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Sustainable Investing: Taking a Buddhist Approach to Business

Rather than being a far-fetched ideal, the implementation of Buddhist ethics in the business world is increasingly becoming a reality in our interconnected global society. Bhutan’s concept of the Gross National Happiness, for example, has received much publicity for providing alternative ways of thinking about and measuring economic progress and growth.

Faced with the growing threat of climate change, global bodies such as the United Nations have been taking serious steps—such as those enshrined in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals—to make the concept of sustainable development a reality. Similar frameworks aimed at measuring and limiting the environmental impact of businesses are being worked out at both national and global levels. 

With a global perspective, the Basel-based Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, chaired by businessman Michael Bloomberg, is envisioning novel ways of measuring the impact of businesses on the environment and the global climate. This means that the concept of enlightened, conscious investing—also known as socially responsible investing (SRI)—is no longer the sole domain of green activists. Stock exchanges, for instance, are increasingly mandating that listed corporations follow concrete guidelines in tracking how their businesses relate to the environments in which they operate.

Larry Fink, head of Blackrock, the world’s largest institutional investor, wrote a letter to CEOs in January in which he said he would think twice about investing in companies that are not bringing any social or environmental benefits to the communities they serve. The news website Business Insider points out that Fink’s letter “is going to live on as a topic of conversations in boardrooms around the world for months to come, whether CEOs like it or not.”

“The power of investors is really showing up worldwide,” Pat Dwyer, founder of Hong Kong-based sustainable business consultancy The Purpose Business, told Buddhistdoor GlobalOver the just the past six months alone, Dwyer said she has personally witnessed that corporations are becoming increasingly aware of the need to manage the environment, social and governance issues, and ways of measuring their impact.

Many businesses in Hong Kong are gradually moving beyond paying lip service by taking concrete action. The city’s largest restaurant chain operator, Maxim’s Group, has said it is “drastically reducing” shark fin products on its menu, stating that between 2010 and 2017, total shark fin product sales declined by 60 percent, while from 2016–17, sales fell 25 per cent year on year, implying an accelerating pace of decline. According to the World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, more than 25 per cent of all sharks and related species are threatened by extinction, with no commercial fisheries anywhere in the world operating at a sustainable level.

Environmental groups are happy to see corporations taking measurable steps in the right direction. If the shark fin phase-out is completed, Maxim’s Group will become one of the leading Asian companies in the industry to take action on fish stock depletion and ocean health, Doug Woodring, founder of environmental non-profit Ocean Recovery Alliance (ORA), told Buddhistdoor Global. It will become one of the key implementation partners of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, he added.

Alex Hofford of the San Francisco-based environmental organization WildAid observed that Maxim’s decision “not only raises the bar for Hong Kong’s catering industry, who are not known for their sustainability, but would also go an extremely long way to preserving our global marine biodiversity for generations to come.” Hofford noted that 100 million sharks are slaughtered each year, of which 72 million are “targeted solely for their fins to supply a dirty, and often illegal, shark fin trade.”

Likewise, nearly 40 airlines and 17 global container-shipping lines have pledged not to transport any shark fin products, while Hong Kong’s government recently banned shark fin dishes at state banquets.

A significant number of corporations in Hong Kong are working to implement environmental standards in their daily operations, said Dwyer at The Purpose Business. She cited as examples Gammon Construction’s embracing of technology to eliminate the hazard of extreme weather exposure for its staff, Hong Kong Jockey Club’s commitment to water efficiency, and Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels’ roadmap to address key issues such as single-use plastics, overall waste management, sustainable seafood sourcing, and ethnic minorities in the workforce.

Each organization has its own challenges and needs, she explained, adding that with regard to hotels, it could be looking at electricity and water usage, foodwaste, or labour rights. “Organisations might need to start measuring something for the first time or in new ways,” said Dwyer, who has previously worked for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.“There is no magic metric or one-size-fits all approach.”

On the whole, there has been a marked improvement, not only in Hong Kong but around the Asia-Pacific region, with regard to corporate adherence to ESG guidelines put in place by regulators and stock exchanges, said Woodring of ORA, adding that having a long-term, purpose-driven business strategy does not need to come at the expense of business.

In fact, he emphasized, a quick glance at the performance of these companies shows that those that are better at complying with environmental norms and are more transparent also tend to do well in their core businesses. It could be that these companies have better management, or that following a path of sustainability could be good business, after all.

This perspective aligns well with the fundamental Buddhist principle of interdependence, which is, in a way, simply a different way of talking about sustainability and circular economics. Because by focusing on the long-term through more enlightened practices and actions, businesses, in the end, are actually helping themselves.

See more

Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform our World (United Nations)
Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures
Everyone at Davos is talking about ‘Larry’s letter’ (Business Insider)
Ocean Recovery Alliance

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