Tree-planting scheme puts down firm roots

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am

You get the sense that the efforts of some companies to promote corporate social responsibility (CSR) are half-hearted at best and certainly not built to last.

But when Zoe Lee, group public affairs manager at CLP Holdings, talks about ambitious schemes for planting a million trees or reducing the firm's carbon emissions intensity by 75 per cent by 2050, she is describing not mere plans but actions already in progress, with clear interim targets backed by long-standing commitment.

Explaining various community initiatives and education about climate change, the areas in which she is most involved, Ms Lee said the company took pride in being a leader in CSR activities.

'We see ourselves as part of the community wherever we operate,' she said. 'For most of the programmes, we don't just give money but donate our man hours as well for the co-ordination, planning and execution of the task. We were one of the first companies in Asia to make a commitment to tackling climate change and will continue to do that by emphasising energy efficiency, and educating and involving the community.'

The company has a five-year regional tree-planting programme set to run until 2012. The basic concept is to focus on countries where CLP has operations. About 380,000 trees have been planted in Hong Kong, the mainland, India and Thailand.

Local authorities helped to identify suitable sites. These include Fu Tei in Tuen Mun, where hill fires had degraded the landscape; around Guangdong's Dongjiang River, which provides much of Hong Kong's drinking water; and on mountain slopes in Sichuan where trees prevent soil erosion. 'We use the same model for every country, working with the forestry administration to get the land and with local communities,' Ms Lee said.

'Together, they help to do the planting, implementation and maintenance for us. In Hong Kong alone, we have engaged more than 1,600 officials and people from the community, plus 500 staff and family members.'

She added the survival rate for new seedlings was more than 85 per cent. Species are chosen to enhance biodiversity and, reflecting the scope of the project, new sites will soon be added in Australia.

To achieve the broadest possible impact the company is arranging educational eco-tours of newly planted areas in Hong Kong and Guangdong. These trips give students and green groups the chance to learn more about natural habitats and take part in audits monitoring progress. CLP has made a pledge to donate HK$50 to the Community Chest for each tree planted by a member of staff to spur participation and amplify the environmental message.

'It really shows the commitment from management,' Ms Lee said. 'But we think these programmes represent much more than just the number of dollars put in.'

Noting how a well-conceived community initiative could have a far-reaching impact, she highlighted the company's Active Mind programme for the elderly. Since 2007, in partnership with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, this has promoted awareness of dementia and methods to delay its onset. Specifically, 20,000 or so senior citizens have attended briefing sessions on the condition and more than 5,300 have received assessments and memory training, with most subsequently showing a clear improvement in their cognitive functions.

The target is to conduct these programmes on a continuous basis and help at least another 5,000 individuals next year. They will also benefit from the active support of 60 CLP 'memory ambassadors' trained to assist social workers and occupational therapists.

'We have frequent contact with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] in Hong Kong to discuss the most urgent needs in the community,' Ms Lee said. 'In that way, we can find out priorities and support something that aligns with the values of the company.'

She points out that such projects do not have to be top-down. In fact, numerous schemes are now being initiated by employees, who organise themselves into smaller volunteer teams and mobilise as necessary. Some may offer to teach classes for recent immigrants. Others perhaps do repairs and rewiring for 'home alone' elderly or raise funds for a food bank supporting underprivileged people through the worst of the financial crisis.

For information and direction, the volunteer team has its own website and committee. However, it can also make use of a small company-run secretariat set up to co-ordinate CSR activities and initiatives across different business units and handle community networking.

'The role of the company is to be a facilitator and sometimes to provide matching funds,' Ms Lee said. 'We also give HK$20 to the Community Chest for every hour of voluntary service completed by staff or their family members. It doesn't have to be a programme linked to CLP.'

She said that education, in diverse formats, would always be near the top of the agenda. Now, more than ever, it is vital for different sectors of the community to understand all the issues surrounding climate change.

For this reason, the company has continued to upgrade its online platform to feature interactive games, practical tips on energy efficiency and a carbon calculator. This allows people to determine their own carbon footprint, based on their lifestyle and patterns of consumption, hopefully inspiring them to change.

CLP's Young Power programme, which has taught Hong Kong secondary students about sustainability and leadership for the past 10 summers, is extending across the region. This year teams from the mainland and India will be invited to Hong Kong to work jointly on creative climate-related projects with real-life applications.

'Young engineers will serve as mentors to help with technical information and the students will have a chance to do job shadowing,' Ms Lee said. 'A programme such as this lets us keep in touch with young people, but we also learn a lot. Looking at this year's submissions, we can see they really understand about climate change and have some exciting and innovative ideas.'