Sunday, 28 October 2012

Socially Sustainable Business

There is much talk of the environment when business leaders talk about sustainability, dismissing the topic entirely as a fad, such as the green movement last year or the fair-trade one in the years gone by. Yes, we use solar energy, we have replaced all our incandescent light bulbs, we have a CSR program that plants trees and so on. These are all in all good actions, but they do not strike at the heart of the matter. Businesses need to ask what does sustainability means to their business. A manufacturing business has inevitably environmental obligations in order to follow a path of sustainable manufacturing, but what about a service provider? Sourcing solar power to run their computers isn't really addressing the issue, the one that is addressing the sustainable question is its power supplier, not the service business. Beyond environmental sustainability are two other aspects, economic and social sustainability. The first is ensuring that there is no economic exploitation of its human and social resources, in fact long term sustainability can only really be achieved if the resources in question perceive the sharing of economic gain as being fair... else the worst case scenario being the recent violence erupt at the Maruti car plant in north India. However, it is the social sustainability I wish to address in this post. How can a business be socially sustainable and moreover what are the incentives for being so.

What is social sustainability anyway?

The wikipedia definition is social development that retains equal access to social resources for future generations. It addresses labour laws, human rights and the likes. This is all well, but what does it means effectively? Of course, employees have rights, and many businesses do give them those rights, but yet there is something missing. The fundamental essence of social sustainability for a business is ensuring that society's perception of that business remains positive. CSR actions, efficient energy use, green energy sourcing is all in vain if society (your current and future employees/suppliers/clients) has a perception of being robbed by the product/service your business offers. This is a very subtle concept. It is one that is at best marginal on the short term and at worst catastrophic on the long term! Why should businesses sit up and pay attention? A recent survey in the US shows that 78% of internet users and a growing trend, research products online before making a purchase. The internet connectivity provided by social media is quickly tipping the balance in favour of a more and more pro-active consumer giving little scope for old-tactic marketing campaigns in order to sell a product. This gives raise to two evidences: (i) the need for sustainable marketing (see my previous post on this); and (ii) the need for social sustainability. Businesses cannot hid in the age of the internet. They have to adapt and revisit their strategy for long term success.

How does one achieve social sustainability?

Having established that social sustainability can only be achieved by ensuring society's positive perception and moreover, having understood that it is not possible to hide in today's internet age, it is self-evident that one needs to be sincere in giving fair adage to your stakeholders. How so? The general trend in the last decade has been to find the most competitive suppliers in order to maintain and in most cases maximise profits. In simple economics, buy at the cheapest rate and sell at the highest. Business need to revise this strategy, for it is leading invariably to catastrophic results in the long term. This strategy has been so well executed in China, that their own consumer market has suffered catastrophic negative social perceptions on a global scale in the last few years, re-evaluating many businesses' plans to set up shop in that country. (See the contaminated milk story, the poisoned toys, the Apple sweatshop... and many more). This is the fundamental weakness of capitalism today, and unsustainable in the long term. Businesses need to focus long term by adopting an old and mostly forgotten raison d'ĂȘtre for any business. Traditionally, business artisans in ancient times engaged themselves in their chosen trade because they were good at it and because they actually enjoyed it. The most successful among them where those that had the best skills, producing the best quality. They did not strive to find the cheapest manufacturing process, but rather they strived to improve the quality at the most competitive price. That, in my knowledge, is the way to be socially sustainable.

Adding value at no extra cost.  Businesses aspiring to be socially sustainable need to adopt a new thinking process which is to strive to add value to their product/services while retaining competitive pricing. The rest will happen automatically. From this single goal flows all other socially sustainable actions. Let me explore the repercussions on the various stake-holders. -- The employees first, to add value in any form and yet retain cost margins, a business needs empowered employees, employees ennobled to the goal.... the whole gamut of socially responsible management can be explored to achieve this symbiosis. -- The suppliers need to follow suit, poor service/material from their end will only result in loosing business, however they can also be encouraged by engaging and valuing their contribution to the business' product/service value. Empowering them and especially giving them credit for their contribution is the surest way to achieve sustainability on the long term. -- The client/consumer is the slowest to react, positive perception is a slow maturing tree, but once fully grown is not easily uprooted. Communication is key, and it is ever so important to be impartial and sincere. Blog and social media are best suited for this, and the communication should strive to educate and uplift the awareness of the reader, ie to empower the client. The bottom line is that in order for a business to achieve social sustainability it is imperative that it aspires to achieve the best quality at the most competitive price as an end in itself rather than a means to profits. This should not be confused with the natural requirement for a business to strive for financial stability, for any business that is not achieving reasonable profits isn't economically sustainable.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Quick-gains development for Chennai

