Sustainable practices - doing it right

Sustainable practices - doing it right As natural resources dwindle and the effects of climate change are felt, governments and businesses are looking at how to be sustainable. The Straits Times looks at the state of sustainable development in Singapore, Japan and Indonesia.

EACH year, more than two million business travellers flock to Singapore for meetings and conferences, spending some $4.29 billion last year.

But conference venues can be freezing cold or they give out bottled water indiscriminately.

So last week, the Singapore Tourism Board launched its sustainability guidelines for event organisers in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry here.

The first event to adopt the guidelines is the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development at Marina Bay Sands today and tomorrow.

The guidelines give advice on measures like reducing waste and using water and energy efficiently. It is the latest local push towards greater sustainability in business.

Two years ago, the Singapore Exchange introduced its own sustainability reporting guidelines for listed companies, which hinted: "Conceivably, there will be progress towards mandatory reporting through regulations and rules in the future."

The number of companies that incorporate sustainability into their business practices - not just holding a volunteer day at a charity or having a recycling programme - is still small.

Ms Erin Lyon, executive director of CSR Asia, which studies and advises on sustainable business practices in the region, said that last year, firms here put out just 20 reports that met Global Reporting Initiative guidelines.

These guidelines define business sustainability across a number of categories, including how a firm manages its energy and water use, its impact on biodiversity, and if its labour practices are fair, safe and balanced.

What is sustainability?

"Simply put, (it's) businesses thinking of how to do business and make a profit in a responsible manner," said Mr Thomas Thomas, executive director of the Singapore Compact for Corporate Social Responsibility.

"So it's not about how much they are donating to charity and which charity to adopt, but how they go about their operations."

But Singapore-based firms can do more, he said, like improve their sustainable agriculture practices in Indonesia to combat the haze which drifts over and blankets Singapore each year, or pay low-income workers a "living wage".

It will benefit their bottom line too, Mr Thomas added. "Raising the income level at the bottom of the pyramid could bring about a bigger market to do business with in the near future," he said.

Singapore consumers lag behind those in Europe in their demand for green and sustainable products, said Professor Kenneth Richards of the National University of Singapore Business School. Rather, NGO initiatives like the World Wildlife Fund's Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which calls on the palm oil industry to stop deforestation and protect biodiversity, are the ones pushing companies further.

But even a surface-level understanding of sustainability is not necessarily a bad thing, if it means more companies become aware of sustainability in the first place, Prof Richards said.

"You have to walk before you can run," he added.

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