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The Rise Of Responsible Consumerism
"LIFE is not complete without shopping!" Singapore's then-prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, quipped at his 1996 National Day Rally Speech, two years after the launch of the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) event.
The allure of the GSS may have waned two decades on, but not Singapore's love for shopping - Singaporeans were ranked top online shoppers in South-east Asia in a 2014 Visa Consumer Payment Attitudes Study. While the favourite national pastime may have benefited the economy, there is no escaping the environmental ills of consumerism. Rising affluence has steadily fed consumption, which has ballooned into excess: ordering too much food, buying in bulk, splurging at sales. All that, together with an "out with the old" mentality, generates huge amounts of waste, both from unwanted things and throwaway packaging, and the destruction of natural resources.
Overall waste disposal in Singapore climbed to 3.05 million tonnes for 2016, compared to 2.76 million tonnes for 2010. Of the 3.05 million tonnes waste disposed of (that is not recycled) in 2016, almost half was food, paper or cardboard, and textile or leather waste. Another quarter came solely from plastics. Households answered for over half of the waste disposed during this period, while for several years running, the domestic recycling rate has ranged at between just 19 and 21 per cent. At the current rate of waste disposal, the Semakau Landfill is projected to be filled by 2035.
But a counter-movement appears to be shaping up ahead of this Christmas holiday season, with millennials leading the charge against indiscriminate consumerism.
The 2017 Nielsen's Global Sustainability Report, which surveyed about 30,000 respondents across 63 countries, points to a growing desire among Singapore's consumers to verify the sustainability credentials of the products they buy.
Consumers here are increasingly concerned about clear labels on consumer packaged goods and "understanding what they are consuming", says Crystal Barnes, Nielsen's senior vice-president for global responsibility & sustainability.
"Consumers are a lot more sophisticated and looking for things as minute as the country of origin as they seek greater clarity on where the ingredients for the products are sourced and how they are produced; they want to do as much research as they can to get to the core of the products."
Of the 501 respondents surveyed in Singapore, close to two-thirds of the millennials (loosely defined as those now in their 20s and 30s) and 60 per cent of baby-boomers check packaging or nutritional labels on food packages, a reflection also of today's health concerns and a desire to avoid heavily processed foods.
Signs also point to more responsible decision-making. About 39 per cent of respondents in Singapore (and 45 per cent of millennials) make the extra effort to save on electricity and gas. And 60 per cent of millennials and 68 per cent of baby boomers have rising concerns over the use of pesticides.
Consistently across the 63 countries surveyed, millennials led the pack in awareness and action, and this extends also to an expressed willingness to seek and pay extra for sustainable offerings.
It's all about the money
Yet, Nielsen's Ms Barnes points out that though millennials expressed willingness to pay more in the 2017 survey, more than half of them identify expense as the biggest barrier in consuming eco-friendly products.
Professor Euston Quah, Nanyang Technological University head of economics department, gives a bleak take: in pragmatic Singapore, consumers tend to prioritise cost - as well as convenience - in both consumption and investment. "Until there is a change in culture, I do not foresee that green consumerism will be embraced nor it being tenable in the short-run."
That "why should I pay" sentiment spilled out in public debate that was recently re-ignited over the use of plastic bags at supermarket chains. In an effort to cut use - and disposal - of plastic bags, non-government organisation (NGO) Zerowaste had called for a charge to be levied on plastic bags that are now given freely for grocery purchases.
The movement met with much resistance and an indignant reply from many Singaporeans is that the average household often recycles plastic bags for holding garbage.
Plastic also represents the less costly alternative to paper bags for businesses. Once cost comes into the picture, the argument against plastic is hard to defeat for business owners.
Plastic bags have only started to displace paper bags since the 1970s but today, plastics rank among the toughest waste to recycle for Singapore. Some 59,500 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled in 2016, a drop in the ocean compared to the 762,700 tonnes of plastic waste disposed.
A small but growing group of conscientious consumers have taken their good intentions further. Some are full-time activists or part-time volunteers for a cause, others have started ethical enterprises.
Raye Padit, 29, is a co-founder of ConnectedThreads and Swapaholic, two not-for-profit sustainable fashion initiatives that hope to reverse Singapore's struggle with recycling textile and leather waste.
Among working professionals aged between 25 and 34, each respondent only uses 20 per cent of his or her wardrobe, a ConnectedThreads survey conducted earlier this year found. Most respondents confess they have been enticed by "sales" to buy items they may not need.
Mr Padit points to two other factors that have contributed heavily to wardrobe redundancy - gifts from friends and family, and special-occasion purchases, which would include items such as Christmas party dresses.
The big picture isn't pretty either: fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil and gas, according to Swapaholic. And in 2016, Singapore toted up 150,700 tonnes of textile and leather waste, of which only 7 per cent was recycled and almost 140,000 tonnes had to be disposed of.
