Boosting Business Through Sustainability
Embracing sustainability increased business by 30% from 2018 to 2019 for corporate gift manufacturer DTC World Corporation. Regional General Manager, Ms Cheng Yee Chin, shares the inside story.
As one of the panellists in SBF’s recent ‘The Sustainability Business Case for SMEs’ seminar, I had the opportunity to relate my experience in going green and how it can benefit businesses. The panel discussion was part of a training programme under the SBF’s MAP on Sustainability initiative aimed at encouraging companies to get on the sustainability journey. Launched in September 2022, this initiative is in its third run with a focus on helping companies kick-start their sustainability programmes.
I believe the SBF MAP on Sustainability initiative will be most useful as it offers a modular approach. I think this flexibility allows companies to enter at any stage of their transformation pathway towards sustainability.
MAP also covers the entire process, and each letter represents the initial of the three stages: Mindset shift, Analysis of current state, and Pathway assignment. If companies feel that they already know what to do under mindset shift, they can commence at the analysis stage.
In my view, companies embarking on the sustainability mission should start with the areas of business ethics, office practices, labour and human rights, and then move to monitor the supply chain. At DTC, we kicked off our sustainability drive by promoting a paperless environment, greater recycling efforts, less waste and more energy conservation. We started internally, after which we pushed this initiative to our supply chain. We also categorise our sources as high-risk, medium-risk or low-risk suppliers.
The high-risk category comprises suppliers that we have a significant volume with and engaged in activities where there is a higher chance of pollution. The printing industry and stainless steel industry are good examples. So, these would be the suppliers for which we would do a yearly visit to the factory to make sure they are following our supplier code of conduct.
The medium-risk group are suppliers that we work regularly with but are in an industry with a lower chance of pollution, like the plastics industry. So, for these company suppliers, we’ll visit them once every two years, to confer with the management and to make sure there is nothing swept under the carpet.
Since last year, we have been pushing for sustainable consumption. We no longer want to just focus on product safety or product quality. We are currently starting several initiatives where we will work with customers on their current projects to see how we can make them more eco-friendly and more sustainable, from product materials, all the way to packaging. I think for the next few years, we’ll be promoting more sustainable consumption.
I graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a business degree in 1999 and founded DTC Trading in 2001 with my father as he always wanted to start his own business in the gifting industry. Later, we changed the name of the company to DTC World Corporation. We embarked on our sustainability journey in 2016 when we faced pressure to complete a certification process for the company to remain an approved supplier for a key customer. Shortly after, I started noticing a focus on sustainable sourcing among many companies and recognised that we could leverage sustainability as a key business differentiator. Today, we work with clients such as Nestlé, KitKat and Heineken.
As concerns about climate change grew, more clients insisted on only working with business partners that shared a sustainability vision and we have increased our business by 30% from 2018 to 2019. All these sustainability certifications also helped us to go global. Previously, our business was very much within Singapore. Today, our local business accounts for only 30% to 40% and the rest comes from our export market. We were lucky that we started the sustainability journey early.
Businesses that are sustainable attract not only clients but also talent. The new generation of employees is keen on sustainability. They want to work with companies that have sustainable practices and are environmentally responsible.
Always searching for greener alternatives
My team is constantly looking for products that are made from green materials. The latest we found are used coffee grounds. We are working with suppliers that use these coffee grounds, in place of plastics, to come up with items such as tumblers, pens, and brushes. So, it’s upcycling and repurposing. Also, we are now using more rPET material, which is derived from recycled plastic bottles. We use rPET material to create umbrellas, pens and more. Instead of just using virgin materials, we are trying out recycled options to minimise waste.
There are clients who just want the cheapest alternative and disregard the environmental impact of their consumer choices. But we can always offer them the sustainability option and let them know the cost difference. Some may change their mind and be willing to pay a little more to get a green material.
SMEs always have many things on their plate that always seem to be more urgent than sustainability. But we need to look beyond short-term business growth. Many SMEs already have some sustainable practices in place. What is lacking is transforming these into policies and action plans and measuring their performance.
The growing movement towards sustainability in business will offer companies a powerful lever for creating competitive advantage. However, it’s a never-ending journey, so the most important thing is to get started.
The sooner you start, the better it will be for your business.
Ms Cheng Yee Chin’s sustainability drive has not gone unnoticed. In 2021 and 2022, DTC was among the recipients of the Singapore Apex Corporate Sustainability Award and Ecovadis Sustainability Leadership Award. DTC was also listed as one of the high-growth companies in the Asia-Pacific Region and is among the first 12 companies in Singapore to receive the GreenDNA certification in 2020, awarded by the Singapore Environment Council.