The environment is finally on the agenda in Asia – from jewelry to architecture to food sourcing.
I moved to Asia in 2007 – first to Bangkok, known for its pollution and traffic jams. People in Bangkok will drive their car 5 miles across town and it will take 1 hour – I think people in Bangkok love their cars more than Americans do 😉 And then I noticed recycling was not an option. Everything went in the same trash bin, everything. Even materials were not recycled – there is a love for new buildings, new construction, Italian marble and imported tiles. Having something brand new (and imported) is a sign of status. The idea of preserving old houses and materials is not totally lost, but not a part of the mainstream either. The air in Bangkok is thick and soupy, your street vendors are serving foods in Styrofoam takeout containers and daily you will see people littering on the street. With the serious and almost pious approach to the environment in the US these days, I was well…shocked. But as I began to travel and live in other countries in Asia, I met people and got a better view on various cultures, the business landscape and the economy of the region and found some really inspiring examples of sustainability.
It makes sense that sustainability is generally speaking, a higher order societal need. It stands to reason that if people’s primary needs are not being fully met (regular employment, access to clean water and a healthy diet, stable housing situation), that rinsing and recycling their aluminum cans or solar heating is not on the agenda. Discussions of carbon footprint or sustainable agriculture are largely a discussion among the educated elite. I would challenge you to go to a local food court in Singapore, the Russian Market in Phnom Phen, the streets of Bangkok or the B / C cities in China and strike up a conversation on environmental concerns. It’s commonly known, among doctors and hospitals in China, that there is a “moving to China” syndrome. It’s a respiratory infection people get from the pollution when they move to the country – it afflicts foreigners and Chinese alike. It is a direct result of the pollution in the cities. I even had a Chinese coworker who lived in London for a few years and upon return to Shanghai experienced it as well.
That said, the environment is a world concern. Certainly in large global summits like Worlds Economic Forum in Davos or the UN agenda on the environment Asia is widely discussed, but I wondered if anything was really happening at the ground level in Asia. I had to look for it, but I found it and was inspired by some of the examples.
Jean Jacques Ferron –
Jean Jacques is an architect from France. Living in NY for many years, Jean Jacques was running a successful design furniture business. After selling the business, he and his family decided to retire to Thailand. Jean Jacques was no stranger to Bangkok, he had been there many times for sourcing and buying for his business as well as for family holidays with his wife and two daughters. And here Jean Jacques started to think about reinventing his career and starting over as an architect. He was inspired by the local materials of Thailand – the clay tiles from Northern Thailand, the teak wood from old houses that could be reclaimed, and the abundant natural materials that lent themselves perfectly to the landscape. Jean Jacques started to take on projects and found a surprisingly good market for his services. I got to experience the fruits of his labor at Kamalaya – a holistic spa in Koh Samui that prides itself on its commitment to sustainable building, agriculture and community support. Kamalaya is built into a hillside of Koh Samui and feels as if a divine force intended it to be there …it so naturally co-exists with the local landscape and the buildings and villas feels at one with nature.
Doi Tung, Thailand –
If you have visited or lived in Thailand, you will know Doi Tung. Doi Tung as we know it is a retail chain of Thailand products locally made in the Doi Tung province of Chiang Rai, in Northern Thailand. From coffee and macadamia nuts to home textiles and ceramics. The products are beautifully designed things one would be proud to own (rather than folksy trinkets that are charming but not terribly useful) and are made with all local materials and workers in Doi Tung. Since the 1980’s the effort to support the people and the products of Doi Tung have been successful and is a shining example of how a community support project can also be not just economically viable but profitable.
John Hardy, Bali, Indonesia –
John Hardy is a posh jewelry brand I knew from New York. I used to admire it in Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s and all the fashion “it” girls had a piece or two. It was so associated with status and luxury for me that I was surprised to learn, when visiting Bali in 2008, that John Hardy had its manufacturing operations there and was deeply committed to environmental sustainability and the betterment of the Balinese people. For the last 20 years, John Hardy was considering what was responsible for the environment – way, way before it was fashionable and trendy. It started with low impact structures built from bamboo (that are also shockingly elegant) and a relationship with an organic farmer who prepared the food for the café to today’s bike to work Fridays and sustainable advertising. Sustainable advertising was a new concept for me – basically they count every page run in advertising and then pay back the environment by planting a corresponding number of bamboo trees. The plan is for the company to be carbon emissions neutral by 2011. Even their packaging materials are carefully considered – when bamboo cloth pouches were considered for their jewelry, they learned that the process of breaking down the woody fibers to make it soft requires more chemicals and processes than even regular cotton. Bamboo boxes would have been imported from China to be packed in Bali and then shipped to Hong Kong which also didn’t meet the criteria of being environmentally friendly. Finally a simple but elegant solution was discovered – simple pressed board, using wood waste, in a classic design was chosen. Who says luxury and environmentalism cannot live in harmony?
The Chairman, Hong Kong, SAR China –
We had the opportunity to dine at The Chairman in Hong Kong recently. In speaking with one of the owners, he expressed their commitment to using local ingredients to not only have the freshest possible quality for their food, but also to help the local farmers stay in business in the face of low cost imports from mainland China. He told us stories of using only the local flowery crab from nearby waters for their famous crab dish (for which there is often a 3 month wait) as well as why their pickled ginger is so fantastically fragrant and unique vs other pickled ginger. They source it locally during the short ginger harvest season and collect it within a 2 week window at its peak. Their pork is sourced locally from a farm on Kowloon side as well as the pigeon which they get locally as well. Not only are they doing a good thing for the agricultural community of Hong Kong, they are also providing a superior class of ingredients to their customers – the crab is so fresh you can still taste the ocean water and the pigeon was succulent and tender…a far cry from your normal dry and stringy pigeon.
M. Moser & Associates, Singapore –
While a global company, I got to know M. Moser through my friend Nick in Singapore who works there. M. Moser is a design, architecture and construction firm for commercial properties specializing in building new offices for large multinational and local corporations. From water saving systems to solar heating to recycled and local materials. M. Moser has built up their “green” capabilities in Asia to service multinationals that have a global, corporate responsibility to lead the way not just in the manufacture of their products but also in their day to day operations. From the Nokia Campus in Beijing to the Siemens offices in Guangzhou, M. Moser has been busy educating their clients on how they can bring green principles to the workplace.
As it turns out there is much more going on than I was initially aware of in Asia. And these are just a few examples. Not to say that there is not room for improvement. There are still no options for recycling in my Singapore home. Being a locavore is not an option in Singapore as most foods are imported from Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and beyond. But I am positively encouraged by the efforts of those above and happy to see the sustainability agenda growing in Asia.
If YOU have any examples of environmental sustainability efforts or responsible companies in Asia, please do share them for us and our readers.Pin It