5 Insights From The 5th Responsible Business Forum in Singapore


5 Insights From The 5th Responsible Business Forum in Singapore

2 exciting days – 700 multi-sector delegates – 17 SDGs – 17 workshops for each SDG – Asia’s First Zero Waste Event. 

In short, this is what we experienced last week during the 5th Responsible Business Forum in Singapore.


5 Biggest takeaways? Why did we attend?

This article aims to share our 5 biggest take-aways for companies facing challenges in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Before jumping into the details, here is a quick reminder on what the Sustainable Development Goals are. On September 2015, countries adopted the SDGs as part of their new sustainable development agenda in order to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all”. Each of the 17 goals has a specific target that needs to be achieved over the next 15 years. For the goals to be reached, everyone has a massive role to play: governments, private sector and civil society.

1. Companies should implement Circular Economy principles at the heart of their business.

Circular Economy – in contrast of linear economy that just ‘take, make, dispose’ – promotes the 3Rs philosophy and pollution avoidance through design, better processes, collection systems for reuse and supply chains.

These principles require a mindset change for companies. It actually offers a blue ocean of business opportunities and this is what Andrew Morlet – Chief Executive at MacArthur foundation told us. The foundation develops and promotes the idea of circular economy.

The challenges are that today products are not designed to be recycled. 99% of the value of what we produce is lost within a very short period of time, like 1 year. That produces a tremendous amount of waste that could be avoided and instead reused if better done. Other challenges include creating reverse logistics which must be supported by regulations. For instance, in some countries, you need a special license to pick-up trash, which means a company like IKEA (which is legally a retail company), cannot just collect old products as part of reverse logistics because it would also need to have a legal status as also a waste management company. Legislation needs to support adapt to support circular economy models.

With the arrival of new regulations such as EPR – Extended Producer Responsibility – companies will have to find solutions to reduce their waste. EPR is for instance was implemented as draft law in India in March 2016, and is now law from Sept 2016. It will be law in many other Asian countries between 2020-25. Our recommendation is companies develop strategies and partnerships before the laws come into place, in order to decrease costs of implementation, potential taxes and risking license to operate. First mover advantage also offers branding and greater trust with the public, and stronger relationships and synergy with government objectives. We have been working with many different different consumer goods company to help them to comply with these regulations. See HERE for a case study of our work with an FMCG company in India.

As illustration, we listen to Hui Mien Lee – Chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA APAC – that has committed to design products with a longer life cycle, create better logistics and give opportunities to consumers to recycle their products back to their point of sales. IKEA’s philosophy is ‘Sustainable Materials, Efficient Design and High Functionality’.

Roelof Westerbeek – President of Amcor APAC – focuses his efforts on recycling plastic. Globally only 14% of plastic created is currently recycled. And currently 8 million tonnes of plastic is thrown into the ocean every year – this is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. He reminded the need to have a holistic approach throughout the value chain to be successful in implementing circular economy principles.


2. Partnerships are crucial to achieve the goals.

Governments and companies need to create partnerships with the civil society and grassroots organisations on the ground in order to deliver the global goals. Companies that expand overseas do not have the experience required to understand a particular market and the needs of emerging countries or the BoP. They need partners to understand the context.

‘Companies alone do not have all the answers.’ – Jenny Costello Country Director at Grow Asia – a NGO that connects companies with relevant organisations on the ground in order to improve farmers’ livelihoods.

Partnerships are not a goal, there are actually a mean to reach the other goals. That is what some people in the audience argued. Whether it is true or not doesn’t really matter because we need partnerships to deliver on the other global goals.

Partnerships need to be rethought. There needs to be new models. We need to think big and out of the box. We need to be disruptive and creative in the partnerships we create.

When it comes to partnership creation, one of the issue raised was competition. Anthony Hehir – Nutrition Program Partner at DSM reminded that competition is healthy to maintain a high level of expectations and innovations. Fokko Wientjes – VP in Nutrition in Emerging Markets & Food System Transformation at DSM reminded us on the importance of understanding the needs and interests of your stakeholders and especially of your clients, to perform better while delivering the goals. Companies need partners on the ground for that.


Finally, companies should create more partnerships with other companies in order to tackle specific issues. For instance, SDG2 of zero hunger should be tackled by all the agribusinesses working in collaboration.


3. SDGs should be used as a framework for companies that would like to do well by doing good.

Companies are often misled on what SDGs should be used for. As Malcolm Preston – Corporate Sustainability Lead at PwC said – way too often, companies wrongly think that SDGs:

  • Should be implemented by governments only
  • Are too big and impenetrable
  • Should be achieved at a national level

However, businesses have a huge role to play into reaching the Global Goals.

