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Sustainability Is Not Just About CSR And Protecting The Environment: Miniya Chatterji, Sustain Labs Paris

The 2017 Forbes 'Global 2000' list has 58 Indian companies, but less than 10 of these 58 companies have established an organised sustainability function

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Sustainability Is Not Just About CSR And Protecting The Environment: Miniya Chatterji, Sustain Labs Paris

After three years as Chief Sustainability Officer of the $3.4 billion Jindal Steel & Power Ltd., Miniya Chatterji is quitting the company to move to an entrepreneurial route. At the age of 34 in 2014, when she returned to India after studying and working abroad at organizations such as Goldman Sachs and the World Economic Forum for 14 years, to join Jindal Steel & Power, she was one of the youngest top business women in India. Miniya is now launching Sustain Labs Paris, a ‘sustainability incubator’ - which will be the world’s first of its kind.

In an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Miniya speaks about the sustainability incubator, her initiatives in the realm of education and her views on women in the workplace. Edited excerpts:

What is the need for a sustainability incubator?

The 2017 Forbes 'Global 2000' list has 58 Indian companies, but less than 10 of these 58 companies have established an organised sustainability function. Sustainability is not just about CSR and protecting the environment, it also includes ensuring energy efficiency, risk management, social development, reputation management, financial sustainability,  adequate due diligence on new investments, business diversification, employee protection, sustainability reporting, and much more. Sustainability means growth that is not just speedy but also authentic and holistic. It means attending to issues that are ‘important’ rather than only those that are ‘urgent’, beneficial to the organisation in the ‘long-term’ and not just in the ‘short-term’.

However, large companies in capitalist economies, on one hand, are becoming increasingly short-sighted and largely focusing on fire-fighting the urgent. This trend is even more dangerous given the growing unpredictability and interconnectivity in the world around us. Startups, on the other hand, are often so focused on breaking even, that they have little bandwidth to, say, look at long-term revenue streams.

This is why organisations - private and public, large and small - need to institutionalise sustainability within their operating models and org-structures. Sustainability does not have to be a ‘department’, it could be in the form of a board or embedded team that ensures that the organisation is on the path of holistic growth for the long term. 

A sustainability incubator will establish sustainability within organisations. Unlike consulting firms that merely provide plans for piece-meal solutions, the sustainability incubator will ensure that every ‘incubatee’ builds within itself the capacity to be self-sustaining. It will be a transformational experience for each incubatee, as they are turned around into becoming ‘sustainable organisations’. The approach taken by the incubator is academic and research-based, not commercial.

How will an online platform for a sustainability incubator be beneficial?


One of the challenges I faced when I established sustainability at Jindal Steel & Power was that there was no one go-to place where I could find information related to all the compliances the company needed to adhere to in India.

It turned out, that India was not an exception and world over, this is a fast-changing field and it is difficult to know the rules, laws, norms, best practices to adhere to. For example just 2 years ago Martin Winterkorn the CEO of Volkswagen had to resign because of an emissions issue. The European Commission tried to create such a sustainability resource centre as an online platform, but they failed to do so, as they were over-ambitious about it.

The online platform of Sustain Labs is being supported by and hosted on the website of the Institut Francais India, the French government’s wing for scientific and academic exchange between India and France. It will be a go-to place for the main laws and norms relevant to ensuring sustainability at the sectors that are the four largest contributors to the GDP in India. This way it will be highly beneficial to the top management and sustainability practitioners of a large number of companies in India. It will also be good for students who want to learn about sustainability. The platform will eventually also include a call for research papers and projects related to sustainability. 

What are your initiatives in the realm of education?


Sustainability these days is becoming increasingly commercial, as organisations adopt ‘band-aid solutions’ in the name of being sustainable. None of all this is useful! We need to return towards being research-oriented, questioning the status-quo, and finding actual solutions to sustainability challenges. This is why as part of the incubator I have created a pedagogic partnership with the Paris School of International Affairs, through which we will be establishing research projects and internships as well. I have already founded a Master course on ‘Creating Sustainable Businesses and Policies’ at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences-po Paris. The course already started in March-May 2017, where I taught this course. I will continue to teach this course in the future.       

How did your role as Chief Sustainability Officer at Jindal Steel and Power shape your views and efforts towards sustainability?


I founded the concept, department, and roll out of sustainability at Jindal Steel and Power. At the time that I had joined, the $ 3.8 billion business conglomerate had grown at a fast pace and also across several countries, with plenty of wonderful social initiatives, and a genuine interest in creating and implementing new technologies in their operations. My role was that of a central hub amongst all of this. The entire experience of bringing all employees on board to conceive what sustainability must mean for the company, effectively communicating this then to the entire company, drawing out an action plan, and implementing it, has been a journey of great lessons. I also founded several new departments such as energy efficiency, compliance management, that were required for its sustainability, at Jindal steel and Power. Also, I started the practice of reporting and published three consecutive sustainability reports for the company.

Overall, it shaped my ability to create sustainability in an organisation where there was none. This is a change-makers role and only jumping in and doing it yourself can teach you how to influence people to change. The support of Naveen Jindal was crucial to implement within the company the changes I was bringing in, more so as I was one of the youngest employees and the only woman CXO in the company. This is a fast-changing field and it is crucial to keep up to date with new technologies and policies related to sustainability in India and internationally. It is important to collaborate internally with employees and with external stakeholders to implement sustainability. 

What are your views about women in the workplace and what are some of the gender dynamics which govern the workplace?

India is still a highly patriarchal society, no matter what economic bracket people come from. This attitude is so embedded in us that more often than not, we do not even realise it.

There are stereotypes that dictate how we perceive what a woman or a man can and can not do. As a simple example, in a typical Indian workplace, there is a practice of everyone gathering into a room and cutting cake on the occasion of an employee’s birthday. There are bottles of coke and chips on the table, and a senior employee makes a congratulatory speech for the employee who is being felicitated. After that, it is the woman who is supposed to step up and slice the cake and serve it to everyone in the room. This is a common practice, attributed to ‘skill set’, that many employees do not even recognise as patriarchal.

On the other hand, it is also just as common to find that the authentic nature of a woman is squashed in male-dominated workplaces. For example, if a woman is feminine, she would find it easier to take on a more aggressive approach - even if it is not in her basic nature to do so - to get things done. Being feminine and soft yet effective is the tougher route to take at an Indian male-dominated workplace.

And so no matter how many progressive laws are made by the Indian government to support women employees, they will only succeed when there is a change of mindset amongst men and women in India. The recent increase of maternity leave for women from 12 to 26 weeks, for instance, ultimately depends upon the whims of the employer. There are too many cases where companies find one pretext or the other to fire a woman who is pregnant or nursing her child. They do not realise that it is their utter lack of decency and patriarchal mindset that makes them do so.

Why is sustainability an integral topic in today’s day and age?

Our world is increasingly unpredictable, and the growing interconnectivity via technology, trade, or human movement, makes it even more unpredictable. One event in a part of the world, effects another, in ways that are unfathomable. In such a world it is important that organisations do not just look at short-term gains, or focus only on issues that are urgent. Organisations need to look at the larger picture and build a good understanding of the factors that may affect them positively or adversely. They need to engage internal and external stakeholders in a meaningful way - and not just when there is a crisis. Investment and divestment decisions need to be made keeping in mind a much greater set of factors with a larger time frame.    

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