Telum Talks To... IPRS PRISM Awards 2021 Awardee - Esther An, Lifetime PR Achievement Award

Telum Talks To... IPRS PRISM Awards 2021 Awardee - Esther An, Lifetime PR Achievement Award

Telum caught up with Esther An, Chief Sustainability Officer at City Developments Limited (CDL) who was conferred the Lifetime PR Achievement Award at the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore PRISM Awards 2021.

Congratulations on your recent IPRS Lifetime PR Achievement Award. Can you share with us what has been the greatest moment of your career?
Being the first female sustainability practitioner from Singapore and Southeast Asia to be conferred the 2018 SDG Pioneer for Green Infrastructure and A Low Carbon Economy by the United Nations Global Compact, is thus far one of my greatest moments. Having presented CDL’s green journey and sustainability strategy at COP25 and COP26 were also very proud moments to fly the Singapore flag at international platforms.  

On a national level, I am honoured to have been granted countless opportunities to effect real change and to be a part of many exciting initiatives, including the zero-energy CDL Green Gallery @ Singapore Botanic Gardens and My Tree House, the world’s first green library for kids. To date, I would say that setting up the zero-energy Singapore Sustainability Academy (SSA) - the first major people, public and private ground-up initiative in support of global and national climate goals - is one of my greatest pride and joys.  

You joined CDL in 1995 to set up its corporate communications department before championing the sustainability portfolio. Can you tell us more about it?
In 1995, I joined CDL with the task of setting up its very first Public Relations portfolio. I had the privilege to work with my direct boss and then-Managing Director, the late Mr Kwek Leng Joo, in formulating CDL’s ethos of “Conserving as We Construct” and implementing initiatives to turn a vision to action. It has been a meaningful 27-year journey since.

In the early 2000s, CDL’s PR portfolio was fast expanding to Corporate Communications, covering more CSR work over time. With a growing concern of change and the global paradigm shift to a low-carbon economy, CDL’s focus on sustainability work has made giant strides over the years, and in 2014, we consolidated and streamlined the structure. I assumed my current appointment as CDL’s Chief Sustainability Officer, making CDL one of the earliest listed companies in Singapore to do so. This, in fact, reflects CDL’s Board and top Management’s leadership commitment.

As a female leader, what is a challenge you've encountered, and how do you persevere?
The central challenge I faced in my green journey was convincing stakeholders on the business case for sustainability during a time when ESG was deemed “good-to-have”. By convincing the CDL Board and Management of this, it has impacted stakeholders down the line and across our value chain.

With consistency and tireless efforts to engage, educate and empower our stakeholders, they have recognised the benefits of sustainable practices. Today, contractors support our approach and extend the same good Environment, Health and Safety practices to other developers, which have helped to drive change in the entire built industry. Besides reducing their carbon footprint, our tenants also saw the benefits of sustainable practices as they achieved savings in their utility bills.

I am thankful for CDL’s Board, Management, colleagues and partners for their trust and unwavering support. No one single person or entity can save the world alone - we need to collaborate to amplify our voices, action and impact. That has driven us to set up SSA and the latest Sustainability Connect that aims at grooming more sustainability practitioners trained by practitioners. More information can be found here.

What advice would you give the next generation of female leaders?
Empowering Women to be Eco-champions

Be it at home, at work or at play, women can be effective change makers and drive the ESG agenda. With my top management’s support, I founded the Women4Green network in 2017. In support of the UN SDGs, the network harnesses the collective knowledge and expertise of successful female leaders from various industries to empower, connect and educate other women to incite meaningful change in their industries.

Channelling Eco Anxiety into Positive Action (More information can be found here)

Apart from women, CDL focuses our efforts in youth engagement as well. Over the past two decades, I have seen people react to climate change differently. Today, there are more people who are worried, anxious and angry, particularly youths. I am one who believes in action. Only by turning anxiety into positive action will we be able to realise the hope of a sustainable future. 

To turn eco-anxiety into a force for positive change, we launched the “Keep Calm and Love Our Planet” campaign at COP26 last November, in partnership with Singapore Youth for Climate Action. This includes a special video featuring the voices of young leaders from all over the world at COP26 sharing their worries and wishes for a more sustainable future.    

In your role as chief sustainability officer what are your priorities for 2022?
As Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), my role is to drive the sustainable development agenda through the company and embed sustainability in CDL’s business strategy and operational decision-making.

Apart from my core role as CSO, I am also honoured to have been invited to take on other external roles and sit on boards or advisory platforms of several international organisations that help accelerate green buildings and sustainable development.

My current key appointments are as follows:
  • Conferred 2018 SDG Pioneer for Green Infrastructure and A Low Carbon Economy by the UN Global Compact
  • Signatory for the UNGC Caring for Climate network and an executive council member of the UN ESCAP Sustainable Business Network
  • Vice-chair of World Green Building Council’s (WGBC) Corporate Advisory Board
  • Global Reporting Initiative Board Member
  • GRESB Foundation Board Member
  • UN PRI Real Estate Advisory Committee Member
  • Chairperson of the Asia Pacific Real Asset Association’s (APREA) Sustainability and ESG Committee
  • Co-chair of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Singapore’s Sustainability Product Council
  • Vice-chairperson of the Singapore Institute of Directors’ (SID) ESG Committee
Playing a key role in these networks and committees has given me a bird’s eye view of the evolving developments in the business landscape, real estate sector and built environment. As part of UN ESCAP’s Sustainable Business Network, I have had the privilege of working with business leaders from various sectors and industries, where we share our vision, passion and knowledge in driving sustainable change. My roles in WGBC, APREA, ULI and SID have also provided keen insight on how the built environment is transforming and transitioning towards its net-zero goals.

My duties on the GRI board, the GRESB Foundation Board and the UN PRI Real Estate Advisory Committee have placed me in a prime position to help push the agenda on climate reporting and ESG disclosure.

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