Drowning in Trash – Is There Hope?

Every minute a truckload of plastic waste ends up in the ocean, which amounts to over 8 billion metric tons on a yearly basis. In effect, plastic has been found in 62% of all sea birds and in 100% of sea turtle species. Plastic pollution endangers marine wildlife and throughout the life cycle, have potentially negative consequences for human health as well.

Asian countries are major contributors to the ocean garbage problem, and that’s clearly visible in the everyday life here. There’s very little action on the policy-level to increase recycling and individual awareness or interest for environmental issues is minimal. In the grocery shops products are packed in excessive plastics and often still put into a separate plastic bags, which are anyways treated as free give-a-ways. Plastic spoons are given with purchases of yoghurt and ice cream, straws with any drinks. Packed in plastic of course. These items belong to the top items found in oceans; Ocean Conservancy’s international coastal cleanup operations have collected more than half a million straws and stirrers through their campaigns.

Last week a friend in Finland created a group with the mission to fight micro-plastic waste (here a great article on the topic) and to find feasible solutions and options for better recycling, re-usage and alternative materials. I’ve been following the discussions in the group with great interest as the members are professionals in variety of essential fields – including scientists, business representatives and policy-makers. Their knowledge and passion are bound to be creating lasting impact and I’ve got a surge of energy and ideas just from reading the discussion threads.

Simultaneously, I’ve been observing yet another Asian country literally drowning in trash. This past week I’ve been traveling through Sri Lanka for the first time, and been at awe at the natural beauty of the place. Unfortunately, the other side of the reality is that it’s being destroyed at a devastating speed. Waste in every imaginable form is lying around everywhere, from streets to canals to the world heritage sites and lastly to the beaches and ocean.

Still recovering from the devastating 26-year civil war and with wide-range social issues, I’m not blaming the population in general being rather ignorant and ill-aware of environmental protection. But frankly they have to learn, just as us all have to, if we are to tackle poverty and other developmental topics generally perceived to be higher on the agenda. These issues do go hand in hand. From agricultural production to tourism, the incomes of the developing countries depend on the nature, and they can’t afford piling up endless amounts of trash in oceans and on the lands.

Amidst the depressing sights of endless piles of garbage and sheer ignorance, I did also observe a shimmering of hope as well. One day on the way from Kandy to Habarana, our driver suddenly stopped the car to scold a guy he saw dumping waste to a road-side canal. He was extremely upset and we ended up having an interesting conversation with him about the common behaviour of tossing out garbage to the nature. It creates hope to have people like him speaking up and spreading awareness.

Coincidentally, we spent our last night in a hotel in Negombo that I noticed being very advanced in their green practices. At first my attention was caught by their shampoo and lotion bottles, which were made out of recycled and natural materials and re-filled, not intended at single use only. Then I took a sip of water from the bottle provided, which was made out of glass! The note on the neck said they reuse the bottles as part of their sustainability efforts (just imagine how many plastic water bottles they avoid!). The hotel also informed us that the waste water generated in their hotels is recycled and used in the gardens! Coffee beans and vegetables are sourced from local smallholder farmers that they support for increasing sustainable farming practices.

There is hope. We all do need to do our part, and no individual action should be underestimated. Everything from easy actions as saying no to

 

a straw and using canvas bags to more advanced zero-waste living principles should be welcomed and appreciated. Certainly the biggest impact is created on policy-making and -enforcement levels and by businesses, but in order to change the world for better every step matters. There are people everywhere who care, and we need to use their voices to encourage more action. We need to use our voices, collectively, to make louder noise. Together we can.

 

 

Circular Economy and Women Leadership

There’s plenty of talking these days about corporate responsibility and business interests in sustainable development. Women leadership and gender empowerment are drivers for more sustainable business practices and profitable impact creation. Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an event at the Singapore Sustainability Academy that combined these two – women leadership and responsible, sustainable business.

The Singapore Sustainability Academy (SSA), which was opened on World Environment Day on June 5 this year, is a training and networking facility on sustainability, “promoting low carbon economy, resource efficiency and sustainable practices among businesses and the community.”

The SSA further serves as a platform for the Women4Green initiative that the property owner and developer CDL has kick-started. Sustainability at the Singapore’s own private sector property developer has been led by a power-woman Esther An for a long time, and she has served as a role model for many women in sustainability. It is no wonder that CDL then has taken up the challenge of leading sustainable development not only in their own comfort zone but much beyond.

Yesterday, the topic of the panel discussion and event was thought-leadership in circular economy, featuring and promoting successful circular economy business models. Four companies were represented in this sharing and learning panel; CDL, Accenture, Interface and Ikea. And I doubt it being a coincidence all representatives were women: Experienced, smart and passionate business practitioners and leaders in their different industries.

