This is just a beginning

Five years ago, I was appointed to coordinate the newly created sustainable finance projects for the APAC region, out of the blue. I did not know what ‘sustainability’ or ESG means by then, and I did not even understand why we are speaking about sustainability in business strategy discussions. My understanding of sustainability remained at the concept of CSR, doing philanthropic activities. But I jumped in, as I just loved the idea of creating something new for the business and was feeling good about doing something right. Then my painful realisation of ‘how little I knew and how protected (or blind) I have been’ has started. The topic was picking up, and I was put in a position to ‘advise’ clients and relationship managers for their sustainability actions, and I had no idea. I felt really insecure and unsure of what I am supposed to be doing. That is how I started my CISL course(full of fear, hope for a quick and sure way out).

I don’t think I knew what I was signing up for when I applied for it. To be honest, it was a lot harder than I imagined (me being a non-native speaker without much English education, it was triple harder for me just to catch up). Reading research paper for the first time was really painful, and my experience with the AP gave me several heart attacks. There were several moments when I was seriously considering dropping out (or secretly wishing that there is an accident offering me a good excuse not to continue). But I guess with the provisional dissertation grade; I can say that I’ve done it! (except this blogging ha ha). I am really grateful for tutors, peer students and friends/family who have been supporting along the way.

Through these two years of pain and sweat, I learned a lot, read a lot and met fantastic, smart and passionate people from different sectors and markets. I am glad that I’ve done it and it was the right choice for me. However, what I am feeling now is quite different from what I imagined that I would feel after this course. I imagined that I would be fully equipped with knowledge and expertise on sustainability topics so that I can have an intelligent debate on the issues with confidence. But, I am feeling quite the opposite, and I am glad about it.

The course made me realised that there is an immense amount of knowledge in this field, and the topics are complex. There are decades of debates to catch up, intrinsically linked to the local or historical context. Two years of part-time study with my small brain was just not enough to know all about it, and I am glad to realise that. The course did not give me the full knowledge that I needed, but it introduced me to a wide range of topics, researches and debate. Instead, it trained me how to go about it – how to learn about new issues, how to discuss the issues that I am not familiar with and how to articulate my thoughts on something less concrete or clear. But more importantly, it made me humble and curious in front of this massive information and ideas. So I feel that I just opened a right door that will lead me to future growth and I am excited about it (although less confident).

Unknown and unknowable

Today at one of the CISL sessions, a speaker shared a quote. I don’t remember all the details, but the quotes were basically saying that high-quality management should be accountable for unknown and unknowable issues. It was a bit of lightning to me.

Big financial institutions and corporates are making lots of noise on how their strategy and business are aligned with sustainable development goals. They sign collaboration, partnership, working groups that attract lots of media attention or even to generate media attention. But what’s real actions and impacts behind these?

The above quote made me realised that we were somewhat blinded by this thinking of ‘what’s measured can be managed’. I am sure when Bloomberg said it at his TCFD speech, it was meant to give a positive and ambitious message for us to strive more. But somehow large institutions managed to take this quote and use it as an excuse to hide behind this ‘unknowable’ argument, turning it into ‘we can only manage what is measured’.

We put a strong emphasis on traceability, and I genuinely believe that it is a critical initial step. If Nesles wants to improve what’s going on in their supply chain, they first need to know where they have control over. But this is only a preparation for real sustainability actions. Plam players engage engineers to use satellite images to map out their plantations with precise coordination, work heavily with local NGOs and finally publish 100+ page sustainability reports articulating all their efforts in traceability and the local community.

But hang on a second. Do we really need to trace them? Isn’t it again used as a way to defend large corporates when local communities and NGOs attack them? So they can say ‘no no no, it is not our plantations, it is neighbouring plantations, and I have nothing to do with that fire!’ (btw, this is a prevalent statement that you will find from plantation companies). Whether we know the link between the big brands and the plantation or not, we all know where the problems are. Wouldn’t it be better to invest those efforts and capital, and use our brain to work on the local issues directly? We can tell which part of the plantation is now burning, (we can even smell it and touch it); we can find people on the ground who are crying because their land right was breached; we can see and speak to children and women who are suffering from hunger, abuse or lack of opportunities in life. I feel that it is a bit like running to a river, 10km apart, to get access to sufficient clean water to put off the fire in front of you. Do we have time for this?

I know this is a bit wild, and I know that dealing with local issues might not be the role of global companies. (something to question though, given some companies have extreme power over local governments in those areas). I also should admit that I am still promoting traceability to our clients (so this blog will vex them); we are even giving discounts to the loan when they progress on traceability targets. Nevertheless, this was a good reminder for me. Traceability should not be a final goal and has meanings only when it comes together with active and effective sustainability actions.

