Sustainability: The great balancing act 

Rachel Lowry of Zoos Victoria and Heidi Holmes of Adage.

8 inspiring individuals demonstrate the real meaning of sustainability.

Sustainability is a prolific business buzzword these days, but it means different things to different people and their businesses. Meet eight sustainability champions – individuals who are nourishing people, planet and profit with their inventions, their ideas and their commitment to a sustainable future.
Rachel Lowry, Zoos Victoria

It became a little easier to cut back on chocolate eggs and hot-cross buns this past Easter amid a campaign to highlight the plight of the orangutan, the ape that’s endangered as palm oil production destroys its habitat in South-East Asia.

Palm oil is a cheap source of saturated fat for products such as chocolate and bread, and lists were doing the rounds of social media warning people which brands not to buy.
Rachel Lowry, director of wildlife conservation and science with Zoos Victoria, has been closely involved in the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign. She was also a driving force in the “They’re Calling On You” campaign, which alerted people to the threat to gorillas from the mining of coltan for use in mobile phones. Zoo visitors were asked to donate old phones so the metals could be recycled and the proceeds used for conservation efforts.

“I find the species we share this planet with totally intoxicating,” Lowry says. “Some are stunning to look at, others are riveting to watch, many we have a great deal to learn from – and the reality is we simply cannot live without the majority of them. Watching species take even the smallest step towards extinction creates a sense of urgency I can’t ignore.”

Her work on coltan mining and palm oil cut across commercial interests, but Lowry was confident consumer power could hold sway.

“Take palm oil,” she says. “We’ve started to see people turn away from products that contain palm oil, or celebrate those committed to sourcing certified sustainable palm oil.

Consequently, food manufacturers are recognising that consumers reward them when they do the right thing. Consumer behaviours tend to be far more powerful than even the best-scripted arguments.”

How confident is she of a sustainable future, for both humans and animals? “When the human species takes on a fight, we generally win,” Lowry says. “I’m confident that people want a species‑rich future. I’ve never met anybody who has said the world would be a better place without wild animals and wild places. This keeps me extremely optimistic.”

Heidi Holmes, Adage

The flight to youth by recruiters and employers over the past decade is a mistake, says Heidi Holmes, founder of Adage, an employment service for the more mature worker.

“There’s a general lack of understanding and appreciation for what these workers bring to the table,” Holmes says.

While she is too young to use her own service, which targets those aged 45-plus, Holmes came to an interest in mature-age workers via a masters in marketing, exploring baby boomers as a neglected target market for her thesis.

At the same time her father was selling his business and contemplating the next phase of his working life. “I saw he had so much to offer through his work and life experience and thought there must be thousands of others just like him,” she says. That’s when the concept of a website connecting mature-age workers to age-friendly employers came to her.

One of the most common refrains she hears from disappointed jobseekers is that recruiters assume they can’t adapt to change or won’t fit into a company’s culture.

“What recruiters fail to recognise is that these people have been adapting to change all through their careers – probably more so than any other generation has had to,” she says.

Any employer that ignores this demographic is at risk of losing their competitive advantage, Holmes argues, rattling off the numbers. Over the next decade 80 per cent of future workforce growth will come from workers aged 45-plus. For every one new labour market entrant there are seven available over the age of 45.

“Even if businesses wanted to, they can no longer sustain their workforce demands through simply targeting the Gen Y, Gen X or overseas worker,” she says.

In addition, research has shown that a mature-age worker can save an employer up to A$2000 a year, compared with a younger counterpart, she says. These savings come from increased retention, lower absenteeism, decreased costs of recruitment and greater investment returns on training.

And the intangible benefits shouldn’t be underestimated, she says. Mature workers can be great mentors and a source of considerable knowledge and strategic networks.Plus, with seven million people aged over 50 in Australia accounting for more than half of household spending, it makes sense for businesses to have this demographic represented in their workforce.

Emily Haigh and Sonia Lipski, Impact Leaders

Emily Haigh and Sonia Lipski, Impact Leaders

Emily Haigh and Sonia Lipski, Impact Leaders

Businesses are often blamed for our social, environmental and economic woes. But Emily Haigh, co‑founder with Sonia Lipski of the boutique consulting firm Impact Leaders, says business doesn’t have to be the problem, because the market is the solution.

“The best way to solve society’s problems is through harnessing the power, know-how and resources of corporations,” says Haigh, one of the Australians selected to attend the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance Summit in Russia this month.

Haigh, 26, and business partner Lipski, 25, launched Impact Leaders last year with the aim of taking corporate social responsibility to another level, using the Harvard-born concept known as “creating shared value” (CSV).

“We design social-impact initiatives that strengthen our client’s competitive advantage and long-term growth,” Haigh says. “They are more effective than CSR as they generate new revenue streams and are therefore more sustainable.”

There’s a shift in how business leaders view young entrepreneurs, the pair say. “Youth’s unbridled approach to solving global challenges by taking a fresh and innovative approach that strays outside of the known corporate route makes young people a key source for corporate innovation,” Lipski says.

Megan Dalla-Camina, IBM

Megan Dalla-Camina, IBM

Megan Dalla-Camina, IBM

Everyone has a breaking point and Megan Dalla-Camina was in danger of reaching hers.

“I’ve spent close to 20 years working in large corporations in Australia, Asia and the US. I’ve also completed two masters degrees over the past decade, written and published my first book and been a single mother for most of that time, so I’ve been pretty busy,” says Dalla-Camina, director of strategy for IBM in Australia and New Zealand.

She’s also responsible for organisational culture and change and gender diversity. “While I’ve loved all of it in equal measure, while I’ve had great employers and inspiring bosses, like many women the thing I lacked was the tools to manage my time and my energy effectively so I could work with passion while also managing my life and wellbeing.”

