Discussing the future of being responsible and sustaining business

2013.11.28

Responsible business forum: President and CEO of Marina Bay Sands, George Tanasijevich, giving his welcome address

Responsible business forum: President and CEO of Marina Bay Sands, George Tanasijevich, giving his welcome address

What makes a business sustainable? How do businesses ensure that their actions are responsible towards the environment? How do they account for their environmental costs?

These are questions that plague many of today’s businesses seeking to go greener and take social responsibility. With such a trend and demand, there have been many environmental and business conferences that announce platforms to supposedly answer these questions.

But are forums that serve as platforms for businesses to explore opportunities in this area actually effective? Oris it all just fancy talk?

After attending the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development held at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, a two-day event from the 25th to 26thof November, I believe it is a touch of both an awareness-raising platform with hard-hitting truths and a call for (sustainable, business-friendly) action.

It’s just that the call for action is open-ended. More can definitely be done by the organizers in the future.

Companies shared their experiences on how they act green and account for their environmental costs, yes. Everyone agreed that it is important to be both environmentally friendly and yet sustainable in their businesses long-term, yes. Companies who have developed green technologies were actively looking for new business partners and clients.

All the shared ‘practical solutions’ to environment-related costs that many companies are facing appear good. But what are the hidden costs of these solutions? Where’s the fine print?

Companies that are less shrewd or less knowledgeable about green technologies and accounting may be oblivious to all of these, and could be easily bought by sponsors who had the opportunity to set up booths and network actively to establish new business relationships.

I’m not saying everything is simply business-oriented. Of course there was a greater shared love for the environment among some individuals and organizations, and some corporations genuinely do see the practical need to be environmentally sustainable. But ultimately, this was no tree-hugging event, and people meant business.

Still, I am inclined to believe that organizers and sponsors have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as their core intention. Ultimately, letting companies know what means are available for them to be more sustainable is important.

But surely more can be done to help smaller companies that cannot afford expensive green technologies or to spend so much on environmentally friendly solutions become more sustainable. Even after the conference, these small companies may still not have found their answers.

Responsible Business Forum: Singapore's Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, giving his opening address

Responsible Business Forum: Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, giving his opening address

Invited companies were from various sectors that play crucial roles in protecting the environment, such as the agricultural commodities, forestry, mining, energy, consumer goods and finance industries.

The conference was co-organized by Global Initiatives, Eco-Business.com, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Business Coalition, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“The conference aims to provide a platform for people in the various sectors to come together to discuss action, so that we can move towards a green economy,” said Ms. Jessica Cheam, Founder and Editor of Eco-Business.com.

That, I agree, is important. But another nagging thought I had was: is that all?

Yes, discussion is good, but it simply stops there. In the end, the onus of looking for grants and further support is put on the attending businesses themselves.

Nevertheless, there were still some note worthy highlights.

A milestone project to develop and pilot test a harmonised framework for valuing natural capital in business decision-making was announced at the forum by TEEB for Business Coalition, International Finance Corporation (IFC) – a member of the World Bank Group and Coalition member.

Natural capital is the economic value associated with a business’s impact on the environment, and it can be either positive or negative– providing the business with both opportunities and costs. Very often, it is difficult to measure natural capital. How do businesses put a price on pollution?

Executive Director of TEEB for Business Coalition Dr. Dorothy Maxwell said: “Economic invisibility has been a major reason for the neglect of natural capital. The current business model creates significant environmental externalities that are not priced such as damages from climate change, pollution, land conversion and depletion of natural resources.”

Businesses and investors are invited to participate in this project.

“Valuing natural capital specifically can improve business decisions on risk management, supply chain sourcing decisions, new markets and investments,” said Mr. Peter Bakker, President of WBCSD.

 

We also need to give credit to the organizers for making this Singapore’s first carbon neutral event. The total direct carbon emissions generated relating to delegates’ travel, electricity and food consumption, waste generation and paper usage at the venue will be calculated. And based on the final figure, collaborator – and leading carbon reduction projects developer – South Pole Carbon will re-invest the equivalent carbon credits into two projects in Indonesia – geothermal power and run-of-river hydro.

In casual conversations, I asked a few participants what they thought of the conference, and in general they thought it was a good discussion, especially for those who did not know much about natural capital and being sustainable.

But going beyond that is another story.

Organizers need to expand upon discussions and raising awareness and provide concrete plans of action for those who seek them.

After spending so much money to attend the conference – it costs $800 for private and corporate delegates and $400 for government, academic, NGO and student delegates, not to mention the costs of coming to Singapore for those who are not based here – participants would expect more benefits or solutions they could take home, especially those representatives from smaller businesses.

Holding a business conference that simply provides networking opportunities and a platform for discussion is not an uncommon practice, but hopefully, in time, organizers and sponsors can give greater support – or at least opportunities for support –to businesses who seek practical solutions at these forums.

Ultimately, isn’t it truly about the good of our environment? With sustainable businesses that contribute to a better environment, we can create a better world for future generations to come.

 

Report prepared by Candice

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