Nishadi Liyanage is a sustainability and risk management professional. She is currently Assistant Manager of MAS KREEDA, managing social sustainability initiatives, such as gender equality, disability inclusion, social responsibility projects, and sustainability reporting. She is an alumna of the University of Sydney and an Australia Awards scholarship recipient. In this interview with Women Talk, Nishadi talks about the interconnected components of social, financial, and environmental sustainability, the significance of managing sustainable corporates, how women can benefit from sustainable initiatives, and why sustainability reporting should be made mandatory for businesses.
You are an expert in managing social sustainability initiatives and sustainability reporting. What drew you towards this area of work?
Going back to my school days, I was a part of an active Interact Club where we conducted a lot of social and environmental initiatives. This was where I drew my initial inspiration from. Although the norm is if you get really good results for your O’Levels, you do medicine or math, but for me, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something in the area of social work and the environment. So, I pursued the arts and geography.
I was really interested in the subject area of geography. Even at university, I pursued that. I got an internship at the UN Development Program, which was a small grants program that was partly funded by the Global Environment Facility. The UN agency funded projects related to sustainable development, conducted by local non-governmental organisations and community based organisations, and also monitored the same. At that time, in 2007, not many knew what sustainability really meant. For me, it was an enlightening period. It was an early opportunity to work in sustainable development.
After pursuing geography at university and completing CIM, I worked in eco-tourism. That is how I was further drawn towards this area of work.
Then I went to study in Australia for my master’s in sustainability. It was then that I realised that sustainability was not in silos (environment and social), but an integrated subject.
Currently you manage social sustainability initiatives such as gender equality and female empowerment, disability inclusion, social responsibility projects and sustainability reporting across 12 apparel manufacturing plants of MAS Holdings in Sri Lanka, India and Jordan. What kind of work does it involve in terms of managing these social sustainability initiatives?
At MAS, we have two pillars under the umbrella of sustainable business – environmental and social sustainability. Under social sustainability, we have various initiatives which we have aligned to the MAS sustainability strategy as well as to Nike strategies because MAS KREEDA is a dedicated supply chain partner for Nike. Nike has set out very high standards and is quite stringent in terms of compliance and sustainability. There are a lot of rules and goals that we need to meet to keep that business.
MAS, as a responsible business, also has 2025 goals to be met in these areas. For example, in terms of gender equality and female empowerment we have a program called Women Go Beyond. The goal under this initiative would be for us to have a one to one ratio [of gender equality] in all management categories by 2025. This means we would have 50-50 in terms of male and female in management by 2025, which is a really challenging goal to achieve. But we are doing a lot of work to achieve this goal. Considering the fact that we have about 75 to 80 percent female staff in the industry, it only makes sense to have these sort of programs.
We also have quite a few employees with disability. Across MAS, we have approximately 500 employees with disabilities, with the majority being hearing impaired. We also have quite a lot of employees with disabilities in the North that are physically impaired because of the war. We have programs for them as well. For example, in case of an emergency evacuation process each employee with disability has two buddies to take care of them. We have a sign language instructor who comes into the factory every month to understand what their issues are. We have special trainings and an annual get together for them. We are striving to be a disability friendly work place.
We also have social responsibility projects that we conduct in aid of the various communities that we are part of. MAS is known for doing a lot of community service projects. You need a social license to operate, especially when it comes to standalone factories, unlike in the Export Processing Zones. For example, we have a factory in Mahiyanganaya and there is a little ecosystem of vendors and a little town that is built around it. The Mahiyanganaya factory is probably one of the factories where we have the least turnover because there is not much opportunity in that area. The indirect economic benefit of setting up factories in very rural areas is visible in this case.
We also do a lot of work on mental health. We have counselling programs at the factories and also at the offices in Colombo where we have a dedicated counsellor at each of the premises. If anyone has an issue, personal or work-related, they can meet the counsellor.
Finally, we have embarked on sustainability reporting. As a private company, there is no mandate to be transparent and report on these matters, unlike in a public listed company where at least the financials must be reported. But here we are starting to do a sustainability report.
As one of the largest employers in the country, it only makes sense to have a good impact on the economy, especially the rural economy, and that is what they have done. All of the initiatives that I just mentioned come under the pillar of social sustainability.
Why should businesses and enterprises look at sustainability?
I think there is a misconception about what sustainability really is. People think it is only about saving the planet or the environment. But it is actually about maintaining the resources we have for a longer period of time without compromising the future generations’ ability to utilize the same. This means you have to use your natural resources and financial, human, social and relationship capital in a more sustainable way.
