Social sustainability in the spotlight 

While the enormous influx of rural workers into Asia’s cities continues unabated, a new focus on sustainability has encouraged innovative companies in the region to redefine social sustainability, says APREA’s chief Peter Verwer.

Verwer (pictured), chief executive of the Asia Pacific Real Estate Association (APREA), will be in Australia in March to moderate the ‘Greening the Asian dragon’ session at Green Cities.

While there has been a perception that Asian countries often pursue fast economic growth at the expense of ethical and environmental considerations, the 2015 Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark ranked 57 per cent of survey participants in Asia as 'Green Stars' – up from 32 per cent in 2014.

So, is this evidence of growing momentum for sustainability in the region?

“An increasing number of Asian countries are looking at a balance between regulatory initiatives and incentives, and in doing so, are beginning to broaden their attention from just energy efficiency and water,” Verwer says.

“The country that is most advanced is Singapore – which everyone knows – because it has mandated its own version of Green Star, Green Mark. Other countries are also looking at tools to incentivise industry to deal with eco-productivity.

“What’s interesting to note is that, having dealt with productivity measures – less in, more out – many jurisdictions are very quickly moving on to looking at social sustainability.”

Verwer points to a number of examples. Hong Kong’s Link REIT – Asia’s largest real estate investment trust with more than one billion sqm of assets under management – is using a green upgrade program to invest in infrastructure such as playgrounds and green space to enhance the community experience.

“Link REIT is just one example of Asian companies looking closely at how their portfolios can deliver a social capital dividend through better community engagement,” Verwer explains.

Mahindra Lifespaces, which was named regional sector leader in the 2015 Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB), is another company on Verwer’s radar. India’s first ‘green homes’ developer, all its residential projects achieve certification through the Indian Green Building Council’s rating system.

Verwer says the company has applied innovative sustainability concepts to housing projects, and is looking at how sustainable urbanisation can deliver returns for stakeholders, local communities and the environment. The company’s Green Army outreach program, for instance, aims to educate primary school children on sustainable living, with a view to changing habits for future generations.

Also in India, a nation in which more than 26 million people are currently living with disabilities, the Lemon Tree Hotel Company has employed more than 500 staff members with hearing or vision impairment. In fact, 15 per cent of all employees have special needs.

“In terms of delivering social dividends, Lemon Tree is a big standout. This company is well ahead in terms of diversity – giving people skills to improve their living standards, and not just lifting them out of poverty but providing the tools they need to become entrepreneurs,” Verwer says.

Just as Australia has its unique challenges – Verwer points to indigenous employment as an obvious example – so too other nations are finding local solutions to their own challenges.

“One of the reasons Australia’s property industry has been such a significant leader over the last 10 to 15 years is that the sustainability agenda is not driven by government. Instead, business has reassessed its role as a corporate citizen.

“In Asian countries where industry’s role and the nature of ‘community’ are different, they are starting to develop their own pathways. What we’re seeing is not just the globalisation of commerce, but the globalisation of social solutions – all of which need to be customised to suit local circumstances.”

Find out how Australia can learn from Asia’s large-scale sustainability agenda and scale up to capitalise on the Asian cities boom, when Peter Verwer joins experts from the region on Wednesday 23 March at Green Cities. Book your tickets today.