Sustainable business in India: challenges for Rio+20

By Ian Scoones
India has seen unprecedented economic growth in recent years; yet with this comes a growing demand for resources and increased pressure on the environment. But how can we combine business success and broad-based economic growth with environmental sustainability? This is a major challenge for fast-growing emerging economies such as India. As the Rio+20 conference approaches, creating sustainable business options in these countries is a high priority.
Earlier in 2012, the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore together with the STEPS Centre organised a major conference titled “Risk, Competitiveness and Sustainability”. It was hosted by Infosys, one of Bangalore’s information technology success stories, and now a global company with annual revenues of $7bn. The event was supported by the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI). Sridhar Pabbisetty, one of the conference organisers and Chief Operating Officer of the Centre for Public Policy at IIM-B, said “the conference challenged companies, academics and not-for-profit organizations to collaborate together and find sustainable business models that would effectively address business, social and environmental risks”.

The conference, held in Infosys’ prestigious HQ in Bangalore, was opened by Shri. S.D. Shibulal, co-founder and CEO of Infosys Technologies. He outlined how Infosys has been pursuing an integrated approach to evaluate environmental challenges and find sustainable solutions. His vision was for Infosys to be a leader in India and indeed the world in this field.

Around 120 participants attended the event from across diverse companies from Bangalore and beyond. Participants also included engineering and management students, eager to learn about the cutting-edge developments in linking business practices to sustainable solutions. Presentations ranged from conservation and environmental organisations to economists, law and management specialists, but the core was a series of case studies of Indian companies that are grappling with the sustainability challenge at the heart of their business strategy.

For example, Megha Shenoy, Research Director at ROI-India, outlined her team’s work on creating an industrial waste exchange network in the Nanjangud Industrial Area, in Karnataka in southern India. She demonstrated how careful analysis can lead to only 0.5% of solid non-hazardous wastes needing to be disposed of. “This requires a systematic effort to encourage in-house recycling and waste reduction”, she said. “With symbiotic exchanges established with upstream, downstream and other allied industries, as well as strengthening the informal recycling market, major reductions in waste can be achieved”, she added.

Meanwhile, Rohan Parikh, Head of Green Initiatives at Infosys Technologies explained the Integrated Design Approach followed at Infosys in the design of new buildings. Through this approach average energy consumption per employee was brought down by 23% over four years. “This was made possible due to an intense collaboration between external consultants, architect and the construction team with the top management at Infosys closely involved”, he said. With the maximum utilization of daylight, innovative use of radiant cooling and continued expansion of green power sources, this has enabled Infosys to embark on a sustainable energy path, he explained. “We have a target to be 100% carbon neutral by FY 2018 at Infosys”, he added.

Infosys also has a focus on water sustainability. This has borne fruit with the amount of rain water sequestered in Infosys campuses across India estimated at more than 4.3 billion litres every year; about 123% of their annual water consumption. Advanced sewage treatment technology and other technological innovations such as biogas and the chemical reduction initiative all contribute. “These are all steps in the direction of building tomorrow’s enterprise: one centred on sustainability”, he argued.

Whether it is the reduction of waste or the conservation of energy or water, all these efforts are increasingly seen as central to sound business practice. This is not just corporate PR, but a core part of the business model. As Richa Bajpai. co-founder and director of NextGen, argued “tommorow’s climate is today’s challenge”. NextGen is a leader among a rapidly growing group of Indian cleantech firms with operations in sustainability and emission management and linking waste to energy generation.

Sustainable businesses require innovation in technology, organisation and management – and usually all three together, participants argued. As Prashanth Vikram Singh of Price Waterhouse Coopers explained, responding to economic, social and environmental sustainability challenges together is essential for any business if the fundamental challenges of carbon and waste reduction are to be achieved. For many businesses, this involves negotiating what Santhosh Jayaram of DNV Business Assurance called the “jungle of standards”.

Applying new technologies was seen in many of the cases discussed at the conference as central. Indian companies now setting up and growing can leapfrog competitors in North American and Europe who are locked in to more unsustainable practices, it was suggested. This requires some fairly fundamental reimagining of ways of working however. Basic infrastructure, design, architecture and planning must be rethought. Prem Chandavarkar, Managing Partner at CnT Architects described, for example, the challenges of imagining a different Indian city which responded to sustainability imperatives.

Many of the sustainability gains thus require more fundamental organisational shifts, and need to be led from by top-level management. Only with this commitment – from CEOs, Boards and supported by shareholders – will sustainable practices really emerge on a wide scale. The good news is that this is happening already. In a recent blog post, Thomas Lingard, global advocacy director at Unilever (and also a member of the STEPS Centre’s advisory board), explains how new alliances for sustainability are being forged in the private sector. In the lead up to Rio, this is essential, as this constituency must be central to any sustainability transition. As the IIM-B/STEPS Centre conference showed, India is at the forefront of this new movement, with new, innovative technologies and practices to share.

More about: STEPS Centre activities around Rio+20
Steps Centre work on risk, uncertainty and technology in India