Samir Saran in MINT discussion on “Making sense of sustainability”

Mint conclave on the ways to promote sustainability in business
New Delhi, 16th of July 2012
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New Delhi: Ravi Narain, managing director and chief executive of National Stock Exchange of India Ltd; Rajat Kathuria, economist and in-coming director, Icrier; Sivasubramanian Ramann, executive director of Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi); Seema Arora, executive director at CII-ITC Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development; and Samir Saran, vice-president at Observer Research Foundation, were the panellists who took part in a Mint debate on sustainable development. The panellists discussed the ways to promote sustainability in business. Mint’s deputy managing editor Anil Padmanabhan moderated the discussion. Edited excerpts:

Padmanabhan: Sustainability is not possible without inclusion. Environment has to be seen holistically. Is there a business case for sustainability?

(Left) Ravi Narain, Managing director and CEO, NSE and Seema Arora, Executive director, CIIITC Centre of Excellence. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

(Left) Ravi Narain, Managing director and CEO, NSE and Seema Arora, Executive director, CIIITC Centre of Excellence. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Arora: There is certainly a case for sustainability. As the minister (M. Veerappa Moily) said, it is not that business has to do it for anyone else. Business has to do it for its own survival. And that’s how we advocate it. That’s why mainstreaming sustainability into corporate decision-making. Sustainability here includes social and governance issues. Corporates need to look at it from this lens as well as from long-term perspective. Typically businesses look at it from short-term lens because they are driven by certain rewards they get. For this movement to actually succeed, that reward mechanism has to have a long-term lens. This is what we are trying to do with different stakeholders. Coming back to your question, there is certainly a business case, that is why we see many corporates already doing it. They are creating value for themselves and their stakeholders.

Saran: I am not sure about there being a business case for sustainability because there is no agreement on how we define sustainability. You saw Rio +20, there was no agreement among various nations on what sustainability is. But governance is something that can be measured. We have tried to create a method where we measure energy and emissions. We see these two as a proxy for governance. Any company with good governance will be efficient with its fuel consumption.

Padmanabhan: If we look at the guidelines laid by the (ministry of corporate affairs) ministry, they are more holistic.

Saran: Here again, we have to separate sustainability from social enterprise. If you were to tag your social ventures as corporate social responsibility, CSR, then I think you are confusing the cost of employee with CSR and that’s not right. That’s what most of the companies do. They try to project workforce infrastructure development as giving back to larger society. I think, these two have to be segregated. Up to the 90s, companies were hiding that they were making profit. Because the companies were projecting themselves as not profitable, they didn’t have to do much for others. Post 90s, profit became the mantra and then inclusion didn’t matter. And until 2007-08, it was the mantra. Only in 2009, social inclusion was introduced in the budget by UPA (United Progressive Alliance). The issue is, social transformation and growth are not linked.

From Left to Right: Samir Saran, VP, Observer Research Foundation; Rajat Kathuria, Economist, Icrier and Sivasubramanian Ramann, Executive director, Sebi

From Left to Right: Samir Saran, VP, Observer Research Foundation; Rajat Kathuria, Economist, Icrier and Sivasubramanian Ramann, Executive director, Sebi

Narain: There is a very clear business case, but it is not explicit enough. The so called enlightened businesses see it as a business case, but it is not out there in all our faces. We need to help bring out the cases of successful businesses who managed to see it as a business case and that has the ability to move it forward. There is empirical and anecdotal evidence that companies can get a premium if they are able to demonstrate good governance. It gets fuzzier when you come to non-governance part of sustainability. That’s about markets and investors. The other half is funders. I think the banks need to do a lot more to align their interests with corporates in making a business case.

Padmanabhan: As a regulator, how do you see it?

Ramann: I agree there is a business case in this whole move towards sustainability. If inputs are costed correctly, that is where a company is going to go forward, and make the best of whatever inputs are available and discard the expensive one and take on what is cheaper. We should bring that out more clearly.

Padmanabhan: You mean include the environment and social cost in the price?

Ramann: We are talking about moving ahead, looking clearly ahead at cost, which is real. One good thing that happened was the BSE green index. So, why not put out a simple number on which companies could be graded. That would certainly be good step forward.

Kathuria: One of the classic reasons for market failure has been that the externalities. It is not the inability but the complete dissociation from firms’ point of view to include those costs, those externalities into cost of production, which gives rise to market failure issue. The question is how to get firms to do that. There are two ways, one is voluntarily, or force companies to include those costs and therefore get the desirable results. The world is experimenting with carbon credits and standard for environmental sustainability and jury is still out there. But the problem is market failure and addressing that market failure, culture is also important. Do we have the culture of compliance in our country or not. So getting the firms to do it is a long road ahead. One of the ways in which compliance happens is through a strong institutional structure. Nor are we that sanguine about market any more, that the market is going to lead to the outcomes that are desirable, neither is the world. The way, to get the market to achieve the desirable outcome, is the institution structure that has sound enforcement and the right market incentives.

Padmanabhan: Samir you said growth and social inclusion are delinked at this point of time. Do you think these incentives can be a bridge?

Saran: I am not a believer in carrots. I think sometimes sticks are needed too. Now, I am not saying that should be done. The Greenex is a good way of doing it, you are listing good performers. Then, like Ravi (Narain) mentioned, hopefully we can ensure that funds flow to these performers. What is not happening today is that you are creating institutions and standards, but funds are not necessarily being driven to those performers in that framework. I completely agree with Ravi, unless bankers start backing good performers, good governance and social practices, you are not going to see companies either hurt enough or incentivize enough to change.

Padmanabhan: It is clear that we need incentive structure. Now the big debate is whether you follow stick approach or a carrot approach.

Arora: In our country pressures and dilemmas are completely different at the moment. I don’t think we can say that this is the only route by which we will get the results we really want. Also, culture has to play a major role here in a way we change the behaviour and the way industry responds to certain things. There is certainly a case in providing some kind of incentives for good performances. They could be different types of incentives, market-based incentives, financial incentives or recognitional incentives, we can start and experiment with. The important point is the entire ecosystem at this moment is rewarding corporate performance on quarterly performance. If that is going to be the main metrics, then obviously the ecosystem is not rewarding anything else the corporates do in terms of value creation on sustainability. So, the system has to work together to make that happen. We need to bring consumers on to the table. We need to have mix of incentives and gradually move to disincentives. But we are not mature enough to start immediately with it.

Ravi: Can we ask every institutional investors to put out in public domain what their assessment is for each corporate they have invested in, on their ESG (Environment, Social and Corporate) view, ESG action and sustainability.

Padmanabhan: Raman, as a regulator, can the disclosure be expanded to include these?

Raman: Most certainly. The facts is the initiative of ministry of corporate affairs has given the way forward for regulators like us. And it is something that is probably going to come out soon on how to get companies to make better disclosures. It is active work in progress, be it a listing agreement or any other form, the companies will be bound legally to bring out disclosure with regards to ESG.

Padmanabhan: What can be the collaborative mechanism that can be put in place, which will incentivise whether through carrot or stick, or its combination.

Rajat: It can’t be either carrot or stick approach. It has to be both. What works better is a carrot approach. A stick approach would work well in trying to establish culture of compliance if you have credible enforcement. Unless you are going to be able to enforce standards on whether environment or carbon, the stick approach is going to be difficult. But it can’t be either-or approach. Some good case studies show that carrot approach is a good approach, but a stick, enforcement and penalizing the non compliers is going to create compliance culture in the future.

moulishree.s@livemint.com

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