Andrew Buay shares how climate change will remain the key sustainability issue in 2016

EC: What’s your current role and responsibilities?

Andrew Buay: I head the Singtel Group’s Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability function across the region. In Australia where I am mostly based, I am also a talent coach in the Optus talent programme.

EC: What are the big issues to watch in 2016?

Andrew Buay: Climate change will remain the key sustainability issue in 2016. However, focus will not only be on carbon reduction strategies by countries to meet their COP21 commitments, but the debate will continue on the framework to solve for their transnational carbon footprint. What will drive this is increasing awareness and information on the carbon impact from the consumption patterns of the rich nations on the developing nations – their carbon footprint have effectively been which “outsourced and offshored”, given the global nature of the supply chain. There will also be increasing attention paid to building long term resilience and adaptation to climate change, as it becomes apparent that meeting the original 2°C target will be a challenge.

The social-economic impact from scale of the Syrian refugee crisis will bring a new dimension to the global human rights issue – there will have to be a focus on finding successfully models that support the integration and inclusion of the refugees into the receiving communities to ensure long term social stability and their economic productivity. Amidst continued volatility in the global stock markets, 2016 will see the financial and investment sector start to exert visible influence on sustainability issues as lending and investment funds shy away from companies with higher perceived ESG risks.

EC: How do you combine being a Vice President Group CSR and Talent Coach – what does it mean practically?

Andrew Buay: I initially took on these dual newly created roles quite independent of each other because I was passionate for both areas. However, I quickly realised the synergies and interdependencies between the two and could see how they were complementary. As an example, it is important to develop leadership with a value system and acumen that aligns strongly with sustainability principles. In this way, sustainability becomes part of a company’s DNA and not just a separate corporate function. It is much easier to shape the upcoming generations of talent and leaders as they quickly get sustainability and are excited by it. I also use CSR initiatives as a means to engage and develop our talent and leaders.

As part of their leadership development, many of the people I coach are also actively involved in skilled-based mentoring with the vulnerable segments of the community we support. This helps build leadership that is humanistic and conscious of their role in the broader society. Our talent are also mobilised to organize team–based CSR initiatives, or drive sustainability initiatives within their business. This year, CSR became THE top scoring staff engagement driver for the Singtel Group, outperforming the benchmark for global high performing companies in that category. Our Singtel Chairman also talks about the need to develop triple bottomline leaders. I think this nicely summarises the synergies of the two roles.

EC: In your role as Vice President Group CSR & Talent Coach what are your priorities for 2016?

Andrew Buay: Our sustainability strategy focuses around four key pillars. In the Marketplace, building on our sustainable supply chain management is the key priority. We are early in this journey, albeit in the past year have completed a life cycle assessment for our business and established a clear management approach and roadmap to further assessing and managing the risk areas. 2016 will be focused on working through Group Procurement to execute on the roadmap, undertaking specific supply chain assurance reviews, as well as building the systems to automate some of our risk management processes in supply chain.

In our Community pillar, it is about building scale and continued innovation in the strategic community programmes we focus on, such as Digital Citizenship, employment and employability for vulnerable communities. We also launch the next phase of our social innovation and entrepreneurship programme across Singapore and Australia to build the ecosystem of innovators focused on solving for social and community needs. In our People pillar, strengthening our diversity agenda and support for disability employment and Women in Leadership are key focus for me. In the Environment space, establishing our carbon intensity reduction strategy and executing on our network adaptation and resilience planning are the priorities, following our climate change adaptation review conducted in 2015.

EC: Where do sustainability and CSR activities sit at Singtel and what departments they are integrated the most?

Andrew Buay: Functionally I sit within the HR organization because historically CSR had a strong staff community engagement element, and also because of my separate talent coach role. However, as we have expanded the scope of the sustainability agenda, we now work closely with and have key dependencies in almost all parts of the organization. Our Singtel Management Committee which comprises all our key executives from across the Group now has oversight of the broader sustainability strategy and agenda.

EC: One thing you mentioned to me earlier is that Singtel have set the pace at least in Singapore in a strategic and holistic approach to community engagement vs a largely philanthropic approach in Asia. Why has Singtel gone down that route and, please give me an example of such activities?

Andrew Buay: Corporate community engagement and support in Singapore as with many parts of Asia is still very philanthropic in nature, often beginning and ending with charitable donations and general volunteering for charities that may have no relationship with the nature of the company’s business. Corporate philanthropy also has a “budget ceiling” for most companies. Whereas, strategic community engagement presents more opportunities when it is in areas of the community that relates to or can impact your core business, and when your company’s core capabilities can be leveraged.