I have no conclusion at this moment, and I don’t think I should push for a premature conclusion. Otherwise, I will become a harsh, judgemental voice. So, I will leave it here.

Is palm oil bad?

I remember watching a video of an orangutan visiting a girl’s room somewhere in Europe asking for help. It was a campaign video made by the Greenpeace to raise awareness on deforestation issues related to palm plantation in South East Asia. I am sure it was undoubtedly a very effective communication tool, having triggered some meaningful actions globally. But when I watched that video at the CISL workshop, I instead felt a bit uncomfortable as it was perhaps a bit too simplified to make the message straightforward, representing a single-sided narrative. I tend to question the narratives (or belief behind it) when the arguments on sustainability become too straightforward. So let me do that again.

Typical narratives on sustainability issues in the palm sector among ‘responsible’ global corporates and financial institutions are somewhat consistent. Palm oil is everywhere in our life, thanks to its efficiency and versatility, we cannot live without it, and its demand will only grow. However, the sector is a culprit of deforestation that has enormous negative impacts on biodiversity, climate change, local indigenous people; you name it. Some players are trying to conduct its business more responsibly, and they are participating or endorsed by the RSPO (or its local equivalent). Hence as a responsible buyer/investor/bank, we will support (and continue to deal with) only the certified ones or the ones who committed to the NDPE. As a Singaporean bank, with sizeable operations in Malaysia and Indonesia where 85% of the total global productions come from, this is what we say, too.

But if you change the perspective, in Indonesia, 40% of the palm is coming from a smallholder family. Many of them are living under or around the poverty line. So imagine you are one of them. You’ve been living in a small remote village in the middle of nowhere in Indonesia. You have very little access to education, information and meaningful economic activities. You see that your neighbour is planting palm trees in the neighbourhood, and they are making good money out of it, enough to pay for their kids’ food and education stably, while you are struggling to feed your children, not to mention education. There happen to be a small patch of land with some grown trees near your house, and the area was deserted as long as you can remember. You know there is a small mill nearby that can buy the palm from you. So you decide to follow your neighbour, then the question is, how do I start? Seemingly the easiest and cheapest way that I know of clearing the land is to set a small fire. What would you do?

Please don’t get me wrong. I am writing this while smelling the fire and smog sitting in my apartment in Singapore. Despite all the efforts on RSPO, NDPE and engagement, I feel them almost every night, unless it rains. I occasionally even need to wake up in the middle of the night to close windows to block the smell. I truly support all the sustainability efforts in the palm sector, and I want to see more actions and result. What I am trying to say is that sustainability issues in the palm industry are complex. Sizable palm companies have an army of sustainability team (typically more than 100) who daily travel from plantations to plantations, to understand issues and find solutions, together with local people. Some efforts have good short-term benefits, or some might take longer. I feel that one single sustainable palm label or simplified narratives cannot do the full justice to this sector. I hope that people try to understand the issues in a more balanced way, instead of jumping into a convenient conclusion too quickly.

In a society where basic social infrastructure does not exist or function, how should responsible companies address child labour issue?

Majority of us would agree that social issues are complex, subjective and context-driven. However, there seem to have 1 issue that most of us would agree, child labour should stop. I remember this exact discussion that took place in one of our residential workshops in a beautiful campus in Cambridge. People’s unanimous response to that question actually made me wonder. Really? Wouldn’t there be a situation where children would rather work in a decent company and access social security(e.g. ID, basic health care) than anything else? Are we not simplifying the issues and believing what we want to believe in a fairy tale world?

The reality is..there are 153 million orphans in the world, according to the UNICEF, but the real number of children who need support must be a lot more than this, as this must have missed orphans in a remote area or countries with instability (including war). Moreover, there could be many children who have parents or guardian officially but are practically abandoned or unprotected. It is not hard to find news articles or reports highlighting ineffectiveness of government system when it comes to providing necessary protections and support for orphans, especially in countries in the South that are in the frontline of supply chain for all the global companies. 

Few weeks later, I was chatting with my colleagues who stayed at one of the palm plantations for 3 months as a management trainee at one of the largest palm companies. He mentioned that in the area that he was posted, there were 2 police officers covering the community that is a size of Singapore. He was explaining to me that in a rural area with typically 1 dominating company feeding the whole community, they operate as a quasi-government. Their roles go a lot beyond providing employment opportunities for grown-ups. They provide electricity, port, school, hospital and sometimes security. This two made me wonder what would be the best course of action for a company like that in addressing orphans and child labour issues?

