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Sustainability Leader Interview: Staying Focused on Long-term Impact

5 min read

Yan Vermeulen, Global Head of the Chemical and Process Industries Practice, talks to Cherie Tan, Head of Public Affairs and Sustainability at Bayer Asia’s Crop Science division, about corporate sustainability in 2024.

The CEO of the UN Global Compact recently called 2024 “the inflection point” for sustainability. Political pushback against ESG, energy security concerns, conflicts, and increasing regulatory scrutiny have created a maze of challenges for CEOs to navigate when it comes to sustainability. Despite this, most company leaders still view corporate sustainability as inherent to their company’s purpose and are committed to their long-term sustainability goals. 

Against this backdrop we spoke to Cherie Tan to gain valuable insights into her efforts to promote sustainability at Bayer Crop Science. Her perspective not only sheds light on the initiatives within her organization but also offers valuable advice for CEOs and other corporate sustainability leaders.

How has Bayer achieved sustainability progress?

At Bayer, “health for all, and hunger for none” encapsulates our vision and commitment as a health science leader in health care and agriculture.

Working alongside Asian farmers, we seek to deliver affordable food for all, while minimizing the environmental impact.

This involves innovating and strengthening agricultural productivity and supporting farmers to address climate change and resource scarcity through regenerative practices – so they can produce more with less while restoring more.

An example is our work with rice farmers in a direct seeded (DSR) rice system. Rice is traditionally cultivated in puddled fields flooded with water. Rice seedlings are manually transferred from the nursery into the field, which is labor-intensive and requires significant amounts of water. Rice production also accounts for 12% of the methane emissions globally.

DSR involves sowing rice seeds directly into the soil and this change can reduce water use by up to 40% and lower GHG emissions by as much as 45%. Significantly, it decreases reliance on manual labor – an increasingly critical aspect of sustainability with an aging farming population in Asia.

This initiative aims to introduce DSR to one million hectares by 2030. It comes together with comprehensive support for farmers through a digital platform with advisory services and access to machinery and inputs.

To accelerate the adoption of DSR by farmers, collaboration and partnerships are key. We started this work only in 2023, and to date, we reached 8,600 HA in DSR and an additional 45,00 HA in the carbon program.

What are the current challenges facing corporate sustainability?

Many corporations struggle to balance short-term financial objectives with long-term sustainability goals. This creates tension in prioritizing resources and investments.

Integrating sustainability into the fabric of a company's strategy and operations is also difficult. This requires a fundamental shift in how a company views its role and purpose.

Companies also need to manage diverse stakeholder expectations, including investors, customers, employees, and society at large. Each has different views of what sustainability means and how it should be prioritized.

Ultimately, companies are expected to navigate these trade-offs and find the right balance between business objectives and doing right by the environment, climate, and people.

Agriculture is no different. Sustainable farming solutions must balance high agricultural productivity with environmental protection so that farmers can continue farming for generations and feed a growing population. With a shift towards regenerative farming practices, we do have an opportunity to do both – increase yields while also providing benefits to nature.

In light of political and business pushback against ESG, what is the future outlook of corporate sustainability?

It is important to stay the course and focus on the sustained transformation of the industries that we work in, as well as factors such as climate change's impact on agriculture, competing land pressures, and limited natural resources. We need to focus on finding future innovations to feed a growing population with evolving dietary preferences while doing it with fewer resources.

Companies need a bold and audacious vision that serves as a moral compass for all employees to achieve together. At Bayer, for instance, our key target is to support 100 million smallholder farmers in low and middle-income countries, which is critical to agriculture and food security.

By staying focused on our mission and taking a holistic view of sustainability, we can find the right solutions to achieve long-term impact and resilience in the farm and in the transformation of food systems. While what I explained is relevant to my sector, it’s the same logic applied in any industry.

Appointing the right sustainability leader is critical

Today’s sustainability leaders are more than just evangelists working in siloes. They are true business partners capable of integrating the sustainability agenda into the wider business plan.

These types of sustainability leaders build a business case for change that aligns with environmental goals while highlighting competitive advantage. Importantly, they excel at stakeholder management, bringing disparate parts of the business together to achieve sustainability goals.

Odgers Berndtson’s industry experts possess specialist sustainability networks and can help identify these sustainability leaders across all sectors, geographies, and markets, and your internal talent. 

At Odgers Berndtson, our own carbon emissions reduction targets have been approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), an independent organization which evaluates companies’ carbon targets and provides accreditation to the targets.

Get in touch. Follow the links below to discover more, or contact our dedicated leadership experts from your local Odgers Berndtson office here.

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