Redefining Sustainability in Asia: Extending Corporate Leadership

Originally published for K Magazine, GlobeScan CEO, Christophe Guibeleguiet, takes a look at how Asian consumer attitudes to business in society are changing and the need for companies to balance opportunity with responsibility. Divided into a 3-part blog series, future posts will look at health and safety issues, and the rise of ‘Aspirational’ consumers.

One of the defining features of the early 21st Century has been the apparently inexorable rise of China, and with it, a shift in the balance of power towards Asia from the West. Planes filled with political and business delegations seem to head East with increasing frequency in an effort to tap into the modern world’s national success story and in doing so help drag the Western world out of the aftermath of financial crisis.
While the opportunities in China and East Asia are enormous, companies are now coming face-to-face with the responsibilities involved. Over the past year, major environmental disasters, food contamination scandals and stronger government demands for corporate citizenship have disrupted the rules of engagement between business and society in China.
The need for business to re-examine, re-define and communicate corporate responsibility in Asia has never been more pressing.

Trust and optimism on the surface

On the face of it, corporate citizenship is in a healthy state in Asia. For 15 years, GlobeScan has been surveying citizens around the world on how they view business within society through GlobeScan Radar. Our latest data shows that in Asia, consumer trust in national and global companies is higher than it’s been since 2005 (see chart to the left). At the same time, majorities of Chinese consumers feel better off than they did a year ago and are positive about the future. This is in stark contrast to sentiments in Europe and North America, where trust in business remains stubbornly low, and consumers express pessimism about what the next twenty years will bring.

Corporate responsibility top of the agenda

Further to this picture of trust and optimism, 2013 has also been described as ‘the year corporate responsibility in China came of age’. And there are signs that consumers are catching on. GlobeScan’s survey shows changing expectations of the role of companies in society, as Asian countries prosper. More than four in ten Chinese and nearly three in ten Indonesians now expect companies to go beyond their traditional economic role and actively help create a better society.

We have also seen growing awareness of corporate social responsibility initiatives. As the chart to the left shows, nearly three in ten Chinese consumers have heard ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ about companies trying to improve their social and environmental performance – three years ago, this stood at just over one in ten.
A slowdown in growth in Asian markets may accelerate these shifts. Highly visible job creation, wealth generation, and economic growth have lifted many millions of people out of poverty over the past couple of decades. As growth slows, Asian consumers are likely to demand more from business, following the trend in the global North, where the life-altering social change and rise in living standards brought about by the corporate activity associated with the industrial revolution are firmly in the past.