Having run different parts of the business in the Singtel Group across the region, it quickly became apparent to me when I assumed the role in mid-2013 that we could approach community support a lot more strategically and synergistically. In our community strategy, we engage with the community stakeholders to identify major unmet or emerging social issues. We think about how we can holistically leverage as many aspects of our business capability, partnerships and develop the ecosystems to value-add to the cause.

A good example is our recent engagement in the Singapore disability employment sector which started with community engagement to identify the needs and gaps. This led to Singtel co-conceptualising and funding the set-up of a special disability training centre (Singtel Enabling Innovation Centre) for skills relevant to corporate Singapore, leverage of assistive technologies, social innovation and incubation, introduction of special mobile products for disabilities, establishing disability partnership networks and finally leading to internship and employment.

We believe such an approach creates “shared value”, and the impact to community and company are far greater. We found that as we approach our community investments this way, the company and board have been willing to back further investments in our community initiatives.

EC: From research with our community we’ve been told sustainability as a source of competitive advantage is the biggest opportunity in the next 5 years – would you agree with this and what Singtel does in this space?

Andrew Buay: Yes and No. “Yes”, in the sense that done right, sustainability practices supports the long term success of the business, and also build the brand and reputation. Also, if approached strategically and not just as risk management, it generates business opportunities. As an example, one of the material issues that relates to our industry is cyber wellness, online safety and cyber security. While one of our key community programmes relate to digital citizenship education, we have also identified business opportunities leading to a whole cyber security business for enterprise customers.

“No”, as being obsessed with sustainability as a competitive advantage in itself will also undermine collaboration.

I believe many of the social and environmental issues need to be tackled collaboratively for a common outcome, not for competitive advantage. Many of our CSR and sustainability initiatives have been done through connecting the ecosystem of partners and like-minded individuals and companies – eg we are founding members in initiatives like Singapore Business Network on Disability, Australian Business Community Network, Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities, Telco Together Foundation etc which are all collaborative efforts (even with competitors) to address social or environmental issues. If you think of the logic behind the 17th Sustainable Development Goals, collaboration and partnerships is critical in the sustainability space.

EC: Where do you think Singtel can make the biggest impact and have Singtel achieved that yet?

Andrew Buay: Leveraging our products and technologies, partnerships and capabilities to solve for issues in sustainability is our biggest opportunity. We have only scratched the surface in terms of the opportunity and impact. But if you think of the telco industry that we are in – it’s been a key driver of economic and social development. And Singtel had invested significantly since the 1990s across the developing markets of Asia. We did this even through the economic down turns and Asian Financial Crisis that saw many US and European telcos pull their investments out of Asia. While it’s hard to value the direct and indirect social and economic benefit, we believe it’s played a role in the economic growth of these countries. Singtel today has a subscriber base of over half a billion mobile customers, second globally only to China Mobile.

When I was the Chief Operating Advisor at Globe Telecom in the Philippines between 2003 and 2007, we introduced one of the world’s first mobile payments service, G-Cash. Soon after many of our associates in the region did likewise, bringing low cost financial services to a segment of society known as the “unbankables”.

Today, when businesses outsource their operations to our managed ICT services such as cloud or data centre services, we enable their operational and energy efficiencies through shared infrastructure. We offer transport and logistics solutions that improve the carbon footprint for logistics and transport companies. In future, our Smart home and smart city solutions will be a key enabler of sustainable living and cities.

So, the positive impact of our industry on sustainability related issues is probably a lot wider than we currently realise or can even track. Our industry, services and technology are enablers of sustainability in ways we are probably only starting to realise.

EC: Is Singtel engaging in any of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

Andrew Buay: Before the Sustainable Development Goals were widely publicised, Singtel was the first Asia-Pacific company to commit to becoming a member of IMPACT 2030 which was a collaboration of global companies to promote and advocate corporate volunteering in support of the Global Goals. But asides from that, we have done our mappings to see what already aligns with the Global Goals and what more we can do. We have the ability across our Group of companies to make some differences in areas such as Climate Resilience and Adaptation, Smart/Sustainable Cities, Education and Employability, to name a few.

EC: What do you see as being the biggest challenge in working towards this goal?

Andrew Buay: The challenge is not whether a company is doing anything in context of the goals, but what more it can do and how significant an impact it can have contributing to that goal. Another challenge is how all stakeholders collaborate and synergise their efforts to get a holistic and meaningful outcome relating to a goal. I think they are too big to be solved by any individual organization or government alone.

