We talked to Yaxing (Jacob) Tan of Maker Sustainability Consulting, the first and the only strategy-based sustainable development consulting company in China aiming to help Chinese enterprises outline the sustainability strategy and assist international companies in localization and adaption to actual conditions in China, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Yaxing (Jacob) Tan: Thank you for your care. We are doing great in the face of COVID-19. I have studied abroad for 10 years and had little chance to be with my family. But last year, during home quarantine, we were “trapped” together for almost one month. It is probably the longest time that I’ve been with my parents in the past 10 years. While staying at home, I kept telling them about my work and my life abroad until they were tired of hearing about it.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Maker Sustainability Consulting.
Yaxing (Jacob) Tan: I have unswerving enthusiasm for sustainable development, and it is my wish all the time to lead the sustainable development transformation in China.
In the summer vacation in my third year of middle school, I went to Indonesia to plant trees without telling my parents and my school. It was the first time that I went abroad by myself and exposed myself to a small international community. There, I met volunteers from all over the world, such as Mexico, Iceland, France, and many other countries that I couldn’t name at that time. I felt the most interested when listening to them about their countries and cultures. Every cell of mine was deeply attracted by the vivid world demonstrated by them that was totally different from what I had learnt from TV and books.
After graduating from senior middle school, I chose to pursue further study at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. It is the most international school in Asia and provides bilingual (Japanese and English) courses for students from more than 100 countries. But what attracted me the most was that it is one of the only two universities in the world that confer a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Societies and Cultures, a branch of Sociology.
Later, I got the chance to study in Britain for one year as an exchange student. I became the first Asian entering the London Colney Premier Store of M&S, the largest retailer in Europe, and had the opportunities to participate in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) project “Plan A,” which, as the name suggests, indicates there is no Plan B. In M&S, all production lines are sustainable. On such a basis, our department gathered and trained the homeless in the street in London and offered them accommodation. One month later, some of them became my colleagues and worked very hard in order not to be homeless anymore. I was quite surprised that it was in a foreign country that I realized what “teaching others to fish rather than feeding them fish” is really about.
After graduating from the university, I went backpacking in over 30 countries and regions, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia. During the trip, I saw how business power really helped people at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) and began to think about if there are innovative ways other than traditional charity to realize sustainable development and if it is feasible to pilot in China.
To accumulate professional knowledge and strengthen professional skills, I joined the Tokyo office of a world-leading consulting company immediately after graduation and resigned one year later.
Then I came back to China, and everything got clear. I want to do something enlightening and valuable every day I live. I was not satisfied with the mainstream of sustainable development and consulting and thus decided to establish my own company to promote the transformation of the whole business and advance sustainable development in China to a new high. At the age of 25, I founded Maker Sustainability Consulting (MSC) and formed a team composed of the post-00s generation.
How does Maker Sustainability Consulting innovate?
Yaxing (Jacob) Tan: In 2015, I founded Maker Sustainability Consulting (MSC), the first and the only strategy-based sustainable development consulting company in China aiming to help Chinese enterprises outline the sustainability strategy and assist international companies in localization and adaption to actual conditions in China.
Tencent was our first customer. After five years of development, we have become an industry leader with long credentials and demonstrate the highest innovation level of China in sustainable development.
We’ve served more than 200 leading enterprises at home and abroad in the past five years
We have a global cooperation network covering 95% of social organizations and funds
MSC team now has 30 members and has just set up a branch in Shanghai to provide quality services for Coca Cola, AB InBev, L’ORÉAL, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, State Grid, Tencent, Alibaba, Kuaishou, and other famous enterprises as well as local small and medium-sized enterprises.
As a result of COVID-19, companies both in China and abroad pay more attention to sustainable development, and the demand for sustainable development is also on the rise. Though I don’t think there are specific innovative elements in the consultation process, MSC is considered innovative in the consulting industry in China and even in the world. It may be attributed to the following aspects:
1. We integrate sustainable development with enterprise business closely and make sure the return on investment is obvious. While most enterprises still regard sustainable development as a necessity for compliance or a kind of cost, we are helping other enterprises firmly embed sustainable development in enterprise strategy, management, operation, production, and innovation.
2. We make sustainability highly feasible, easy to understand, and widely applicable in daily life. Our project has influence millions of people in urban as well as rural areas. For example, the “Tencent WeCounty” project was listed as one of the Best Ten Targeted Poverty Alleviation Cases of China, and “People & Data” was selected for the targeted poverty alleviation case base of UNDP.
3. We incubated the Impact Academy based on our consulting cases and data and has developed it into a Chinese version of “Khan Academy” in the field of sustainable development. Now, the Impact Academy has realized over one million views in total and has more than ten thousand followers and over twenty creators at home and abroad.
