Takeaways from HSBC-SMU Sustainable Enterprise - The Perils and Promise of Walking the Talk

Thursday Sep 30,2021 | Others


Sustainability is an increasingly urgent topic in the world today. Over the past few years, we’ve seen evidence of a growing amount of wicked problems – problems that are difficult to solve – in society, economy, and the environment. From political uprisings, the global pandemic, to global warming, we need to take action for the sake of future generations.

On the upside, there has been much more awareness around sustainability, thanks to the mass media. We know that we can no longer rely on governments, global organisations, and international NGOs to solve problems for us. Instead, it has to be a collaborative effort, creating an ecosystem that supports one another for a collective good. One of the key areas in innovation can be found in the role of enterprises, and how businesses are transforming the way they operate to make a difference in society. 

To discuss some of the actions enterprises around us can and have done, a webinar titled ‘The Perils and Promise of Walking the Talk,’ was held in collaboration with HSBC and moderated by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation’s Assistant Director Ho Han Peng. 

The session, which was attended by more than 100 attendees included six panellists from a variety of organizations under the HSBC x SMU Sustainability Enterprises Initiative, namely Turtle Tree, Foodness Asia, Tech for She, Freedom Cups, The Sustainability Project, and Magorium, where representatives spoke about their individual businesses and their approach to sustainability. 

In his opening speech, HSBC Head of Business Development (SME Banking) William Longhurst shared the organisation’s view on sustainability and their mission. “At HSBC, we have designed a clear strategy, and have committed to becoming a net zero bank by 2030. We’ve also committed up to $1 trillion of financing to support our customers in making the transition,” he says. Coming from a financial services point of view, Longhurst shared that often, the key deterrents of pivoting towards a sustainable model are costs, complexity, and business priorities. However, he encouraged businesses to stay open to different viewpoints and to be creative and innovative in the way they approach the topic.

Knowing your purpose: discovering the why behind your business

Knowing your purpose: discovering the why behind your business

Coming from such a broad range of industries, attendees benefited from hearing about the unique experiences each of the panellists shared. John Lui, General Manager of Foodness Asia, an NGO that aims to curb hidden hunger by fortifying rice, shares that when it comes to running a sustainable business, having a clear sense of purpose is key. “Knowing your purpose helps you prioritise. We also knew early on that we needed to be financially sustainable and not be reliant on grants, so we developed a business model that would support the long-term running of the business,” says Lui. He explains that having a clear business model helped them drive the way they approach costs and profits, without losing track of why the business was founded in the first place – to provide more nutritious and balanced meals to the needy.

Moving away from the traditional mindset of “sustainability,” Clara Chong, CEO and co-founder of Tech for She explains that it is her passion to nurture and equip women with digital skills so that they can be empowered to seek new career opportunities and break the unconscious bias around women and technology that exists in society. “We’ve also launched a pilot mentorship with a corporate organisation, thanks to the success of our first mentorship programme that was supported by the SMU x HSBC fund,” she said, adding that big plans are underway to collaborate with different global organisations in the near future. 

Looking beyond the financials

Looking beyond the financials 

Often, businesses are tempted to focus on the cost reduction aspect of the business. However, Longhurst shares a refreshing point of view that encourages businesses to look beyond cost. “Don’t focus on sustainability as a cost reduction exercise. Rather, think about green revenue,” he explains. 

With studies having shown that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products and services, businesses should start thinking longer-term, looking at the outcome rather than seeking immediate solutions. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t be thinking about going into a new area of business, even launching a new product that is green. If you start thinking like that, the sky's the limit for what your business can do,” he says.

Encouraging more sustainable practices in communities

Encouraging more sustainable practices in communities

To be truly successful in achieving global sustainable goals, there can no longer be a distinction between sustainability and profitability. This is why both business owners and consumers have to be in the same boat. Whether it means paying more for goods, or simply working together to help a specific cause, there are many avenues for innovation that can be explored. One of the questions asked during the session was: how do we convince the unconvinced? 
The Sustainability Project founder Joline Tang explains that taking a soft approach has worked for her. “At least in Singapore, there is already a lot of awareness around sustainability and sustainable living. What people want to know is how they can take action,” she says. “Most people think that buying reusables is a way of taking action but actually, it’s about reducing consumption, and thinking about whether we are consuming unnecessarily. This includes small decisions we make, like taking the stairs instead of the lift to reduce energy consumption.” 

Ultimately, while there can be a lot of talk around the matter, nothing will get done if enterprises don’t take action. Brands need to step out of their comfort zones and perhaps even get their hands dirty if they want to see results in the long run. As Longhurst says, “The earlier companies can get started, the better. Becoming a sustainable business is not easy, but those that start early can experiment aggressively, and will certainly see success in the future.” 

If you are interested in learning more about the topics covered in the webinar, the video is made available for you below: 


All images via rawpixel.
Video credit: SMU Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship