Beyond CSR to corporate sustainability

Perhaps you have heard the term "corporate sustainability" in the news lately. In fact The Guardian reported last March that companies view Singapore as a leader and testing ground for sustainability.

The term has started to supercede terms like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the business world. Already large corporations worldwide like Shell, Unilever, IBM and other giants are starting to adopt corporate sustainability goals. 

Singapore itself is being hailed as a world leader in sustainability globally to ensure it will preserve its resources and the environment for future generations to come. For the rest of Asia, corporate sustainability may hold the key to solving many of its unsolved problems in sanitation, healthcare, water, housing, and other resources. 

What exactly is corporate sustainability? It is the recognition that business as usual, where the only goal is profit, is not enough if we are to protect the world’s resources for future generations to come. The older term CSR focused mainly on external social contributions by companies, while corporate sustainability ingrains the business objectives of Profit, People and Planet. This is often known as the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), a term coined by sustainability guru and author John Elkington in 1994. 

To give an example, a typical CSR goal might be to organise a medical mission to a poor community every year and try to get it reported in the media. But the goal of corporate sustainability might be to design a medical product so that more people can afford it, without causing a burden in terms of waste disposal and storage. Essentially, a corporate sustainability approach puts helping people and our planet at the core of a business in addition to profit.

Large global firms such as Procter & Gamble (P&G), IBM, Unilever, Toyota and Ford have adopted this approach by requiring their managers to report how they meet corporate sustainability objectives such as equal opportunity employment selection, use of clean energy and minimisation of waste generated. 

But how exactly can the private sector solve many of Asia’s challenges?

Basically corporate sustainability offers a way for the private sector to help government to tackle problems together. Often these problems are called the “tragedy of the commons”, meaning that a problem that affects everyone is hard to solve because no one wants to be the first to take the cudgels unless others move as well. Take for example waste sustainability. Many countries across Asia have to grapple with the increased waste generated by their citizens. This has forced many governments to consider building more landfills, incinerators and waste-to-energy plants. But if you think about it, a lot of the waste generated is really from the private sector, in the form of plastic or paper packaging such as sachets. In the old business model of pure profit, companies would not care because all they worry about is profit. But if their bottom line was Profit, People and Planet, then they in effect offer to be part of the solution.

Companies like P&G, Unilever, and others have adopted goals such as Zero Landfill, wherein they state that by a certain year, none of their products will end up in landfills. Solving this could include measures like improving their packaging so that it biodegrades, or do away with unnecessary packaging. Sometimes a product may be useful and popular with the public, but the disposal is problematic, as in the case of dangerous chemicals that should be phased out. All these are often under the domain of corporate sustainability.

Corporate sustainability, if adopted widely, offers perhaps part of the answer to solving many of Asia’s unsolved problems in sanitation, water, healthcare, housing, and preserve our world for future generations. We should do our best to spread the corporate sustainability message and make it de rigueur even for companies that have not yet adopted it.

Dennis Posadas is the author of Greenergized (UK: Greenleaf, 2013) and a technical consultant for low carbon and clean energy projects