Interface’s Chief Sustainability Office Erin Meezan obviously has a lot to share, as the company could righteously be called the world’s leading sustainability company. They have been incorporating sustainability into their core operations for decades, and currently are advocating for “Climate Take Back” – a vision of reversing climate change through collaborative action of all stakeholders. Pretty bold. “Take back” models are common circular economy opportunities and now a company is saying let’s use this for taking back our climate, work together to not only stop climate change but change it to positive.

Interface is not a consumer-facing company and in that a lesser known brand for a wider audience. A company that reaches consumers and has an impact on their consumption and awareness, is Ikea. I mean, who hasn’t heard of Ikea? And they are luckily using their reach and visibility to advocate for sustainability as well, and with amazing initiatives at that. At the event their SEA sustainability chief Hui Mien Lee shared how Ikea has taken sustainability into their core operations; they have a democratic design committee for new product development, meaning that all product design is weighed against their five principles of form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. And all five have to be met in order for the product to go into production and sales. They also use an internal sustainability scorecard for each of their products and measure sales against it.

Circular economy is the future of business and a way for more sustainable future. Yesterday’s discussion provided examples of successful circular economy models that are profitable and responsible. And as shared by inspiring women leaders in such different industries (and often male-dominated), the event achieved great energy for pushing for more collaboration. By learning from each other and working with each other we truly can achieve positive impact through creation of sustainable business models that follow the Triple Bottom Line framework and add purpose to the mix. And women leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning Should Be Fun and Interactive – Climate Game is Aiming at That

A friend of mine is working on an interesting project – developing an interactive climate change game for school students, roughly of ages 12 – 16. The aim of this game is to be a tool in the schools to teach about the global impacts of climate change, and trigger the students to consider what they can do to help in their everyday lives.

I love this idea and approach in education, as it helps develop thinking skills and encourages proactive action. It will motivate students to consider their actions and see the bigger picture of global interconnectivity. This approach to education further builds self confidence of the students as they are treated as thinking individuals, whose opinions and perspectives matter and who are trusted to find and analyse information, process it and then come up with their own ideas and solutions.

In a world where “information” is readily available on a touch of a fingertip, it’s essential to teach the next generation to think. Critical thinking, questioning, evaluation and consideration on the information at hand are no easy skills and yet of utmost importance. The world is a complex place and there are no simple truths, therefore a thinking generation is a must for our future survival.

With some extra time on my hands, I promised to help by collecting climate change stories, challenges and solutions in Singapore and the Southeast Asia region. It’s easy to summarise big climate change issues in the region, varying from deforestation and ocean pollution to food waste an e-waste recycling. It’s also easy for me to feature solutions and good attempts at addressing the issues, as it’s been my daily work for years to work together with companies in shaping their sustainability strategies, supporting strategic stakeholder engagement and promoting the communications on success stories and sustainability initiatives. The tougher part is in formulating these topics into easy to digest info packages and especially in creating questions, tasks and ways for the players to interact and understand their individual contribution and opportunities.

I will also be pushing for private sector involvement in the game content. I’m personally passionate about engaging the private sector to the development work and believe the private sector will be the future game changer in tackling climate change. And the players of the game will be the nex generation customers, employees and decision makers.

If you also have climate action stories to share or ideas for game content in terms of short tasks or questions, do let me know!

Are You Working for Free?

Are NGOs the new interns of the workforce?

Recently I had a discussion on this with a friend who leads a women empowerment NGO, and who’s been frustrated on the lack of financial support commitments from the private sector in honor of their work together. Companies are increasingly interested in hiring them to work together, but paying in pennies. As if an NGO didn’t deserve to be paid for the expertise work they do?

I’m a keen advocate and believer of NGO – private sector partnerships. There’s great potential for the private sector to make their operations more sustainable, to boost responsible and profit-creating business practices through partnerships with different NGOs, who have ground-level connections and expertise for example for sustainable supply chain development or community engagement. Interest and understanding for the opportunities have been growing steadily.

But do the partnerships create value for those doing the work? Are the NGOs benefiting from all the work they do for the private sector, fairly?

During my university years, one of the most common topics among students was unpaid internships. Great work experience, CV development, connections were often offered – but no paycheck. This applies from private sector to government bodies. Students, and worst even fresh graduates, have for longest time been expected to be working for free. And typically also without a hope of an employment within the said workplace, leaving them with nothing but experiences to pay their debts.

The internship problem has not faded away, but it has clearly escalated. Beyond recruiting young graduates to work for free, employers are now turning to NGOs with similar expectations. It seems common to engage an NGO for a partnership with potentially a nominal fee, to do work that otherwise would likely have been undertaken by a consultant charging a much higher amount.

