WITH A TITLE LIKE Environmental Resource Management anyone could be forgiven for thinking the company is involved in, well, environmental issues, perhaps in a Greenpeace sort of way. But the ERM's Asia-Pacific chairman, Chandran Nair, is as horrified by the suggestion that he heads a regional team of 500 greenies as if he had been accused of wearing a pink tutu. He is in the business of the environment and that business exists to make money, he points out briskly. 'It's a multi, multimillion-dollar business. This is not an NGO; we want to attract the best and make a profit,' he said. ERM offers consultancy services to governments and large corporations on their environmental issues. It exists to advise on what they can legally do, not on what they should do, necessarily, when it comes to managing their environmental, resource management, and resulting social issues. 'We see ourselves as independent. Our job is to promote clear thinking, with a strong technical basis for providing solutions to environmental and social problems. Our position is not to be lobbyists,' he said. 'We will not take on assignments where we are lobbyists but we will be happy to take on a task which is controversial and let science and policy arguments win the day,' said Mr Nair, a spry man whose shoes are as shiny as mirrors. 'Ours is not to get involved in policies, though we obviously do get dragged into the debate.' The company also works with managing risk and enhancing reputation. 'We work with companies to raise the bar, and it's often uncomfortable. I might say to a company: 'You'll be disclosing this in your annual report as a matter of corporate social responsibility'. You may know there is toxic land involved, for example. 'In due diligence you can hit on a deal-breaker - our job is not to pull the wool over a nasty fact. If the client says: 'Please don't say that', we walk away. We might say that if you go to a certain country to do this or that you may upset fragile eco-systems in socially sensitive areas and we suggest the implications for reputation.' As regulations tighten, even in Asia, and the awareness of the environmental impact of industry, cars and development increases, so does the need for consultants such as ERM, insists Mr Nair. He is quick to defend ERM's own public image. 'It's fair to say NGOs think we are paid and therefore will do anything clients tell us to do, but on my watch I've been very careful to see that it doesn't happen.' ERM presented technical facts to government and clients, he said. 'But we are not lobbyists. Our whole business hinges on being independent, impartial and very ethical.' Multinationals and governments cannot afford to be complacent. 'It's vital to your reputation that an NGO doesn't focus on your or you find yourself the subject of prime-time television,' he said. Hong Kong, he says, has some of the toughest regulations in the region governing environmental impact assessments. So what can we make of the soaring air pollution and ongoing muddle regarding the harbour reclamation? Mr Nair understands the working of government as well as anyone. 'We've done a major policy piece of work for government to develop tools for more balanced decision making, but the problem is that decisions are shaped not necessarily at the best levels of competence ... and by the time the decision is taken, it's often too late to change it and often discussions are not held at the right level either,' he said. Where the government could improve was transparency in key decision-making, he said. 'The government is slightly out of step but that's not uncommon with countries. As we know, bureaucrats take a long time to shift.' He said sustainability was neither a macho nor sexy field. In road building, for example, the government had to contend with pressure from the car lobby, highway engineers, oil firms and construction companies. Governments must listen, he said, but they cannot please everyone. 'How do you make decisions that deliver on economic progress, people's social aspirations and the environment while delivering a high quality of life?' he said of the position of governments. But aren't governments supposed to rise above vested interests? 'Yes, but they have to listen to people, too, and certain issues are highlighted by those who feel passionate about them but they don't necessarily represent the majority,' he said. Mr Nair insists he is not a closet greenie and hates the term 'environmentalist'. 'I got into this business because I felt environmental sustainability was the challenge of our time,' he said. 'If we want to achieve anything with sustainability, people must accept that we work in the world as it is and not rely on governments.' Cross-sector co-operation is the only way. This means he is not going to 'jeopardise the business or the jobs' of his 500 staff by 'pontificating to clients about my personal beliefs' - many of which would seem to differ from his professional ones. He said it was all a matter of perspective 'and before you start pontificating at all, remember two billion people in Asia live on less than US$1 a day'. Ever the realist, he asks: 'Do we say we are resigned to this or see it as an opportunity?' He sees the need for a new vocabulary to cover the environmental debate. 'The 'environment' is a bad word. It implies for and against, good and bad. I like to talk about quality of life and then talk about the environment as the outcome of social and economic projects. Then we have to decide how we deliver quality of life - and environment,' he said. So how does Hong Kong rate on quality of life? 'We have one of the highest qualities of life anywhere in the region.' Really? 'We're obviously weak on air quality. But for one of the world's most densely populated areas, things can only get better. However, that requires a greater engagement between regional shareholders. 'If you ask most people would they prefer GDP or clean air, they would say GDP, oh, and if clean air is free I'll have some of that, too. It's too simplistic to say it's the government's fault.' Biography Chandran Nair, 48, is chairman of Environmental Resource Management (ERM), Asia-Pacific. Born in Malaysia, he has lived in Hong Kong for 12 years. He read biochemical engineering at Reading University, England, before working in London, Africa and Thailand on an ultra-pure water system. His work on a community sanitation project in Swaziland took him to South Africa, where he played in a jazz and reggae band. He was also a keen hockey player and team manager, in Hong Kong.