"Being an environmentalist isn't a choice", says Ruth Yeoh, YTL

Sensemaking / "Being an environmentalist isn't a choice", says Ruth Yeoh, YTL

The Executive Director of YTL Singapore talks to Anna Simpson about sustainability, stewardship and environmental evangelism in her family business.

By Anna Simpson / 07 Apr 2014

“One is an environmentalist whether one likes it or not.” So says Ruth Yeoh, Executive Director for YTL Singapore, Director at YTL’s inhouse carbon credit and clean development mechanism (CDM) consultancy, and winner of the inaugural Singapore Environmental Achievement Award, conferred by the Singapore Environmental Council in 2012. It’s a statement that many executive directors might struggle to endorse, and certainly to illustrate. For Ruth, it’s a question of corporate strategy, as well as personal belief. As she sees it, business is not only about survival but also about caring for your wider stakeholders, employees and their families. Being an environmentalist, she says, is “symbiotic” to this.

She observes that sustainability is becoming an increasingly important topic in corporate boardrooms globally. For most, this is down to the ‘survival’ element: not only to ensure the resilience of supply chains and resources in the face of severe challenges, such as water shortages and crop failure, but also to keep up with regulation and abreast of the competitive edge that best practice brings. But it’s the ‘caring’ aspect that makes it part and parcel of life for Yeoh – something she believes should be instinctive, even if the finer details of making it work have to be learnt. She’s a Christian, and quick to attribute her own conviction to her faith, which is also that of her family. “I understand stewardship from biblical scripture: we are meant to be God’s stewards of this Earth. ‘Sustainable living’ is simply a lifestyle where we attempt to take as little from the Earth as possible. The concept of reducing our carbon footprint is the more modern way of looking at this – as the world comes to realise that in many cases, humans have not used resources sparingly or wisely.”

A simple enough concept, but Ruth is under no illusion that it is easy to implement. “One of the biggest challenges for businesses in pushing for sustainable development is that not everybody is going to get it right the first time. The movement is still gathering momentum and we are all trying to establish models and designs that are both sustainable and cost-effective; it is still very much in the experimental stage. Nor is it always easy to convince external stakeholders and individuals in the industry that discussions on sustainability should be at the top of the agenda in business strategy.”

Yeoh joined her family business, YTL Group, in 2005 – 50 years after her grandfather started it. The company is now Malaysia’s biggest major infrastructure conglomerate, with over $3 billion in cash. Over 85% of its revenue comes from abroad, with extensive operations in Asia, Australia and the UK, where it owns the utility Wessex Water. In the early days it was a humble construction company, building low-cost housing and hospitals for the nation. For its founder Yeoh Tiong Lay, after whom the group is named, the business was a way of contributing to a wider, shared goal: building the nation. Serving the community and developing better living environments was the only way forward, and he passed this intention onto all seven of his children, including Ruth’s father. She confirms that it still comes through loud and clear: “My Father, and our Managing Director, Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh, consistently reminds us to be a ‘force for good’.”

Little wonder, then, that Ruth – in contrast to many sustainability pioneers – found her ideas to protect the environment and serve the community “well accepted and embraced by the board, senior management and staff from the start”. She counts this a blessing, and recognises that she also had a lot to learn from them: “I am thankful for my mentors in the various business units who have been with the company for a long time and taught me about energy-savings in operations.” With the support of the board, Ruth established the Environmental Division (now known as the Sustainability Division) – to find solutions across all the businesses to minimise the group’s impact, and set in place formal reporting mechanisms and sustainability targets, such as reducing emissions for the group. The Division also established a group-wide Sustainability Committee, bringing its global network of businesses together to share new innovations and report their sustainability efforts. This ‘show and share’ approach is both a mechanism for learning and for driving ambition – not just in the company but across all the sectors and geographies in which it operates.

