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Why Businesses in Asia Are Adopting Sustainability in the 2020s

A Philippine- and Hong Kong-based company is helping companies shift to more meaningful operations.
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For those new to the world of sustainability, the concept may easily be confined within the boxes of Corporate Social Responsibility, environmental consciousness, or something as simple as an annual report that's meant to be accomplished by the end of the year. But as public awareness for its importance grows, its definition gains clarity. Businesses across Asia are realizing that they can be a force for good and create a greater impact on the environmental and social sense through responsible leadership.

Labeling Responsible Growth

“[Sustainability] has really moved on from the concept of doing good to doing good business,” says Filipino entrepreneur Pat Dwyer in an interview with the Hong Kong Securities and Investment Institute. Dwyer is the founder of The Purpose Business (TPB), a company of trained responsible business practitioners who help businesses assess risks, plan for the future, and consider the greater social, economic, and environmental impact that the business is making. 

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For Dwyer and TPB, the “purpose” that they work to achieve with companies is, in a nutshell, responsible growth that's good for both the business and all factors outside of profit-making that it touches on. She and her team, a group of experienced practitioners who each specialize in their respective fields—be that overall waste management, climate strategy, or even social inclusion—tackle every concern, from stakeholder engagement and communications to creating strategies, risk reporting to governance.

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When she founded TPB in 2015, Dwyer says that companies were not predisposed to thinking about what is called ESG, an acronym that stands for the influence on environmental, social, and governance. At that time, they managed a pool of businesses that equated sustainability with compliance. 

“When we work with businesses, it's making them understand that their business has an impact on the environment and on society, and these, in turn, affect their business operations,” she says. This process usually involves steps such as re-evaluating or rethinking the value chain, accounting for these environmental and social risks, and managing resources well enough so one can mitigate the risk if and when they actualize. 

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“So if I were to explain what it is that we do to a 10-year-old, then I would have to explain what a human being does in order to live: use resources. They may generate waste or by-products in doing so, and as such we realize resources are finite and there is a need to manage them well.”

Today, businesses are evolving and beginning to understand the purpose that Dwyer and her company are working toward. Their asks are becoming specific and there's a greater desire to create a strategy. Fashion brands are beginning to care about the source of their cotton, the labor standards, and the packaging, she explains, while luxury hotels are repositioning themselves to reduce their food waste, to know the farmer that grows their food, and to eliminate the single-use amenities system that's currently in place in their bathrooms. Dwyer says there's a deeper business understanding for change: “It's nowhere as fast as I'd like it to be but we are encouraged by the sea of change that is happening driven by stakeholder accountability, regulation, and yes, a rising consumer consciousness.” 

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Sustainability in Asia

Asia is where it’s at. The shift to better sustainable practices is evident in Asia, where there was a measured increase of ESG reporting. During the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Summit held in the Philippines last year, approximately 500 percent increase in the number of these reports were recorded in the region since some countries had mandated them. Dwyer reinforces that data is nothing if it cannot fuel transformation—using the data for strategic planning of how to future-proof a business, i.e. decipher what it means in the bigger picture (and this can't be one-offs, she stresses). 

There is a call to action among Asian countries to manage waste as a resource, she explains. “You can't just do less harm, you have to do more good,” Dwyer elaborates. “You can reduce waste but you also have to introduce things that are less wasteful to begin with [like] innovating on packaging or even questioning whether you need it in the first place.” 

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Because of business innovations such as making flights smoke-free or introducing shampoo bars, there was a shift in the consumer mindset. Those responsible for making these changes happen, particularly in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, are the businesses' next generation of successors, she believes. “They have a role and a responsibility to transform their businesses to manage complex risks in the supply chain, or in labor practices, for example, if they are to keep the legacy that their parents built.”

Purpose in the Philippines

In the case of Philippine businesses, there are innovations already in place. Dwyer knows this well because she was the first head of CSR for Ayala Land and published its first CSR report in 2007. After four years, she took on a bigger role as Global Head of CSR and Sustainability at Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts for almost seven years. During her tenure there, she was responsible for several firsts, including the banning of shark's fin in 2011, developing impact reporting in 2012, and beginning sustainable sourcing for the hotel’s menus.

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“Climate change is real in the Philippines, and therefore, even without calling it sustainability, we adapted, answered, and we've got ingenious entrepreneurs,” she responds after Esquire asks where the Philippines places among Asian countries in the race to sustainability. “It has to come down from family conglomerates to SMEs. [There's a huge] potential for homegrown brands like Bench, Mercury Drug, or National Book Store. The minute it changes at the Chow King, Max's, or Shakey's level, say the awareness of farm to fork or that showcasing local vegetables in plant-based pizzas is cool, then it will inspire change across a wider market. But if change only stays at the level of a five-star hotel, it will feel like sustainability is only a luxury held by the elite.” she articulates.

Transforming businesses is ultimately in the hands of the board of directors, Dwyer stresses on a piece she's written for Ethical Corp, and it is in their hands that the company's goals are developed and the step of “future-proofing” falls into place. Businesses are on varying levels of the sustainability awareness spectrum, from those who have reached maturity and no longer just do it for compliance to those who are still in denial. The 2020s are a crucial time to take action and, for those business owners who are only starting to understand its relevance, it's not too late to start.

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Dwyer has two pieces of advice for those businesses who are only starting now. The first is to identify one's biggest impact, picking it, sticking with it, and addressing it. This means to pick the impact that's most relevant to your business, she illustrates, and for most businesses in Manila, that could be rooted in the supply chain and sourcing. This step on impact is called risk assessment for ESG, which TPB offers to its clients.

Transparency is second. There's a lack of businesses talking about what the good they do because of fear of shedding light on it. She suggests putting plans, strengths, and shortcomings out there since people value this type of authenticity and businesses will also get to control their narrative. That's what companies should invest in.

For further insights on sustainable businesses, Dwyer and TPB inspire conservation by showing how change is underway. Having helped the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens take out about 400,000 single-use pint cups in 2019, TPB has since helped a regional airline reduce and rethink packaging. Now, it is working with Philippine food and beverage companies to chart a strategy toward resource management and responsible operations.

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It also has thought leadership and case studies that could spark new thinking regularly updated on its official website. For business owners who want to just have a chat, TPB could help by offering a Sustainability Counsel, where an advisor sits down with a client and identifies what needs to be done and which services the client will need from TPB's wide array of experience. 

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Hannah Lazatin
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