The Queen of Green

Photo: Ching

Esther An the Chief Sustainability Officer for City Developments Limited wants women to be more active when it comes to climate action and sustainable development.

While we were all busy preparing for this cover story shoot, Esther An walks in, on time and unnoticed. That’s the way she was five years ago, when this writer first met her, and that’s the way she is today. It is a trait that is needed in her job as Chief Sustainability Officer for City Developments Limited (CDL) where she champions green causes.

The Hongkonger tells us that her passion for the environment started when she was a child and this continued to her first job when she was with a government agency where she was tasked to promote public programs including the Clean & Green campaigns.  

Esther says, “It inspired me to catalyse community and youth programmes that drove eco-consciousness. These formative years laid the foundation of my appreciation of the intricacies between government and public engagement in driving change.”

Her role in the sustainability field grew in 1995 when she joined CDL. She recalls, “At that time, my direct boss and then Managing Director, the late Kwek Leng Joo asked about my impression of the building and construction industry. I shared my frank view as a lay person that the built environment was deemed as causing negative environmental impact before and during construction during that era. He was very open to ideas and views even from a newbie in the real estate industry. I had the privilege to work with Mr Kwek in formulating CDL’s ethos of ‘Conserving as We Construct’ and implement initiative to turn a vision to action.”

Esther pays tribute, “He was my mentor for two decades, providing valuable guidance and unwavering support for CDL’s numerous sustainability and CSR initiatives from 1995 to 2015. Without his support, it would have been very difficult, maybe even not possible, to drive environmental change and green building at a time when climate change was not deemed as ‘good to have’ rather than a mainstream issue.”

With growing concern and awareness of the threats of climate change and the global paradigm shift to a low-carbon economy, CDL’s focus on sustainability work has made giant strides over the years and in 2014, Esther assumed her current role.

With strong board and leadership commitment in CDL, sustainability has been integrated into the entire business strategically and operationally all these years. The current Group CEO and Executive Director Sherman Kwek is a nature and animal lover, he has been supportive and committed to bringing CDL’s sustainability accomplishment to greater heights since he assumed the position in January 2018.  

Esther shares with Woman her incredible journey and where she is at today.

What has your role at CDL taught you?

Change is the only Constant.

During my 25 years in the real estate industry and in this role with CDL, I have witnessed many changes, be it the climate, global, regional or local business landscape, leadership, lifestyle, people’s expectation and consumer preferences.

In fact, change affects us all and everyone deals with change differently. The only way to prepare ourselves for changes in life is to keep learning and to stay ahead of change or at least stay relevant.    

Nobel Prize winner in Economics Milton Friedman was famously quoted as saying, “The business of business is business.”    

In 1970, Friedman argued that the only social responsibility of business was to maximize profits.  These profits, if only returned to the firm’s owners and shareholders could be put to charitable purposes as the firm saw fit. For decades, many believe that sustainable practices are separate from a business’ social and financial performances and obligations.  

As the world is increasingly facing climate and social challenges, the business landscape has evolved. Today, businesses that are committed to doing well and doing good are proven to be more sustainable and many perform better in a long run.   

Sustainability integration presents a strong business case for companies to adopt responsible practices. Through mitigation, companies are in a better position to prevent reputation and operational risks and in many instances achieve cost savings. In CDL’s case, our energy efficiency efforts have helped the company save $28 million in energy cost in eight managed buildings since 2012.  

CDL’s strong commitment to green buildings and ESG has enabled the company to drive        innovative change in the built industry in Singapore. Over the years, CDL has achieved many firsts e.g. the adoption of Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction technology in a large scale. This has helped raise construction productivity and improve environmental and safety performance at work site. In April 2017, CDL issued a green bond and became the first by a Singapore company to tap on alternative financing to accelerate green building movement.   

Coming up with innovative idea is not easy, turning them into reality is even more challenging.   Many successful initiatives required a tremendous amount of conviction and hard work. Behind the many successes, there were also a lot of sweat and tears.  Being perseverant in the face of adversity and being consistent in integrating sustainability into every aspect of our business and stakeholder outreach has been our strongest strategy.  

You have won numerous awards over the years. What is the one that you are most proud of and why?

Every single one is valuable and encouraging to me as it affirms the efforts put in to push the green and sustainability agenda. I would say being the first Singaporean to be conferred one of the ten 2018 UN Global Compact Sustainability Development Goals (SDG) Pioneers is the greatest honour to-date.  

It does not only recognise my personal commitment and efforts put in over two decades, it’s a recognition of a small nation like Singapore for its contribution to the global sustainable development movement.    

I am very encouraged by this recognition and am truly grateful to the Board and Management of CDL for supporting me in pioneering ESG strategies for two decades, at a time when CSR or sustainability was deemed only a “good-to-have”. I am also thankful to partners and colleagues who have supported me one way or another in taking paths that were less travelled.  This accolade is another motivating force for me and my teammates to continue our efforts to do good while doing well.

Besides just bringing your own bag to the supermarket what else can we do to save Mother Earth?