This is a continuation of my previous post "What is ailing India?", more specifically looking at Chennai where I am currently settled.  Here are a few examples of where Chennai can make quick gains in development with a change of mindset, 

The garbage collection and recycling, as highlighted in this article, is the need of the hour, and visiting other cities like Singapore and Shanghai is good, but only talking about it does not convert into solutions.  A few years ago, a Singapore based company, ONYX, managed to do a decent job of city garbage collection, but they where replaced by a cheaper local company. Today the bins originally placed on the streets by ONYX are either broken or stolen, and overflowing due to lack of regular collection.

The corporation seems to be waking up, as show in this article and this one

Monday, 22 October 2012

Syllogic in the News

Syllogic Consultants have been featured in an onilne interview on the Chilibreeze writer's portal.  The focus of the interview is highlighting the work on sustainable development that Syllogic champions.
A small extract from the interview...
Humanity is exposed to many dangers, not just environmental ones. We have engrained within ourselves a strong desire to survive. Unsustainable practices have a very short life-time, and I believe humanity will survive along with our planet. The solution is adopting more sustainable lifestyles, establishing equilibriums where imbalances are present, and most importantly striving for unity in diversity, India’s most potent contribution to the world.
You can read the full interview over here.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Tiger Tiger!

A few months ago, a Supreme Court ruling declared all tourist activities within Indian tiger reserves illegal and with it put into question a very large number of jobs that depend directly on the tiger wildlife tourism.  The big cats have recovered from the brink of extinction a few decades ago to an endangered species today.  However, the ruling by the SC failed to make a case for banning wildlife tourism.  It is of course a fine point to argue, and I would not venture out to argue either side of the debate.  Nevertheless, this article in the New Indian Express, championing the need for wildlife tourism as a tool to fight poaching is quite convincing and worth the read.  The author, Navin M Raheja, argues that tourist often play the role of the whistle-blower, sighting a number of cases in the past where unnatural tiger deaths in the jungle where only investigated after much pressure from tourist who where witness to the incident.  I think the argument is a valid one, The tiger and the its habitats are natural resources of our country and it is fair to ensure that these are used in a way that benefits the local population by encouraging them to preserve that habitat and ensuring the mutual and reciprocal livelihood.  Mr Raheja, does make the point that wildlife tourism must be reserved for the serious nature lovers and not the Sunday picnickers.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Is the Earth warming past the point of no return?

An interesting article that ought to get us to think and be a little more conscious of our daily footprint on our resources.   A group of biologist and climatologist, led by Stanford scientist Anthony Barnosky, has published the results of two years of research in Nature, and their conclusion are grim.  The earth could be heading towards a tipping-point in a few decades to a century, past which the effects of global warming, overpopulation by the human race and over utilisation of land and oceanic resources would become irreversible, leading to global catastrophe and possible extinction of many species including possibly us....
Barnosky has argued in the past that the earth has now entered its 6th mass extinction period as the number of species disappearing from our eco-system is picking up pace.

A sub-story tells the tale of the archipelago of Kiribati in the pacific.  This island-nation is only a few inches above the sea level and would be the first to disappear in rising sea-level scenario over the next couple of decades.  So the people of Kiribati are actively looking for a solution, here is quote from the article:
Fearing that climate change could wipe out their entire Pacific archipelago, the leaders of Kiribati are considering an unusual backup plan: moving the populace to Fiji. Kiribati President Anote Tong told The Associated Press on Friday, March 9, 2012 that his Cabinet this week endorsed a plan to buy nearly 6,000 acres on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. He said the fertile land, being sold by a church group for about $9.6 million, could provide an insurance policy for Kiribati's entire population of 103,000, though he hopes it will never be necessary for everyone to leave.

 An alternative solution for the people of Kiribati is to build a floating city nation, such as one conceived in this image.