When it comes to saving the environment, Esther An bucks the trend and sets precedents.
While many of us now take our own shopping totes to the supermarket, Esther An was one of the first to introduce recyclable shopping bags to staff and key tenants of City Developments Limited (CDL) over 20 years ago. “People called me crazy. But, before long, we became visionaries,” recalls CDL’s chief sustainability officer.
She was only into her first year on the job when she spearheaded that movement. “Human nature is against drastic change, so you have to find ways to engage people, and let them share your vision and understand the reason behind it at a pace that is comfortable.”
Born and raised in Hong Kong, An was first hired by CDL to set up its public relations department 23 years ago. But a conversation with then boss and mentor, the late Kwek Leng Joo, changed that. “During the interview, he asked for my impression of the building sector. I told him that there seemed to be quite a bit of negative environmental impact before construction. He liked what I said and we naturally came into this ethos of conserving as we constructed.
“He was the mountain behind me. I can dream up a lot of ideas to go green and engage the community, but, if the top leaders aren’t supportive, I can’t drive change.”
In 2002, An initiated Project: Eco-Office, in partnership with Singapore Environment Council. It aimed to create awareness among office workers to conserve energy and resources at work, and has since reached out to thousands of individuals beyond CDL’s tenants, in public and private organisations.
An’s passion for the environment started with her enjoyment of nature when she was young. In fact, her first job was to promote the Clean & Green campaign in Hong Kong. Following that, she was inspired to create innovative community and youth programmes that aim to raise eco-consciousness among the young. In 2013, for example, she oversaw the development of the world’s first green library at Singapore’s Central Public Library. Named My Treehouse, its canopy is made from over 3,000 recycled plastic bottles.
“Every little bit counts,” she says. “No company or organisation can save the world alone.” Yet, her company has played an important role in this vast equation, pushing for sustainable design and practices in its developments. CDL holds the record, for example, for the largest use in Singapore of prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC), a Lego-like modular system that is said to improve productivity and safety, while decreasing noise and dust pollution, on construction sites. “Singapore Land Authority now requires quite a few sites to adopt PPVC,” says An, who is in her 50s.
This September, she became the first Singaporean to receive the UN SDG Pioneer Award, which recognises individuals who have tackled sustainable development issues, while contributing to business success.
Still, being one of the few women in a male-dominated industry has its challenges. So she is using her experience to help other women via Women4Green, Singapore’s first sustainability network for women. “We have to empower women and give them bigger voices,” she says. “Women are the key decision makers for procurement. We want to educate and empower them to drive the green agenda and sustainable lifestyles at work, home and for entertainment.”
She is also spreading her passion online and has become quite the social media darling. “I’m not chasing ‘Likes’, but those 18,000 views show me that I’m reaching out,” says An, who also supports Feeding The 5000, a campaign that raises awareness of food wastage. “The satisfaction comes when I can influence the young. In fact, we need to step up because it’s getting more urgent.”