Why family businesses could have a head start in sustainability
- Forum For The Future
Perhaps the most striking (and frequently cited) example of leadership in sustainability among family businesses is the Malaysian infrastructure conglomerate, YTL. The real leader on this front is Ruth Yeoh, who before the age of 30 was driving the environmental agenda within the business as Executive Director at YTL Singapore Pte Ltd and Director at YTL-SV Carbon, an in-house carbon credit and clean development mechanism consultancy that she established to help companies within the group – and also across Malaysia – “go clean and green”.
One year after Ruth Yeoh joined her father’s company, in 2005, YTL produced its first sustainability report – two years before the Malaysian stock exchange required any CSR disclosure. Ask Ruth about the roots of her environmentalism, and she points to her father, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh. “[He] played a big part in inspiring my passion for protecting the environment and growing my commitment to the cause”, she told the publication Green Prospect Asia, recalling in particular the experience of planting trees with her father on the island of Pangkor Laut – one of her earliest memories, and “particularly influential in instilling such values within me”. She also remembers accompanying her father on business trips to New Zealand, where she remarked not only on the country’s natural beauty but also the active role of communities in protecting it.
Working to her vision and direction, YTL has set up systems to monitor energy, water, waste effluent, solid waste and consumables, across all its divisions – and targets to reduce its impact. One success story is a 10% reduction in carbon emissions at the YTL Power Seraya plant, through efficiency measures and a switch to less carbon-intensive fuels. Another is the installation of energy meters on the high-speed rail service KLIA Ekspres, which runs from KL International Airport to Kuala Lumpur and in which YTL is a major shareholder – resulting in a 5.3% reduction in energy cost per trip. Ruth’s talent and determination speak for themselves, but it’s difficult to tell whether these measures would have been implemented so rapidly were it not for her influential position in the family.
While non-family businesses may not be able to fast-track innovative policies, perhaps by overriding the hesitations of wider stakeholders in the way that a family business can, there are lessons they can learn. The value of nurturing relationships over generations, building both trust among employees and partners and commitment to the company’s social role is certainly one. As the Chinese proverb goes, “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.”...