For example, if there was no clean air to breathe there won’t be people and with no people, there won’t be workers, management or a market for your products/services. Corporate sustainability is sustaining the business for a longer time, so it makes business sense to think about all the risks involved – including the non-financial ones.
Sustainability is essentially a risk management framework. Usually, people only think of financial risk when we speak of risk management but nowadays non-financial risk maybe far greater and also ultimately contribute to financial risk. For example, the risk of natural disasters. A sudden tsunami or extreme flooding might result in our factories being submerged. Isn’t that a risk? Do we have a business continuity plan? What about risks related to the labour force? The informal sector is increasing and people are not willing to do a formal job. All of this is what sustainability is – ensuring that the business is sustainable for a longer period of time. So, it definitely makes sense for a business to look at sustainability as a whole.
Is social sustainability different from the overall concept of sustainability?
Social sustainability is just one component of sustainability. Like I said, most businesses need a social license to operate. You need to have a good relationship with your communities. If you have a good relationship with the surrounding communities, it creates a good brand image and even helps you with your recruitment process.
I do not think MAS has any issues in that sense because a lot of community projects are being conducted by the company. It makes business sense. For example, in Sri Lanka, over 50 percent of the population is women. You cannot really think about a workforce without considering that 50 percent, especially in the apparel industry. So, we have mechanisms like flexible working arrangements, crèche facilities etc. to support working women and men. There could also be men who have working wives who could drop off their kid at our MAS crèche facilities. So, it makes business sense to be socially conscious.
When it comes to disability inclusion, the Ministry of Health says that, by 2030, 25 percent of the population in Sri Lanka may be disabled because of old age and road accidents. This is all human capital. If we have an inclusive work place, we can actually tap into this capital and provide opportunities to even those persons with disabilities.
The bottom line is, MAS has a workforce of over 95,000; possibly the largest private sector organisation in the nation. I think we have a responsibility as well to give back to the society and this is being done through all these social sustainability initiatives that I mentioned.
What does it mean to be a woman in the corporate sector and running all these initiatives in terms of gender equality and female empowerment?
I have always had very supportive bosses who are women and even the men have been very inclusive and endorsing of this sort of gender equality initiatives. It has not really been difficult for me, but of course there have been instances of backlashes. A lot of the time, I get feedback about positive discrimination. For example, under this Women Go Beyond program, women are the focus. So we have to ensure that we always have the right data to back our arguments. It has been a learning curve for me because I am not a gender specialist and it is a new area of work for me as well. My focus is more on sustainability with more inclination towards the environment side. What you need to understand is that there is always going to be somebody saying something against the work you are doing with good intension and that is the challenge you have to take and work on.
We have direct targets and quotas to increase women in management and these are bold moves. Not all companies can actually take the lead and drive such projects. Having that backing from the top management itself has been really helpful. However, in Sri Lanka, it is really difficult to achieve and initiate gender equality programs because of the cultural barriers that we have; the very patriarchal society that we live in.
I have noticed that there are personal barriers and barriers related to the work environment. We as a company have tried a lot to minimize the latter. We have flexible working arrangements where people can telecommute or work staggered hours, we have provided crèche facilities for our employees, we provide free transportation to most of our employees where they can even bring their child in the vehicle with them and drop them off at the crèche. That flexibility is given to them
However, as I mentioned earlier, there are personal barriers where women undermine themselves and think they are not capable enough. It is more difficult for us to change things in a personal setting although we have awareness programs conducted at factory level, in all languages. We inform workers about having a goal for themselves; being independent, and progressing in their career. We conduct English and computer classes at the factory, for people who want to take the opportunity and grow in their career. We create awareness on gender based violence and harassment at the workplace and have grievance mechanisms in place for our employees. Personal commitment is also required when it comes to career advancement and we try our best to motivate our employees and give equal opportunity to the females.
I think a lot has changed over the years. There is a lot more to do as well, but this is a good start.
You have a Master’s degree in sustainability from the University of Sydney, a Bachelor’s of social sciences from the University of Colombo. And a Diploma in Marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). How does your education connect with the current work that you do?
When I did my Bachelor’s at the University of Colombo, I had a very narrow view of what sustainability was. I thought it was very much focused on the environment. I had a lot of questions to answer while pursuing what I enjoyed and was passionate about – especially the question on who’s going to pay me to be a geographer. This is when I thought of having a backup plan. So, I did a course at CIM.
