Make ESG Happen or Let it Happen?

April marks a month of collective efforts by individuals and brands to do good for our planet. With social media flooded with brand commitments and actions, were you tuning in or out?

The Earth Hour in Singapore, led by WWF celebrated on 25 March 2023 after a two-year hiatus. It was a callout to individuals and businesses to be part of the #BiggestHourForEarth through a slew of organised activities which includes an Earth Hour Festival, an Earth Hour Switch Off and Kosong Plan. The Earth Hour Switch Off continues to be the most symbolic and of the greatest impact, where thousands of individuals and establishments pledge to switch off non-essential lights for an hour.

There were 112 business groups across an array of business sectors. Hotels, restaurants, cafes, shopping malls, telcos, departmental stores and supermarkets. One of Earth Hour’s biggest supporters is the FairPrice Group, participating in Earth Hour since its inaugural launch in 2009. NTUC FairPrice committed to switching off all non-essential lighting at FairPrice Xtra, FairPrice Finest, corporate office and warehousing facilities.

Are brands eagerly grasping the opportunity to ride the wave of the latest trend, or do they genuinely acknowledge that climate change is real and that only with collective formative action, there can be change?

ABrandADay’s Dipstick Survey

About six months ago, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of enquiries for sustainability branding projects or from brands that are planning to embark on their sustainability journey. In our discussions with them, we found that individuals had differing degrees of comprehension regarding ESG, including its guidelines and overall scope. Furthermore, there was variation in their level of engagement and willingness to address any challenges or obstacles associated with ESG.

We got curious and took the opportunity to ask brands that we work closely with two questions. Their current state and future state when it comes to their understanding of the importance of ESG and their attitudes towards it.

What was unanimous was the fact that ESG is a complex topic; no one was able to provide a foolproof formula or approach for it to be viable from a business perspective. From the guidelines to the implementation process, the consensus was that ESG can be an overwhelming subject.

The Case of Unilever

Unilever has been a consistent leader in corporate sustainability, particularly in the early stages of ESG issues. For over a decade, the company has been a guiding light for advocates of a more sustainable global financial system, especially during a time when brands were thriving and striving towards stakeholder capitalism.

Paul Polman, who was responsible for pioneering a new model of sustainable growth launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan(USLP) in 2009. Helming the role of CEO for 10 years, he delivered a shareholder return of 290%.

How did he do it? In an interview back in 2011, published on the Forum for the Future, Sally Uren suggested six ways Unilever has achieved its business successes through sustainability.

Applying it to Singapore’s business context

To make this more applicable to our readers and local businesses, we aim to adapt it to ensure relevance without misconstruing its original context.

1. Ask the right question – from my world to our world

“Most businesses operate and say how can I use society and the environment to be successful? We are saying the opposite – how can we contribute to society and the environment to be successful?”

The contrast lies in the traditional business case for sustainability, which involves doing what is right only if it is financially beneficial, versus the leadership business case, which focuses on transforming the right thing into profitability. When a business has deeply analysed how significant the impact of climate change will affect its operations and challenges in its supply chain, it will know that there is simply no business to be done on a dead planet.

2. Think long term

There is nothing inherently wrong with aiming for short-term profits and only executing business strategies that are commercially viable. After all, there are obligations to be met. What it doesn’t help with is to make businesses resilient and adaptable to secure mid and longer-term success. Over a weekend in April, Thailand topped 45 Degree Celsius for the first time in history. As El Nino continues to loom over Southeast Asia, our oceans just reached their hottest temperatures. With El Nino comes droughts, heat and fires leading to pollution and haze. Are our businesses prepared?

3. Accept that no business is an island – create new networks

The world’s biggest problem is not the sole responsibility of any single government, business or individual. We all live on this planet and build homes, families, and friendships. It is a shared responsibility that we all have. Creating new networks and partnerships helps to speed things up because we are in a race against time.

4. Embed sustainability into the business – accept this is a journey of cultural transformation

It may be stating the obvious but great things cannot be achieved overnight. A sustainability plan helps to give businesses renewed purpose, for both internal and external stakeholders. However, it should be carefully planned and executed in stages to ensure that individuals can gradually adapt to the changes without being taken aback.

It is essential to manage the expectations of the plan as there is no one-size-fits-all perfect solution. The plan must be regularly reviewed and modified to meet the requirements of ESG, internal and external stakeholders, while still preserving the integrity of its objectives.

Panelogue’s revenue has been growing by 10 to 15 per cent annually, says director Emily Sim, proving that there is business value in going green.
Photo credit: SPH Media Limited

5. Don’t wait for the pull-push sustainability out to consumers

The easy way out for businesses is to take the wait-and-see approach. Don’t fix it if it’s not broken many will say. However, Paul Polman recognised the importance of taking proactive measures to promote sustainability, especially for people who purchase Unilever products. He made it a priority a decade ago to prioritise sustainability at Unilever, which has set an example for other companies.

We need to first identify that the new generation of consumers is wired differently. They are educated and have access to opportunities and resources far better than our forefathers. Their value system includes transparency and trust when it comes to their rules of engagement.

According to data from Forrester’s Gen Zs will not hesitate to cancel brands when they sense a shallow veneer or simply put, rainbow washing.

The success of businesses heavily depends on meeting the demands and expectations of their customers. Nowadays, it is not only the consumers who are concerned with sustainability practices but also government bodies and investors. As a result, businesses must be prepared to adapt and implement sustainable practices in their operations when there is a growing demand for them.

6. Change the system

Throw the rule book out of the window. Whatever has worked for the past 30 years ain’t going to get your business going for the next 30. The earlier your business removes current barriers, the better poised you are to create, influence and engage suppliers and consumers on your own terms. These terms may not always be perfect; they may potentially fail. It’s absolutely fine as long as the eyes stay on the prize.

How ESG Initiatives Can Grow into Sustainable Solutions

Drawing inspiration from the mustard seed, we must understand that immense potential for growth can come from seemingly small beginnings. Though it may be small in size, small actions and investments can make a significant impact on the environment and society.

Talk to us, at ABrandADay to help kickstart your sustainability journey and narrative that is impactful, meaningful, and authentic. Our ESG Kickstarter package believes that every business has the power to make a positive impact, and we’re here to guide you in creating a sustainable and responsible approach that aligns with your values and goals. By taking small steps towards a more sustainable future, we can collectively create a better world for ourselves and future generations. Let’s work together to cultivate a culture of sustainability and make a meaningful difference in the world.

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