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‘Sustainability Is Not Enough:’ The Road to Regeneration in Malaysia and Beyond

This week at SB’21 Kuala Lumpur, executives and practitioners across industries discussed the needed shift in power and focus — from extractive to regenerative business, and how we get there.

Regenerative Sustainability was both the title and main focus of Sustainable Brands2021 Kuala Lumpur conference, held virtually on March 23-24 in Malaysia. This is no accident — the global pandemic has shed a light on just how much we are impacting the planet, due to the clear link between novel infectious diseases, zoonosis, and the destruction of natural habitats.

“What we are all living through is a set of interrelated symptoms of a deeper problem that will not go away with discovery of the vaccine,” said KoAnn Skrzyniarz, Sustainable Brands’ founder and Chief Executive, speaking via video. “Our common assumption that continued growth in consumption is what is needed to fuel our shared prosperity ... this belief comes at the cost of the health and wellness of our planet.”

Participants included leading executives from some of Malaysia’s top companies including Nestlé Malaysia, VINDA Southeast Asia, IKEA SEA, Sawit Kinabalu and Media Prima; representatives from civil society groups working on social and environmental challenges, and allies from across Asia and the United States.

As we begin to chart a path towards recovery, there is growing consensus that, going forward, sustainability alone is not enough.

“We’re facing a huge number of risks, and the problem is they are the result of degenerative systems,” said Dimitar Vlahov, an Expert Advisor with Sustainable Brands. “Now we need to not just sustain, as that’s not enough; we need to regenerate.”

For brands, regeneration means restoring and renewing systems — whether they be planetary ecosystems, or the ability of communities to thrive through improved livelihoods and health. Key to that will be a shift in corporate leadership. John Izzo, president of Izzo Associates, began the conference by speaking on the need for regenerative leadership in organizations — in which leaders are assessed on a broader scope, beyond quarterly profits.

“For many years to now, leadership has primarily been a linear way of thinking,” Izzo said. “We must shift from top-down to bottom-up leading. The most important part of regenerative leadership is the development of common purpose.”

One way for brands to begin to understand the role they can play in enabling regeneration is by defining their purpose. Siân Wynn-Jones of Hong Kong-based consulting firm The Purpose Business shared how purpose is a hot trend in Asia, and something that customers increasingly see as a prerequisite.

“A successful purpose statement demonstrates what is important to your organization, and moves the emphasis from your products and services to the impact your business has,” Wynn-Jones said. “It’s no longer a question if something is good for business. The question is — what is business good for?”

The case for regenerative sustainability as a core business focus is growing around the world — including in Malaysia. Sharmini Nagulan, Managing Director of Acacia Blue — a purpose-led strategic communications and brand consultancy — shared the findings of a survey that showed clear trends domestically.

“65 percent of consumers believe that brands are able to help them live a sustainable lifestyle, by supporting and enabling them to be sustainable,” Nagulan said. They found even higher engagement among Malaysian youth. “The younger generation is further driving this expectation.”

As an emerging, middle-income country located in the biodiverse tropical regions, Malaysia will play a key role in determining what regenerative sustainability means across Southeast Asia. Several presenters at the conference spoke on the environmental, social and human rights concerns facing the country — calling on Asian and global brands to take action on responsible sourcing, labor rights, and protecting landscapes.

Henry Chan, WWF-Malaysia’s Conservation Director, spoke about how Malaysia’s growth until now has relied on excessive exploitation of natural resources, and the conversion of natural habitats into plantations. At the same time, he sees growing consciousness about sustainable sourcing as a potential opportunity for Malaysian brands.

“If one person of the emerging Asian middle class wants to buy sustainable products, it will create a big demand for the products we are producing in Malaysia,” Chan said.

Another growing concern is human rights. This week saw global brands get called out for failing to address forced labor of ethnic Uyghurs in China, one of the many issues that Bonnie Nixon — a professor at UCLA, focusing on sustainable supply chains and modern slavery — spoke about. She also called for proactive responses, as governments are increasingly mandating transparency and ethical sourcing.

“We’re seeing that the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Germany and other countries are coming out fairly soon with modern slavery legislation,” Nixon said. “Companies need to really map out their supply chain, looking all the way to raw materials and doing the due diligence.”

One Malaysian company setting out as a trailblazer when it comes to sustainability is CIMB, one of the country’s largest financial institutions — which recently made headlines for being the first bank in the region to exit financing of coal. Luanne Sieh, CIMB’s lead for Group Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility, shared how the company has transformed from within in just a few years, to one where sustainability and regenerative thinking is central.

“You will only be regenerative when your positive impact is bigger than your footprint on that particular metric,” Sieh said.

For a country such as Malaysia — long dependent on timber, palm oil and gas exports — shifting from extractive to regenerative won’t be easy. But, as the pandemic shows, the choice is one in which we embrace regeneration and rebuild our planetary health; or allow pandemics, climate change, and extreme weather to destroy livelihoods and leave all but the most wealthy worse off.

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