EC: COP21 agreement – a success or did you wish for more?

Andrew Buay: My view on this is mixed. Governments mainly committed to what they were prepared to commit to, not what was necessarily needed to address the 2°C target. Many key developing nations were visibly absent in their commitments. And, a framework for the developed economies to help address the issue for the poorer nations was not established. COP21 could either be seen as a divide and conquer approach to the global climate change issue, or it could also result in more silo mentality as governments now focus inward toward achieving their targets and commitment, and leave other nations to sort out their “share” of the problem.

Having said that, COP21 still represents a milestone in the global alignment and awareness that it has raised on the topic, and the reality check that we still have a huge gap. I believe this in itself will stimulate continued focus on the topic and search for solutions especially transnationally. In a sense, the “unconscious bias” of climate change has been overcome through COP21, and greater awareness and acceptance of the problem will lead eventually to a better resolution.

EC: Corporation tax – higher or lower?

Andrew Buay: I am not an expert in this area, and it’s hard to generalise since it’s relative to where the current levels of corporate tax are for each country, and are influenced by other factors such as fiscal strategies, economic and social challenges, government spending patterns etc.

However, in the context of corporate tax as a government source of funding to address sustainability issues, my personal view is lower is better. Globally we have a mixed bag of results from governments demonstrating they can adequately leverage higher corporate taxes to provide permanent solutions to ESG issues in their country. There is no demonstrable correlation between the two. And because I see private and the NGO sector as having a key role to play collaboratively in solving for sustainability issues, what I think works better is a model that has government co-invest with private sector or NGOs in resolving for ESG issues, or a tax incentive structure that attracts private sector investment in ESG issues for their country. That way the burden of such issues are co-shared rather than just transferred to the government through higher corporate taxes.

As an example, Singapore has an interesting model whereby despite one of the lowest corporate taxes in the world, the government has had dollar-for-dollar matching grant schemes for companies investing in sustainable community and social programmes. In addition, they have had one of the highest tax incentive scheme of between 250% to 300% for company investments to solve community and social issues. Such incentive models stimulate corporate investment in environment or social issues.

EC: A government to watch on sustainability?

Andrew Buay: Closer to home, what the Singapore government has been/is doing and the model of PPP (Public – Private – People) collaboration is something to watch. Singapore is a small nation-state and its journey since independence has embedded many aspects and principles of sustainability even before the term became popular to current definition. Singapore had a successful model for sustainable and affordable public housing. The greening of the city has been in the DNA even as the urban and economic landscape matured (tree planting is one of the most popular corporate and government environment volunteer activity!). Much has been done to solve for water security issues, both in terms of building supply resilience and in its journey to manage flooding and inundation, which is Singapore’s greatest long term climate change risk. Over the years, energy generation has almost completely moved to the cleaner natural gas. Even in land scarce Singapore where high rise buildings leave little roof space for solar, the government is exploring viability of floating solar on the reservoirs. The government inter-agencies have begun actively looking at climate resilience and adaptation planning across all critical infrastructure as the new climate change models have become more robust. The government’s aggressive push into the next generation of a smart city/home master plan will also enable aspects of sustainable urban cities to eventually become a reality.

The example I gave earlier of low corporate taxes combined with strong matching grants and tax breaks for social and community investment is something I have not seen elsewhere to the same extent.

No doubt Singapore is a small nation-state without the burden of a rural economy, but its model has the potential to be applied to many of the major urban cities of the world, especially in developing countries. Its approach toward establishing and regularly refreshing its long term master plans in social, environmental and economic planning is still something I have not seen any other government match with the same rigour and tenacity.

Obviously, political stability and continuity has played a key role in allowing focus on the long term sustainability issues. I think it’s hard for governments to really take a long term view, which is needed in resolving sustainability issues, when there is pressure to show short term results to stay in power.

EC: And finally, what are you most looking forward to at next Responsible Business Summit Asia?

Andrew Buay: Every conference I sit in, I get some perspectives so fresh that it stimulates a new initiative or approach to our sustainability efforts which we take back and action on. Our efforts in sustainable supply chain management was one such outcome stimulated by additional insights from such a session. This year, I will also be on the lookout for collaboration opportunities with other organizations that might have a shared vision for some sustainability issue or Global Goal, and where there is complementarity through collaboration to drive a bigger impact.

Leadership series  Andrew Buay  CSR  climate change  sustainability  carbon footprint  social economy  Human rights  supply chain  Environment  politics 

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