4. We kept exploring the possibility of sustainable development and future business ecosystem and established the Corporate Social Value Research Institute (CSVRI). The Tencent Corporate Social Responsibility Report, Kuaishou Social Impact Report, Social Value Report of State Grid Yangzhou Power Supply Company, and Social Responsibility Report of China Welfare Lottery compiled by us are considered textbooks for practitioners of sustainable development. We also go deep into vertical research and have published China 2020 Fitness Industry Report, Sustainable Restaurant Guide, and China 2020 Sustainable Fashion Report.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Yaxing (Jacob) Tan: Believe it or not, many Chinese companies, impelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, are looking for sustainable development solutions.
MSC began to deal with some consulting cases about risk management, staff engagement, and strategic transformation. Though such cases were seemingly irrelevant to sustainable development, we were conscious when communicating with CEOs of those enterprises (especially small and medium-sized enterprises) that they were looking for new markets or growth opportunities related to sustainable development.
MSC collaborated with CBN and released the special series What Can Enterprises Do in the Face of the Epidemic Besides Donation. Integrating cases of about 300 enterprises, it was the first special series about Chinese enterprises’ efforts in epidemic control and got four million views. This event surely has brought us more opportunities to cooperate with more companies in sustainable development.
Soon after the outbreak of the epidemic, we saw many enterprises donate money and goods to contribute to epidemic containment. But was it the most effective way? Just then, a big data company found us with the intention to find a more efficient way to fight the epidemic. Considering the company’s core product data covering over 20 provinces and centrally administered municipalities and 60 cities, they integrated the enterprise data with personal data on the platform and realized data exchange between enterprises, which laid a valuable foundation for this epidemic control action.
The data availability depends on the volume and authenticity of data. We helped the company understand the logic and value behind data and perceive social needs and enlightened them to make the best use of data to solve a series of social problems brought by the epidemic. Focusing on the current epidemic condition, operation resumption, epidemic trend, and future impact, this company gave a quick response and soon launched a new product/service integrating data research, model algorithm, and data system solution.
Finally, this big data company made an extraordinary contribution to more efficient epidemic control and, at the same time, also realized tremendous business growth with its product and service conforming to the need of the fight against the epidemic.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Yaxing (Jacob) Tan: Our competitors include traditional report companies and sustainable development teams of large consulting companies.
1. MSC has been cooperating with various vertical industries since last year, attempting to expand our real influence to other circles by means of de-conceptualization, which we have been advocating. We want to use the “native” language of those circles to study and produce reports on specific issues such as sexual harassment in gyms, anorexia, and plant-based meat and interpret them from a sustainable development perspective.
2. We hope to form and share our own methodology in the future. We’ll invest manpower and material resources in industry research and make methodological tools for industry research available for the public. In a sense, we hope to advance the industry of sustainable development consulting by resource sharing.
3. We consider ourselves “explorers of sustainable development” and are determined to make the impossible possible. Taking our new project, for example, we are now working with a game company in early Alzheimer’s screening for the elderly. For a long time, game companies have maintained a negative image in the eyes of many people and are easily connected with some unpleasant words such as “game addiction of minors.” What we are doing now is developing more positive and practical functions of games. It is exactly what I call “gamification of social elements,” by which we hope to destigmatize games and redefine the game market. I believe that if we could draw lessons from this case and apply such experience to educational and medical fields, the social impact will be huge. Actually, in this case, until our idea is really put into practice, few people would believe that sustainable development could be like this and could really be perfectly integrated with business strategy and bring actual business growth. Hence, instead of setting specific goals, we prefer to stand our ground and stick to our development direction and continue to challenge impossibilities of various fields in the next 3-5 years.
Your final thoughts?
Yaxing (Jacob) Tan: China as a developing country is making steady progress in the material economy, and people are getting more and more aware of sustainable development. However, frankly, sustainable development is still an “implicit consensus” in China. When interpreting sustainable development, subjects with different functions may give different explanations. For example, HR may talk about inclusive policy and employer brand, and SC may refer to the green supply chain. That is how apprehension deviation generates.
On the other hand, when putting sustainable development into practice, we concretize this concept and deal with specific problems. For example, when we are fighting against poverty, we call it “poverty alleviation” instead of “sustainable development.” But it does not mean that there’s anything wrong with the concept of “sustainable development,” which is in nature a programmatic direction and could be subdivided into many specific directions. Like other abstract concepts such as “philosophy” and “art,” “sustainable development” itself is hard to be perceived and comprehended.
But the trend tells that this concept is enriched in China in terms of both implementation and interpretation, and such new ideas may even conversely influence sustainable development outside China.
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