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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.

photos by John Hardy