COVID-19 SPECIAL

Sustainability still vital to firms despite challenges, say experts

Pandemic has put more emphasis on firms' drive towards such practices, they say

The crisis is highlighting the importance of embedding sustainability in a company, whether in terms of supply chains or even the impact a business may have on society.
The crisis is highlighting the importance of embedding sustainability in a company, whether in terms of supply chains or even the impact a business may have on society.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Sustainability continues to be of vital importance to companies, even as businesses struggle with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, experts and firms said.

In fact, the crisis is highlighting the importance of embedding sustainability in a company, whether in terms of supply chains or even the impact a business may have on society.

Singapore Management University assistant professor of finance Aurobindo Ghosh said: "With the future economy in mind, I believe sustainable finance will be a vital part of the global supply chain that is currently temporarily dislocated with a virtual global lockdown.

"In fact, with oil prices being close to record lows, sustainable, environmentally conscious and, in general, environment, society and governance (ESG) orientated decision-making might play an important role in rebuilding the economy and the job market."

The importance of such green financing is becoming more apparent, with the Monetary Authority of Singapore announcing last November that it had set up a US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) programme for ESG-related investment, he added.

Meanwhile, new-age industries that can drive sustainability in the future economy are emerging without the same legacy or governance-related issues as traditional sectors, he said.

These include videoconferencing tools, digital banking, e-commerce, online payments and other fintech, healthtech and artificial intelligence processes that might get a boost due to the pandemic.

"As we settle for the 'new normal' of doing business, the trajectory of sustainable finance will be upwards, possibly at a slower pace due to external market conditions," added Prof Ghosh.

"The other bright spot for sustainable finance related to impact investment is the record-low interest rate, which makes several green investment options more viable."

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh of the National University of Singapore Business School said the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of businesses being sustained for the long haul.

"While the urgent dilemma for firms is to tide over the crisis at least financially, there should not be a let-up in the continuing quest for sustainability," he said.

"In fact, many specific issues in sustainability surfaced while the world is fighting the pandemic - these include sustainable consumption and production, particularly in supply chains."

The coronavirus crisis is highlighting the importance of embedding sustainability in a company, whether in terms of supply chains or even the impact a business may have on society.

He added that the crisis has also shone a light on the social aspect of sustainability, including inequality, homelessness and labour practices.

Mr R. Raghunathan, World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore chief executive, said that as businesses rethink how they operate in a post-pandemic world, the transformation in many instances will rely on newer technologies and practices that are environmentally friendly and sustainable.

"This means that new thinking is required across sectors such as food, travel, trade and health. Forward-looking companies will use this as an opportunity to rethink how they do business, faced with changing consumer behaviour and additional expectations from government and finance."

He noted that there is evidence of some ESG fund managers outperforming the broader market during the pandemic, meaning these investments have been more resilient.

"ESG funds have also seen greater inflows, as the crisis continues to highlight the importance of sustainability."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2020, with the headline 'Sustainability still vital to firms despite challenges, say experts'. Subscribe