Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) is the term used by many corporations and the HKEX to describe what was previously known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Despite the change in name, its primary function is still public relations. ESG/CSR departments hold events such as beach cleanups, environmental forums, student sustainability challenges, visits to elderly homes, collecting “lai see” packets for re-use and so forth. The primary purpose of all of this is to fluff up ESG reports with nice photos and meaningless numbers such as “4,000 man hours – An aggregate of 4,000 man hours was devoted by all our participants and supporters to solving the environmental challenges together.” What was actually achieved during these 4000 hours it does not say.
Why do most companies not engage in meaningful ways to improve their environmental and social impact? Core operations remain untouched because real improvements are difficult or costly to implement, usually both. The business case for these investments simply do not show an acceptable return on investment. This is where independently-owned companies (that do not have to generate excess profits to pay for exorbitant executive pay packages, massive advertising campaigns, and flocks of accountants and middle managers) can outperform larger companies.
By supporting independently-owned companies that operate sustainably, we as consumers can slowly re-shape the commercial landscape to reflect our values. F&B is one of the a largest industries in Hong Kong and has very large environmental impact. Bijas is an independently-owned restaurant that is leading the way in environmental and social responsibility. Here are some examples how:
- The chairs in Bijas had been discarded by a nearby high school. Bijas collected and refurbished them. In an escalating war to attract students, the casualties include thousands of chairs that are needlessly thrown out by schools every year. If they are not thrown into the landfill directly, they will be broken down by scrap dealers. The time, effort and cost of refurbishing them makes it much more attractive to simply buy new.
- The light fixture is upcycled from 600 plastic bottles. Designed by an artist and made by students, it looks like designer piece from an upscale European furniture store. By engaging students and creating locally, we strengthen our communities.
- “Pay by weight” means we only take what we need (soup and rice are unlimited). The effect is good for the environment and good for our health. Because food itself constitutes a relatively small portion of the cost of a meal, ever increasing portion sizes has become part of the marketing of restaurant chains.
- To reduce waste entering our landfill, kitchen waste is collected and sent to the campus composting machine to be turned into compost. Kitchen waste constitutes 30% of total landfill waste. It has an outsize impact on climate change because organic matter decomposes anaerobically in a landfill. This produces methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2.
- Bijas is a vegetarian restaurant. Meat production is one of the single largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Soya, wheat and corn are fed to chickens, pigs and cows. These crops are produced in monoculture fields with massive inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The animals are then raised in industrial meat factories, where they are fed antibiotics (60% of all antibiotics produced globally is fed to livestock) to prevent them from getting sick in overcrowded conditions.
- The restaurant supports the HKU Rooftop Farm by hosting monthly meals made with vegetables grown by the students. Creating a farm-to-table experiences enriches students environmental awareness and learning.
- Bijas hires hearing-impaired, elderly and mentally challenged staff while still maintaining a seamless customer experience. The teamwork and customer service is beyond what I’ve experienced in many many other F&B outlets. Integrating this diverse range of human capital is no easy task. But Bijas demonstrates that it can be done while at the same time creating a terrific customer experience and serving high quality food. Successfully done, this does reaps rewards in terms of employee loyalty and reduced turnover.
As consumers, we can use our purchasing power to support enterprises that have social and environmental sustainability at the core of their operations. Where we spend our hard earned dollars matters and can make a difference in our society by helping environmentally responsible enterprise grow, thereby sending signals to market that this matters to consumers.
And if I forgot to mention it earlier, the food at Bijas is delicious.