Article | Intelligent Investment

Meet the accomplished ESG expert saving clients millions through sustainability

In a global property market with billions of dollars at stake, Su-Fern Tan is delivering genuine results through industry-leading sustainability solutions.

August 22, 2023


Su-Fern Tan wants to create a better world and she has the right credentials to prove it. As a freshly minted member of Greenpeace, she was off door-knocking to raise money to save the whales at the age of 12.  

“I put all $120 of my pocket money into that whale campaign,” she admits.  

At a time where most kids would be indulging in bouts of handball, Tan’s unorthodox drive was simple yet wildly ambitious.  

“I didn't like the injustice that I saw against the innocent and vulnerable, so it gave me a purpose and I just wanted to make an impact. And this goal has guided my every career choice since then.” 

Tan isn’t exaggerating about dedicating her life to creating an impact. Since graduating from whale saving alongside a stint at Amnesty International, she’s collected enough awards and accolades to qualify for LinkedIn’s Hall of Fame. 

She’s worked on the World’s Greenest Building winner. She’s earned an Innovation award and Future Leader award from the National Association for Women in Construction. She has an Award of Distinction for Editorial on a publication she edited and photographed called HARVEST, which showcased green building case studies. She was even a one-time guest presenter for ABC News in a segment called ‘Australia’s Greenest Office’ where she explored the pioneering ways of sustainable office operations.  

“And then I was part of the team that helped launch Australia's first ethical super fund back in the early 2000s providing ethical investment options. We weren’t comfortable with the idea that our money could potentially be invested into weapons, child labour or anything that violated human and environmental rights.” 
Our whole wellbeing will change. Once temperatures pass this threshold there will be serious consequences for human health, food systems, biodiversity and natural capital, of which fifty percent of our economy depends upon.
Even when Tan was sleeping on the floor in a house with no running water or electricity in Guatemala, she had no doubts on where her career was heading.  

“It was a life-changing experience that taught me how closely linked environmental and social issues are. It was also the best fun ever,” she recalls.  

“I was a welder on a sustainability focused job. My role in Guatemala was to make bicycle-powered machines using recycled bicycle parts for the Indigenous Mayan community to improve their quality of life. We also taught them how to make those machines themselves.   

“We made pedal-powered pumps, tile makers and mills to grind corn to make tortillas – the community’s food staple. In very little time, we saw the standard of living for people increase when they ate better, their animals ate better, their crops grew better, their market stalls did better, and their economic position improved.” 

A health check on the world  

In a sleek meeting room overlooking Sydney’s idyllic skyline, Tan couldn’t be further from the austere abode of an ancient Guatemalan village. 

As CBRE’s Head of ESG for the Pacific, her role is to drive ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) outcomes in the region’s property industry through real estate services and the latest property-based technologies. It’s a responsibility which extends to driving sustainability through the enterprise. 

“I’ve discovered a way to deliver sustainable outcomes through commerciality while fulfilling my purpose. Good ESG performance makes good business sense, and as a sustainability professional, I’m ecstatic to see the rise in the importance of sustainability in general – for customers, clients, governments and private business. I’m also pleased to see that the world is realising that doing good does pay dividends.” 

At a time where sustainability is gaining serious momentum across major industries, Tan is in a prime position to guide and educate clients and communities towards meeting and exceeding their boldest ESG targets. It’s a responsibility which makes welding for entire villages seem like a walk in the park.   

“It is great to see sustainability take centre stage, but the industry’s biggest problem right now is speed. We are not doing enough, fast enough. There is still too much procrastination. 

“Temperatures are still rising; hottest day records are still being broken too often and there is still plenty to do to avoid a climate crisis and a global catastrophe." 

This catastrophe Tan is concerned about is the average global temperature exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius and the impact it will have on life as we know it.  

“Our whole wellbeing will change. Once temperatures pass this threshold there will be serious consequences for human health, food systems, biodiversity and natural capital, of which fifty percent of our economy depends upon.”   

This predicament will also have an adverse effect on the businesses that depend on natural and human capital to survive. 

