Based in India, Mahindra Group comprises over 150 companies across 100+ countries. Each of these companies is bound by one purpose – to Rise. Inspired by this spirit, its legacy and values, Mahindra Group’s goal to always positively impact their partners, stakeholders, communities and the world at large remains unshakeable.
GlobeScan’s India Director Anup Guruvugari spoke with Anirban Ghosh, Chief Sustainability Officer of the Mahindra Group, about their sustainability journey.
With a legacy of more than 75 years across the length and breadth of the country and the world, how was sustainability woven seamlessly into the ethos of the Mahindra Group?
Mahindra Group had a very auspicious start to sustainability. In the mid-2000s, our senior leadership was asked by a shareholder as to whether we had a triple bottom line report. At the time, we did not know what a triple bottom line report was. So, given that this work started with Mr. Anand Mahindra himself dealing with the question of what the triple bottom line report was, he made it a priority to integrate it into the rest of the business. The challenge was how to make sustainability integral to the business. Over time we arrived at our sustainability definition which is to build enduring business while rejuvenating the environment and enabling our communities and stakeholders to rise. This definition then translates into several activities which helps sustainability filter through the organization.
How difficult was it in the initial years? Did you face any resistance?
The difficulty was always to translate sustainability such that people from different businesses and functions would understand. For example, if we simply presented it as “sustainability will save the planet,” it would remain in the bucket of “doing the right thing” without necessarily having a business connection. That wouldn’t give us traction. So, the difficulty really was to translate sustainability in a way which was relevant for the business and relevant for functions within the business.
Being a conglomerate naturally comes with high levels of complexity. How do you measure progress against sustainability goals for the entire group?
The good thing about sustainability is that there are three major branches: people, planet, and profit. The planet conversation starts with carbon and that’s common to every business. The intensity of relevance may vary from business to business depending on how carbon intensive the business is, but the conversation is the same. So, setting goals for reducing the carbon footprint is a common agenda.
Another example is water security. If the business is very water-intensive, the issues are more important for them. If it is less water intensive it is less important, but the question to ask even these businesses is, if there is no water, what impact would it have on your business? Therefore, managing water security is again common across businesses.
What I’m trying to convey is that while yes, there are many differences across businesses, sustainability has a lot of commonalities and dealing with them first helps you to get traction.
Where things become more complex is when we discuss the opportunities and risks of climate change, as they are different for each business. While we’ve made some progress in integrating climate change into strategy conversations, it’s a difficult conversation to have because it actually asks leaders to think differently about new businesses.
Each business has its own sustainability roadmap with quantifiable goals for the future. While there are some commonalities between businesses, there are some items that are unique to the business and the industry that they are in. We enable the businesses to build these roadmaps and monitor progress and help them achieve their goals.
What does sustainability leadership mean today in a country like India?
Sustainability leadership for a corporation in India today means leveraging climate action to do business better. If the business is leveraging climate change to make more money in the short run, to deal with risks in the medium term, and to make sure that it continues to be around in the long run, it is handling sustainability well. The understanding of better business continues to evolve, and the aspects of rejuvenating the environment and enabling stakeholders to rise has been added to the conventional knowledge of how to build an enduring business. That’s what sustainability leadership means in India for a corporation.
How can a group like Mahindra, being a leader in sustainability, further leverage its leadership position and be recognized by its stakeholders?
If the Mahindra Group is able to offer solutions to people to live their lives in a manner which is more climate friendly, it will automatically be recognized by its stakeholders as being a leader in this space. In a recent survey, we discovered that awareness of sustainability, of climate, and desire to take appropriate action were very high amongst the urban population of India. Most people said that they didn’t have appropriate solutions or appropriate products to adopt when they wanted to. So, if the Mahindra Group is able to offer electric cars, micro-irrigation, green buildings, waste-to-energy, and solar power, it will be seen as being a leader in this space.
What do you think are some of the obstacles that have prevented large-scale adoption of sustainability as a business case? How did Mahindra overcome such obstacles?
Clarity, or the lack of it, about the idea of sustainability is usually the biggest obstacle that prevents meaningful climate action. At Mahindra we’ve tried very hard to bring as much clarity as possible to the idea of sustainability. We’ve done it by adopting a definition and by making that definition part of a sustainability framework whose elements are easy to understand for any business or any individual. Our sustainability framework separates the issues related to people, planet, and profit so that it doesn’t seem like a big jumble, and then translates each one of the issues into tangible projects and actions which then show up in each of the businesses’ roadmaps. This makes the whole work of sustainability something that people can relate to, that they can take pride in, and have a sense that they’re doing something meaningful.
What are you most excited about as climate activism and awareness reaches a peak? And what does it mean for a country like India?
The most exciting thing about climate activism is the possibility that we will actually discover a new way of life, a low-carbon way of life, where we are more in harmony with nature. I don’t think there is anything better that can happen both for the planet and for the people.
For this to happen there would need to be a lot of innovation, a lot of new businesses, a lot of new jobs, and a lot of growth for the economy. It won’t be easy, but it will be an opportunity to literally reboot the world.
What do you think will be the key drivers for corporate sustainability in India in the next five years?
Given the conversations that are happening at the intergovernmental level, the primary driver for corporate sustainability is still the desire to do good or to do the right thing. While five years is a very short span of time, I think a larger number of businesses in India will realize that sustainability actions are good for business, that they help build resilience, profitability, and prepare the organization for the future.
In a somewhat longer period of time, we will start seeing consumers preferring climate-friendly products. We will start seeing stricter regulations, especially if we don’t make progress on the national commitments toward reaching the 1.5 degrees centigrade pathway. That in turn will drive a lot of investment in technologies that help reduce carbon footprint.
We understand that our focus on sustainability helps attract young people who have a sense of purpose or who seek a sense of purpose in their lives. It gives us a lot of pride that an increasing number of people are becoming engaged in the work on sustainability year after year.
On one end of the spectrum, we have more than 20,000 of our colleagues adopting LED lamps, energy efficient fans, energy efficient air-conditioners, and are migrating seamlessly from plastic bags to cloth bags. On the other end of the spectrum, I see business heads investing more in projects which help reduce emissions while simultaneously helping business. This gives a sense of satisfaction that we are moving forward in the sustainability journey in the Mahindra Group.