Product, Service & Design Innovation
‘Changing Our DNA’:
Brands Large and Small Illustrate New Models for Sustainability in Asia

On day two of SB’22 Kuala Lumpur, leaders in construction, eco-tourism, artisanal goods, marketing and more highlighted successes and challenges behind next-generation sustainability strategies — and the need for Malaysian brands to embrace collaboration for greater impact.

On Wednesday, Dato’ Sri Mohammed Shazalli Ramly, Group Managing Director of Boustead Holdings — a 197-year-old Malaysian conglomerate operating in numerous sectors, from heavy industries to pharmaceuticals — issued a bold call to action to attendees of Sustainable Brands Kuala Lumpur: Acknowledge that your companies are directly responsible for the challenges facing the planet today.

“Many organizations, including ours, have done many things in the past to destroy the planet or harm social well-being,” Ramly said. He called for repentance — a necessary step towards true sustainability. “Organizational repentance requires changing our DNA and values of our corporation. Take serious steps to change what the organization represents and reinvent corporations.”

Ramly’s call set the tone for day two of the virtual conference, which brought together speakers and participants from across Malaysia and the Asia-Pacific region. While the first day of the conference focused on how the lessons of the past can inform the future of sustainability post-pandemic, day two showcased Asian brands large and small that are showing the strong business case for sustainability in the face of the enormous challenges of achieving it.

One of the largest participants was Sime Darby Property, which builds townships across Malaysia. In the past few years, it’s taken bold steps towards sustainability as the company realized it has both the ability and obligation to the people living and working in its properties — who, increasingly, want to live a sustainable life.

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“As a large organization, we want to be careful that we’re not doing sustainability only because it’s popular; we’ve got to ensure that we have the science and process behind it,” said Dato’ Azmir Merican, Sime Darby Property’s Group Managing Director.

One way it’s doing that is by integrating biodiversity into its projects — including turning parks into forests that can support more native plant and animal habitats. It also has a long-term plan to make future townships so self-sufficient, they can operate off-grid.

“The difficulty is that you need to get the whole value chain, and industry, involved,” Azmir added.

Biodiversity is also a key focus for Batu Batu Resort — located on Tengah Island near Johor, in southern peninsular Malaysia, alongside a Marine Protected Area. Co-owner Cher Chua-Lassalvy shared how the resort has progressed from trying to just be more sustainable to being regenerative and supporting local economies.

“It didn’t need to stop at net zero; we could be regenerative, and help people and nature grow,” Chua-Lassalvy said. Batu Batu is helping turtles return to the beaches around the resort, creating incentives to protect coral reefs, and now 50 percent of the resort’s sourcing comes from local suppliers.

“Nothing has been easy,” she added. “[But] it’s been an eye-opener [to realize] we can also do stuff that makes the place better off than if we weren’t here.”

Similarly, Sasibai Kimis, founder of artisan marketplace Earth Heir Partners, is using the power of sourcing to build sustainable local economies in Malaysia. Her company is B Corp and Fair Trade Certified, and works with disadvantaged communities and helps them access new markets for sustainable, locally produced goods.

For example, an Earth Heir partnership with the United Nations is enabling refugees living in Malaysia to make a living selling traditional crafts. They’re also training local artisans to reduce and upcycle waste and use recycled plastic, creating incentives through financial and logistical support and access to consumers. There’s a lot of potential around local supply chains, and Kimis called on more Malaysian brands to reconsider where and how they source.

“I find a lot of companies have big budgets for corporate social responsibility, but little for changing their procurement and looking into their supply chains; so they’re not interested in local industries, businesses and economy,” Kimis said.

She sees consumers, who increasingly wants to know more about the goods they buy, as a powerful driver of change

“If consumers start thinking about the watch, phone, or car we’re buying every day and where it is coming from, and ask questions; then the brands have to answer those questions and be put to task,” she said.

That shows how sustainability is a social issue, connecting us all. Which demonstrates a key challenge — it's impossible for one company, no matter how big, to address the immense problems facing the planet on its own. It will take collective efforts, with brands coming together and creating collaborative solutions.

If there’s one thing that needs to be improved, it is the willingness of Malaysian brands to be more open to collaborating with peers and competitors, argued Firdaus Jonid, Managing Director of Invictus Blue, focused on sustainability marketing.

“What’s missing within Malaysian brands: There’s not enough sharing or community,” he asserted. “You’re not going to save the earth yourself. Brands that are advanced should share their knowledge with those who are just starting out.”

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