Wang Shi is a respected leader and entrepreneur in business and environmental philanthropy. He is the Founder and Honorary Chairman of China Vanke Co., Ltd., one of the world’s largest real estate developers, and a Fortune 500 company. After retiring, he devoted himself to Vanke Foundation’s environmental philanthropy work. Ronnie C. Chan, Co-Founder and Chair of the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS), had a conversation with Wang Shi in December 2021 to understand his work in environmental philanthropy and his recommendations for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) working to create a sustainable world.
Hello, Wang Shi. You are one of the most representative Chinese entrepreneurs in environmental protection, and I am glad to have you here to share your experience with us. How did you become interested in the environment, could you share the story behind it?
Chinese people have an intimate connection with nature, and I am no exception. Part of me was influenced by my father. He came from the countryside and was very fond of nature. The hallway in our home was filled with plants and flowers, and as a child, I saw different kinds of plants every morning when I woke up. Besides, I’ve always enjoyed outdoor activities such as hiking and climbing. All of these experiences have led me to have a fondness for nature. The turning point was in 2002 when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa). I read about this mountain in a Hemingway novel. The high-altitude, snow-capped mountains are supposed to be covered in snow all-year-round, but unexpectedly, I found that there was no snow when I climbed to the top. Another time when I was in Antarctica, I stood shirtless at the pole for 20 minutes, and was again surprised that it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be.
Afterwards, I began to learn about the reasons behind these phenomena, such as global warming, China’s carbon emissions, deforestation, and other serious environmental issues. It was then that I started to think, “what does all of this have to do with me, with China, and with Chinese entrepreneurs?” In 2004, I and a hundred other entrepreneurs launched the Alashan SEE Ecological Association, the largest private environmental organization formed by entrepreneurs in China.
What role do you think Chinese companies can play in the field of environmental protection?
There are two aspects for corporates to consider: First of all, your business products must meet environmental standards. Enterprises should be self-disciplined, and that is the bottom line. In fact, in the current environment, just meeting the bottom line is not enough. You need to take the initiative to actively pursue green transformation. Secondly, corporates should play a greater role in the public sector. In China, there are three forces driving society forward: the government, enterprises, and NGOs. Among these, I think enterprises should play a more important role because they are profit makers and should emulate the values of wealth creators. At the same time, enterprises also have a stronger ability to mobilize organizations and support the development of NGOs.
You’re probably referring to the larger companies’ roles, but what about the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)? How can they participate?
Perhaps it is more about how to use NGOs to establish relationships with various industries and societies to drive green development. For example, the China Textile Association does not have too many large enterprises as members, but rather they have about 230,000 SMEs. Although the textile industry is one of the main contributors to pollution, it is doing very well in environmental protection for two reasons. First is the pressure from the international community. Many Chinese companies are suppliers to international brands, and most of them have a strong awareness of environmental protection and requirements. If the requirements are not met, they will simply not place any orders. Secondly, the textile industry is one of the first to set up a “corporate citizenship office,” which greatly propelled the industry to move in a green direction and now the concept of pursuing green development is aligned among corporates in the textile industry.
再譬如说我所在的房地产行业的发展， 我们采购许多如钢材、水泥、木材等涉及碳排的物料。所以我们现正实践绿色供应链的概念，并联合第三方认证机构，确保我们所采购的木材是符合环保标准的。如果从未来发展来说，中国企业一定要走出去，包括业务、投资和生态环保的经验输出，要与国际组织、跨国企业联手合作。毕竟中国企业不少累积的经验都是在中国大陆上，或”一带一路”上。所以，我们应该与国际组织和跨国企业合作， 不仅联手做生意，也可以联手做生态保护，对中国企业和公益组织来说都是非常有帮助的。
Another example is the real estate industry that I am in. As you may know, we purchase a lot of carbon emitting materials, such as steel, cement, wood and so on. We are now implementing a green supply chain concept and have found a third party to certify that the wood we purchase complies with environmental requirements. If we look at our future development, Chinese companies must go abroad. This includes business, investment and eco-friendliness. We need to cooperate with international organizations and multinational companies. After all, a lot of experience of Chinese companies was accumulated in mainland China, or in the “Belt and Road Initiative” countries. Therefore, we should cooperate with international organizations and multinational companies, not only to do business but also for ecological protection, which would be very helpful for Chinese companies and local NGOs.
You mentioned your support for environmental philanthropy. What are the most worthwhile areas to invest resources in China at the moment?
I think the most worthwhile investment is civic education. Let me give you an example: Vanke Foundation’s waste management project. I have been involved since 2000. My experience in the past 20 years is that garbage sorting can be said to be both easy and difficult. The simple part is to distinguish whether it is recyclable and then to separable wet from dry garbage; the complicated part is to drive behavioral change. It is very difficult to change wasteful habits, especially at the community level, and it takes a lot of investment to mobilize people to change their habits and perceptions. I think it’s important to combine environmental issues with education, no matter where the investment is made. Although waste sorting is a very small area, I have used it to create a model to empower community mobilization. With a certain foundation and experience, any new initiatives, such as the carbon-neutral community that I am promoting now, would be much more effective than before. So, in environmental matters, education is still very important, and the best way is to start with children and teenagers.
In my observation, the Chinese government is quite progressive in many ways, including environmental protection. But it is not realistic to expect all ideas to come from the government. So, if entrepreneurs have thoughts, are the channels of communication with the government open?
王石：是的，而且在我看来企业家是有优势的：他们比较敏感， 看事物比较清晰， 能够第一时间把握到国际事物的变化。这样看来，他们应该走在政策前面，而不是等到政府说出来再看如何配合。比如说刘晓光发起的阿拉善SEE，当时就是找到影响着北京沙尘暴的源头， 找到不同企业家一起关注、行动， 当然也就得到了政府的认可。
Yes, and I think one of the advantages that entrepreneurs have is that they are more sensitive, have clearer perspectives, and can grasp the international trends or dynamics. So, it seems that they should be ahead of the policy, rather than waiting for the government to say something and then fit into it. Take Liu Xiaoguang as an example, when he started the Alashan SEE Ecological Association, and mobilized different entrepreneurs to act together to find the reasons for the sandstorms affecting Beijing. They found the root of the problem, and such efforts were recognized by the government.