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  • Bryan Tan

Sustainability Has To Be Inclusive So Transition Can Happen Smoothly: Making the Cut with Cheryl Goh

We speak to Cheryl Goh, Group VP of Marketing and Sustainability and founding CMO of Grab, about Grab’s journey to achieving a sustainable business with all its partners.

Q: Now, Cheryl, Grab was pretty much founded with the belief that a technology company can run profitably as well as create a sustainable impact. So tell me a little bit about what sustainability means to Grab?

We're on that journey to get to the triple bottom line, so for us, what we believe is that as a business, we must be financially sustainable. We must create a positive social impact and at the same time, we must be kind to the environment. When I think about our mission and the reason why we exist, it is really about creating economic empowerment for Southeast Asia. So if you are a driver partner, we want to allow you to earn more money. For our small businesses, we want to allow them to reach consumers that they've never been able to reach before.

But as a business, we also need to do this at scale. Since we do it in 400 cities, we need to do it profitably and we also need to do this in a way that is good for the environment. Especially in recent years, we've seen the impact of climate change, like last year, Malaysia had really bad flooding and it’s really terrible.

So I think sustainability for us means that as a successful business, we need to not only be good for the people and the community that we serve but also good for the environment.

Q: I know you also have launched the JustGrab Green Service. Tell me a little bit about that and also what are some of the other sustainable initiatives your customers can look forward to?

So JustGrab Green is a pilot that we launched in central Singapore and what it does is it allows you as a consumer on your commute, to book an electric vehicle (EV) or a lower (carbon) emission vehicle for your ride.

We've seen over 150,000 rides from the pilot in the few months that we were operating so that's very encouraging and we decided to make it a permanent feature. Recently, we have also launched what we call the 'EcoFriendly' toggle and basically what it does is that when it is on we'll always prioritise an EV or a lower emission vehicle for you. Our drivers will transition a lot easier if they see a strong consumer preference so I think this is just one of the smaller steps we can take.

At the same time, we also have a carbon offset feature so every time you take a Grab ride, you can offset your emission. In a couple of months, we'll also launch that same carbon offset feature for delivery businesses so when you order food or do a delivery, you can offset that as well.

Q: Now, a lot of people probably would have this on their mind when you talk about sustainability. People will say, "well, is that sustainable financially?" So what is your answer to that, when you talk about sustainable initiatives, how does it help your triple bottom line and does it at all?

I guess the short answer is, all these programmes that we're doing in this space have to become sustainable in the long run. But I think for today, it's a bit of a mixed bag, so for carbon offset, the way we think about sustainability for that particular feature isn't so much for our business, but for the consumer.

It needs to be affordable so that they can continue to do it consistently. So for them, it's affordable and it's sustainable. And for our drivers, when we are talking about EVs, the total cost of ownership is still higher than ICE (Internal Combustion Engine). So in those circumstances, there's quite a lot that we need to do in terms of incentivising the driver to make that transition, such as working with partners so that we can provide charging that is more affordable, etc.

Q: So we are sitting in a BMW i4, this is a fully electric vehicle, this car has zero CO2 emissions. Also, it was built with 100% green energy. In that sense, you're talking about the entire supply chain that is green and that uses green energy.

So let's talk about the company, for instance, when do you think EVs will be the de facto ride for Grab customers? I know we're talking about 400 cities but, when do you think that will happen?

It's a country-to-country sort of answer. So in Singapore, where the government is very clear that by 2040, all vehicles will be 100% clean energy vehicles, I think we will be moving to either hybrid or EV by 2040. However, we aim to do it actually by 2030. So by 2030, we hope to transition all our drivers to clean energy vehicles, which is 10 years ahead of the country's goal.

Q: Now, you have this amazing programme surrounding sustainability. You also have many community partners and you pretty much work with workers in the gig economy, right? All these independent contractors, how do you get them to buy into your efforts towards sustainability? How do you get everybody on board?

You know, for most of us, a car sometimes is a status symbol and sometimes could be a bit of a luxury, right? But for our driver partners, it's how they make income, it's how they make a living and so I think for them, there are many things that they have to consider before they make that transition. To some degree, it is a far more logical decision-making process for them, things like the car itself, can it fit at least four passengers comfortably? Is it safe? Can they put luggage in the boot, maybe a stroller for airport rides?

So they think about the product itself and our drivers drive seven times more than an average person, like 230 kilometres a day. So as you can imagine, they have a lot of range anxiety. They'll wonder how long the battery lasts and if they have to charge it, how long will they need to be at the charging station, because time spent charging the car is an opportunity cost to earn an income.

So I think if we can bring all of that to parity, if we can work with many ecosystem players to make that happen, I think that transition will be a lot easier.

Q: When you talk about sustainability, you can't just talk about it from just one point of view, you have to see it from the everyday person's point of view and the idea of inclusivity, the idea that sustainability shouldn't be a luxury. It should be something that everybody can attain and that everybody can also make good choices.

So there are so many aspects that you have to work with, what is the sense that you're getting from the ground, from your partners, whether it's your food partners or your delivery drivers, what was the sense that you were getting?

They're very open to it, but I think there are still a lot of practical considerations, I think we can get it close to parity, there will be adoption.

Fortunately, we’re in a world where nobody debates whether climate change is real or not. So I think we just need to make it a bit more inclusive so that transition can happen smoothly.

Q: Now, speaking of the delivery drivers, in Singapore, we have strict enforcement on e-bikes and e-scooters. What are some of the strategies that Grab has in terms of lowering the carbon emissions of the delivery drivers?

What we saw was that some drivers transitioned into motorbikes and a bulk of them transitioned into bicycles and walkers. So 50% of our total delivery base in Singapore is either on bicycles or walkers.

So in that sense, I think it’s still okay but I think at a platform level, we're always looking at how we can be more efficient. We've built our own mapping solutions because we can collect data from our drivers and also batch orders so if there are orders that are pretty much on the same route, one driver can take it instead of two cars or bikes doing it.

So that's how we use technology to help reduce carbon emissions through our platform. I think it creates efficiency and more income opportunities and as a delivery rider, you can decide whether you want to do food, document deliveries or even groceries. So I think a lot of that can be routed together to create even more efficiency and earning opportunities.

Q: You speak so passionately about sustainability, so why are you so passionate about this?

So I love diving. I've been diving for maybe 11 years and I've done over a thousand dives. In a decade, you can see some places deteriorate in terms of biodiversity with lots more pollution.

When I think about sustainability, I think of it as, I want to enjoy life, I want to enjoy the planet but I also want to leave it in a good condition for the next generation.

Q: Which is the definition of sustainability, right? It's not to compromise the next generation's needs, even though we have the needs of our generation but we mustn't compromise the ability of the next generation. It has to be government and corporation driven, but at the end of the day, all these ecosystems are also made up of individuals. So what can we do?

Individually, I think that the most high-impact thing that you can do is to push governments and companies to be more conscious about the impact that businesses have on the environment because I think that has the biggest impact, right?

I think governments, regulations, and businesses, all coming together to build a more sustainable ecosystem is what really will make this happen. So I think activism in some shape or form is truly very powerful. It could be like you're sitting at home and you just sign a petition or it could be you involving yourself in planting trees or even talking to your HR manager. I think that the opportunity is there and every small bit kind of counts.


This content is brought to you in collaboration with BMW Asia.

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