How companies can embed sustainability into the business model

31 May 2018

How do corporations balance long-terms goals of sustainability against short-term business pressures?

How do corporations measure their impact in a meaningful way?

These were among the questions raised at a panel of senior company leaders during the opening ceremony of UNLEASH 2018. The focus of the panel was on how corporations can mainstream sustainability into their business operations.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion:

1. Short-term, long-term: Companies need “ambidextrous leadership”

Meeting the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals are complex long-term challenges, so companies need “ambidextrous” leaders to keep one eye on the long term and another on the “really short term” – share price, dividends and so on, said Ms Tan Su Shan, Group Head of Consumer Banking & Wealth Management at DBS Bank.

“You have to toggle both. It’s not often easy,” she said. She suggested having a balanced scorecard that measures both short-term and long-term goals, and details clearly the trade-offs involved. “If you are clear in explanation, and everyone buys it … I think that’s half the battle won.”

Mr Tan Chong Meng, Group CEO of PSA International, noted that transformation is a “people journey”. Other than new ideas and new technology, helping people go through that journey is what’s truly sustainable, he added.

The most important investment is in people and their talent, said Mr Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Temasek International.

2. Impact measurement: specific goals, clear action plan

The more lofty the goal, the more difficult it can be to measure. So, PSA sets mid-term goals – such as targets for lowering emissions – and an action plan that will bring the company where it wants to go, said Mr Tan.

Over the DBS, the bank has started measuring its digital value capture. The bank is tracking data such as how much savings are gained from digitialisation, and the value of the digitally-engaged customer.

The bank also joined global renewable energy initiative RE100, committing to 100% renewable energy to power its operations. It aims to have all branches Green Mark certified come 2020, by incorporating best practices in environmental design and construction, and adopting green building technologies.

“We also want to move away from using cash, which is not very green,” added Ms Tan. The bank tracks its progress by measuring daily, how much cash is being taken out of the system.

3. That one disruptive venture for sustainable development

The panel was asked about a disruptive venture they’d like their companies to undertake to maximise impact in sustainable development.

Ms Tan said she would like DBS to be a sustainable digital bank that can change values and move people to doing more good, creating a sustainable ecosystem.

She pointed to how the bank, together with IIX (Impact Investment Exchange), closed the Women’s Livelihood Bond (WLB), the world’s first social sustainability bond to be listed on a stock exchange, in 2017.

The USD 8 million bond provides loans to social enterprises and microfinance institutions, positively impacting the livelihoods of more than 385,000 women in Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“It was very difficult to raise money for that, took us a long time,” shared Ms Tan. “But we did it, it’s done. First time ever. Now we can do the second and third tranches.”