Working for the planet via green entrepreneurship.
For some people, going green means switching off a light or two, using more public transportation or joining an environmental awareness group. For others, it is about immersing themselves in green entrepreneurship.
HOW many of us have had green ideals but never quite knew how to contribute to the cause? This quandary troubled Firdaus Nisha Muhammad Faizal, 29, and Loo Ly Mun, 31, who as avid travellers could no longer turn a blind eye towards the increasing deterioration of Mother Nature.
This spelt the birth of Ecocentric, a business that focuses on promoting environmental education and a sustainable lifestyle.
Nisha, who studied aeronautical engineering, says the pair has always been adventurous and the outdoor-type and are both members of Raleigh International. They got their environmental wake-up call right in their very own home.
“We took a look at the amount of waste we were producing and the plastics we were using in our house. When we bought our 3-in-1 coffee, it was a packet in a package in a plastic bag. We realised this had to change and this was how we got into the whole idea of sustainable living,” says Nisha.
The concept of sustainability is evident in their living space. Their home has a mini organic farm in the backyard. Various vegetables and fruits such as chillies, bananas and okra are grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilisers. A specially designed gutter directs rainwater to a large tank, and the water is used for washing clothes and cleaning floors. When one walks into their home, jars of organic compost and soapnuts can be seen lying around as testament to their green lifestyle.
Even though their enterprise only began last March, their list of activities and projects is already a lengthy one. They began by conducting sustainable gardening campaigns for schools, selling compost bins and facilitating youth programmes for the National Science Centre and school nature clubs.
“We run these workshops called Discovery Weekend for kids where we have activities such as solar cooker building, pinhole camera building, walkabouts and nature hunts. We get paid as facilitators for these workshops where we try to empower kids and teach them about nature and the environment. The important aspect is to not only organise these activities but to facilitate the discussion after that because these kids have so much to share but there has to be a trigger to the conversation,” says Nisha.
Along with sustainable living, they are also promoting the concept of organic farming. “From a sustainable perspective, we need to eat food that is locally grown, that contains no pesticide and that is full of nutrition. Most of the food we eat has been sapped of nutrients and we need to change this trend,” says Nisha.
Even with their green ideals, both Loo and Nisha realise that they need to have food on the table, organic or not. Promoting organic farming and compost bins may be personally fulfilling but it proved to be a financially difficult business model.
“We initially wanted to just sell compost bins. But we found that it takes a whole day to make one bin. Then we tried selling compost but it took three months to make a bag, which would only sell for RM80. Then we drew on our strengths which were running workshops and sustainability consultancy and we have been building on that since,” says Nisha.
As of now, their main source of income is their sustainable living consultancy where they provide green guidance for property projects.
In a current project, they are incorporating green concepts such as container gardening and harvesting of rainwater and greywater (wastewater from kitchens and bathrooms) into a residential development in Kuala Lumpur. They will collaborate with the developer to design designated composting and recycling areas so that residents can dispose of waste in the most efficient and eco-friendly manner possible.
Their plans for the future includes running more workshops and building on their consultancy service. However, they have not lost track of their original principles, upon which their business was founded. “What we are trying to do is to raise awareness about all these different areas which relate back to food, people, health and sustainability,” says Nisha.
THE green movement knows neither boundaries nor nationalities, as epitomised by 38-year-old Petri Marttinen who has brought his environmental enthusiasm halfway around the world to Malaysia.
The Finn is chief operating officer of My Khatulistiwa (khatulistiwa.com.my) which helps companies organise corporate social responsibility (CSR) events such as tree planting, river cleaning and creating organic farms for orphanages.
The company also provides green roofing services for various projects. Green roofs are a layer of living plants which can be installed on the roof of almost any structure. Green roofs keep buildings cooler, which means less air-conditioning is required and more energy saved. My Khatulistiwa also offers eco-conscious products such as reusable bags, planter boxes and eco-friendly soaps. Their seedling kits are suitable for children and can be planted in an indoor environment such as offices.
“All these green solutions can create awareness. That is why we also teach people how to make soap and grow a spice garden. We also focus on reaching out to the community and schools as they are the future of our environment,” says Marttinen.
Being green was not a growing interest for him; it is in his blood.
“There was always this green person in me. I come from Finland where the people take the environment very seriously. So, I was born with this awareness and also my parents influenced me by not creating waste and so on. One day, I just realised that my passion was too strong so I quit my job in Information Technology and started volunteering for various organisations,” explains Marttinen.
Shyam Priah, the current chief executive officer of My Khatulistiwa, founded the company last March and took on a core team of five individuals, which included Marttinen. With the help of temporary workers and volunteers, they have organised events with partners such as Sunway University and &samhoud, a Dutch consultancy firm that recently won Employer of the Year at the European Business Awards 2010.
For their future plans, My Khatulistiwa will build on their steady growth and collaborate with more partners. “I foresee the CSR movement getting stronger which is something we want to encourage and support. With companies becoming more ecologically transparent, we hope to one day become a one-stop CSR centre,” says Marttinen.
Worn with conscience
HEMA and Gayathri Vadivelu are two individuals who have adopted business concepts that are green yet economically feasible at the same time. They launched their eco-conscious clothing line named The Dive Label (thedivelabel.com) last June.
Their philosophy is to make profits based on principles of environmental responsibility.
The duo realised the challenges they would face when they started the business. “Everyone thinks that going green means that you must be a treehugger or an environmentalist. We wanted to come up with a line that is catchy with eco-conscious messages and see how people respond to them,” says 30-year-old Gayathri, a former professional dancer.
In order to be accessible and for their message to reach the public, they had to find a product that was easily recognisable and reasonably priced.
“T-shirts generally transcend age. You can be five or 50 years old and you would still be wearing one,” says 39-year-old Hema, who has extensive background in retail and merchandising.
The Dive Label strives to be different from other clothing lines by using 100% organic cotton as the material for their T-shirts. One of their objectives is to raise awareness about the dangers that artificial cotton poses to not only the environment, but the people as well.
“Cotton is actually quite harmful to the environment. The amount of pesticides and chemicals used in manufacturing shirts is substantial. That is why we promote organic cotton whereby the method of cultivation uses no chemicals and the farmers will benefit from a healthier lifestyle,” says Hema.
This healthy lifestyle that they promote has also permeated into their how they run their business as well as their way of life. Hema and Gayathri feel that it would be very hypocritical of them to not practise what they preach.
Hema knows the importance of sticking to their initial principles: “We started off by just wanting to sell a product that could make a small contribution to a cause. But after a while, we realised that we had to be true to our convictions and we switched to recycled paper name cards and leaflets.
“The leaflets come with seeds sponsored by Forest Research Institute Malaysia so everyone can plant and grow a tree.” The Dive Label also contributes 10% of their profits – which amounts to about RM7,000 to date – to the Malaysian Nature Society.
Even as a relatively new enterprise, The Dive Label has created waves amongst the green community and this has pushed the sisters to expand their range of merchandise.
“We not only have our own clothing line but we create custom-made products for eco-conscious clients.
“We want to associate ourselves with companies which are putting in an effort to promote sustainable living,” says Gayathri.
As part of their future plans, the sisters intend to open up their own store.
For now, they just want to collaborate with different organisations to raise awareness about what they believe in, which is caring for the environment.
By GEOFFREY YEOW