Leading Voices in Global Sustainability
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Global Director - Sustainability and Creating Shared Value, Diversey
10 Questions to Change The World
How do you think climate change and the global sustainability agenda will
impact your industry over the next 3-5 years?
At the outset of this millennium, sustainability was a vague outline of something that today is clearly top of mind with businesses across the globe. A sense of urgency now exists that underscores a prevailing view that we no longer can ignore the tell-tale signs of a looming climate crisis: rising temperatures, polluted air, plastic waste in oceans, more violent weather, resource scarcity exacerbated by explosive population growth, and a host of other issues, big and small.
The implications of the climate crisis and increased resource scarcity are felt across the planet, and create new, complex challenges for business and society. As a leading provider of hygiene, infection prevention and cleaning solutions, Diversey has a unique role to play, as do the industry as a whole. The greatest opportunity for environmental and social impact lies not only within the industry’s own operations, but through the delivery of products and services that enable the customers to minimize their own environmental footprint and operate more efficiently.
One of the most interesting concepts that the industry is pursuing is "Net Positive", which is defined as delivering environmental savings to the customers that are larger than the industry’s own environmental footprint. Net Positive solutions have an impact on one or more of these 4 critical topics: water, waste, energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The ambition is that the savings brought to the customers by solutions should exceed the footprint of the industry’s own operations, thus making the world a better place with the industry delivering sustainability value efficiently.
What is one ‘sustainability hack’ you’d recommend to an organisation wanting
to transform into a more sustainable operation?
What I am recommending is not a "sustainability hack" but more of a "sustainability best practice". I believe that the workplace would be a much better place if it has plenty of plants, especially indoor plants if the workplace is an office in a building.
A sense of urgency now exists that underscores a prevailing view that we no longer can ignore the tell-tale signs of a looming climate crisis
Placing plants around the office - large potted plants along the corridors, hanging plants by the windows or even small plants on desks - bring many benefits to the employees, and in extension, the corporation in general. Research has shown that having plants in the workplace has many benefits - e.g. boosting productivity, decreasing sickness, stress and absences, filtering the air, reducing noise, heightening creativity and inspiration as well as making the workplace feels inviting. And of course, acts to reduce C02 in enclosed spaces.
Why have you embraced sustainability in your professional career?
I actually did not start out as a sustainability professional. I am a molecular epidemiologist by training, and had worked in research laboratories at the start of my working life. I then moved on to sales and marketing in my career.
I started off in my present company Diversey as Director for Environment, Health, Safety & Security in 2006. In 2008, Diversey started a Sustainability function, so I transitioned to being a sustainability professional during this time - this was a time when sustainability was still not considered as essential or mainstream by corporations. Diversey's senior management then had the foresight to bet on sustainability to be the path forward for businesses to thrive while making a positive difference to the world.
As time went by, I further transitioned from focusing on doing sustainability internally (i.e. within Diversey) to assisting our customers to meet their own sustainability goals. We developed Creating Shared Value Programs for our customers since 2012 - converting hotel trash into used guest soaps (Soap For Hope), end-of-life hotel linens (Linens For Life) and used coffee grounds (CoffeeBriques) into sustainable livelihood programs for at-risk communities. "At-risk" for us, is defined as families who are in deep poverty, to the point where they may be considering selling their children just to survive. These programs have 3 broad goals - enhancing livelihoods, protecting the planet by diverting tonnes of waste from landfills and products made to benefit the broader community (e.g. soaps for sanitation for the whole village). When the 17 SDGs were formally launched in 2016, we tweaked our program goals to reflect the SGDs eg enhancing livelihoods goal to SDG #1 No Poverty and SDG #8 Decent Work, diverting waste from landfill to SDG #12 Responsible Consumption and so on. We run these programs in approximately 200 cities across 45 countries today.
My teams and I continue to develop new programs along the same SDG lines, the latest program being PlasticShreds, where single use plastic waste (eg soda bottles) are being upcycled into aggregates for the construction of horizontal structures such as badminton or basketball courts for villages and schools.
What are some of the wins you have achieved in your career to date?
Every family that we managed to pull out from the poverty trap is a win.
My biggest "win" is developing and launching Creating Shared Value programs that turn hotel wastes such as used soaps and end-of-life linens, into sustainable livelihood programs for at-risk families around the world.
As mentioned above, we now run these programs in close to 200 cities across 45 countries today. Our programs impact over 1 million people annually, in the form of enhancing their livelihoods, providing better hygiene and sanitation and enabling children to live healthier lives.
I also mentioned just now that our work focuses on “at-risk” families, which is defined as families who are in deep poverty, to the point where they may be considering selling their children just to survive. When a child is sold, inevitably the child will be made to work in the sex trade, because this would be the fastest way for the trafficker to get back its ROI. The work we're doing is pulling people out of poverty and protecting children from being sold into the sex trade. This is my passion. I believe that no child deserves to be sacrificed so that the rest of the family can survive. The programmes we run are not a one-off thing. Helping to pull a family out from poverty is not just for this week. It has to be ongoing until the family is safe from that risk. If any of the families we support have to return to a life of poverty, then what’s the point? So this is a long term commitment, an ongoing process of monthly monitoring to make sure people have made enough money.
So to me, every family that we managed to pull out from the poverty trap is a win.
What do you want to have achieved before you retire?
I will continue to do what I am doing now, probably even after retirement - I will continue to find ways to pull at-risk families out of poverty so that they can provide a better future for themselves and their children.
