Insight from Vijay Eswaran, CEO + Co-Founder of QNET.
The global economy and mankind’s need for ever-expanding markets and raw materials seems to be setting us on a path to destruction. We know that the earth in its entirety is a finite resource; at some point, humanity will need to stop expanding simply because there will be no more space to support our basic needs. Although this is a basic and obvious truth, on the whole, we have done very little to change our ways. In fact, we have turned a blind eye to the harm that we are doing by pushing the harmful by-products of our expanding civilisation off on the poor future generations.
The concern is that the tipping point may have finally arrived. The solution to our problem of mass consumption needs to come within a generation. Either we choose to work together to create a sustainable future on our own terms or mother nature will balance the world out for us.
Our history of living and working together in human society has not always driven us on this unsustainable one-way path. For the vast majority of human history, people lived very sustainably following the circular pattern of the seasons, which mirrored the pattern of life; birth, life, death, and rebirth sustained societies all over the world, including the great empires of antiquity. The first major shift to this circular economic system began with the age of imperialism. It was during this time that the powers of Europe began to take raw materials from distant lands without regard to how limited the resources were or the effects that the industries might have on indigenous people.
However, capitalism didn’t really take off until the financial crash of 1929. It was during this time of social upheaval that some of the biggest companies in the world today got their start. As a result of the Great Depression, their stated goal was pure profit. What we didn’t discover until recently is that when your only focus is profit, you lose your soul. These early capitalists didn’t understand that the end result was no different than an automaton. Now, with the rise of industry 4.0, we are struggling to keep our souls working alongside actual automatons. As a result, cutting edge companies are realising that they need a reason to exist beyond profit. Like the circular economies of our not-so-distant past, profits must always be re-ploughed into the land to support a sustainable model for society.
Another major turn away from sustainability began after World War II. Following the war, the world, for the most part, experienced a short period of calm and prosperity. This new world of abundance, in turn, led to a world of consumerism. However, like imperialism before it, this new mass consumption had little concern for the pollution and impact on the environment that it left in its wake. Once again, impoverished and developing nations were saddled with the burden of the destruction wrought on their once pristine nations.
This shift pulled our world farther away from the circular pattern of industry and culture that had sustained large parts of Asia and other undeveloped parts of the world. For example, ancient Indian civilisation was highly evolved with great awareness on the decisive importance as well as the vulnerability of man’s natural environment. Their approach towards life was very comprehensive, highly integrated with the environment and, therefore, was ecologically sound and sustainable. It was aimed at promoting a peaceful coexistence with all living organisms as well as harmony with the physical environment. Centuries of colonisation and the advent of modern civilisation brought with it new ideas of abundance, consumerism, greed, and disregard for nature. India soon began to follow the model of consumerism around which the rest of the industrialised world revolved. The result of this is the large number of overcrowded slums dotting every major metropolis in India today, a sight that is now common throughout developing countries.
By the 1970s, the results of our continued need for non-renewable resources began to hit home. Smog and pollution slowly crept into the cities and neighbourhoods of even the wealthiest nations, causing people to take notice. The linear concept of abundance – pulling materials out of the earth, using them up, and disposing of them – began to be brought into question. Governments and citizens alike finally realised that if we don’t change this model, at some point in the near future, we will run out of the materials that make our modern lives possible.
This public awareness was an important first step to changing the way we think about the impact our consumption has on the world around us. However, the change and progress that has occurred since that time was still at the expense of the developing nations of the world. Wealthy governments and businesses were not acting in the way that their citizens thought they were or would have wanted them to. For residents of developed western nations, everything looked great at home; cities were cleaner than ever, and they truly believed that the plastic bottles they dutifully placed in the recycle bin would be melted down to create something new.
A confluence of events in the ’90s led to our current understanding of sustainable thinking. Most notable was the dawn of the information age, which brought the damaging side effects of consumerism right into your home at a mere keystroke. Today, people around the world are demanding action to achieve true sustainability. Consumers are expressing a willingness to pay more for a product that they feel is responsibly sourced and environmentally friendly. Likewise, investors are becoming more forgiving with companies’ earnings reports when they see strategies in place for long-term sustainable growth. This shift in thinking is causing societies, governments, and businesses to turn back to a cyclical economy based on sustainability.
I feel that it is important to point out that the “-ism” is not to blame for the current state of the world. Every ideology has its flaws, and the two main opposing economic theories of the modern world – socialism and capitalism – are both equally guilty of expressing selfish attitudes. In their current forms, neither seems sustainable. What we need to focus on now is a sustainable mindset, looking back to our past to some simple concepts that we can apply to our current world. Ancient wisdom resonates with the sustainable revolution that is happening today. Land needs to be fertilised and ploughed to maintain it, and this type of natural thinking needs to be applied to economic systems to bring us back to a circular economy. Preserving our ecosystem should be a natural by-product of this rediscovered mindset, although we may need to work harder to repair the damage that has already been done.
Millennials have already begun to reverse the trend. As this generation begins taking the lead and moving into the world’s various positions of power, they are looking at things in a very different way. Millennial culture is reverting back to old social values and systems that were slowly stripped away from average middle-class workers. So, it comes as no surprise that companies founded or run by millennials share this same way of thinking. To them, we are simply going back to values we should have had already, which were nearly lost over the last century when profits were the only measure of success. We lost the ability to understand the value of long-term sustainability and growth.