NGOs or small businesses further face a dilemma of being expected to finish a major part of the job before getting a guarantee of any kind of payment. This applies to project funding applications which often require days, weeks, months even planning and preparation and have no guarantee of success. Service contracts, where half the work needs to be completed before agreement is even signed. Designers being asked for the design to prove the expected quality, before contracting or paying. Translators needing to do part of the translation to show their capacity. These are just a few samples I’ve come across, with huge risks and uncertain payments for individuals or small operators and full power for the bigger “partner” to determine the terms and whether agreement will be granted or honored.

Why do young fresh graduates work for free? Why do NGOs accept lowly paid partnership services? Why do individuals and small businesses do half the work without a formal appointment and hence without a security to get covered for the work done?

Big players nominate the field and create the rules. These can be companies just as well as governments. It’s modern exploitation. Big ones have the power over the small ones.

I’ve experienced this conduct even from typically ethical, responsible actors – such as multinational companies ranking high on sustainability indexes or embassies of western countries. Often I’ve in my mind questioned the practices but never been in the position to stand up for it – for the certainty of losing the job, the deal, the partner.

We talk a lot about responsible business, sustainability, environment protection, community engagement etc, even about looking after the own staff. But what about those who are giving a critical contribution, but being left hanging half-way in, half-way out? The interns, NGOs, small businesses – those whose services can be invaluable but not (adequately) paid for?

How can we break the circle of using free workforce?

 

 

 

 

 

All-Male Panels and the Gender goals

“Congratulations on an all-male panel”- is a satiric expression used in social media to bring attention to the lack of female speakers in international conferences. Having attended many and organized quite a few, I definitely acknowledge this problem and feel a pain in my chest every time I see one. Whether it’s one I just attend or one I’m organizing.

A colleague from a partner organization, a well-credited women’s right advocate, recently told me she attended a forum where all speakers were men. All. Mostly middle aged white men. When this was pointed out by an audience member in the Q&A, the facilitator’s response was to ask questions from only female members of the audience. “You are a woman, how do you think about the discussed issue”. You can imagine this made the already awkward and uncomfortable situation even worse. Ask a question from a woman just because of her gender?

Maybe the organizer of that event had just made an unintentional mistake, overlooked the gender balance or been extremely unlucky with last minute speaker changes. I don’t know.

Having organized events myself, I know just too well how difficult it is to achieve a gender balance in the speakers. I can’t speak for other organizations, but I know our team is 100% committed to aiming at full gender balance and that every member of the team is dedicated and eager to achieve it. We haven’t succeeded yet, but we try our very best. Every time we discuss a speaker, we discuss gender. There’s a huge cheer in the office each time we identify and confirm a female speaker, and we keep listing excellent women we hear of to add to our dream lists for speakers.

So why do we not achieve a 50-50 gender balance in the speaker line-up?

It should be obvious. There are relatively many more men in senior leadership and expert positions as there are women. Most (Asian) Ministers and senior government representatives are men. Even in the international developmental organizations a majority of leaders are men. And these are the people we target to speak in our forums. Decision makers, leaders, senior experts.

We try to tap into any and every opportunity to invite and confirm women speakers to all our panels. Sometimes we even need to be a little flexible with a level of seniority, or proven speaking skills, just to avoid an all-male panel. I can’t imagine any event organizer wanting an all-male panel and I know we work very hard to avoid them. That’s because we support gender equality. We support women rights and we believe women should have equal chances, equal pay, equal recognition. We want to do our part, but it isn’t easy. The world is still failing this, and so do we.

With our last forum, organized this week in Singapore, we pushed our team even harder than ever. Our internal ambition was to achieve a gender balance across the full forum, and at the minimum have at least 1 woman speaker in every panel. We organized 4 plenary level panels and 17 workshops, with over 100 speakers in the course of the 2 days, so it was a huge task to achieve. We also had to confirm a senior government representative for each workshop panel, and take notice of the balanced regional representation and level of seniority and speaking eloquence, in addition to the gender question.

We did not achieve a full gender balance, but 1/3 of our speakers were women. Two out of the 17 organized workshop panels were all-male – though in one of these, we had a brilliant woman confirmed but last minute the company made a change and sent a man instead due to her sudden unavailability. Still, we did not achieve our aim but we tried extremely hard and are proud of the efforts.

The issue of gender inequality has to be raised at every level, has to be fought with collaborative efforts at homes, in schools, in companies and organizations and in the governments. As Michelle Yeoh, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador stated in her powerful speech at our forum, when gender equality is achieved, “everyone wins”. Gender equality doesn’t only bring benefits for women but it supports communities, boosts economic progress and improves company performance. These are proven facts yet we are far from achieving gender equality.