I will continue to be thick-skinned to ask hotels and corporations for their support in the form of giving me their wastes which are destined for landfills, or for their employee volunteer hours to help in these programs. I certainly cannot be at 200 places at any one time, so I need local volunteers to help me drive these programs locally.
My goals are to bring these programs to 15-20 new cities every year, and to lift more families out of poverty each year.
What advice would you give for organisations looking to start or advance on their sustainability journey?
The only advice I would give to anyone who is looking to start or advance their career in sustainability is this - find your passion first, and embrace it. Then as the cliché goes - do what you love, and you'll never work another day in your life.
Let me explain. For me, my passion is protecting children. So my professional sustainability journey has a bent of doing something to protect children - I find ways in my work to design programs to impact families and children, be it alleviating poverty or providing hygiene and sanitation for children. I find that when my passion is in tune with the programs that I run, I feel very motivated to wake up and do this every day. My company did not hire me to do this, I found a way to incorporate these into the company's value proposition for customers, and to demonstrate the value that these programs bring to my company as well.
I have a friend who is very passionate about saving animals - strays, endangered species, etc. So he volunteers his time in this area of his passion. He wanted me to help him with his animal protection work, so he asked me if I have passion for animals. I said yes, I am passionate about animals. What kind of animals, he asked. I said, only 3 types - grilled, roasted and deep-fried. We had a laugh over this, and I told him that while I admire him for his passion for saving animals, I would not find this as my calling as I my passion for animals is different from his.
So, find your passion. It could be environmental protection. Climate change. LGBTQ community. The disabled. The elderly. Animals. The world needs people who have passion for different things. And once you understand what makes you tick, then find ways in your career to merge your professional life with your passion. That's where you can, and will, make the most difference in the lives of others, of the planet and in yourself.
Who do you go to for inspiration in this space?
Find your passion first, and embrace it. Then as the cliché goes - do what you love, and you'll never work another day in your life.
My children. I have 2 boys (both adults now) and 1 daughter. Although she is only 18, my daughter is extremely into sustainability. She makes videos about anti-children trafficking, she is passionate about climate change issues.
She is also passionate about baking, and she does bake sales to raise funds for communities impacted by natural disasters such as typhoons. She is also a strong advocate against the fast fashion industry, always advising her friends not to get into the fast fashion trend.
When my children go for holidays, they visit slum communities that eke out a living in rubbish dumps and/or shelters for street children. They will teach the kids to make bracelets, they will bring food to the children who live in cemetery communities.
Our dinner table conversations sometimes revolve around SDGs, their sustainability projects, or greenwashing stories that make their blood boil, among other chatter on topics of badminton, English Premier League football and MasterChef. Yup, I get inspired by my kids a lot.
- Stefan Phang teaching hygiene and sanitation -
How do you offset your own footprint?
My C-footprint is roughly 10,000kg CO2/year. But this footprint is inclusive of my work and my job requires me to travel. If I deduct the travelling-for-work C-footprint, my personal C-footprint drops to about 4,000kg CO2/year. This would need 160 rain trees to make it to Net Zero.
I joined a program which commits to planting 1 tree for every 10km I run. In total, I ran about 1200km the whole of 2021, so the program would have planted 120 rain trees on my behalf. It is still not enough to bring my personal C-footprint to Net Zero, but better than nothing, I guess.
I also try to be conscious of my daily decisions and the impact on my C-footprint. So I try to take public transport as much as I can, also to eat more vegetables than proteins.
What is your one ‘guilty / non-eco’ pleasure? (that you can’t live without)
My one "guilty / non-eco" pleasure is Scotch and/or Irish whiskey. Whiskeys are not like beer - as in, a Danish beer company can license a local company in another country to brew the beer locally. For a whiskey to be known as a Scotch, it has to be distilled in Scotland, and for an Irish whiskey to be known Irish whiskey, it has to be distilled in Ireland. Hence, the Scotch and Irish whiskeys that I drink in Singapore have to be imported all the way from Scotland and Ireland - which means adding C-footprint to my personal life.
However, I try to choose whiskey brands that have committed to achieving Net Zero in their distillery and logistics operations (to assuage my guilt, I guess).
If you had to choose one person, organisation or community to lead the world in sustainability, who would it be and why?
I would choose Ms Jessica Cheam. She is widely regarded as a sustainability pioneer with two decades of experience in media, sustainable development and ESG issues globally. Jessica also has a passion for driving sustainability innovation and building start-up ecosystems, including leading The Liveability Challenge, a global search for sustainability solutions in the urban tropics.
When she first ventured into the sustainability space over 2 decades ago, sustainability was not mainstream. No companies or government agencies were putting any focus or resources into sustainability. It was a lonely journey, and Jessica never gave up. She worked tirelessly to bring sustainability into the forefront, and into the general consciousness of society at large.
Today she is a highly-respected sustainability professional and leader, governments seek out her views, she sits in many boards bringing her sustainability expertise to help companies. And recently she moderated a panel discussion on sustainability at the Davos World Economic Forum.
If anyone has the passion, knowledge, experience and credibility to knock some heads together to get sustainability on the agenda in corporations, in government sectors or UN agencies, I would vote for Jessica any day.
"If working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it. In my lifetime I have witnessed a terrible decline. In yours you could - and should - see a wonderful recovery.”
- Sir David Attenborough