‘Our Cos to En­gage on Cir­cu­lar­ity’

The Economic Times - - Special Feature -

Ahe a d o f t he 2 01 5 Cl i mate Con­fer­ence in Paris, in­sid­ers sug­gested to Cyrus P Mistry, Chair­man of the $ 108 bil­lion Tata Group that he sign the ‘Paris Pledge for Ac­tion Pe­ti­tion’ crafted by the CEO Cli­mate Lead­ers. Mistry was hes­i­tant.

Hes­i­tant, not be­cause he didn’t want to com­mit his busi­nesses to cli­mate ac­tion but be­cause he ab­hors high- op­tics ap­proaches to is­sues. Mistry roots for a quiet meet­ing of goals and tar­gets. Mukund Ra­jan, mem­ber of the Group Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil (GEC) of Tata Sons had to muster all his per­sua­sion skills to get the chair­man to sign up. Mukund, the Tata brand cus­to­dian and chief ethics of­fi­cer also over­sees the sus­tain­abil­ity func­tion.

“This is how we are,” says Shankar Venkateswaran, al­lud­ing to the muted, yet con­sid­er­able work that is on, across Tata com­pa­nies. He joined the Group only in 2014 and has, ev­i­dently, ab­sorbed its val­ues. Shankar comes to the Group with over three decades in de­vel­op­men­tal and busi­ness con­sult­ing work- from Ac­tion Aid to pwc - even serv­ing as In­dia head of the Lon­don-based Sus­tain­Abil­ity, the strat­egy con­sult­ing firm of John Elk­ing­ton, who coined the term ‘triple- bot­tom- line,’ years ago.

He was also on the draft­ing com­mit­tee which drew out the Na­tional Vol­un­tary Guide­lines (NVGs) on cor­po­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity.It’s be­ing up­dated now.

Many of his col­leagues and peers in in­dus­try con­sider Shankar to har­bour a so­cial or a so­ci­ety bias. ‘Busi­ness and so­ci­ety’ has re­mained an area of abid­ing in­ter­est through much of his ca­reer. In a way, it’s in con­so­nance with the Tata world view.

The at­ti­tude also re­flects in the Tata Group Sus­tain­abil­ity Pol­icy an­nounced in mid- 2015 which, among other things, not only em­beds a prod­uct life- cy­cle ap­proach to sus­tain­abil­ity but also,very boldly, com­mits to nat­u­ral and so­cial cap­i­tal val­u­a­tion. “Next year on we want to en­gage with our com­pa­nies on cir­cu­lar­ity,” re­veals Shankar. Cir­cu­lar­ity ad­dresses the lim­i­ta­tions of the tra­di­tional, lin­ear model of con­sump­tion and is the lat­est in sus­tain­abil­ity think­ing. A cir­cu­lar econo- my or model re­volves around re­source con­straints and pri­mar­ily at­tempts to ‘de­sign out’ waste.

Shankar has been lucky as cir­cum­stances helped him cob­ble a group-wide sus­tain­abil­ity mech­a­nism with con­sid­er­able ease im­me­di­ately on join­ing; else to con­jure a sys­tem to ad­dress 100 in­de­pen­dent op­er­at­ing com­pa­nies, 20 of which are listed, and present in 100 coun­tries across six contents, could have been daunt­ing in­deed.

Things fell in place: those at the helm of the Tata Coun­cil for Com­mu­nity Ini­tia­tives (TCCI), largely the CSR arm of the Tata’s, were re­tir­ing; the en­vi­ron­ment sus­tain­abil­ity group housed in Tata Qual­ity Man­age­ment Ser­vices (TQMS) was ready to move out and claim in­de­pen­dent sta­tus. TQMS is a cru­cible of sorts within the Group to test out ideas and in­no­va­tions. TCCI and the en­viro group were quickly merged to form the Tata Sus­tain­abil­ity Group (TSG) to pro­vide thought lead­er­ship in this space. Tata Re­lief, the Group’s dis­as­ter re­sponse ini­tia­tive,was also brought un­der its am­bit.

A ge­o­graphic struc­ture too emerged in the form of a Global Sus­tain­abil­ity Coun­cil, chaired by MukundRa­jan and 15 CEOs as mem­bers in­clud­ing those of Tata Steel Europe and JLR. Re­gional sus­tain­abil­ity work­ing com­mit­tees (SWCs) – In­dia, Africa, South-east Asia & China com­plete the pic­ture. Global flows of ideas are now hap­pen­ing. The cir­cu­lar­ity ini­tia­tive, for in­stance, draws on the con­sid­er­able work done by JLR.

The Tata Trusts, the phil­an­thropic arm of the Group, which has also been re-in­vent­ing it­self af­ter Ratan Tata took over its reins, is now en­gag­ing with ini­tia­tives within the Group and also out­side. A re­newed fo­cus on col­lab­o­ra­tions is quite ev­i­dent.

Con­ver­sa­tions are be­gin­ning to hap­pen dur­ing the cu­ra­tion of de­vel­op­men­tal or CSR ini­tia­tives. The Trusts, when seek­ing tech so­lu­tions, now reach out to Tata com­pa­nies. “The en­gage­ment with the Trusts has its cre­ative ten­sions too,” says Shankar, “but now we are think­ing to­gether.”

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