An in-depth conversation with Mahindra’s Group HR President Ruzbeh Irani.

Interview by: Aarti Maharaj, Managing Director, BELA South Asia

Ethisphere spoke to Ruzbeh Irani, President, Group Human Resources and Communications, and Member of the Group Executive Board, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., on how the company is approaching this important topic of ESG. Earlier this year, the Business Ethics Leadership Alliance honored Ruzbeh and recognized Mahindra’s inspirational work with the 2021 BELA Beacon Award.

Ruzbeh Irani, President, Group Human Resources and Communications, Mahindra

Aarti Maharaj: To start us off, can you share more about your role with our global audience, and how your work supports Mahindra Group on the ESG front?

Ruzbeh Irani: My role is that of President, Group HR & Communications. In addition to HR and communications, I am also responsible for corporate social responsibility, ethics, and corporate infrastructure services. I am a member of Mahindra’s Group Executive Board.

Promoting a culture of outperformance that is inclusive and empowering, while maintaining the highest standards of ethics, is an important part of my role. The work we do in the social space— focused on women’s empowerment, skilling for livelihood, and Hariyali, our tree planting initiative—all supports our ESG efforts. We have joined the Valuable 500 to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in business.

These programs contribute directly to our sustainable business practices and support Mahindra’s ESG efforts.

AM: How is ESG integrated into the company’s corporate culture?

RI: Commercial success and making a positive social and environmental impact are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complementary. We firmly believe that doing good makes good business sense.

Our goal is to build a sustainable business that upholds the highest ethical standards, while rejuvenating the environment, caring for the community, and being inclusive. We aspire to be a global leader in ESG. We were among the first companies globally to commit to being carbon neutral by 2040; we will have 100 of our sites ZWL certified by 2030. We have been a water-positive group since 2014. Under Project Hariyali, we have planted 19 million trees so far.

We are committed to the planet and the environment through the business we do. Susten, Cero, our EV business, and our pioneering work in waste to energy all epitomize this.

In recognition of our efforts, Mahindra & Mahindra is ranked 17th among the 100 Most Sustainably Managed Companies in the world—the highest for an automobile company and any Indian company— by the Wall Street Journal Global Sustainability Ranking

AM: One question we receive from companies is, who should lead ESG communications? Could you shed some light on how this is handled at Mahindra?

RI: Our commitments to ESG are embraced by all our employees, who feel a sense of responsibility for the future. It is a key leadership priority at Mahindra. ESG is core to the way we do business. It is a lens through which we measure our business impact. Hence, ESG is part of leadership communication.

ESG is a broad topic, so I’ll narrow it down and ask, how does Mahindra address the “S” in ESG?

RI: The “S” or social component of ESG is close to my heart. Our key social responsibility programs are around girls’ education, women’s empowerment, skilling for livelihood, and diversity and inclusion.

Project Nanhi Kali, enabling underprivileged girls to complete ten years of schooling, has been our flagship CSR initiative. So far, over 470,000 Nanhi Kalis have been educated under the program.

We have been skilling women (and men) through Mahindra Pride School and empowering women farmers to be agripreneurs through Project Prerna. We intend to do a lot more in the sphere of women’s empowerment.

Diversity and inclusion is a key priority. We are taking steps to increase gender diversity at all levels in the organization. We are committed to persons with disabilities. We are members of the Valuable 500, a global business collective created to unitedly tackle disability inclusion in business.

All through the COVID disruption, we have taken proactive, impactful decisions to make healthcare available not only to our direct employees but also to our dealers and their families. We partnered with the government to scale up the medical infrastructure by providing oxygen plants and oxygen concentrators and setting up temporary COVID care centres.

AM: Within ESG, social areas are where the data is fuzziest. Companies don’t necessarily have the numbers yet to back up any of their initiatives. Do you have any thoughts on where you see ESG metrics going? 

RI: Measuring social impact has been an evolving effort for companies. Organizations prefer to report activities rather than impact, and most of these disclosures are those that are mandated by the government. However, the pandemic has brought a sharp focus on the “S” in ESG. Investors and corporates are now getting a lot more serious about their social metrics. They are looking for more measurable and meaningful disclosures for social reporting.

At Mahindra, we participate in external disclosures like the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI), Climate Disclosure Project (CDP), and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reporting framework to capture metrics across ESG. For our flagship CSR project, Nanhi Kali, we measure attendance, learning outcomes, and drop-out rates of the Nanhi Kalis to assess the impact. For Project Hariyali, we measure the survival rate of trees against the number of trees planted.

AM: Mahindra will be implementing the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics in an effort to standardize reporting—could you tell us more about that?

RI: We were among the first corporates to back the World Economic Forum (WEF) stakeholder metrics. These are a set of ESG metrics and disclosures released by WEF that measure longterm enterprise value creation. It is an effort to standardize reporting through the development of comprehensive metrics. Drawn from existing voluntary standards, these metrics offer a core set of universal, comparable disclosures focused on people, planet, prosperity, and principles of governance that are considered most critical for business, society, and the planet. They strengthen the ability of companies and investors to benchmark progress on sustainability matters and enhance transparency and accountability.

We have already adopted benchmarked metrics frameworks like the Integrated Annual Reporting Framework for our annual reports for the last four years and have been early movers on sustainability reporting. For the last 13 years, we have had externally assured sustainability reports based on the GRI framework.

Many companies feel a tension that greater transparency also exposes them to greater risk and scrutiny—how are you approaching this?

RI: Reputation and good governance have been part of the DNA of the Mahindra Group since its inception. There are many times we have chosen to be transparent, despite there being no mandate on us. For instance, we have been reporting back to our shareholders about corporate governance since long before the law in India made it mandatory.

Reporting transparently on ESG serves the interests of the business as much as the interests of the planet. When you are focused on doing the right thing, transparency adds to business resilience and brand equity.

AM: Coming out of the pandemic, do you think COVID-19 will have an impact on how companies and investors value ESG?

RI: One of the unfortunate fallouts of COVID is the deepening social divide. Given the fast-changing realities of today’s world and the extent of climate change we are seeing, ESG is no longer a luxury but a necessity all of us should be committed to. Many investors have integrated ESG into their investment process. Millennials prefer to work for socially responsible companies. It is our responsibility to leave behind a planet that is better than the one we inherited.

About the Expert:

Ruzbeh Irani is the President, Group Human Resources and Communications, since April 2020. He is also responsible for corporate social responsibility, ethics, and corporate services. He is a member of Mahindra’s Group Executive Board.

Ruzbeh joined the Mahindra Group in 2007 as Executive Vice President, Corporate Strategy, heading the Group’s Strategy function. He became the Chief Brand Officer of the Group. During that time, he spearheaded Mahindra’s entry into racing and led the development of the Group’s brand position and core purpose, “Rise.” He then moved to become the head of International Operations for the Automotive and Farm Equipment Sectors of M&M. Subsequently, he led the group corporate brand, PR and communications, Ethics, as well as Mahindra’s racing team.