ONE MINUTE WITH
"If individuals, brands and companies starting out can address potential issues at the beginning of their journey that is awesome [...] trying to backtrack is a nightmare"
"for me, sustainability represents a challenge. I think it is an innovative field and genuinely drives disruption"
What do you do?
I currently work in research and sustainable innovation at Collective Responsibility in Shanghai. Co-founded a website called ThinkNeutral, and I am trying to set up a tampon subscription service in China - a story for another time.
What made you go into this world of work?
I didn’t get into sustainability because I had a burning passion to "save the world". I think this is in itself a damaging association, as people don't buy it. Of course, everyone wants to have impact in whatever it may be, from developing an awesome new craft beer to family to animal protection. But for me, sustainability represents a challenge. I think it is an innovative field and genuinely drives disruption. I am pragmatic though, I understand the difficulties and that everything is a balancing act. Working in “sustainability” is a bit like pushing a balloon, as soon as you push in one bit, another part pops out and you have to address it, which is frustrating. But, I don’t think I’d be satisfied nailing one part of something while not addressing another - for me that's not fun. If you nail it all, what an achievement and that is something to be immensely proud of.
What is sustainability for you?
I hear people say “sustainability, what even is that?” and to be honest I often think the same thing. It is annoyingly big for everyone and a word of disillusionment. But, to me, sustainability is just an attitude. It is approaching a problem or a business with your eyes open. Not with the blinkers on, not choosing to ignore obvious or potential negative outputs. It’s going into an area and doing your best to address all the inputs and outputs and making them as beneficial for everyone as possible. It is not altruism, it is considered business practice. Sure, you are probably not going to do everything right, but at least you’re trying to acknowledge issues and drive efficiencies where you can.
What within your work are you most passionate about?
Probably shifting the paradigm from waste as waste, to waste as a resource.
I really stumbled across a speciality in waste, but for me this mantra is what I am in to. Waste is all around us and harnessing the opportunity within it is great for everyone, because if executed well it’s good for business and reduces negative outputs. Another reason I like waste is because it is a constraint, and constraints drive creativity. More often than not innovation comes via constraints, blue sky thinking can work but at the end of the day you are applying constraints at some point.
One of my favourite quotes given to me by a mate of mine Alex Hunting, is from Eric Schmidt - "Creativity loves constraints. It’s why pictures have frames and sonnets have fourteen lines. It’s why Henry Ford set pricing for his car so low, because he knew that ‘We make more discoveries concerning manufacturing and selling under this forced method than by any other leisurely investigation.’ A lack of resources forces ingenuity"
Waste fits this perfectly. You have something in front on you. Take what you have, innovate, make it better and more useful.
What was the last good book you read?
Let My People Go Surfing - Yvon Chouinard.
Why is Shanghai an exciting place for you to be right now?
China is like the wild west, if you have an idea you can get it done. Whether it is successful or not is up to you, but in terms of low start-up costs, great networks and people’s enthusiasm to help it is unrivalled. Shanghai is like no other place I have been in terms of hyper connectivity and crazy numbers of people from all over the world. There are literally people from everywhere giving something a go.
Learning about China and getting to understand a culture so different to mine has also been a lot of fun. I can’t pretend to have scratched the surface, and language is an issue, but living here has taught me a lot about the positives (and negatives) of different ways of living and approaches to life. Don’t get me wrong, though, it is a shitty place to live sometimes, it gets mega polluted, is a concrete jungle and a long way from home, but right now I think it's a good place to be. You learn so fast, are forced into new situations and have responsibilities that you can’t get in your home country.
Do you think small brands can make as much as an impact as big brands in terms of sustainability?
Yes absolutely, but in a different way. I think the role of small brands is to drive the conversation and make sustainability cool, but definitely not to be preachy - that is not cool. Big brands on the other hand can do this, but at the same time have the ability to influence the large infrastructural changes required.
Since living in China I feel a need for this more acutely, here you literally breath in the externalities of systems. I get that this is an unfortunate necessity of growth, but if you’re telling me we can’t do better I would argue against that. That is why as individuals, brands and companies starting out, if you can address potential issues at the beginning of your journey that is awesome. If you don't do it right from the start then you will get stuck in the system and trying to backtrack is a nightmare. The initial development will no doubt be harder, but in the long run I believe it will benefit your business. And surely it’s more fun!
What your best purchase in the last year?
A book by the founder of Patagonia called Let My People Go Surfing, just read it. Or a plane ticket to Taiwan, love that place.
What’s next for you?
Keep working away in this area. I would really like to move into a role that is more focused on pure innovation or transforming business models at some point. It doesn’t have to be sustainable, I am just keen to develop better process and focus in the area. My goal is to have my own company or startup that develops wastes as a resource. But if it all fails I’ll go to an island and trade coconuts or if my tampon business comes off I’ll happily say I am a tampon entrepreneur.
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