Chris Davis is a freelance journalist who writes for business titles in Asia

The return of rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins – popularly known as pink dolphins – to Hong Kong waters has put the overlap of business and sustainability issues in the public domain.

Dolphin numbers have spiked by as much as 30% since March this year, a jump that environmental scientists are attributing to the decline in marine traffic as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. As businesses reshape themselves and the economy recovers, this has led to the broader question being asked: could a pod of Disneyesque dolphins be the catalyst for long-term sustainability?

The United Nations has suggested that businesses and countries should use the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to implement recovery plans that will reverse current trends in ways that will contribute to a more sustainable future.

Whether they like it or not, those who look at sustainability as merely a way to manage reputational risk may find themselves nudged towards implementing more sustainable initiatives. Recent Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX) rule changes have elevated companies’ ESG (environmental, social and governance) responsibilities, which include sustainability-related topics, to board-level.

Putting sustainability further into the spotlight, in June the HKEX announced plans to launch a Sustainable and Green Exchange (Stage). Stage is a first-of-its-kind platform intended to act as a central hub for data and information on sustainable and green finance in Asia.

As well as a sustainable finance education and advocacy platform, Stage will offer access to a comprehensive database of sustainable and green investment options available in Hong Kong’s securities markets.

Shift in sentiment

The timing coincides with what looks like a change in Hong Kong investor behaviour. A recent Schroder global investor report found that 47% of more than 23,000 investors, including respondents from Hong Kong, favour sustainable funds because of the wider environmental impact, and 42% felt that such investments are likely to offer higher returns.

As businesses reshape themselves and the economy recovers, could a pod of Disneyesque dolphins be the catalyst for long-term sustainability?

Schroder is not the only organisation looking at sustainability issues. At the annual conference of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers at the end of September, almost every panellist and keynote speaker spoke about sustainability. There was even mention of a ‘triple bottom line’ model that gives equal weighting to people, planet and profit.

What the bankers seem to be saying is that if businesses want to receive full support from their banks, they need to adapt their financial and non-financial strategies towards long-term sustainability.

Adding further clout to the importance of sustainability was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surprise announcement to the United Nations General Assembly in September that China would cut its net carbon emissions to zero within 40 years. For accountants with clients in Hong Kong SAR, many of which have business operations in mainland China, this creates fresh opportunities to help those clients formulate sustainable strategies and communicate to stakeholders the sustainable business choices they make.

At a time when previously unthinkable business strategies have become the new normal, could sustainability inspire a new level of corporate creativity and innovation? Meanwhile, for Hong Kong’s pink dolphins, which really are impressively pink, sustainability could simply mean the freedom to swim in their home waters.