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Looking beyond the bottom line
BUSINESSES are today increasingly aware of the need to be socially responsible, not only for moral and ethical reasons, but also for commercial ones. This growing awareness has been fuelled in recent years by the launch of the United Nations' 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) in 2016, which seeks to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by the year 2030.
Specifically, the SDGs focus on key areas such as poverty alleviation; democratic governance and peace-building; climate change and disaster risk; and economic inequality. Also known as the Global Goals, the SDGs can serve as a guide to businesses around the world for their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
Among other benefits, companies that do good gain an edge in attracting and retaining talent, an especially important advantage for SMEs that are usually on the losing end in the war for talent due to their lack of resources. Large corporates are also increasingly incorporating ethical sourcing into their vendor selection processes.
Meanwhile, more consumers - especially those from the millennial generation - are making their purchasing choices based on sustainability. Simply put, doing good is good for business. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group showed that "organisations driven by purpose and values outperform their competitors in revenue, profit and stock performance".
"Many of us think that SMEs have yet to give much time to CSR, especially where, in some cases, they are operating hand-to-mouth. Yet, ironically, for business survival and growth, SMEs will need to stay relevant to be able to acquire the right talent. Today's talent demand that businesses and brands focus on doing the right thing," said Glenn Lim, director of CEO Asia and committee chairman for Brands for Good (BFG) 2018, an initiative launched this year to recognise the achievements of local companies that champion corporate social responsibility.
"Also, SMEs increasingly may find that they are part of a value chain where a large company downstream, such as a major customer, is demanding attention by suppliers to sustainability performance," he added.
While many Asian SMEs have yet to incorporate sustainability into their operations, many are probably already doing some form of CSR without being aware of it.
"SMEs contribute substantially in terms of providing employment and they may also rely heavily on business relationships with customers and suppliers based in local communities. SMEs invest in the local community to a much greater extent proportionately than larger companies, with contributions ranging from protecting jobs, to skills development, social giving to infrastructure improvement. For these reasons, SMEs can prove to be more socially responsible than big corporates," explained Mr Lim.
Leading the way in CSR
Against this backdrop, the BFG Awards was launched to help showcase local SMEs that are leading the way in social responsibility.
Dr Foo See Liang, a BFG Awards judge, noted that there were many "amazing stories" among the award winners. "The recipients showcased multifaceted ideas and business models to balance profitability and their sustainability goals. Inter alia, the winners possessed two common traits - critical and creative thinking. It is about making, and having the moral commitment, to be different," said Dr Foo, who is associate professor (Practice) at the School of Accountancy, Singapore Management University.
One of the BFG winners, education firm Kowabunga Education, was the only company recognised as champion in two categories: "Workplace: People Development" and "Environment: Managing Environmental Impact".
The staff at Kowabunga, which runs the Kidz Treehouse after-school programme for children aged between 7 and 12, receive substantial support for training, which includes courses and overseas retreat programmes. At the same time, Kidz Treehouse adheres to environmentally friendly practices that address energy conservation, waste reduction, paper reduction and single-use plastic across its 12 centres.
It also engages its students in its push for zero-waste though discussion and initiatives such as an annual Eco Camp.
"Financial gain is not the only bottom line for businesses. Focusing on being sustainable helps to create a positive work culture. This aids in employee motivation and having people who share the same mission and vision with the organisation, which is key.
"Creating a competitive edge and difference in our business policies also help to create new business opportunities, focused on positive change," said Taufiq Yahya, principal director at Kowabunga Education.
Meanwhile, e-learning provider Genashtim Innovative Learning was the winner of two awards in the Community category. With employees in over 10 countries, Genashtim employs people who would otherwise have little opportunity to have a decent livelihood.
Almost 90 per cent of their 80-person staff have a disability or is unable to attain gainful employment. Among other groups, the company has provided employment for refugees in Bogor, Indonesia, who had been told by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that they do not have a chance for resettlement for the next 25 years.
"We started with persons with disabilities, and early this year, we started hiring refugees. We had in the past initiated discussions with leper groups, and the HIV-infected. Other marginalised communities that we have been thinking about include ex-convicts, and women in oppressed environments," said Thomas Ng, founder of Genashtim.