“Can you imagine living in a world where food costs more, 40-degree days are common, most of the coral reefs have died, storms, floods, droughts and fires are normal and heat stress is a common cause of death amongst animals including us?” 

While many of Tan’s conversations with crucial parties around Net Zero targets have been positive, they’ve also commonly culminated in responses showing a fear to act due to financial implications.  

“The irony is that we are trying to prevent negative financial consequences. We need to think long term and start planning for a better and more viable future. That’s why we need leadership, community and an action collective all working together today.” 

Understanding the financial benefits of ESG 

Su-Fern Tan as CBRE’s Pacific Head of ESG driving results across both sustainability and commercial fronts

Successful sustainability professionals must deliver results for the commercial bottom line as well as the environment. For typical building owners, landlords or occupiers whose priorities are often centred around ROI, there’s the legitimate question of why investing in ESG or sustainability measures should even be considered. What’s truly in it for the property stakeholder?  

“You stand to gain financially. Especially now more than ever,” says Tan. 

“The rise of ESG is commercially driven. Stakeholders at both ends are driving the change; investors, customers, occupiers and employees. 

“ESG factors have turned into a risk lens and if you don't evaluate your risk profile, you're facing costly losses in the future. And nowadays, this can be quantified.” 

The correlation between global temperature rises and the cost of buying, leasing and running commercial property has more in common than many realise. A half a degree rise in global temperatures is enough to equate to significant heat stress on staff and equipment, and up to forty percent more cooling degree days, depending on location. 

“Not only does this mean higher utility costs, but it means higher capital and operational costs due to more frequent replacement and maintenance issues. Asset profitability will look different, and this will have impacts in the investment landscape. Insurance premiums will continue to rise, and more and more locations will become uninsurable, adding another layer of complexity.”  

Overlooking the benefits of ESG can also have a detrimental effect on the people front. Employers will essentially be responsible for protecting their workers from heat stress which adds another complex layer to business compliance and risk. 

“It's all financial flow and effect. The smart ones are absolutely doing their research and preparing to minimise their future exposure.”  

“In the ESG world, this is called avoidance of transition risk,” explains Tan.  

“The later you transition, the more costly it is as transition risk is about keeping up with regulation and market expectations. If a law is passed, compliance could be costly compared to planning for it ahead of time which could cost you little to nothing.” 

ESG's occupancy advantage  

That financial flow and effect which Tan emphasises can also be applied to building occupancy performance. ESG and sustainability rated properties have been shown in the past to contribute to above market average rental rates and asset values. 

“Vacancies in premium sustainable, destination buildings can be close to zero,” Tan says.  

“This is the investor and owner dream. Through ESG, you can have a higher value for your building, and mitigate future risks that come with climate or social circumstances.  

“Mitigating your future risks allows you to reduce your future costs and be more resilient. And future proofing has a massive commercial payback. This is even before we’ve started to quantify future savings and other commercial benefits.” 

This occupancy sentiment can be attributed towards the growth of consumer conscience and the awareness of social responsibility around general consumption practices.   

“People want to feel good about their purchases. Consumers, occupiers and employees all respond well to sustainability and desire it, especially Generation Z.” 

Hidden challenges of protecting the future  

1999: Su-Fern Tan (centre) helping the Indigenous Mayan community build the foundations for a better quality of life in Guatemala

Tan has come a long way from the days of door-knocking to save giant sea mammals. While her surroundings may have shifted to a global property market with billions of dollars at stake, her unyielding moral compass, deep industry insight and mental fortitude remain key in delivering success to every single one of her clients. 

“Can you imagine going work to fight for wellbeing or to protect our beaches?” 

“Being a lobbyist can be tiring, but we understand that at the end of the day, there is an economic bottom line. As a sustainability professional, we are constantly trying to educate and advocate for the right initiatives to deliver on both fronts of sustainability and financial acumen. Thankfully, sustainability is about treading lightly so there is a long-term financial benefit.” 

“And this is what drives me. I wake up with purpose every day.” 

Su-Fern Tan still wants to contribute to a better world. And she’s creating the most sustainable assets and enterprises to prove it. 

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