I came across below definition of child labor from the ILO, and if I may, this is making a huge assumption that all the people who offer work to starving children are exploitative and cold-blooded profit seeking. Companies with good sustainability efforts would make a statement that they will not engage in any child labour across its supply chain to avoid any questions and problems. It is easier to distant themselves from the complicating issues.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines child labor as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

I know. Hold your breath. What I am about to say is not comfortable and will raise 100 different questions that I do not have an answer to. However, I think it is important for us to face the reality and speak about the real solutions. 

I would like to argue that companies with good sustainability engagement and governance(especially in those less connected community) should actively engage children in needs in order to provide an opportunity to have a proper identity (yes many of them do not have ID), access to education (in the form of perk), basic health care and opportunities to earn money to feed themselves and their dependents with dignity. If we rely on charitable actions from corporates fully, there is always a risk that it might not continue (being the first target of budget cut in a difficult time).

I am never saying that child labour should be encouraged, but I am hoping to see some different narratives when it comes to child labor, especially from bold sustainability leaders in the world who understand the real issues on the ground and have capacity and intention to address these issues. And when they do that, I do hope my peer future leaders can listen to their stories as well with open mind and fairness. 

I will just end my blog by quoting my ex-colleague who was running a garment factory in India during our discussion on sustainability, “I have kids in my factory, and I am not ashamed of it. Because if I do not hire them to do small jobs, they will either starve or join the gangs. I cannot turn my back on them, when they ask for work.”

A documentary that changed my habit.

There is one documentary that changed my habit, Plastic Ocean It is a documentary film created by Craig Leeson and Jo Ruxton. Our company was sponsoring their official distribution in Hong Kong, so I was one of the lucky ones who could watch the film when it was first introduced in 2014. By then, issues around plastic in the ocean were not widely discussed, and only a few of us (even the ones who perceive ourselves as environmentally conscious), did not realise the magnitude and urgency of these issues.

The film made us discuss the issues openly, first how shocked we were, and then moving on to brainstorming on the actions that we could potentially take. Colleagues in our Singapore office even formed a voluntary group to tackle the issues in our office and life. I started to think twice before using any plastic and try to use less whenever I could although I should confess that I still use plastic quite a lot.

The movie was very timely and engaging, but the global success that the film saw needs more than that. Since the film was launched, it was shown more than 1,200 times in 70 countries, and subtitles in 15 languages were added. More importantly, it did make business and government leaders in the region understood the issues, has managed to create a partnership with 50+ organisations since the movie was introduced. I think the film directors understood the right ingredients in persuading people and influencing their behaviors as outlined below:

  1. Emotion – Speak to the heart:
    The movie is simply beautiful. The scenes remind us of how beautiful our mother nature is. It shows pristine images of the magnificent ocean with wild sea animals, full of life and energy. But it also shows heart-breaking and shocking images of animals dying with plastic in their bellies or suffering from plastic hoop smothering their throat etc. They stirred audiences’ strong emotions.
  2. Brain – Persuade with hard facts:
    The movie does not stop there, for our sceptic neighbours. The producers engaged multiple scientists and experts on the ground from the very beginning of their journey. It made their story and argument more credible and unbiased. They also added an interesting trick in the movie. While you are watching it, they continuously show you how many plastic bottles were thrown away during that time, and you see the number grow very fast as the movie goes. The number in the face made me realise the seriousness and urgency of the issues.
  3. Impact – Know your audience: They understood that not everybody has a long attention span to watch the 100-minute movie in English. Once the film was distributed, the producers focused on creating a shorter 20-minute version of the documentary and get sub-titles in 17 different languages to make the movie a lot more accessible. They also specifically target the young generations by arranging screenings and discussions sessions at schools across the globe.
  4. Call to action. Show me the way: I think this could be the weakest part of the movie, if I have to criticize a bit. Because the film was so successful in making me feel that I should do something right now, I also felt a little frustrated by lack of ways for me to make immediate and meaningful impacts. However, it was natural, as the discussions on these issues were still nascent (at least to my knowledge), so the suggested solutions were quite aspirational or not scalable as they were. The movie ends with a somewhat honest statement that we need everybody’s ideas and actions to address these issues. The Plastic Ocean foundation( is following up on this by partnering with more than 50 organisations to foster innovation and collaboration.

Now, do you feel like to watching this documentary as well? It is available at Netflix! Enjoy!