So began her research into wellness, not just for herself but also for others.

Today she has masters degrees not only in business management but also in wellness (positive psychology). In addition to her work at IBM, she’s the co-founder and executive director of the not-for-profit World Wellness Project and author of the book Getting Real About Having It All (Hay House, 2012).

Her advice? “Get clear on what you want your life to look like. This is first and foremost. When you are clear, you can then put boundaries around the things that matter most to you and protect your time and energy.

“Look after your wellbeing. Get your sleep, drink green juice, learn to meditate, restore yourself. We can thrive in our work when we are truly well and we are more productive and drive better outcomes as well.”

The research shows that healthy, happy employees are the most productive employees, Dalla-Camina says.

“For business owners and leaders, looking after your employees’ mental, emotional and physical wellbeing pays huge dividends to the bottom line.

“It’s also the socially responsible thing to do, and it helps businesses retain their best people. It’s no longer a ‘nice to have’, it’s a critical component.”

Fiona Reynolds, UNPRI

Fiona Reynolds, UNPRI

Responsible investment is “more than the tree hugging, lefty idea that some like to pigeonhole it as”, says Fiona Reynolds, the new managing director of the UN‑supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) organisation, Reynolds, until recently the chief executive of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, worked in Australia’s retirement savings industry for nearly two decades and believes superannuation funds and pension funds globally have the firepower to move the short-term focus of markets towards investing for the longer term.

“I believe that trustee boards have a fiduciary responsibility to consider ESG [environmental, social and governance] risks,” Reynolds says. “We saw what short-term thinking and risk taking did to markets during the global financial crisis – this can’t be allowed to happen again.

“While many bankers and CEOs of large institutions were paid millions and millions of dollars, ordinary workers lost their life savings. This is wrong and we have a role to play in changing behaviour.”

Implementing the six principles for responsible investment is about being a better investor, she says, and that will lead to better outcomes for markets, the environment and society as a whole.

The next step for the PRI is launching a reporting and assessment framework.

“This is about accountability and transparency,” Reynolds says. “You can’t just sign up to the principles and not be accountable – we need to see progress and signatory action. This is a very important step in the evolution of the PRI.”

The organisation is also developing a new research and public policy focus. “Very little research has focused on trying to understand the impact that ESG factors will have on investment portfolios and strategies over the longer term, how pension fund assets capital might be mobilised.”

Esther An, head of CSR, City Developments Limited

Esther An, head of CSR, City Developments Limited

Early critics of corporate social responsibility (CSR) argued that its lofty ideals would distract from the economic role of businesses. But Esther An, who set up the CSR division of Singapore’s City Developments (CDL) two decades ago – long before sustainability became fashionable – says it’s possible to be both visionary and realistic.

CDL, a major developer and landlord in Singapore, was recently named for the fourth year running as one of the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations and has been included in the FTSE4Good Index Series since 2002 and the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices since 2011.

“We believe in taking a strategic and triple bottom line approach towards sustainability,” An says.

“While improving our environmental and social performance, we’re mindful that it should strike a balance with the financial bottom line, adding value to the branding, product and overall business.”

The company’s sustainability journey has provided both tangible and intangible benefits, she says.

“It has helped CDL differentiate our brand and product, enabled us to enjoy cost savings from reducing water and energy consumption, and also gained recognition among stakeholders, both local and overseas.”

CDL allocates 2 to 5 per cent of a new development’s budget to green design and innovation and, as a landlord, manages existing buildings in a cost- and energy-efficient manner.

It estimates that its 37 “Green Mark” buildings – those accredited under Singapore’s green building ratings system – save about S$20 million (A$16 million) in electricity costs alone each year, for instance.

“The local and international accolades that recognise our CSR leadership have helped raise our reputation and product differentiation,” An says. “To us, this is priceless.”

Charlie Paton, Seawater Greenhouse

Charlie Paton, Seawater Greenhouse

British lighting engineer Charlie Paton had a bright idea while on a bus in Morocco. A regular visitor to the North African country, where the Sahara desert meets the Atlantic Ocean, it perplexed him how so much water could be so close to such arid land.

“So it happened to be raining one day as we travelled by bus from Fez to Marrakech. The windows of the bus – which was full of steamy, damp people – were chilled by the rain and the wind, causing the evaporation from the passengers to condense and run down to the floor,” Paton says.

“I was struck by how much water was produced this way and started thinking about how it could be done on a bigger scale.”

He learnt that plants need red and blue light from the visible part of the spectrum but don’t need infrared – that is, invisible heat radiation.

“So I did experiments to separate the red and blue light from the infrared, reasoning you could use the light to grow plants and the heat to distil water.”

The result was a prototype “seawater greenhouse” built on the Canary Island of Tenerife in 1992. Updated versions followed in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in 2000, and in Oman in 2004. Other projects are now in development.

The greenhouses use seawater and sunlight to enable year-round crop production, a concept Paton believes has wide application, in particular in places such as the Middle East, Africa and Australia, where he has been in discussion with agribusinesses. The concept is also applicable to the cooling of buildings.

Paton says getting his idea from bus to business required perseverance and being “bloody-minded”. He’s also had to come to grip with the politics. He didn’t know it at first, but “sustainability has to fit, first, into the political context and, second, be commercially viable – and the two go hand-in-hand”.

The economics of such projects are skewed by subsidies and tariffs, he says.

“Irrigation is a good example – if a farmer can pump water out of the ground at no cost and even get a government subsidy to cover the cost of the pump and electricity, as happens in many places, why would he invest in water-making or water-saving equipment?”

Paton says “short-term economics, immediate return on investment and a ‘business as usual’ mentality” are the greatest obstacle to sustainability.

“Sustainability requires patient capital and long‑term thinking.”

This article is from the June 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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