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In a year that global attention focused almost exclusively on COVID-19, it might have been expected that sustainability would take a back seat. It has been a double-edged year. A proliferation of disposable items like plastic gloves, gowns and facemasks will, inevitably, leave its environmental mark. However, advances in sustainable innovation represent a more positive outcome in Southeast Asia.
During 2020, new apps emerged to track and trace foods from farm to supermarket, while online marketplaces specializing in organic fruits, vegetables and vegan cuisines gained popularity. This was also the year that plant-based meat substitutes went mainstream.
Beyond planet-friendly dining, 2020 delivered impressive developments in biodegradable packaging, upcycled and reusable products and eco-friendly materials sourcing. This shift towards eco-responsibility among brands and consumers augurs well for the post-pandemic economic and social challenges signposted up ahead.
There is an immense amount of preservation work to be done. Recent research shows that the tides of oceanic plastic trash are larger than previously assumed. Markets like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are large generators of plastic waste.
But, after a generally gloomy year, here are five reasons to be hopeful about the future of eco creative businesses in Southeast Asia.
As consumers crave a more normalized year in 2021, will eco-friendly innovation continue to diversify? Are shoppers shifting inexorably away from brands that behave unethically and towards those that commit to preserving the planet’s precious resources?
Time will tell. However, 2020 provided some intriguing pointers. Firstly, consumers spent more time shopping from home and saw for themselves the mountains of packaging that smartphone shopping creates; and the challenges for disposing of it safely.
Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic made everyone more aware not just of their human vulnerability. Given time to reflect during lockdowns, urban consumers also noticed how reduced traffic flows improved the quality of the air they breathe.
Thirdly, markets have stepped up their commitments to reducing plastic waste in recent months, Malaysia is a good example, where most supermarkets no longer provide plastic carrier bags to shoppers. These incremental factors could help move the dial towards sustainable consumption.
Whether or not COVID-19 has forced businesses to rethink their sustainable relationships with consumers remains to be seen. What was evident was that 2020 witnessed pockets of the organic invention.
In Vietnam, two students created biodegradable grocery bags by blending banana tree bark with paper and soap, while a Mekong Delta firm developed biodegradable drinking straws from wild grass stems. A Thai cafe is now packing its freshly cooked takeaway rice into boxes made from rice husk.
Packing extra novelty flavor is Singapore’s Crunch Cutlery, which sells edible spoons made from nutrient-rich matcha fiber, buckwheat and butterfly pea. The firm says its twin objectives are to tackle both plastic waste and poor urban nutrition with a single product.
Innovation in fashion materials sourcing could be a differentiating element for upcoming designers and labels producing high-value lines in sustainable ways. In Indonesia, Hirka is a small shoemaker that targets discerning clients. It has begun substituting snake and crocodile skins with surplus chicken feet sourced from local restaurants to fashion unique footwear.
In Vietnam, rare lotus silk is a coveted material. A handweaving collective harvests discarded lotus roots, extracts the fragile stem fibers and weaves luxurious silk scarves using traditional looms. Indonesia’s Muslim Fashion Festival urged modest wear makers to create sustainable fashions that drive behavioral change. It asked designers to rethink winter and summer collections and style clothes from upcycled fabrics that can be worn year-round.
Seaweed harvesting is transforming from a traditional coastal industry into a global source of organic commerce. Red seaweed is widely used in a host of products, ranging from luxury skincare treatments in Ireland to toothpaste in the US to gourmet delicacies in Japan. This year, the productive properties of seaweed gained greater attention.
The Indonesian island of Nusa Lembongan, for example, is expanding its seaweed harvesting sector. Small collectives are being encouraged to harvest bigger sea crop volumes, as seaweed extract is increasingly in demand for making bioplastics. This creates a renewable alternative material for manufacturing daily-use plastic items.
Despite the above initiatives, biodynamic development in Southeast Asia requires strong governmental support and financial resources, plus stimulating education and awareness initiatives.
The opportunities to pioneer new forms of sustainable living are considerable. Southeast Asia with ten markets and a combined population of more than 650 million, has an enviable diversity of eco-systems and alternative resources.
Bain & Company recently argued that developing Southeast Asia’s green economy could create over USD 1 trillion in new economic opportunities by 2030. Generating these benefits will require circular economy practices with models that reduce, restore and regenerate resources. It identified four key areas of focus: sustainable and healthy food systems, efficient industries and logistics, green and connected cities, and green financing.
Perhaps 2020 can be considered a base year. Despite myriad challenges, forward-thinking has created a platform upon which start-ups, brands and science and technology researchers can create life-changing biodegradable and upcycled solutions.