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It’s time to talk about sustainability in Hong Kong

Siân Wynn-Jones explains why being humble is not about being silent, and why the time to about sustainability in Hong Kong is right now.

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When I moved to Hong Kong at the beginning of 2017 I was excited to be moving to a city that seemed to be at a tipping point on embracing sustainable business. ESG reporting had just become mandatory for companies listed on the Hong Kong Exchange and the Sustainable Cities Index had announced Hong Kong was 16th most sustainable city in the world.

But looking a bit deeper at the Index, it was Hong Kong’s buoyant financial market that was keeping it high up there in second place for profit, which had raised its less-inspiring performances in environment (29th, largely in part to the acres of national parks and islands), and in people rankings (for which the city achieved only 81st place).

With rankings that are so remarkably different, would there be a chatter in the boardrooms and on the streets about initiatives to help Hong Kong be a world-class, sustainable city? Well yes, maybe no, sort of…

There is no doubt that some progressive businesses are broadening their strategic thinking to include environmental, social and governance (ESG) at the heart of their operations. And with good reason. It’s recognized that ESG strategies can give your better risk management, lower operational costs, as well as improving access to capital, meeting supply chain demands and growing new markets.

And diverse stakeholder groups already understand this. Three-quarters of business customers use ESG to select suppliers; three-quarters of investors believe that ESG credentials affect financial performance; while three-quarters of millennials consider employer’s ESG credentials when job hunting.

On a local level, Hong Kong communities care that their air breached pollution levels for 100 days in 2016, and on the globally stage 193 countries are working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the World Economic Forum hosted 1,000 thought leaders to discuss responsive and responsible business.

While you can see some Hong Kong businesses developing their sense of purpose and their understanding of ESG opportunities and risks as part of that, it’s very early days in the sense of hearing and seeing sustainability communicated as part of companies’ narratives.

A lack of communications about sustainable business threatens to keep sustainable business as a specialist, niche or silo activity. This will not give us the better world we need. This keeps voices small, hampering collaboration and limiting learning and innovation.

Let’s not shy away from the fact that the challenges are immense if we are to succeed in transforming humans’ systems and habits into something that can comfortably sustain human life long term. The issues are that large, we need to recognize that we we’re not going to solve it without everyone. Sustainability cannot afford to be a niche or luxury item, it’s got to be your normal, everyday, average – business as usual.

Aligning your sustainability strategy with your company’s ambitions can really help to make both your communications and corporate planning more impactful. For example, there is no separate piece of work or messaging for employees to remember, people throughout the business can more easily identify and share examples of how their work supports sustainability, and it provides a shared language for communicating company-wide as well as to your external stakeholders and influencers.

Some businesses in Hong Kong have corporate values that resonate particularly strongly when viewed from a sustainability, big-picture perspective. Values such as integrity, innovative, entrepreneurial, excellence and of course, global. On the other hand, sometimes I have been cited a value of ‘humility’ as a reason companies don’t talk about the work that they are doing in this area. Yet humble doesn’t mean silent; in fact, in an area where we will all need be learning and working out how we can solve crucial and complex issues together, I’d argue that not talking about it was perhaps more self-serving and egotistic than telling and sharing.

I’ve met some amazing people doing extraordinary work with forward-thinking companies in Hong Kong that are realising their potential to do right by society, environment and their bottom line. More needs to be done to ensure Hong Kong’s tipping point does not become a tipping plateau, so let’s embrace communications as an effective tool to help make sure that we work together for a better world, faster.

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