“One of the biggest themes we emphasise at YTL is environmental evangelism, and this is not geographically constrained. It involves educating the public about the environment but also placing responsibility on key leaders in the community to pay it forward. Personally, having led many sustainability initiatives in Malaysia and other parts of Asia, and also having visited our business operations around the world, I have observed that countries approach environmental sustainability in very different ways. For example, compared with Malaysia, where initiatives revolve around wildlife conservation, Singapore takes a different approach. Being somewhat of an urban jungle and land constrained, the country has managed to turn itself into a garden city with a good balance of both green and urban spaces. Orchard Road is a case in point. Although the area is Singapore’s most popular shopping district, the road is lined with trees and flowers.”

For YTL, setting an example is not just about establishing the brand as a global leader but about bringing others along too. Ruth points to YTL Construction, which was recently awarded the Green and Gracious Builder Award, introduced by the Singapore Building and Construction Authority to set standards for green practice in the construction industry. She also speaks with some pride of YTL’s UK subsidiary, Wessex Water: “It was the first private company to publish an action plan in 1998, following the Rio Earth Summit, and to maintain it as a live document, routinely updated following changes to legislation – such as the UK Government’s Natural Environment White Paper and Biodiversity 2020.” During 2012, Ruth recounts, Wessex Water exceeded government targets for biodiversity recovery, through habitat management for birds, bats and bees on nearly 300 hectares of land that it manages which are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Wessex Water also works with farmers to help them manage their use of nitrates and pesticides to prevent contamination of drinking water sources, and in 2013 partnered with the South Wiltshire Farmland Bird Project, working closely with farmers along a new pipeline route they are laying to protect some of the UK’s rarest farmland bird species.

For Ruth, corporate stewardship needs to go hand in hand with government legislation to advance industry standards. But real leadership – beyond the incremental – requires continual innovation, she asserts. “Take Wessex Water’s subsidiary, GENeco. It has developed a Volkswagen Beetle vehicle that is powered by methane gas derived from human waste during the sewage treatment process. the first such test done in the UK. In addition, GENeco has set up the first food waste recycling and renewable energy facility in Bristol to help businesses and community in food waste management and reduce gas emissions from landfill. The biogas produced from the recycling is used to produce electricity and also power the Bio-Bug vehicle.” Wessex Water was awarded the “Queen’s Award for Enterprise and Sustainable Development” twice in recognition of its efforts.

Given YTL’s global reach and sheer size, it’s clear to Ruth that the more it can collaborate to drive forward solutions, the more likely it is that such innovations will have an impact at scale. “We find that working cooperatively with NGOs and combining forces to roll out a shared vision in conservation helps us leverage our different skillsets and resources, so that we can apply them to projects we undertake worldwide”, Ruth observes. “The relationship between corporations and NGOs has evolved from one of conflict to cooperation. On the conservation front, for example, YTL has strategic partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, Rare Conservation and Reef Check Malaysia, among others. With Rare Conservation, we have developed the YTL-RARE Fellowship programmes throughout South East Asia, where we educate community leaders who will go on to create their own ‘mini’ campaigns for their communities.” Ruth was appointed as the youngest Board Member of Rare Conservation (a US based non-profit) in 2008, with responsibilities in its Governance Committee. She is also a board member at Reef Check Malaysia, dedicated to protecting coral life in the Southeast Asian region, and works to develop environmental protection strategies in Asia in partnership with leaders and practitioners.

As a Fellow at Asia Society’s Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative, and a leader herself within a family business, she is particularly interested in the role of the next generation. For the last five years, she’s been involved in the Climate Change Week Youth Workshops. In 2010, she supported the launch of a book co-authored by Gabriel and Raphaelle Tseng, aged 14 and 11, which tells the story of ‘Billy the Plastic Bag’. These siblings will now be young adults, perhaps starting enterprises of their own…

Anna Simpson is Editor, Green Futures.

Photo credit: YTL Corporation, Wessex Water

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