Completing CIM really helped me as a professional. It is a qualification which I actually put to good use up-to-date. As a professional, you need to market yourself and the marketing qualification really helped me in doing so, especially because I stepped into the corporate sector from the development sector.
Going to Sydney was the game changer for me. My course was a very unique one, which was based at the science faculty, while having lectures at almost all other faculties. For example, the policy related subject was based at the law faculty, the subject on how sustainability affects population and health was at the medical faculty, the subject on energy was at the engineering faculty, a subject on food security at the agriculture faculty etc. For somebody who did arts, going to medical faculty was, for me, a big deal. Overall, it was an amazing experience.
I understood why they structured the course that way – it was because sustainability focuses on all of these areas as it is interconnected. You cannot really look at a solution without looking into everything that it impacts. If you look at the environment without thinking about the social impact, you will just help the environment and there will be a huge repercussion socially. It is not easy to find sustainable solutions because you need to look at the entire lifecycle; from the point of creation to disposing it properly.
Undoubtedly, the Master’s course changed my understanding of sustainability and has really assisted me in the work I currently do.
You received an Australia Awards scholarship to do your Master’s. You have also worked extensively with the Sri Lanka Association of Australia Awards Alumni (SLAAAA). What is the significance of the work that SLAAAA does in terms of development and voluntary activities?
I am actually really grateful for the scholarship because I would never have been able to study in Australia, if not for it. The reason why I joined the Alumni Association was to give back to the community who supported my education. Also, I have always been a busy-body! I have been able to juggle quite a lot of extracurricular activities since school days. Even at school, I used to volunteer a lot and I was the Secretary of the Interact Club. As mentioned earlier, Interact was my true inspiration. Through SLAAAA, I am reliving my volunteering days at school.
Last year, we organized a sustainability forum “The Big Shift” which we pulled off really well. The forum brought together subject experts in sustainable construction, sustainable transportation, waste management and multi-stakeholder partnerships – all focusing on rethinking sustainable urban solutions for Sri Lanka. Best practices and knowledge were shared among over 100 participants and we managed to make close to LKR 800,000 in profit and use that money to help people, especially kids with their education. We are yet to present the proceedings with policy makers of the country, and if used in decision making, it would seriously have a great impact on sustainable development in Sri Lanka.
I want to add that volunteering gives me purpose and makes you happy. I am really blessed because even my work is very purposeful.
You are also involved with initiatives such as Global Shapers, Rotaract Club, and a number of volunteer positions with the United Nations. Could you elaborate on these activist and voluntary experiences?
I try to link everything to sustainability whenever possible because it is such a vast topic that celebrates interconnectedness. After I did my Master’s thesis on sustainability education, I became really passionate about teaching kids about sustainability because you can make a big change in their lives from a really young age. I started doing pro bono one to two-hour sessions at montessoris and schools. I am trying to continue that this year as well.
The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network offers local pathways fellowships to empower young people globally to create sustainable solutions. I was offered a fellowship last year for my project on sustainability education. Through the fellowship I was able to connect with a lot of like-minded individuals and share ideas and best practices on the same cause. As an individual, there is only so much you can do, but if you draw from other people’s experiences, and also work together as teams, solutions may be easier to implement.
I have recently been invited to be part of the Global Shapers community and for the next five years, I will be lucky enough to be a Global Shaper. As I am still new to this community, I am part of the currently ongoing projects focused on resolving social issues. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to continue my work on education for sustainability through the Global Shapers community.
So, what is the way forward in sustainability management in Sri Lanka?
I think sustainability reporting should be made mandatory to begin with. Currently people do not see the need or the business case to have a sustainability management framework in an organisation. Even for listed companies, currently it is not compulsory to report on non-financials. It is just the financials that is mandatory. If they make sustainability reporting mandatory, even to start with the basics and look at non-financials as well, that will be a really good step.
Another huge step in terms of sustainability for the entire population is that we really need to restructure our education system. It has to incorporate the interconnectedness of sustainability, from an early childhood stage. We have always resorted to this plastering sort of work when it comes to policy decisions. Recently they have come up with a sustainable consumption and production policy, under which they are going to have one elective module at university level. That sort of thing does not really work. There has to be a proper structured way of teaching sustainability from early childhood; that is when it gets really engrained into their thinking and habits. For example, if we have always been taught to litter from a really early age, and suddenly when you come to university you are told not to, what are the chances of you changing? So education becomes pivotal in ensuring that we create considerate citizens who understand that unsustainable development will be short-lived.
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage
Date of Interview: 9 February 2018