Focus issue

From caring to sustainable: a new challenge for business

Date of issue: 2019-07-30

From caring to sustainable: a new challenge for business

Simon Lee, Former Senior Manager, Sustainable Business HK

Welcome to the first in a new series of blogs from Sustainable Business HK.

Launched in 2015, Sustainable Business HK has been sharing insight and opinion from experts across different sectors in Hong Kong, on a range of topics concerning sustainability in business, with the aim of supporting companies on their journey from caring to sustainable.

The Caring Company Scheme was set up in 2002 to help cultivate corporate citizenship, specifically through building partnerships between business and NGOs to deliver projects in communities. Over the years, the criteria for the Scheme have evolved to include broader aspects of corporate social responsibility, under the three pillars of community, employees and environment.

There are now more than 3,000 Caring Companies and Caring Organisations. Some are already well advanced in their sustainability programmes and practice; many are keen to understand what their next steps might be.

Fundamentally, we believe the challenge is to extend the caring principles of their good work in communities to the core operations of their business.

Firstly, that means conducting business in a responsible manner – listening to the concerns of stakeholders; managing social, environmental and economic impacts; and establishing reporting and governance mechanisms to ensure all this is transparent and accountable.

In this respect, we have seen great progress in Hong Kong over recent years. Many larger companies now report to international GRI standards. With recent changes to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange listing rules, all listed companies will be required to disclose information on their environmental, social and governance policies and performance.

Of course, disclosure alone does not guarantee improvement; the information must be interrogated and compared. For that reason, we were proud to partner with the Polytechnic University on last year’s launch of the first Hong Kong Business Sustainability Index. We look forward to continuing the partnership and invite more companies to get involved.

The second key aspect of integrating a caring approach into core business is to move towards a more inclusive approach. On one level, this is about jobs – making best use of all the talents in our society by embracing diversity in employment and supply chains.

We were delighted to partner with MTR on Hong Kong’s first Cross-Sector Summit on Pathways to Employment in September, 2016. The Summit saw the start of a cross-sector dialogue to address the complex challenge of helping young people develop successful careers. This will continue to be a critical agenda for Hong Kong’s ongoing success and growth.

We are pleased to join hands with The Women’s Foundation on a piece of research to explore the prevalence of business practices to support employees with family eldercare responsibilities. In a rapidly ageing society like Hong Kong, this issue will only become more pressing. We look forward to sharing the results and recommendations in due course.

Another aspect of inclusivity is developing products, services and markets with the needs of specific groups in mind – particularly the most disadvantaged in our society. We welcome the work of the SIE Fund and others to promote the concept of shared value in Hong Kong.

Finally, becoming a truly sustainable business involves more than simply managing the status quo; it requires a shift in focus to creating long-term economic and social value within environmental limits. In a fast-moving society like Hong Kong, this can pose a particular challenge.

It is encouraging to see mainstream consultancies such as EY and PwC highlighting global megatrends that will impact how businesses deliver long-term success. As more companies in Asia wake up to this potentially transformative challenge, it is no coincidence that specialist consultancies like BSR and Forum for the Future have established regional offices.

On the global stage, we strongly welcome the work of industry associations and sector consultancies like RICS and WSP, which have developed future visions for their sectors. Here in Hong Kong, there remains significant potential for such leadership.

Achieving all of the above will not be easy. Moving from CSR as an add-on to fully integrated sustainability requires not only the active support of senior management, but a long process of engagement and cultural change across the business.

In addition, the incentives of individual employees and business units are often too narrowly focused on short-term income and cost targets.

Yet there are reasons to be optimistic. We know from the size of the Caring Company Scheme that there are many business owners and employees in Hong Kong who are strongly motivated by doing good. And with a relatively high proportion of family-owned firms in the territory, they are less encumbered by the often short-term priorities of the capital markets.

As a global trading and investment hub, Hong Kong is host to a number of large companies that have considerable potential to impact and influence large numbers of people and companies across their value chains. And as a melting pot of diverse people and skills from all over the world, we have a unique capacity to develop innovative, world-leading solutions.

The challenges facing business today are varied and complex. As we speak to more business leaders about their work, it is clear how much passion and determination they have to tackle those in a responsible, inclusive and sustainable way – particularly small business owners.