Concern about the environment has seldom ranked high among Hong Kong companies. Now, with new international regulations being systematically introduced and a greater awareness of the need for sustainability, the tide may be starting to turn. The realisation is also dawning that better environmental practices and bigger profits go hand in hand.
"There is an incorrect view that following good environmental policies costs more," says Stanedy Yue, environmental programme manager for BG Home Entertainment Networks, a division of Philips Consumer Electronics. "If you look at costs on their own there may be an uplift but, in the long run, having a structured environmental programme is beneficial for the organisation in many ways."
As evidence, Mr Yue can point to his company's latest flat screen TVs and DVDs, which are currently the best-selling models in Hong Kong, and are also the most green products available. They are rated the "best of the best" in terms of energy efficiency and environmental impact and, as such, exemplify the success of Mr Yue's mission -to make Philips an acknowledged world leader in sustainability.
After graduating in 1991 with a higher diploma in chemical technology from the Hong Kong Polytechnic, Mr Yue's first two jobs were with companies that manufactured PCBs (printed circuit boards). As an engineer, he took care of everything along the production line and gained hands-on experience of process control and quality assurance.
Unfortunately, he also learned that the manufacture of PCBs, with its emissions of toxic gas and dependence on heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and lead, was regarded as one of the worst industries in terms of pollution.
The coming challenge in environmental protection is sustainability
Reacting to this, he convinced his employers to undertake more effective treatment of effluents and to reduce air emissions. "They started to implement cleaner production techniques, use different materials and pay closer attention to processes and resource management," he explains. It was a first step, but Mr Yue can now see it as a turning point for factories in South China and for his own career.
In 1996, an opportunity came up that was too good to miss. "Philips was taking part in a government-backed pilot programme to improve environmental practices and I was given management control for its implementation," he recalls.
Mr Yue began by obtaining the internationally recognised ISO14001 certification to cover company activities in Hong Kong and China. This involved introducing management systems which took account of the environmental impact of the business, and aimed to reduce it wherever possible. Processes were adjusted and suppliers were also obliged to follow the same practices. Regular audits were conducted to ensure there were no slip-ups.
"In the past, people only looked at the impact of manufacturing but we now look at the full life cycle of the product," says Mr Yue. "Materials from suppliers must be free of all hazardous substances, the products must be energy efficient, and we make sure they create no problems after disposal."
On the manufacturing side, consistent efforts are still being made to cut the consumption of water and energy. The use of solar power in factories is being investigated and there are plans to eliminate the use of all ozone-depleting chemicals. These measures are being applied worldwide and a growing collection of local and international awards bears testimony to the company's success. The most renowned award they achieved in environmental performance was the Grand Award in 2002 HK Award for Industry.
Room to improve
Looking ahead, Mr Yue sees further room for improvement. "The coming challenge is sustainability," he notes. "In particular, we are looking at packaging to find ways to make it as small as possible. This will reduce the environmental impact of what is discarded and cut logistics costs."
The environmental industry in Hong Kong is still relatively small but is predicted to grow fast. Most of those who work full-time as environmental engineers have graduated in a scientific discipline though this is by no means a prerequisite. "To do well in this field, the most important thing is to be business-minded and to have a good grasp of management concepts," says Mr Yue. "As you have to deal with all types of suppliers, language skills and an international outlook are also vital."
Already overseeing a team of around 10, he expects employment opportunities to increase. Tighter regulations will be enforced in Europe in mid-2006 and have a knock-on effect on suppliers and business partners around the world. Hong Kong companies will have to prepare for the changes and a logical first step for many will be to qualify for ISO14001 certification.
Mr Yue is particularly encouraged by how aware primary and secondary students have become about the environment and he has done much to promote greater community awareness with regular talks to universities and interest groups. "My vision is for worldwide environmental improvement," he says. "And, by focusing on our own products and minimising their impact in global markets via our green flagship programme, we know we can make a difference."
As industrial practices in mainland China are increasingly governed by international standards, the demand for environmental engineers is sure to grow. Mr Yue points out, however, that anyone planning to relocate from Hong Kong should be aware of the potential difficulties. "There are different management structures and different levels of control in China," he explains. "You need to be coached by the right people to understand these fully."
Good language skills are essential and at least three to five years' practical work experience is recommended. "It is better for fresh graduates to start building a career in Hong Kong," he adds. "This also gives a chance to learn more about the international aspects of the business."
The way ahead
- Language skills and an international outlook are vital
- Focus on green products and minimise their impact in
- Look to China but hone your initial skills in Hong Kong