An interview with Jessica Cheam, Editor and Founder of Eco-Business
03 May 2016

​Here, we talk to Jessica Cheam, experienced journalist in business, politics and the environment, and founder of the award-winning online publication for Asia Pacific's sustainable business community – Eco-Business.
Can you explain a little more about Eco-Business and how it came about?
I studied journalism in London and cut my teeth in newsrooms there before returning to Singapore in a full-time role at the national newspaper covering politics, business and environment. In 2009, I started Eco-Business in Singapore as an experiment just as world leaders gathered in Copenhagen for the UN climate change summit that put the issue on the world map for the first time. Then, sustainable business and sustainable development issues were rarely covered by Asian media and I felt there was a need for a platform that dedicated itself to it. I also saw businesses as a big part of both the problem and solution, hence the website’s focus on business.
 
My work now involves covering responsible business and sustainable development stories in the region and leading editorial projects that deepen discussions on these issues. The world has changed radically since 2009; the recent historic Paris Agreement is just one example of what keeps me excited about the work we do.

What do you see as the main issues in sustainability right now and why?
Sustainability has become a mainstream issue on the global business agenda, and the biggest challenge now is no longer raising awareness, but how to translate this into pragmatic, realistic business strategies that can be implemented and that create value for societies.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Asia, where the concept was hardly uttered in conferences or board rooms just a few years ago. But today, business leaders here are increasingly recognizing its value and relevance, partly thanks to global treaties such as Paris Agreement and the UN SDGs, and also because of the growing importance of trust and transparency in global markets. We see businesses seeking out more information, finding the right strategies and starting to change the way they operate.
 
At the height of the global economic crisis, a tremendous amount of investment capital was pulled out of emerging markets. The ASEAN region was an exception and remained an attractive prospect for foreign direct investment. Why do you think this is the case?
ASEAN offers a compelling growth story. Markets in developed countries are pretty saturated, but in Southeast Asia, many of these countries are only just emerging and are rapidly developing. The region is considered relatively stable (compared to the Middle East, Africa) politically and economically and they are home to a young population hungry for work and opportunities. Businesses looking to expand will naturally be drawn here. But the crucial thing is to ensure that they grow in a responsible manner – this will require all parties from government to businesses to civil society to be involved.
 
What advice do you have for businesses that are considering investing in Asia? What sustainability risks do they need to aware of as they consider investment targets?
Do your homework, do your due diligence. Not all Asian markets are created equal, and all of them have their own cultural norms and quirks that will determine how you should do business. Also, there are varying standards of regulations across the region and businesses should not be fooled into thinking they will benefit from investing in markets with lax regulation – whether social, environmental or governance related – because very quickly this will come back and bite you. The population, though young, is increasingly discerning and will not tolerate unethical or sub-standard business practices. There are also many watchdog organizations across the region watching developments closely.
 
Why has Eco-Business decided to become a media partner for the 5th GRI Global Conference?
GRI has, for two decades, been pushing the boundaries on sustainability issues and reporting, and it continues to be relevant to businesses across the world. We see ourselves as perfectly aligned with the organization with similar objectives in helping businesses understand why sustainability is important, and enabling them to locate the right tools that will help them.
 
The first plenary session at the GRI Global Conference asks the question “20 years on: Are we making a difference?” What do you think?
Yes. Just look at the number of jurisdictions across the world that are now mandating sustainability reporting, and demanding increasing levels of transparency for business. GRI has played a key role in driving this agenda and we hope it will continue to do so, even more aggressively in Asia where it is of utmost importance.