A brave new world of sustainability collaboration

By Sunit Shrestha 21.3.16

A week ago I was moderating a session on Ethical & Sustainable Business Forum with Oxfam, Sal Forest & ChangeFusion as co-hosts. The composition of my panelists were strangely exciting: Sarinee a co-founder of sustainability research think-tank Sal Forest, Supachai a CEO of True Corp & Vice Chairman of CP Group, Alex from Sasin Business School, Bordin an EVP at the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), Worrawat a director of sustainability at Mitr Phol Group.

Courage to venture out of comfort zone

Curious why this is a strange & exciting composition? Well, this is a forum organised by Sal Forest & Oxfam, whose works and researches exposed massive negative environmental & social effects of various major Thai corporations. Yet there are business leaders of CEO & VP-level positions as well as a top business school representative joining the panel.

This required brave courage from both sides. For Oxfam and Sal Forest, they risk being viewed by some of their non-profit and activist peers as providing space for large scale business leaders to justify their messages to the public via the the forum organised by Oxfam with its leading role in global sustainability monitoring. This is due to the situation that CP Group, the country’s largest conglomerate, is still being scrutinised on various sustainability-related public scandals from illegal fishery for feeds to corns in Nan province while Mitr Phol is a globally 4th largest exporter of Sugar with operations across Asia with surely its own sustainability issues. If something goes wrong, Oxfam and Sal Forest can easily be alienated from a large part of social sector organisations in Thailand. Of course, on the other side, all business leaders on the panel might be hit with heavy questions or attacks, as the forum had a good portion of civil society organisation leaders and media professionals.

The fact that they are all there together in the panel, sharing insights from their practices, exploring challenging issues and looking for collaborations in the one and half an hour session, was quite interesting. It shows at least personal courages to engage in a discussion platform that could bring about better understanding and hopefully collaborations that potentially could break the status quo. The black & white stereotypical positions of large business as unredeemable dark evils or non-profit organisations / researchers as senseless activists are both clearly not enough to bring about the changes in addressing the sustainability problems. And now we have few brave leaders from all sides who are breaking away from this black or white mentality.

Sustainability is about market access & productivity, both for now & the future

What’s increasingly becoming clear about sustainability is that it is no longer a cost-centre issue. Sarinee points out the sustainable consumption trends across industries from around the world and their challenges, for example, in Thailand, the organic & sustainable agriculture trend is on the rise although the market size currently in Thailand is still quite small (514M Baht) but with a clear growth potential.

Both Mitr Phol and CP group are major exporters of agriculture products to the world market, complying to sustainability standards has become increasingly important to their trades as their global buyers becoming ever more serious on their supply chain sustainability. Both of them had now experienced with global buyers’ concern for higher sustainability standards. Without understanding and investment into sustainability practices, their companies will face more major risks coming from the buyers’ sustainability compliance. Trade bans of agricultural products on sustainability ground from environmental issues all the way to unfair or slave labor practices are increasingly common.

Bordin from the Stock Exchange of Thailand says that it is now internally developing themselves into sustainable stock exchange, in collaboration with the UN, which will then cascades to the listed companies. Global investors, especially those long term investors are now ever more concern with sustainability risks and opportunities when they are looking into their Thai equity portfolio.

Beyond sustainability compliance, Supachai mentions that initially the CP group was primarily concerned with food safety and now will extends into other sustainability areas. However, in doing so, he believes that we need innovations across the group and its communities, to make this happens. Innovations are critical to corporate’s efforts on sustainability. Worrawat also says that Mitr Phol invests into the livelihood improvement of sugar growers, this requires knowledge and technical support that makes possible two-times productivity increase, which then will double the income of farmers while making them understand the environmentally & ecological sounded practice to sustain the long term productions. The company also invests heavily on sustainability focused technology such as renewable energy, and turning this into a regional commercial success. Sustainability can be a win-win position when done properly.

The need for collaboration & partnership to tackle massive sustainability issues.

While business can take responsibilities of their internal operations to comply and aim to meet sustainability standards such as in social, environmental and governance dimensions (ESG), however, many more sustainability issues are not possible to be handled just by corporate sector alone. Issues such as natural resources management (water, etc.), deforestation or education of current and future workforces are critical and massive. They required meaningful and practical participations from all sectors.

Collaborations, however, is not automatic. All panelists speak about the need to build trust among all stakeholders, at least to start with a smaller group, in order to bring about the promised sustainability practices and desirable impact at scale. This is truly important as neither corporations, civil society organisations, research houses or the government can address many of the sustainability issues alone. Trust requires transparency i.e. information disclosure, particularly from the corporations. The sustainability reporting, adhering to global standards, will become critical for creating base-line datasets that allow all stakeholders to monitor and track the sustainability performance of the corporations. Negative impact must be bravely accepted and initiate efforts to address such problems, while positive impact must be radically scale-up. Only when this happens, even at the basic level, then there can be a more sincere and serious initiatives to foster collaboration to address common challenges. Without information disclosure and meaningful participation of various stakeholders and collaborators, there will never be enough public trust to create any momentum towards scalable collaborations and partnerships.

Alex from Sasin makes a remark that sustainability must be made simpler into something more tangible and specific, a clear measurable negative and positive impact on social, environmental and economic fronts. In this way, we can turn such big abstract word into meaningful changes we can all see and participate. This approach is truly critical to the development of transparency and information disclosure on corporate sustainability in Thailand.

A common collaborative platform that is trust worthy with clear ambition towards collective impact across organisations are needed. UN Global Compact Local Network Thailand is now an emerging example of cross-organisational platform for corporate sustainability collaborations. This also provides a clear signal that Thai corporations are becoming more and more interested in regional and globally linked platforms that they can engage, learn and forming partnership on.

Where are we now?

Sarinee mentions that she could senses a clear turning point on sustainability for Thai corporations and the public as more and more organisations become more aware of the issues, seeing both challenges and opportunities coming from sustainability issues.

In realising this turning point, we do need brave participation from all stakeholders far from their respective comfort zones in creating new opportunities for collaborations. Sustainability can’t be treated as something anti-business as in the past, rather it is a win-win solution for both society and businesses to rethink and remake a better and sustainable socio-economic future.

There are several collaboration initiatives and platforms that aim to foster collective impact such as Thailand Collaboration for Change , a platform that mobilise private sector participation to address common social challenges via scaling up successful social initiatives by social purpose organisations to the next level of impact. Anti Corruption Thailand is also another specific platform with large private sector members-base. These private-led collective impact platforms are still in their infancy and requires radically more attentions, resources and commitment to make them useful in delivering the desirable impact.

Sustainability collaborations based on trust, built from transparency and mutual respect as well as commitment, are critical in moving forward into this brave new world.