No single entity can save the world alone. Every small action counts. On an individual level, little things like cutting down on meat, adopting recycling habits and renewable energy, advocating for sustainable lifestyle all help.  

On a broader level, businesses across all sectors can do their part to save Mother Earth. Globally, building and construction sectors together account for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions.  That also put the two industries in the position to make a difference. 

In the 1990s, the building industry was considered causing negative impacts on the environment before constructing.  With the vision that we can build and manage properties with sustainability in mind, we established our ethos of ‘Conserving as we Construct’ in 1995.  Since then, CDL has been committed to future-proofing our business through a three-pronged strategy as a developer, an asset owner and a corporate citizen.

Apart from a strong commitment to design and develop green buildings, managing buildings in an energy- and resource-efficient way, and engaging stakeholders on sustainable development have been core to our business.  

Being a pioneer in green building and sustainability has its opportunities and challenges.  

While we have captured numerous opportunities to innovate and achieve many ‘firsts’ since 1995, there were also challenges.  Along the value chain there was a lack of awareness and consideration about the benefits of green products and practices in the early days.

We believe that what gets measured gets managed, CDL has been advancing sustainability reporting practice in Singapore.   In 2008, CDL became the first Singapore company to publish a GRI Application Level checked sustainability report and has continued to raise the bar for our ESG reporting and disclosure.  Today, our integrated sustainability report is not only an operational report, it is a strategic communication tool on our integrated ESG approach that helps us future proof our business against fast changing landscape.  Our integrated approach has helped us make stronger business and financial sense of our unwavering commitment to ESG practices. Most importantly, it has enabled us to effectively articulate our climate mitigation and adaptation strategies to our investors and stakeholders, connecting our ESG goals to our value-creation business strategy.  

What do you think of young green activist like Greta Thunberg, what steps do you want the young ones to take? 

It may sound cliché to say, but youths really are the future.  Given their energy and desire for a bright future, youths play a vital role in helping our planet to recover from the harm human have inflicted.     

We need to engage, encourage and empower youths to drive the green agenda and impart them with the necessary skillsets and tools to drive sustainability for decades to come.  With the last ten years being the hottest decade in history, I can only hope that young green activists will step up to change the way we live, work and play; the way we consume our resources and we way we dispose of waste.  

It is heartening to see the rising voice of youths to call for climate action in recent years. Inarguably, Greta Thunberg has probably been the strongest force for change, creating ripple of youth movement across the world.   I sincerely hope that this wave of youth movement will turn into positive energy and constructive collaboration, not confrontation.   

With interests shown by the young ones, is there still hope for the planet?

Over the past two decades, I have seen people react to climate change differently.   Today, there are more people who are worried, anxious and angry in particularly amongst the young ones.  At the same time, there are still people who have wishful hope that the planet will heal and survive even without making any change to the way we behave.  

Since the establishment of Paris Agreement, the fast growing awareness of climate change coupled with more ambitious climate goals and stringent regulations kick in, there are clear signs of rising adoption of responsible practices.  I would dare say that sustainability has become mainstream issue amongst political and business leaders, particularly for investors and financiers. Studies also reflect that green consumerism is fast catching on globally, particularly amongst the younger consumers.  

While I remain hopeful for our planet as the eco system that is in favour of climate action is growing, I also recognise that there is still significant degree of ignorance and resistance amongst many political and business leaders in the world.   

I am one who believes in action.  Only by turning awareness and anxiety into positive action will we be able realise the hope of a sustainable future.  

I have the honour of interacting with the legendary Dr Jane Goodall last year when CDL hosted two fund-raising events for the Jane Goodall Institute Singapore.  Being one of the world’s best-known primatologists and advocates of conservation, Dr Jane has been traveling the world with her message of hope even at the age of 85 now.  I was very inspired by her lifetime dedication and tireless efforts to turn her passion into action. She has written a number of books on hope and I look forward to the launch of “The Book of Hope” in 2021 comes 60 years after Dr Jane began her pioneering research of chimpanzees in Africa.

What’s coming up for you in next two years?

2020 kicked start a decade of urgent climate action. As we are approaching 2030, there is greater urgency now than ever for every individual, organisation and country to step up climate action.  2030 is set as the year for the world to achieve important global climate goals set under the Paris Agreement and UN SDGs.  

Even though it has been more than two decades since I’ve started the sustainability journey, there is still much more to be done, at a faster pace. CDL is glad to have adopted sustainability integration early, it has offered us a strong foundation to continue our active environmental stewardship and stakeholder engagement across the value chain, expanding the scope and outreach more aggressively in areas beyond Singapore where the group operates in. 

I strongly believe that women are effective change makers be it at home, at work and at play.  I founded Women4Green in 2017 with a view to create platforms and networking opportunities for women to contribute towards climate action and sustainable development.

Youths are inarguably a dynamic force for change.  Given their energy, creativity and social media savviness, youths can accelerate action for a more sustainable future.  CDL has been active in youth development programs for close to two decades to nurture young talents in environmental conservation, the arts, CSR application to businesses and embracing UN SDGs.  It is certainly our wish to continue engaging and offering platforms for youths to drive positive change for a sustainable future for all.