Q&A with Ms. Denise Delaney, Director & Ms. Bron York, Analyst at SustainAbility about sustainability practices for South Asian companies

Q. As a sustainability advisory firm, you bring an outside-in view of what businesses are doing in sustainability practices. Based on this experience, what is your opinion of where India/South Asia are placed in their journey towards sustainability?

A. South Asia is a diverse region, so sustainable development looks different in Afghanistan or Bhutan than it does in India. One thing the region does share is a relatively young population, and in many countries, a growing middle class. The 21st century economy is going to be driven largely by Asia. South Asian economies like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will be a crucial part of this.

But South Asia is also going to bear the brunt of some of the world’s biggest sustainability challenges in relation to climate change impacts, population growth and increasing natural resource scarcity.

We are seeing a lot of exciting innovation in this region with regards to social entrepreneurship, renewable energy (solar, wind and bio gas), electric vehicles and, to a smaller extent, gender equity. But these need to be scaled up more rapidly. Areas that need a lot more investment from industry are infrastructure and climate proofing. The other big challenge for the region is investing in quality education, particularly for women and girls. The regional economy is losing billions of dollars due to its failure to adequately invest in gender equity.

India’s so-called 2% law that requires large companies with annual revenues of more than 10 billion rupees to give 2% of profits to charities is an interesting example of the government trying to increase investment in sustainable development from the private sector. But unfortunately some this investment is not being used as srategically as it should be. And while philanthropic giving is important, we need companies to go beyond charitable giving, and embed sustainability throughout their business model and value chain. Companies need to deliver real social and environmental benefits through their products and services. Forward looking CEOs are aware of this and we are seeing Indian companies like Mahindra, Infosys and Tata Group really stepping up. But we need more and more large companies in the region to follow their lead.

Q. What do you think India/South Asia can learn from other nations globally on this front?

A. There are a number of mechanisms that can rapidly propel countries in their sustainability journeys. Some of these include regulation and market signals, investment in innovation, and investment in education and social equity.

The European Union (EU) has been strong in terms of setting environmental goals and increasing the regulations on a range of issues including putting a price on carbon emissions and increasing regulations regarding human rights. Regulation and carbon pricing send an important signal to the private sector. China has been very strong on innovation. It has invested heavily in renewable energy, electric vehicles and low carbon transport technology.

Girls’ education and women’s empowerment need to become key priorities for South Asia.

Better educated women tend to be healthier, earn higher incomes, have fewer children, and provide better opportunities for their children when they do decide to become mothers. Ending child marriage could generate billions in benefits annually. Girls’ education in Bangladesh has significantly improved over the last two decades due to high amounts of investment. But more still needs to be done to increase women’s representation in leadership positions in both the public and private sector. Nicaragua provides a positive example of increasing women’s representation in politics. In May 2012, they passed a law requiring 50% of political party candidates be women and today it’s one of the few developing countries to make the World Economic Forum’s Top-10 countries for gender equity.

Q. EPR (extended producer responsibility) can be a game-changer to involve businesses in the sustainable ecosystem. Do you think so? Or do you feel businesses are becoming responsible without EPR rules compelling them to do so?

A. Leading companies will always push the boundaries and go beyond compliance as it is a key differentiator for them – but for the majority of companies, regulation is required to lift standards. Many companies will tell you that they want to lead, but they also want an even playing field.

A more widely recognised sign of leadership is working with your supply chain to embed the same sustainability standards and values.

Q. Triple bottom-line is picking up acceptance, but it depends on developing workable business models. What would be your advice to entrepreneurs, policymakers & investors so that they are able to develop more and more workable solutions that achieve triple bottom-line?

A. Companies can no longer ignore the resource constraints and shifting community expectations that exist today, and which will only continue to increase over the next ten years. If you were to create a new oil and gas company today, you would have to think about climate change and the social and environmental impacts of your business.

Our advice for entrepreneurs, policymakers and investors would be to think long term. What will companies need to look like to be globally competitive ten years from now?

A lot of the biggest challenges we currently face in terms of sustainability are also the largest opportunities for business development and growth. The Sustainable Development Goals offer more than US$12 trillion in business opportunities according to Business & Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC). Alternatives to plastic, clean energy, energy storage, clean transportation, quality education, healthcare access – all of these issues offer lucrative business opportunities. Long-term value creation is the answer to ensuring future competitiveness and financial success.

Q. Amongst your service lines, which ones are seeing more traction? Is that largely demonstrative of the gaps in the supply-market in terms of what businesses need to assist them in sustainability plans?

A. We work broadly across trends and intelligence, sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement.

Corporate sustainability teams are often small and under-resourced, given the breadth and complexity of the issues they are working on – such as stakeholder engagement, the changing policy and regulatory landscape, reporting and transparency, strategy and goal setting etc. While we work with companies on a wide variety of projects, we have been seeing growing momentum around an increasing number of companies engaging in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), setting net positive goals and investing more deeply in stakeholder engagement and corporate leadership on high-profile social and environmental issues. There is a higher bar emerging for what it means to be a global leader on sustainability.

Q. Do you think a country’s efforts in sustainability can be better leveraged as a soft-diplomacy agenda to promote engagement with other nations?

A. There are several ways that sustainability can be used as a soft-diplomacy tool. More formal options include embedding sustainability within aid and development funding, and including human rights and environmental requirements within new trade agreements. We saw this happen with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which was originally the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before the U.S. pulled out (although the enforcement mechanisms in that agreement could have been stronger).

Less formal options include modeling sustainability in a compelling way, sharing sustainability tech and intellectual property with developing countries, collaborating on sustainability innovation projects and sharing lessons learnt. There is a lot of great stuff happening on this front in terms of international collaboration on the SDGs. But it is important to have large companies, not just governments, leading on all of these fronts.

The private sector has a huge role to play in shifting cultural norms towards sustainability.

Simple things like advertising and product care/use messages can help shift the way consumers think about the world. For instance, in India, Tanishq Jewelry has been great at pushing cultural boundaries on divorce and remarriage as well as working mothers in their ads. In the U.S., we’ve seen Nike showing strong leadership with its recent Colin Kaepernick campaign. And on the environmental side, both Unilever and Levi Strauss have been leaders in engaging consumers in reducing water use associated with their products. All of these are important cultural messages. We are social beings and are very susceptible to peer influence. This is true at both an individual level, and at an institutional level.

Q. Some Big-4 firms are also expanding into the development space. How do you think consultancies like SustainAbility can compete (or collaborate) with the Big-4 in the sustainability consultancy space?

A. Sustainability is still a relatively young field. We need all kinds of organisations, knowledge and skills.

We have a 30+ year track record in this space – perhaps the longest.

We are a mission-driven for-profit organisation, and one of the first certified B Corporations in the UK, which means we meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. We also have a strong think tank that demonstrates we are thinkers as well as doers.

We try to collaborate with peers and competitors as much as we can, because we are all working towards the same goal: a sustainable, equitable future. We have strong relationships with a wide range of players in the sustainability space, including UN Global Compact, WWF, GlobeScan, Sustainable Brands and many more. You’re not going to have global impact without collaboration – whether you’re a consultancy, a Fortune 500 company or a government.

Q. Lastly, how are you embracing technology to compete in this segment?

A. At an internal level, we are always open to trying new tools and platforms that offer increased efficiencies and benefits. However, there is also a lot of hype around new tools, so we make sure we do rigorous testing as a team before rolling out anything across the organization.

One tool that has worked well in some of our recent projected is 73Bit, based in India. We use them for external survey work and have found them to be really effective.

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