Is Australia keeping pace with the transition to a sustainable Asia?

Published: 2 Mar 2017
Author: Andrew Petersen
Type: Insight

The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week that Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has summoned all 113 heads-of-mission back to Australia to, as the Fairfax press put it, “shape the final components of the Turnbull government's new foreign policy”.

With Australia now signed up to the Paris Agreement and adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, this upcoming meeting of our leading diplomats and trade officials provides a unique opportunity for action on trade and aid along the pathway of sustainable growth and the role of business. Particularly across Asia. 


When “Australia in the Asian Century”, the foreign policy white paper of the Gillard government, was released in October 2012 it contained over 30 references to sustainability. The opportunity for Ms Bishop is to re-visit its key insights and recommendations and engage with the challenges of economic, social and environmental change across the region. Which includes Australia.

If it wasn’t already clear, the challenge was laid down to us last week in Sydney at the City of Sydney “Future Asia Business Summit”. The City brought together industry and government leaders to share insights on economic opportunities in China and across Asia.

Featuring Maggie Zhou Managing Director (Australia and New Zealand), Alibaba Group, and a panel of industry experts including Christine Holgate CEO and Managing Director, Blackmores, and David Landers General Manager of International Operations, Austrade, the Summit explored a number of issues including the opportunities and challenges associated with the entry of giant Asian corporations into Australia.

But arguably the most ‘Tweet’ worthy item that came from the Summit was via Ms Zhou. Her key message to a Town Hall full of Sydney’s business elite was “Clean air, water & soil is Australia's next gold mine!” 

And it’s not just Ms Zhou saying things like this. The Wall Street Journal has labelled sustainability as Asian’s “new frontier” It quotes an HSBC executive last year saying “If you want to be taken seriously in the global economy, you have to have an ESG strategy“. It says “stock exchanges, eager to create a level playing field globally, have joined investors in applying pressure to get emerging-markets companies to consider ESG factors”.

So the message has come loud and clear from business in Asia. It has previously been on Australia’s diplomatic agenda. It could be again.

In leveraging these opportunities can Australian business find a common platform of engagement with Asian business community; by identifying and strengthening connections with Asia, building capacity and supporting innovation as key objectives?

One way is for Australian business to recognise the emerging significance of the sustainable development agenda across the Asian region. We have been told loud and clear as recently as last week, in the heart of Australia’s financial capital, Sydney. Whether the issue is air and water pollution resulting in alarming health effects, or rapid urbanization resulting in chronic traffic congestion, the Asian business community is becoming acutely aware of the impacts and dependencies it is having on the region's environmental and societal health. They know it is not only socially responsible, they know it makes business sense.

For its part, Sustainable Business Australia’s remit is to support Australian business in its role to create a sustainable world. It does this in partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and its network of Business Councils across Asia; in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, China, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Japan.

These Business Councils are committed to implementing the guidelines and policies of the scientific outlook on development and establishing a harmonious society. All of the Business Councils are led by business representatives work with government bodies and other experts to explore pathways to platforms for exchange and cooperation among corporations, governments and social communities, aimed at facilitating the development of sustainable business.

SBA, as the Australian Network Partner of the WBCSD, is an important conduit to its fellow Business Councils throughout the Global Network, including those in the Asian Region. If you are interested in engaging with this Network contact

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