The green touch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 June, 2010, 12:00am

Over the past few years, Hong Kong companies have begun to understand the benefits of sustainability. In striving to catch up with their global counterparts in the race to 'go green', the likes of Swire Properties, the MTR Corporation and CLP Power have carved out positions as local market leaders. These are large companies, however, and the role of small and medium-sized enterprises has yet to be fully appreciated. In accounting for about 80 per cent of Hong Kong's gross domestic product, SMEs have a crucial role to play in securing a more sustainable future.

Sustainability was succinctly defined by the Brundtland Commission as 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. For businesses, Dow Jones' definition is perhaps most relevant: sustainable businesses are those that seek to increase long-term shareholder value through integrating economic, environmental and social growth opportunities into their overall strategy.

This means incorporating environmental, social and economic elements in a tangible, measurable and results-oriented way. Adopting these principles should be appealing to any businesses looking to cut costs; for leanly run SMEs, it should be a no-brainer.

There are many misconceptions about sustainability. In cynical Asian boardrooms, sustainability is often seen as a trendy Western concept without real business relevance, or an expensive public relations tool. While some 'big business' sustainability initiatives may fall into this category, SMEs would be misguided in sharing this scepticism.

Of course, coming out of a recession, Hong Kong's SMEs are keen to save money wherever possible - yet many sustainability initiatives are free or extremely low-cost. In fact, even the simplest of efforts have been proved to provide long-term efficiency savings, mostly in the form of lower utility bills and higher workforce productivity.

The first step in this process is taking time to analyse current performance in terms of energy and water efficiency, waste management and indoor air quality. This should be followed by research, getting up to scratch on what business peers or larger corporations with bigger budgets are doing, and setting modest, achievable year-on-year reduction targets.

The key word here is 'modest' - no more than 10 to 20 per cent at first - but even conservative targets can offer surprising cost savings and sustainability benefits. Once achieved, it will become increasingly easier to meet more challenging targets and achieve a truly sustainable, streamlined and profitable business.

With reasonable, achievable targets in mind, SMEs could start with the most basic and cost-effective measures. These include enforcing simple energy efficiency measures in the office, like switching off unused appliances and wasteful standbys, or introducing a zonal lighting plan to keep lights switched off in underused areas. Fluorescent light bulbs are an immediate low-cost solution - the newest models use up to 80 per cent less energy. Neither is there any excuse for icy offices, for too long a defining feature of Hong Kong's urban environment - turn down air conditioners and banish the office cardigan once and for all.

Staff should be briefed on the three Rs - 'reduce, reuse, recycle' - with the biggest stress on 'reduce'; online filing systems and double-sided printing can dramatically reduce unnecessary wastage. Only print where necessary, and once printed, keep scrap paper for internal use. If every business in Hong Kong cuts its paper use by half, imagine how many thousands of trees would be saved - not to mention how much less would be needlessly spent on paper and ink cartridges.

Next, office managers could think creatively about how to give staff incentives to save energy and cut waste. Although a large company, the local office of law firm Baker & McKenzie implemented an excellent low-cost sustainability initiative: every floor was challenged to save electricity each month and bills were compared, with the winner receiving free bowls of fruit for a month. This type of measure has an added benefit of encouraging a sense of shared responsibility among staff.

Once initial targets are achieved, SMEs could start thinking about capitalising on the potential of sustainability to differentiate themselves in an extremely competitive marketplace. Awards are offered each year under the Hong Kong Awards for Environmental Excellence scheme, based on goals set and achieved over time. By keeping a record of their efforts, SMEs could eventually raise their profiles by entering and trying to win some of the numerous awards on offer.

Many businesses feel that, if they don't have the will or the resources to be a sustainability 'poster child', they might as well not bother. In fact, where viable strategies are concerned, SMEs are best placed to understand the very essence of sustainable business: the integration of smart, simple and cost-effective measures that save costs in the long run, while also benefiting the environment and society.

If all 274,000 SMEs in Hong Kong took up a few simple initiatives, aiming to reduce energy use and wastage by about 10 to 20 per cent each, we could witness an overnight sustainability revolution.

Timothy J. Peirson-Smith is managing director of Executive Counsel Limited, a sustainability-focused public affairs and strategic communication consultancy based in Hong Kong. He is also chairman of the business policy unit at the British Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong