Organisations, people and the environment: an interview with Dr Glenn Frommer, MTR

Dr Glenn Frommer retires this year from Mass Transit Railway Corporation Ltd (MTR) based in Hong Kong as Head of Corporate Sustainability.  He is best known to many as a pioneer in sustainability reporting. With Glenn at the helm MTR has received many accolades for its sustainability efforts, including an AA rating by the RepuTex ESG Data Service and being the first company in China to report and be included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and FTSE4Good index. Glenn spoke with Carol Adams about the importance of values, people, patience and persistence in organisational change towards sustainability.

During his 21 year career with MTR Glenn has developed internationally recognised sustainability reports, led ISO 14001 certifications and championed environmental impact assessments, stakeholder engagement and achieved significant energy savings for the operating railway.   He has a Doctorate from Stanford University in aerospace sciences (yes, that’s rocket science) and was a Fulbright Fellow in Denmark.

What do you think about the level of responsibility and accountability by companies for their social and environmental impacts?  

I honestly believe that companies are getting away with murder (of the planet).  Accountability goes beyond saying what a company’s financial performance is, what their social and environmental impacts are and what they are using in terms of natural resources.  We only have one planet and the outcome of current behaviour will be a collapse of social and eco systems.

Sustainable development is not about business sustainability or business continuity.

No one is monitoring company ‘report cards’.  I would like to see an intra- governmental body monitoring company social and environmental performance. Perhaps as a start each city could look at their performance and monitor the performance of companies within its boundary.

The key measures they should look at are renewables, waste and quality of life.  I like the simplicity of the Natural Step principles. The GRI has too many indicators. We need to focus on the really important things, like people and quality of life.

What role does society as a whole play in sustainable transformation and how do you think attitudes have changed over your career?

I see people becoming more intolerant about just about everything and significantly less charitable. We have less patience. Whatever we want, we want it now, and we generally do not share.  We don’t care about quality of goods we buy.  We buy poor quality goods which don’t last – an extremely wasteful process, using up natural resources.   Mobile phone companies, for example, should be required to take back, and re-use old ones without sending them to landfill.  We are a throwaway society and what we throw away is not naturally decomposable.  Most people have loads of ball point pens in their drawers. I have been using the same set of pens for 30 years. We are also becoming increasingly schizophrenic; we behave one way at work and a totally different way at home. That cannot be healthy.

What have been the challenges of effecting change in the corporate sphere?

I am only one person in a very big company.  I pick my battles carefully and the battles I pick, I win.  It has taken me five years to get agreement to have a carbon reduction target.  It eventually happened when our biggest investor asked if we had one.  That was unprompted.   Prior to that we had been reporting emissions since 2006 and were able to show what our performance was.  We had the data audited so that people internally had confidence in it.  I attended conferences and was able to circulate information about what other companies were doing selectively to senior people.  So when that investor asked the question that prompted action, we were ready to respond.

Timing is important.  When MTR went public in 2000 there was a board meeting with external observers asking questions about sustainability performance.   I saw the Chairman the following day and said ‘What if we put all the data in one report and called it a sustainability report?’   The Chairman said “Can’t argue with motherhood and apple pie.  Go ahead.” We developed the first sustainability report in China.

I read extensively and when I ask for something I am very well informed.  I am very well connected to local and international groups.  I am a past chair of the International Association of Public Transport’s (UITP) Sustainable Development Commission, the Hong Kong Institute of Environmental Impact Assessment (HKIEIA) and the past Chair of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce Sustainability and Environmental Committee.  Being connected is important. Social interactions are important.

When I developed a risk approach to sustainability reporting and developed stakeholder engagement, I got other departments in the company to do the work so that I didn’t get accused of empire building.  The issue is to get the stuff done and get it embedded.  There is of course resistance, but if you are informed and prepared the door does eventually open.

When we did the Ngong Ping Cable Car project I suggested ‘Why don’t we set up a sustainability advisory board and have a university professor chair it?  I got the money to do it in 2001and that was the start of the modern attitude to stakeholder engagement at the MTR.

To what extent have companies changed in the direction you’d like them to over your career?  What more needs to be done?

Some companies are really trying to do things differently.  But the focus tends to be on being less bad.  Companies I admire include Interface, GE, Unilever and Natura.

How have you reconciled all this with working in the corporate world yourself?

I’ve insisted that my staff spend time with each other – time set aside for social activities in work time.  I try to help staff develop their life skills.  I have had regular one to one meetings with my staff to work out what their life, family, training etc needs are and how we can achieve these. It is important that people balance their priorities and feel connected. I would love to see Apps that would connect people around the world in focussing on what’s important to balance their lives.

I have been a vegetarian for more than 40 years. I was studying medicine, anatomy and one night I saw the chicken leg I was eating in a very different light; so much for meat.  I’m also a religious person, which supports my purpose and gives me a perspective of humility.

What has been the contribution you are most proud of making?

Two things: Seeing the people I work with grow the way I have, and the start of sustainability reporting in China.

On the subject of sustainability reporting, what do you think of the GRI’s journey?

“What a long strange trip it’s been”!  We get so involved in the detail of the reporting we don’t understand why it’s of value to the company we work for.  The key is materiality of the data. G4 is better at addressing my key concerns, but it has taken a long time. I look to reporting with more impact in the future.

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Comments

  1. Patrick Mc says:

    Thanks for sharing the interview, great to get Glenn’s perspectives after such a full career. I’m sure (hoping) that we will still hear from him though, being involved in another capacity.

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