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The Next Economy
SB’21 Asia-Pacific:
In Asia, the Time for a Sustainable Recovery Is Now

In many parts of Asia, COVID-19 is relatively under control; and the focus is on recovery. How the region responds, and how much companies push for a sustainable post-pandemic economy could influence the entire world, due to Asia’s place as the global driver of innovation and change.

The tone was optimistic and forward-focused at Sustainable Brands™2021 Asia-Pacific conference. A year ago, Asia was at the center of what would become a global pandemic. Today, many countries in the region are putting the worst of COVID-19 behind them, and focusing on recovery, and it will be brands at the center of defining what a sustainable, regenerative and healthy economy will look like going forward.

The event — jointly organized by Sustainable Brands' Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea teams — was held partly in-person in Yokohama, Japan, but with the majority of participants joining virtually from around Asia and elsewhere. This made it the first Sustainable Brands in-person event held since the pandemic forced all events to go virtual last March.

“New and healthy growth will emerge out of this emergency ... Now is the time for us to come together to foster a fair and equitable and resilient society here in Japan and around the world,” said KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands, speaking via video. “I look forward to hearing the stories that emerge from the year ahead.”

Companies participating included Toyota, Nissan, Shiseido, Clorox, PTT Oil, The Stock Exchange of Thailand, Biji-biji and many more. While many shared their unique experiences and goals in making their companies more sustainable, others focused on the need for greater collaboration to meet societal goals and needs.

New data and research show that, increasingly, consumers in Asia are factoring in sustainability when making purchasing decisions; and that is a trend likely to continue. During his presentation, Yoshiaki Okabe — Chief Brand Innovation Officer at personal care giant Shiseido — explained that this is why his company’s messaging and marketing has become increasingly sustainability focused. As Okabe emphasized:

“When it comes to how consumers select brands, the criteria is about the attitude of the company, or the actions that are taken by the brand. We are now in the era where people make choices from a sustainability perspective. Sustainability needs to be visible to consumers.”

The data back this up. An enlightening presentation from Anna Lungley, Chief Sustainability Officer at global advertising agency network Dentsu International, showed the clear evidence that sustainability is good business across Asia.

“Consumer attitudes are changing in Asia,” she said. “Climate change is the top environmental concern in all markets in the region — except for China, where air pollution is number one.” She called on participants to be proactive in meeting customers’ desires:

“Brands have a huge opportunity to contribute to sustainable lifestyles by creating markets for more sustainable products, and all of our data says your customers will thank you.”

This is true even in Thailand, an emerging economy, said Sakulthip Keeratiphantawong, co-founder and managing director of B Corp Thailand and the Thailand Center for Social Impact Excellence.

“Consumers will pay more if they know that brand is a sustainable brand,” she said. For startups and social enterprises, this impacts finance, too: “If you are not aware of capital that is going to flow to sustainability, you will lose the commercial advantage.”

Beyond creating better, more sustainable offerings, there is an increased need for brands to work directly with nonprofits and governments to address social issues. Also participating in the event were several Asian NGOs, social enterprises and startups sharing innovative solutions and partnerships aimed at addressing equality, gender and sustainability challenges across the continent.

Atsuko Muraki, co-founder of the Little Women Project, called on companies to proactively think about how they can promote gender equality, to give opportunities to girls and address the root causes of enduring societal problems across regions.

“Japanese society is most behind in the United Nations' [Sustainable Development] Goal five, which is gender equality,” Muraki said. “There are girls who are not even able to stand at the start line, to actively participate in society. We would appreciate it if you can support our activities, so that we can empower these girls.”

One of the highlights of the conference was a presentation from artist and social entrepreneur Mago Nagasaka. He created art using e-waste from Agbogbloshie — a slum in Ghana known as the world’s largest electronics graveyard — and then used the proceeds to fund recycling, education and social programs in that community. He urged participants to take a similar approach to solving problems.

“We’re entering the age where we pursue love, and then gain profit in return,” Nagasaka said. “Let’s start moving and tackle the problems.”

For many participants, especially those joining from the US or Europe, joining an in-person event seems like a distant dream, as the pandemic continues to rage. In many parts of Asia, however, the pandemic is relatively under control; and the focus is on recovery. How the region responds, and how much companies push for a sustainable post-pandemic economy could influence the entire world, due to Asia’s place as the global driver of innovation and change. As Alexis Crow, lead on PwC’s Geopolitical Investing practice, asserted:

“Environmental and social governance became the single greatest trend of our generation, prior to the pandemic. As we’ve started to rebuild our economies, we’ve seen a renewed commitment across the board.”