In 1998, Kofi Annan – UN General Secretary at the time – brought the private sector into the conversation. After almost two decades, it is now time for companies to realise the impact they have in meeting with the sustainable goals agenda.

‘SDGs are blueprint for the future, not only for governments but also for businesses.’ said Haoliang Xu – General Secretary of UNDP

More than targets, SDGs actually provide a clear framework on where companies should start when determining their sustainability strategies. It also provides clear tools and 169 indicators to measure their impact and progress. Once you understand the context in which you operate – the challenges and the opportunities – you select some SDGs you would like to focus on.

“Before, companies did not have a clear map on where to start.” Erin Meezan – VP and Chief Sustainability Officer of Interface.

Andrew McConville – Head of Corporate Affairs at Syngenta was present at the RBF and tweeted about the importance of the role of businesses in reaching the goals.


4. Conversations should not only be about the outcomes, it should be about the data and ownership of the data.

The forum emphasized on the importance of data in order to measure and to show impact. When companies want to tackle specific issues, the focus should not be on the outcome but on the data.

We learnt from Jeannette Gurung – Executive Director at WOCAN that way too often, companies only focus on the outputs of their initiatives forgetting to create accountability systems that efficiently measures the actual results and benefits.

For instance, once companies decide to focus their efforts on women’s empowerment, they communicate about the number of women reached through their educational programs. But what is often missing is the actual benefits of their programs, what comes next. Here is another example, it is not enough to state the number of hours of training you provided to women, it is important state the use results of these workshops.

Generally speaking, companies should create solid data collection processes, select some managers accountable for the data and reward the best practices.


5. Gender equality is a must to reach the goals and to perform.

Women empowerment is a catalyst for the sustainable development of businesses and a huge accelerator for economic growth.

Although there have been many improvements, there are still instances of injustice between men and women globally. On average, women earn 20% less than men for the same position. Among women who have jobs, 50% do not have a salary or any social protection. Only 5% of the largest companies have women CEOs. 26% of companies do not have women in their boards and the list is endless. Here for more info from the NGO Pathways to Equity.

These companies are missing the opportunity to add value to their business. In fact, gender equality is “not only an issue of doing the right things, but above all, a smart thing to do.” – Michelle Yeoh – UNDP Ambassador. Credit Suisse recently published a report that showed that companies with women on their boards were performing better than those without.

“Shares of companies where women make up 25 percent of senior managers had annualized average stock returns of 22.8 percent over five years, while those with women in more than 33 percent of senior management roles had a 25.6 percent average annualized return, the study found.” Therefore there is a need for companies to tackle gender equality not only to become more sustainable but also to perform better.

During the SDG6 workshop around Gender Equality – Pablo Lagarcha – VP Public Affairs & Communications at Coca-Cola – recommended to work with women across the value chain to support their empowerment. By 2020, Coca-Cola wants to empower 5 million women across the value chain. In emerging countries, approximately 60% of their sales are managed by small sellers and out of those, 70% are dealt by women that are usually untrained. Therefore, it’s crucial for the brand to empower women. In the last 5 years, they impacted 1.5 million women in more than 6 countries worldwide but there is still a lot to be done, and especially so in Asia. Pablo also emphasized on the need to take into consideration the gender equality factor into the creative processes e.g. in how companies illustrate gender equality in advertising and comms.

Another interesting insight was the use of storytelling and role models to encourage women to step out from the crowd and take leadership roles. Women leaders or CEOs should communicate more about their roles, challenges, solutions, and social media seems to be the right sharing platform.

Finally, Michelle Yeoh shared about the Gender Equality SEAL Certification for companies that would like to tackle gender equality. Her inspiring speech was a call for companies to understand the issue and to get certified. This certification aims at improving the respect and recognition for women through identifying bias for gender equality; eliminating salary gaps; sanctioning harassment at workplace etc.


Overall, we had a great 2 days at the forum.

We are a B Corporation certified sustainability consultancy and program execution partner for sustainability.  We create transformative strategies, partnerships and projects to further the SDGs in Asia. This forum was the perfect occasion to connect with brands in order to understand their challenges in attaining the global goals and see how we can create transformative projects and partnerships.

We met with many very interesting people and are currently chatting about impactful projects in the region.

As Minister Lawrence Wong said during the opening of the 5th RBF, we are currently experiencing time of uncertainty due to rapid changes in technologies, sluggish economies, wars etc. This has provoked nationalistic and protectionist sentiment across the world. Now more than ever, we need to work together to deliver the global goals and overcome the challenges.


Article Written by: Paula Miquelis, Nicholas Eng and Laura Allen of Gone Adventurin

To go further: HERE is the video of the full recap of all the sessions.

Ashwin Subramaniam
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