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The Race Towards Sustainability Programmes in GCC Firms

Rohma Sadaqat, Khaleej Times
August 08, 2015

With sustainability programs contributing a fair share to the success of any organization, companies across the UAE and the GCC are eager to explore their options in the sphere.

UK Consul-General to Dubai and the Northern Emirates Edward Hobart recently highlighted the need for sustainability at an event for professionals operating in the field.

"Ensuring that we manage our resources sustainably is a challenge for the whole world. The need for innovation has never been more important as we look to develop and adopt technologies and approaches to achieve this," Hobart said.

His words reinforced by David Stockton, chief executive officer of G4S UAE, who stressed that having a sustainable and ethical business is key to the future success of an organization.

"High ethical and operational standards are an important differentiator and help our business to develop and grow. They help us to attract and retain key employees, to win and keep important customer contracts and to obtain appropriate investment in our company. These are all necessary for us to achieve our long-term strategy of delivering sustainable, profitable growth."

Clare Woodcraft-Scott, chief executive officer of the Emirates Foundation, said that she is often surprised that there are still businesses in the region that see sustainability as a cost rather than an investment and an opportunity, notably when so much traditional focus has been on the environment.

"Clearly if we are talking about using less natural resources, being more efficient and wasting less products, by definition we are talking about potentially reducing inputs and thus reducing costs," she said. "Most companies are still at the early stages of their sustainability journey, but if you look at some of the successful global leaders in this field who have been doing this for some time, many are now seeing tangible bottom line benefits."

She pointed to how Unilever's reduction of carbon dioxide from manufacturing and logistics, and associated eco-efficiency, has led to a reduction in operating costs of $395 million over a period of five years at a time, when the company also grew its sales by 26 percent. Local companies are also starting to show similar progress; Majid Al-Futtaim, a UAE conglomerate, reported that in 2014 its more efficient utilities management saved the company more than Dh3.8 million. This is a trend that will inevitably grow, but it takes progressive leadership and open-mindedness, Scott said.

Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Shaikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, also shared what sustainability meant to the foundation.

"Our vision is the sustained social, cultural and economic development of Ras Al Khaimah and the UAE and the enhanced capacity, satisfaction and quality of life for all members of its community, attained through effective public policy research and strategic service delivery," she said. "The concept of sustainability is the basis of our mission statement, which views all modes of sustainability first in terms of people, beginning with those in Ras Al Khaimah and the UAE communities."

Ridge noted that taking a people-centred approach to sustainability begins within the organization, because human resources are the foundation's primary resource. "All of our staff live and work in the Ras Al Khaimah community, and all of our staff engage with the work and with the stakeholder groups associated with each department in the foundation," she said.

Correctly identifying stakeholders and having accurate data

Scott noted that the very essence of sustainability is about managing relationships with one's entire stakeholder base and not just the usual suspects or the traditional high profile stakeholders such as clients and investors. Indeed, it is this focus on only one or two core stakeholders - rather than the broader community - that has been behind many companies having reputational and operational issues. It's often because they overlooked the impact their business was having on the less obvious stakeholders.

"We at Emirates Foundation, for example, are very aware that our youth are a key stakeholder for us. But, we also understand that there are multiple other partners who are critical to the success of our work - government entities interested in youth, private sector partners funding our programs, university colleagues working with youth, and of course, among others, other social organizations working in the field of youth development," she said.

Highlighting the importance of having accurate data, Ridge noted that any development or outreach efforts that are not rooted in research, are probably not serving anyone's needs in a sustainable manner.

"The foundational way that we pursue sustainability is by conducting research on the educational, public health, and urban development dimensions of Ras Al Khaimah and the emirates. All of our policy recommendations and the initiatives that we undertake are evidence-based. Because environmental, economic, cultural, and social sustainability are interdependent in any community, all dimensions of sustainability will affect all stakeholder groups," she said.

Challenges in the region

While sustainable practices are slowly becoming the norm for many companies in the UAE, challenges remain that need to be addressed.

