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DIALOGUE: Corporate Responsibility - A View from the Field
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Corporate responsibility isn’t a new idea. There have been companies since the start of the industrial revolution, that have believed that business is part of society and that they have, at least on a moral level, some responsibility to contribute to it; not just exploit it. What is more of a modern idea is that investing directly into the community is not just good for the conscience, but also for the business.

With public funds getting ever scarcer in the West, this corporate ‘charity’ has become a helpful way of keeping community activities and local projects alive. Many companies are keen to generate local good will or show their environmental credentials by visibly supporting local clubs and Non Government Organisations (NGOs).

Business Tianjin caught up with Mr. Zhang Tao, the founder of one such NGO in Tianjin called ‘Friends of Green’ to ask about their environmental work and their connections with the business community.

Can you tell us a bit about the history of the organisation?

Friends of Green is a non-governmental environmental protection organisation. It was founded over 12 years ago. I had heard of a similar group in Beijing called ‘Beijing Friends of Nature’ and wanted to do something to protect the environment in Tianjin. I didn’t really know anything about environmental issues and in the beginning it was very much about me learning. I quickly realised that education is most important and that has been one of the key things from the start. We are still a small organisation, run mostly by myself in my spare time with help from Mr. Lin and expert advice from Professor Zhu, from Nankai University. But, we have grown to have a membership of around 2000 people, as well as 21 group members such as Friends of Nature of Science and Technology, the TEDA Environmental Protection Association etc.

What is the main focus of the group?

The main activity is educating people about environmental matters. We go to schools, colleges and universities around Tianjin and talk to students and teachers about the environment. Once a year we run a design competition, which is judged by environmental experts and the school can win some funding for an environmental project of their choice.

We also host prominent environmentalists from overseas to come and lecture. One year we had a speaker from the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

We organise various events throughout the year and run small projects to protect or improve habitats for wildlife.

What environmental projects or campaigns are you involved in now?

It’s still a small group of volunteers, so we can’t do anything too large, but we organise activities like planting trees, cleaning rivers, measuring air pollution. We also organise trips and working holidays whereby people can work on farms, pick fruit, take part in the spring planting or harvesting of organic rice. The working holidays are also about appreciating the countryside, so we encourage responsible fishing, hiking and sailing activities. Many of our members are artists and performers, we can also have some wonderful shows and performances.

The members are from all fields of life including local government officers, so we have a good networking relationship. We often give environmental advice on government projects. Recently for example, we advised against lining a riverbank with stone as this would have separated the marine life from valuable food sources.

Do you get any help from the government, businesses or other environmental groups?

The government donates land, for us to plant trees on and they also provide native varieties of trees that people can adopt, plant and look after. We got sponsored by Shell China to help with the costs of putting together an educational DVD and leaflets and some other costs too.

We are aware of other environmental groups within China, but we don’t have any formal links. We are a partner organisation to the international student exchange association AIESWC and use the international students to talk about the environment in schools in English. We are also members of the JGI Roots and Shoots network.

What has been your biggest success so far and what are your hopes for the future?

Over the years we have had some good recognition with awards from the National Geographic Channel and we have achieved an outstanding award for our contributions in “the beauty of Tianjin environmental action;" both of which are very encouraging. I love seeing the 4 forests that the group have established continuing to thrive. But for me, the biggest achievement is that we have reached over 100,000 students through lectures and activities. I think this is really helping to increase the levels of awareness throughout the city and beyond, about the importance of the environment and the small things individuals can do to make a difference. I think for younger children, the activities help to develope good habits for life.

In the future, I hope all people will care and want to work together to protect the environment. I hope we can also implement more public welfare projects like we did for the Chaobai river project in 2002, but of course, these things all need funding!


Do you think the environment in Tianjin is improving?

It would be easy to say things are getting worse, but actually huge advances have been made. People have become much more conscious of the environment and are genuinely concerned about food and water quality and air pollution. There have been several stories in the media that have really pressed home some of the problems. I think the local government are  responding to peoples’ concerns and are doing things to offset the impact of rapid industrial development. People too, when they know what they can do, respond positively.

But, the region is changing so much and so quickly. I think it’s impossible to fully offset this scale of impact. Together we are making a difference, but it’s going to be a long time before things improve. I know from friends that reversing the effects of industrialisation in the West took decades. We do have an advantage however, in that we can learn from other countries that have been through this problem and solve it quicker.

Do you think events like Business Tianjin's ECO Forum in September help?

Absolutely! Voluntary groups like ours can only do so much. We all need to work together; and that includes businesses. Events like this can encourage companies to be more conscious of their impact on the environment and make local people more aware of which companies are being responsible members of the community.


By Robert Watt
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