Armed with these findings, Mr Padit launched an online platform Swapaholic last year to help women shop "without hurting your wallet or the planet" by organising swap meets, and has held events at Marina Barrage, The Capella Sentosa and Chijmes. The most recent, held on Dec 2 at Liang Court, drew 193 swappers in what was billed as a Christmas event.
"Recycling as a culture is clearly catching up," Dr Faizal bin Yahya of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy remarks. "More secondhand goods are being sold in the market and there is also a trend towards renting rather than buying."
Mr Padit's ConnectedThreads has made it its mission to "transform the (fashion) sector into one with a conscience, bring all stakeholders together to make it happen, and to educate consumers about sustainable fashion choices". ConnectedThreads, which organises seminars and events to promote awareness of sustainable fashion, has expanded its membership base to 1,200 since its formation in 2015.
But Mr Padit admits there is some way to go in bringing about behavioural change. Consumers need to be conscious, through direct experience of the garment trade, to be moved enough to act. The environmental footprint from garment manufacturing is not as visible here as compared to countries like China or Vietnam, he notes.
Waste and unsustainability are not unique to the fashion industry - Singapore, as a transhipment hub, imports most of its daily essentials.
Isabella Loh, chairwoman of the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), remarks that Singapore can do more, for instance, in ramping up commercial farming here. "If we can move the needle by just a little more, it can make a big difference to our carbon footprint."
One Singapore business that has made strides in minimizing its own carbon footprint and encouraging sustainable consumption is Veganburg. Founded by Alex Tan, the fast food joint eschews meat as part of a movement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by discouraging cattle farming. (See other story). It serves only plant-based cuisine, and has won a following both in Singapore and in its recently opened San Francisco outlet.
Even so, climate change and carbon footprints may feel like distant issues to most Singaporeans, eclipsed by day-to-day concerns. But the one direct effect of irresponsible consumption that has hit closest to home is the haze.
In the aftermath of unprecedented air pollution, Singaporeans are now well aware that industry practices in the production of palm oil and paper, including the burning and clearing of peatland, are triggers of the transboundary haze and also cause much destruction to wildlife and their habitats.
PMHaze - People's Movement to Stop Haze - is a non-government organisation set up in 2013 at the peak of Singapore's haze troubles, founded by five millennials then aged below 30. It now works with palm oil producers to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil.
A 2016 survey by PMHaze found Singaporeans to be well aware of the causes of the haze, and willing to pay more for sustainably produced paper and palm oil products.
But what can set back their ability to do so is their limited awareness of the green labels that will help inform their choices.
Just 24.5 per cent and 29.2 per cent of those respondents surveyed in 2016 were aware of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Forest Stewardship Council labels, which have otherwise gained recognition in Europe as among the most robust green certifications for sustainable palm oil and paper production.
This is notwithstanding PMHaze's efforts at working with RSPO to proliferate the use of certified sustainable palm oil especially in the food and beverage sector.
In contrast, 57.5 per cent of respondents are aware of SEC's Singapore Green Label, which broadly speaking, certifies products that use recycled or sustainable materials while keeping out hazardous substances, and implement a sustainable manufacturing process.
For sure, Singapore can do more in educating consumers about the green labels. The SEC has in fact, since January, tightened its criteria for its Green Label, and this week awarded it to Kimberly-Clark for 12 of its paper products.
PMHaze has also called for the government to take on a bigger role, starting with expanding its procurement criteria to RSPO-certified palm oil products.
A spokesman with the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources has since clarified that the government has committed to buying energy-efficient appliances and sustainably sourced paper products as there are clear certification labels for these items, making them transparent to consumers. He adds that the scope of the state's green procurement policy will gradually expand to cover more products certified as sustainable.
Singapore is also obliged as a member of the United Nations to contribute to reducing its carbon footprint, to meet the goal set out in the 2016 Paris accord to cap a rise in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, Singapore consumers looking to incorporate green shopping ideas this Christmas can find them on the SEC Green Map. The mobile app helps consumers navigate through the country's green assets.
The first version of the SEC Green Map provides information on almost 200 shops and establishments that are certified under SEC's three eco-certification programmes for offices, shops and food and beverage outlets. The Android app is available for download on the Google Play Store and will be available on the Apple App Store before Christmas this year.
Or they can take the advice of Maxine, 24, a part-time volunteer with PMHaze who works at Interface, a commercial carpet tile manufacturer that takes pride in using materials that take less from environment. She suggests abstaining altogether from conventional gifting this Christmas, and celebrating the occasion with loved ones at the beach or the park instead.
Considering how far the world outside Singapore has pressed on with sustainability issues, Dr Faizal extends this word of caution to policy-makers and consumers here: "There may be good reasons to move slowly, but it will be a concern if we are lagging behind."
