-do-much-for-the-environment-81083.
- Linh, C. V. (2011). Corporate social responsibility and SMEs: A literature review and agenda for future research. Business Perspectives. Retrieved from https://businessperspectives.org/images/pdf/applications/publishing/templates/article/assets/4308/PPM_2011_04_Vo.pdf.
- Nespresso.com. (n.d.) How to recycle coffee capsule. Retrieved from https://www.nespresso.com/sg/en/how-to-recycle-coffee-capsules.
- Sunfresh. (n.d.) Sunfresh Singapore Pte Ltd: Action that doesn’t cost the earth. Accessed March 10, 2018, http://www.sunfresh.com.sg/environment.html.
- Thomas, J. (2015, December 8). Climate change and millennials: The future is in our hands. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/climate-change-and-millennials-the-future-is-in-our-hands/
- Vandenberg, P., Chantapacdepong, P., & Yoshino, N. (2016). SMEs in developing Asia: New approaches to overcoming market failures. Toyko: Asian Development Bank Institute. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/214476/adbi-smes-developing-asia.pdf.
CHAN SUE MENG
Chan Sue Meng is founder of Green Shoots Communications, which provides strategic social impact and communications consulting to help corporates realise aspirations to drive social impact in meaningful, manageable and measurable ways.