“It’s very easy to join the dots in my story. Nothing spectacular. I’m a local born and bred. My childhood was spent in what we call a sub-divided flat in Mong Kok. It was a Tong-style apartment, shared with an extended family of approximately twenty people. My direct family had only about 70 square feet for four persons.”
She is definitely far from ordinary. Certainly not the usual corporate lady in senior management that one meets. Fifteen minutes into our conversation, I am rapt by her boundless energy, her winning smile and her compelling story. This down to earth lady sitting in front of me is Suzanne Cheung, Head of Sustainability at Swire Coca-Cola HK and a mother of two teenage kids.
Suzanne, I was soon to learn, was born to be a combatant and a champion to do the right thing. From a very humble upbringing, she studied hard to earn herself the grades to secure the better future her parents dreamed for her. “My childhood was not a bed of roses,” Suzanne explained, “It toughened me up. It also made me appreciate all that I have today. I am eternally grateful for my parents who went beyond their means to save up for my education and a better life”.
In Pic: Photo taken when I first started as Graduate Environmental Scientist
For higher studies, Suzanne pursued environmental science at The University of Hong Kong, which at the time was a very new and bold course. On graduating , unlike present times, there were hardly any jobs in this field. So, she started looking in other fields that were recruiting and at one point considered joining the Hong Kong Police Force. Fortunately for us and the planet, Suzanne did not end up arresting criminals but instead eventually landed a job in the area that she had studied for thus beginning her personal journey, which resonates with her true passion and calling.
From thereon, Suzanne’s career has been dedicated to environmental protection and sustainability. Since her early studies at university, Suzanne’s drive has propelled her to be an expert in environmental sustainability covering policy advocacy, environmental impact assessment and public awareness campaigning. A tireless green crusader, she realized one way of change is to influence consumer purchasing practices and how to promote environmentally preferable products that do less damage to the eco-system, a role that aligns closely with her current position at Swire Coca-Cola HK.
In Pic: Suzanne's team with close partners from New Life Plastics Ltd.
Suzanne joined Swire Coca-Cola HK two years ago; and Swire Coca-Cola is the fifth largest bottling partner of The Coca-Cola Company and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the conglomerate Swire Pacific which includes household brand names like Taikoo Sugar, Swire Properties and the airline operator Cathay Pacific.
So, what does sustainability mean for Suzanne, as the person responsible for this challenging topic in a multinational corporation? “For me sustainability is a philosophy. To embrace corporate sustainability is to uphold the choice in striking a balance between formulating company strategy and making operational decisions, and not creating negative impacts on the environment and society. This lies at the heart of environmental, social and governance (ESG) which is the lodestone for all responsible businesses. ”.
In Pic: Sharing professional views at the Green Council 2020 meeting
I ask Suzanne to describe a concrete example of this philosophy. Without hesitation she speaks about the Reverse Vending Machines (RVM) scheme, which is evidently very dear to her heart.
To encourage the public to recycle plastic beverage bottles properly, Swire Coca-Cola HK has placed RVMs at different locations across Hong Kong. For every beverage bottle returned via the RVMs, the returnee receives a small cash rebate via his or her Octopus card and Swire Coca-Cola HK furthermore donates the equivalent amount to local charities. Under this programme, it is not about giving or getting a rebate but helping to jumpstart a meaningful and robust partnership with an important key stakeholder, the Hong Kong public.
For Suzanne, the pride in being a key part of ‘brains’ team behind the concept and execution of this innovative scheme in Hong Kong is endearing. “Sometimes the private sector has to set the tone”, Suzanne continues. Given the successful testing and implementation of this campaign, the Hong Kong government has taken up the idea and is now rolling out more RVMs across the whole of Hong Kong. Know more about this scheme in the link here.
In Pic: Swire Coca-Cola HK has placed RVMs at different locations across Hong Kong
Additionally, Suzanne says “With the application of scientific principles together with listening to feedback from relevant stakeholders, Swire Coca-Cola constantly strives to make its packaging more environmentally friendly. For example, Sprite switched the color of plastic material used for their bottles from green to clear last year. This was an important strategic decision as the green color of Sprite bottles was a strong part of brand identity. Despite that, we changed to transparent plastic bottles because recyclers told us that clear plastic has higher recyclability. This way we improve product recycling rates and promulgate the ‘circular economy’, which means we can transform used packaging into raw materials for remanufacturing and at the same time reduce carbon emissions thereafter .”
With her vast knowledge and practical experience in sustainability, what advice would Suzanne like to give to those looking to get involved in this area? Suzanne recommends connecting with others working in this space using social networks like LinkedIn. “Things in sustainability are just starting to be exciting in Asia. Whichever area you work in, you can contribute to environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects. Get exposed to talks and conferences that are freely available these days online. It will help you build up networks and gain an understanding of what is going on out there. Or you can also get engaged either through volunteering or acquiring knowledge first, which could be through the Continuing Professional Development program for example”.
Suzanne Cheung doesn’t stop at working just on beverage packaging at Swire Coca-Cola HK. Outside of work, her life extends to volunteering her time to share experience, network connections and know-how with a number of student groups, environmental start-ups, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Enactus, ESG Matters, Drink Without Waste and many more. Her own background as a former NGO leader and a seasoned corporate sustainability professional makes her the ideal mentor to any aspiring young person seeking to make a difference today.
This remarkable lady’s generosity is overwhelming. One thing that is clear to me is that Suzanne Cheung is a name here to stay for many more years in the sustainability landscape. “Thank God!”, I can hear the planet say 😊!