Going green is gold for VeganBurg
WHAT do the words "vegan burger" bring to mind? A lifeless slab of tofu sandwiched between butterless buns and tahini? At VeganBurg, meatless fast food made well combines with savvy economics to make a gratifying business for its founder, Singaporean Alex Tan.
The eatery recently opened an outlet in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury area. And in the West Coast city where the vibe runs from hippie to health nut to hipster, VeganBurg hit a home run. It now has a loyal following - fans include such celebrity vegans as Chrissie Hynde, Steve Aoki and Belinda Carlisle.
Mr Tan tells The Business Times that he first cut meat from his diet to improve his health. In his early years as a parent, he struggled to satisfy his daughter's craving for fast-food and burgers, at a time when vegan burgers were virtually unheard of. His wife had kept to a vegan diet through pregnancy and their daughter, now 11, has never tasted meat her entire life.
In 2009, while he was working in his family's Lamitak business making high-quality high-pressure laminates, he came across the earth-shattering finding of respected US thinktank Worldwatch Institute - that livestock farming contributed 51 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That lightbulb moment electrified his ethical - and business - instincts, leading to the first VeganBurg restaurant along Jalan Eunos in 2010.
Since then, follow-up research by the United Nations has countered that livestock farming contributes a far smaller share of global emissions, but for Mr Tan and many others advocating to cut meat consumption, the key message remains intact. Less meat equals less farming equals less emissions.
A newspaper cutting of that report is still plastered on the board in VeganBurg's meeting room. Diners at the Jalan Eunos restaurant also see an infographic depicting the environmental footprint of consuming dead animals.
Mr Tan stresses that he respects all dietary choices. He mainly wants to popularise vegan food by packaging it in a concept closer to the hearts of a fast-food generation. "People will still eat fast food, but we can change what goes into the patties in between the burgers."
VeganBurg has certainly made progress on this front. Since the second year of operations here, the burger joint has derived 70 per cent of sales from non-vegetarian diners (based on data from feedback forms circulated among the restaurant's diners).
Making actually tasty food may have something to do with its success. VeganBurg appears to have cracked the code with some meat-lovers with seasonal hits like its vegan version of a chilli crab burger.
This is no mean feat considering that when VeganBurg first started, veganism and vegetarianism in Singapore was, as Mr Tan puts it, still associated with "sickness or certain religions". But as he notes, Singapore still has some way to go to develop an eco-system that supports not just vegetarianism and veganism but more broadly, responsible consumerism.
Between 2010 and 2014, three more VeganBurgs opened around Singapore. Mr Tan took a calculated bet when he decided to downsize from four outlets to one after the leases were up in 2014, in favour of building the brand in the US. The bet paid off. Turnover in San Francisco exceeded that of Singapore's within the first two years of operations there.
San Francisco, one of the world's most environmentally conscious cities, also offers through its green business programme, recognition to businesses taking action to prevent pollution and conserve resources.
Just three months ago, VeganBurg took the big leap to have its Haight-Ashbury outpost certified under this stringent and holistic programme. To Mr Tan, getting the green certification is a solid validation of his aspiration to run a sustainable fast-food business.
Today, VeganBurg's San Francisco restaurant can lay claim to have met the whole nine yards worth of green business requirements. The list is long and detailed, and the must-haves include utilising napkins containing minimum 50 per cent post-consumer waste recycled content, instituting a zero-waste policy for catering events, eliminating the use of plastic bags, replacing fluorescent lightings with energy-efficient fixtures and utilising energy-efficient cooking equipment.
Yet at home, where VeganBurg's business began, going green is even more of an uphill task.
Mr Tan points to cost challenges in procuring sustainable consumables and raw materials for day-to-day operations. Paper cups certified to FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) sustainable standards for instance, would have cost more than twice as much here compared to in San Francisco.
Not helping either is what he coins "the bag culture" in Singapore. In San Francisco, a bag ban has been in force since 2007 to regulate the use of carry-out bags with the aim of reaching zero waste by 2020. But walk-in customers in Singapore can't seem to live without carry-out bags. VeganBurg has resorted to packing takeaways in paper carriers and only use biodegradable substitutes to plastic bags on requests from customers.
The burger joint has worked around the constraints on home ground to achieve results on several other fronts. It has made a switch from conventional vegetable oil to RSPO-certified palm oil. Compostable cutlery is given with takeaway orders and recycled wood pallets are used in the restaurant interior here. In all, VeganBurg's costs are overall 20 per cent higher than what the business would have incurred if it didn't embrace sustainability in its daily operations - napkins made from recyclable paper cost 200 per cent more than regular paper ones, and paper straws, which VeganBurg is working on bringing in, cost 450 per cent more than plastics.
Perhaps the best way to sum up its tenacious drive to push for green business practices is this statement released with VeganBurg's recent switch to RSPO-certified palm oil: "Little small actions and little small deeds can go a long way, it does not affect the taste of your food or your business model … in fact if anything, it might improve your revenue and the sort of publicity you get out there."