"The GCC has developed rapidly, and the pace of change here remains fast. It's easy for people to think that they don't have the time or resources to invest in the research or planning associated with sustainability. It's easy to believe that the opportunity cost of sustainable practices is too high. Getting organizations to grasp the long-term necessity and benefit of sustainable practices is the chief hurdle to getting them to adopt those practices," Ridge noted.

She added that the leaders who adopt sustainable practices may one day be replaced the next day by leadership that just doesn't get that perspective. Therefore, accountability within organizations has to be deliberate and company-wide. Without thoughtful communication about the benefits and modes of sustainable operations throughout an organization, making sure that those practices continue will be difficult. Part of sustainability entails setting up organizational policies and procedure that protect and prioritize sustainability conscientiousness and become part of that organization's culture.

"If employees believe that someone else is taking care of sustainability and they have no role to play, then it's unlikely that the company's sustainability agenda will drive real change in business operations or actually meet the intended outcomes," Scott revealed.

The role of regional governments

"Given the UAE's government's commitment to sustainable growth, I think there is a real opportunity here in the UAE to take a leadership role in this area. The key challenge anywhere in the world is the institutionalization of sustainability thinking since this means a new mindset and behavioral change which are often difficult to trigger. However, if successful sustainable companies in the UAE are regularly showcased by government and if successful and sustainable entrepreneurs become champions in this space, I can see there being something of a tipping point in the country that may trigger real systemic change," Scott said.

"I think governments should provide an enabling environment for companies who wish to adopt more sustainability business practices. I don't think this is necessarily through legislation, although in some areas it could be, but it's about offering incentives to private sector companies who operate more responsibly," she said.

Scott also noted that the Emirates Foundation is examining the role it can play in encouraging companies to be more conscious of all their stakeholders and to give back to the community. It may be possible for those companies, who are more progressive and more active in community engagement, to be given a special status that allows them to more easily access government tendering opportunities, she added.

"The Al Qasimi Foundation enjoys productive relationships with many government bodies, especially in the education and urban development arenas. One of our biggest priorities is to do research that will support the sustainability efforts of government bodies. As long as government bodies are in charge of regulating practices across the societal landscape - construction, infrastructure, education, environmental protection, commerce, cultural preservation, etc - they are also leaders in ensuring sustainable approaches are prioritized in each of these sectors," Ridge said.

Ramadan CSR

One of the ways that organizations give back to the community and encourage a positive impact on the environment and stakeholders is through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

"CSR is an important differentiator for an organization. We find that it has become increasingly important to customers as part of their process for evaluating and selecting a partner. This is particularly so, given the sensitive nature of some of the services our customers require and the fact that many of our customers in the UAE are government organizations and large multinational companies with high CSR standards themselves and high expectations of those with whom they do business," Stockton said.

"We believe that our CSR goals are best achieved when they are integrated within our business practices and not operated as a stand-alone program. Our policies and programs are designed to be practical and usable by our businesses and to add value to everyday operations," he said. "We are delighted to be one of many UAE companies who value ethical and responsible behavior in the market. Our CSR program is broad-ranging, but we prioritize three key themes - business ethics, health and safety, and welfare of our employees. These are issues that are most closely aligned to our values."

As part of its CSR initiative in the Middle East during the holy month of Ramadan, G4S has implemented a number of wide-ranging charity activities and contributions throughout its offices in the region. The company has volunteered with the Red Crescent during Iftar in four of their Ramadan tents.

"We carried out the community service initiative as part of our Ramadan Bi Aman ["For a Safe Ramadan"] campaign in the UAE. We have collaborated with the Red Crescent to offer our service ranging from securing the tent, serving the food and we also provide queue/crowd management as each tent had a maximum capacity of 750 to 1,000 beneficiaries. Hundreds of our staff took part in the volunteer activities at the Red Crescent tents in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, ranging from the CEO, directors, support staff to security officers, aligning with our teamwork and collaboration value," Stockton said.