‘Our Cos to Engage on Circularity’
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.”