Janice Lao is Director, Group Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels (HSH), which owns and operates the Peninsula Hotels and other luxury real estate around the world. HSH’s 2018 sustainability report can be found here.
GlobeScan’s Asia Pacific Director Wander Meijer spoke to Janice about corporate leadership, the trajectory from the why to the how, and on communicating sustainable luxury.
Hongkong Shanghai Hotels was established in 1866 and is one of the oldest hospitality corporations. Is that relevant from a sustainability perspective?
We have respect for our heritage, and of course while people’s preferences have changed, the human need for belonging, beauty, and culture is something that hasn’t changed for the past 150 plus years. Being a company that has been around for over a century and a half, and one that plans to be around for centuries to come, is completely aligned with sustainability – we are focused on the long-term.
Guests have different expectations of service now – how does sustainability come into play here?
Before, there was no word for it – it was never called “sustainability”. I think now that people have a better idea of how we’re impacting the world, they’re not willing to accept the negative impacts which business activities can have on the environment and society. Guests expect that as a luxury brand, we’ve already taken care of these issues. That level of expectation has changed. I don’t see it as being in conflict with the values I mentioned earlier which is intention, purpose, thoughtfulness. The intentionality hasn’t changed, but the expectations have.
Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels are known as corporate leaders in sustainability. What role can corporate leadership play in the move to a more sustainable world?
Corporations should stop asking about the why … the benefits of sustainability are clear. We need to move to how we need to do this because that is a more complicated question to answer. The issues that we’re dealing with are so urgent that we need to put our energy into finding solutions as opposed to debating what the problem is. Also, corporations need to re-frame their role in society. We have such a huge potential of scaling sustainability solutions if we do it together, as opposed to competing with each other.
How is Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels moving forward collaboratively on this?
When we made our plastics commitment last year, there was consensus that if we’re going to be making a statement like this, then let’s challenge ourselves and discuss how are we going to do it.
Now the challenge that we’re facing is that in some cases we need plastic, for example to protect the products that we are offering to our guests. How do we balance food waste, food preservation, or food hygiene without the use of single-use plastics? It is not impossible and is challenging us to be innovative.
We’re working on a sustainable seafood programme and we need to work with the seafood industry to move this along. We’re working well on cotton up-cycling, which I’m excited about because I have learned a lot about its impacts from our luxury peers who have fashion brands. We’re also working on the programme against modern slavery, by working with NGOs like the Mekong Club to understand how to implement this programme and where we can best leverage our strengths.
When the Peninsula took shark fin off its menus, what impact did it have?
It was amazing – based on very rough estimates from our consultants, around 18,000 hotels around the world followed our lead. Perhaps because of the fact that we are listed in Hong Kong, which is the centre of this trade, and we’re an iconic brand. I think people were somewhat surprised with the impact we had, as were we.
Are there any hotels you see taking leadership roles?
Marriott is leading the way on modern slavery. When Hilton came up with their vision, Travel 2030 with Purpose, I met with them and asked them how they made this happen; what were the issues they were concerned about? I am really learning about the process of strategy development through other companies too. We need to be humble about learning from others so we can all move the needle on sustainability together.
What do you see as the biggest sustainability issues for the hospitality industry?
Probably climate change adaptations and biodiversity. Climate change is such a catalyst in a negative way – it will impact water issues; it will impact energy issues. Are we able to get the type of quality food we want and that our guests expect? Is it still possible to do that with the suppliers that we usually go to?
How do you communicate sustainability within your organisation and to your guests?
In the beginning of my career I made the mistake of talking about sustainability in two ways – either drowning people with data or using guilt, which most people don’t appreciate! I have learned to work with the people who actually communicate for a living – our public affairs teams and marketing teams. People don’t like to be preached to, but they do like to be kept informed. They like a level of transparency, but don’t like to be drowning in the details of that transparency.
People want our sustainability reporting to be clear, so that’s why in our report we have a summary, KPIs, our approach, as well as case studies to demonstrate the proof points on our approach.
You were recently featured in a super hero cartoon book as a STEM example. What is your advice to 12-year-old girls to be successful as an environmental scientist?
I would say that there are always people who will not believe in you. Just accept that and make sure you’re not the one who doesn’t believe in yourself. You are the only one who can put a ceiling on yourself – no one else can do it. I have always been in science, in this field, and I am very proud of it. It was not an easy journey and you just need to be very persistent and selective of the advice you hear.