I don’t ever want to organize an all-male panel and neither does our team, but we need the governments, companies and organizations to appoint more women in senior positions and we need the women to agree and speak in our forums. We need collaboration to achieve full gender equality. Conferences give a good glimpse into the problems and level gender status, they can give a face to where the societies, governments and companies stand with achieving the gender goals. Hopefully in the near future the male-dominance turns into gender equality. Everywhere.

 

 

 

Responsible Business

How would you define responsible business and who’s allowed to claim it their mission and vision?

Our company organizes international sustainability conferences, convening leaders and decision-makers from all stakeholder groups; governments, businesses, international organizations, development experts, ground-level non-profits, financial institutions and media. The aim is to bring together all stakeholders to facilitate action and outcome -focused discussions for sustainable development, using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as the framework and guideline.

Before every forum, we get some comments and complaints on speakers, sponsors or partners, claimed to not be “responsible” enough, to take part in a “responsible business forum”. The cursed ones typically including  the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, Philip Morris International, Asia Plantation Capital and others. Sometimes also the Nestle’s, Coca-Colas or Cargill’s. 4 weeks before our annual flagship event, the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development Singapore“, the topic is trending again. The international development organizations are most often the ones wanting to define which kind of company is allowed to be on the same panel as they are. Who should be in the room, who can speak with whom.

My passion is to engage the private sector to the development work. To help companies understand how they can sustain their business and create positive impact, creating win-win situations for all stakeholders. Connect them with right partners, providing them platforms for seeking out collaboration and support. I believe the forums we organize provide the right kind of platform for sharing best practices, meeting relevant stakeholders, challenging others and seeking for collaboration.

Shouldn’t it be beneficial to a cause-motivated organization, to have a public, open platform, where they can engage in the conversation and challenge those whose positions or perspectives they don’t support or agree with? Instead of opposing to appear on the same stage with a company whose business they don’t support, use that as an opportunity to question them and challenge them?

It’s a bold move from controversial companies to join such discussions, to come in front of a public eye, willing to reply to criticism and open for discussion.

Equally, those whose business practices or field of operations are causing negative impact, are the ones most in need of open platforms where they can learn more about sustainability. Where they might learn about solutions to apply to their business models that make them more responsible.

Isn’t that what development is all about? Improvement? In the corporate-world, advancing sustainable business practices, promoting proven solutions and encouraging adaptation of more responsible and sustainable business operations?

I appreciate the work of different types of organizations, which help to push the bar up and demand private sector to stand up to their corporate responsibilities. I see the need for the idealistic, perfectionist perspectives. Yet, I find that real progress comes from collaboration, from working together with realistic objectives. I also believe everyone needs to be included in the conversations, invited to share their perspectives and to have the chance for learning from others and to be engaged in dialogue. Listen, and learn, applies to all sides.

 *In case it’s not obvious that my views are my own and that I’m writing solely as an independent person, being alone responsible for my writing, please refer to my earlier post about me owning my views, my words, my opinions. 

 

 

The Future in Good Hands

We had our large international food and agriculture conference last week in Indonesia, drawing a crowd of over 420 leaders from businesses, governments, civil society and media. In addition, we offered for both international and local university students with related study-interests the opportunity to volunteer in note-taking and social media support. We had roughly 40 students participating, from different backgrounds and with distinguished skills sets. The one common feature however, was the passion and interest they demonstrated – towards learning from the tasks, from us the organizers, from the speakers and through networking.

It was heartening to see these brilliant, passionate future leaders with such excellent attitude towards the opportunity given to them to learn and meet important people from their respective fields. There’s much adore about the Millennials nowadays, which I find usually find a bit annoying but there is certain truth in it as well. The young, future hopes seem well motivated to take over the world.

Most of these students had a big smile on their face throughout the 2 days, and based on their feedback at the forum and afterwards, I feel humbled and honored to have had worked with them. If anything, they wished to do even more, there were no complaints but only generous, sincere gratitude for the opportunity. More than anything, that shows their eagerness for learning and their understanding how every opportunity needs to be embraced.

A complaint one often hears in relation to the millennials is their lack of practicality and at times too high expectations. I can see that too – many have been brought up in an environment where their basic needs have been readily gathered to, giving them the opportunity to fully focus on their studies, on intellectual activities. Their eagerness to climb the career ladder seems to make them forget how important and essential the first steps are. These shouldn’t and can’t be skipped, as that’s where many crucial basic skills and work ethics are mastered.

Still, it gives me hope for the future that the up-coming generation is head-strong, eager and fearless in their quest for their turn to lead the world. Moreover, the passion for sustainability, the values towards responsible business and drive for keeping the planet safe is apparent. Now they need the skills, the practical experiences and some guidance before they are ready to take over.

The will is there, and they will find the way.