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Anirban Ghosh, Mahindra & Mahindra group’s chief sustainability officer (CSO), believes that a CSO is an internal critic and internal advocate for a company.

Ghosh, who joined the group in 1999, has had stints in sales, marketing, strategy, new business development, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). “Among my peers, I don’t think there are too many others who have come from a strategy, marketing and sales background like I have. So I have a way of looking at it which is entirely dependent on the exposure I have had before," he says.

What is sustainability? There are two parts to a sustainable business—accountability to shareholders and responsibility to society. We cannot continue doing business without taking into cognizance the impact it has on society, says Ghosh. The UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) cannot be viewed only through a philanthropic lens. Today, if you want to remove poverty, you need businesses to be involved.

The biggest challenge: Making sustainability relevant to people. The way the conversation has begun, it would seem to be only about carbon emissions. Emissions are important, but they cannot be the entire conversation.

In addition, says Ghosh, there is a question we don’t ask today even of CSR; the money gets spent, things gets done, but what is the impact? We don’t ask these questions about sustainability initiatives either. There is a conversation on activity but very little conversation on impact.

The business case: The fight against climate change actually opens up opportunities for new businesses that a strategic executive must identify. Within the Mahindra group, says Ghosh, we have invested in businesses such as solar power, electric car, micro-irrigation, green buildings, waste to energy. Independently, each of these may be little stories, but when you look at it from the climate- change lens you will realize that this fight offers a strategic opportunity to identify new businesses.

This is possible because new technologies are now available. This may not have been the position 15-20 years ago. So, keep your eyes and ears open and keep investing in technologies that do both: take care of the planet and save money for the business.

Can sustainability be sexy? The conversations on sustainability, so far, have been about less—consume less, do less—or about disaster in the making. The conversations have also been about doing good—but only a small group finds this attractive, not the masses. The conversation on sustainability, then, has to draw in everyone and find ways that inspire people to take action. For example, if you were to get a Tesla car at the price of an Alto, electric vehicles would become popular. To make sustainability sexy, you have to make sure it appeals to the masses, it is not about less, it has to be in the context of the people, and it has to be affordable. It is basically marketing 101.

The CEO and sustainability: If the CEO does nothing but is a benign supporter and an occasional blesser of sustainability initiatives, that’s enough. If he/she indeed has a perspective and chooses to drive things, it is a fantastic bonus.

Are SDGs realistic?

It is an easy question to answer, says Ghosh. Of the 17 SDGs, the first one is on poverty. Tell me, 10 years from now, will we see a poverty-free world? We can do a billion things, but poverty will stay because it is contextual, and differs in meaning from India to Germany. Ten years from now, when the SDG period ends, we will not have zero poverty, but we should be better placed than we are now.

An in-house initiative: In 2015, says Ghosh, we announced a scheme to reimburse the electricity bills of employees who showed a dip in power consumption at home over a six-month period. The number of participants has definitely increased, from 2-3% to 8-10% of the total across the group, in two years. They also got about 30,000 of their employees to use LED lamps. Ghosh says they have started using energy-efficient fans, ACs, etc., all of which the company makes available at decent prices on special occasions like World Environment Day.

Sense and Sustainability is a series where chief sustainability officers talk about SDGs, and the challenges in making sustainability appealing to businesses and employees.

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