Think about this. In its day, the East India Company was virtually the treasury of the British Empire. In its prime, it owned most of the world and controlled half of all of the world’s trade. Today, due to lack of foresight and an aggressive fixation on profit, it exists only in textbooks. So, which companies are creating legacies? First, companies that foster cultures of self-sufficiency; second, companies that focus on achieving goals rather than micromanaging the way they are obtained; and third, companies that focus on the dignity of labour in the understanding that you are only as strong as your weakest link, and labor of any kind needs to be respected. Additionally, empowering employees to feel like owners supports a sustainable culture. The longer-term we think, the more sustainable we can be, and those are the companies that will exist in the future.
The Problem with Plastic
To speed up the changes that need to take place in our world, it is imperative that businesses lead the way. Every sector is still guilty of contributing to some of the planet’s sustainability problems. The most visible problem in our world today is plastic. Once hailed as a miracle material capable of building every modern joy a consumer could ever want, it is now a pollutant that we need to minimise.
All of the world’s plastic can fill every skyscraper in New York City, and at least 40 percent of this is single use only. After it gets thrown away, only nine percent gets recycled. Plastics never biodegrade, they release toxic additives into the environment, and more than three-fourths of it ends up in landfills. Over eight million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year. An estimated 100,000 marine creatures die from plastic entanglement every year. Plastic is everywhere, even at the deepest depths of our ocean where humans have never been.
One of the fastest and most effective changes businesses can make is to stop single use plastic products in their organisation. Businesses are poised to help bring about that change faster than governments and NGOs can, and all they have to do is change their mindset. I already know this to be true from experience. I started by banning the use of single-use plastic at my company and in all of our offices. No one is allowed to bring in plastic bags, plastic water bottles, disposable coffee cups, or take away containers from restaurants. This is forcing everyone to make changes to their daily habits, such as bringing in their own water bottles, travel coffee mugs, and reusable containers for food. These are small changes, but ultimately, the goal is to reduce plastic waste overall. The only things this change required was a shift in mindset.
A Sustainable Plant-Based Future
One of the more unique examples of how I have used business to support sustainability is through the promotion of a plant-based diet. My company has been an advocate for plant-based diets since our inception in 1998. It is true that, for me, being a vegetarian has a spiritual and ethical component, but I am convinced that switching to a plant-based diet has the power to reverse climate change and create a sustainable future for our planet.
The livestock industry is the world’s largest user of land resources. An estimated 56 million acres of land are dedicated to growing feed for animals, while a mere four million acres of land are used to produce crops. It takes 2400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, but only 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat. Also, animal waste increases water pollution to dangerous levels in many areas. Coral reefs are being destroyed from overfishing, and meat production is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions.
A plant-based diet not only eliminates these harmful by-products but can also produce drastic improvements to people’s health. Research has shown that a plant-based diet lowers a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease, promotes weight loss and a lower body mass index, prevents constipation, controls hypertension, promotes healthier and more radiant skin, and much more.
All of my offices and events have always been free of meat. No one is allowed to bring meat onto the premises. This is not the company forcing its food choices on anyone; people are welcome to eat what they want as long as they do it outside of the office premises. We are running an internal campaign about the impact of the meat industry on the environment and educating staff about the benefits of a plant-based diet. I find it to be no different than promoting an anti-smoking campaign; many companies and even cities have banned the use of tobacco products on their premises. We have a moral obligation to all living beings and to the planet to promote the idea of a meat-free world. I truly believe that we can change the world by changing what we eat.
Does Business Hold the Key?
Business, is still the largest driving factor in the success of creating a sustainable future that takes advantage of the circular economy. Governments, by their very design, are built to think short term. In most democratic systems, people and politicians alike only think election to election. These governments tend to focus only on the most urgent and pressing matters of the day, and many of the issues that are important but less exciting tend to get sidetracked.
The plastic straw is a great example of how, although it is a single-use plastic that should be done away with, the promoted solution does not address the big picture. The straw is just the tip of the iceberg in a plastic problem that needs to be tackled from the top down. If people simply replace plastic straws with paper straws and think that they have done their part to save the planet, the real issue has been lost. This is the fear that I have about relying on the government to solve the problem for us. With this mindset, politicians will ban the plastic straw to get re-elected, but the rest of the problem will be left for the next administration to fix, kicking the ball all the way down the road until it hits a fence.
Consumers can only vote with their dollars when it comes to sustainable change. Although this shift in spending is sure to get a company’s attention, it tends to be concentrated once again in wealthy and developed areas. Businesses are ultimately following the same mindset of the past; they are sweeping the true problem under the rug and hiding the other end of their supply chain so that even the most environmentally conscious shoppers cannot be sure whether their purchases are actually making an impact.
This brings us back to how a business has the power to make the necessary changes. With the millennials taking the reins of industry, the potential for a shift in the way we achieve sustainability is within reach. There is no one easy answer or one right way to turn our world back to circular economic systems that can keep our world liveable indefinitely. However, the change will come with a change in our mindset. To carry on toward a sustainable and prosperous future, our very DNA must be wired for long-term planning. The world of business, through its many facets – from supply chains to corporate culture – has the potential to lead the way.
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About the Author
Vijay Eswaran is a Malaysian entrepreneur, philanthropist and author. He is the founder and Executive Chairman of the QI Group of Companies, a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur with operations in more than 30 countries.
Eswaran diversified his business interests, and established the QI Group of Companies to oversee a wide variety of investments including real estate, education, retail and hospitality. A proponent of value-based leadership, Eswaran has committed 10% of group profits to philanthropy and instituted a company-wide vegetarian policy. To find out more please click here.