ReThinking ReThink: Key takeaways from Hong Kong’s biggest and most approachable sustainability conference

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Cyril Ma and Beth Kong reflect ReThink 2021, two days in early October of new ideas in environmental management, corporate responsibility and sustainability startups, all in an attempt to better the world around us before it’s too late.

In 2019, Chris Brown decided on a change of career and went from organising the Cloud Expo Asia, Hong Kong’s largest ICT conference, to running sustainability conferences aimed at corporates. It was an ambitious project as Hong Kong is not known for its eco-friendly lifestyle.

The first incarnation of ReThink in 2020 was held in the hall of K11 Atelier, North Point with some fanfare from environmental groups. Using his extensive background in events management and B2B sales, Chris managed to gain an impressive line-up for the first foray including Mandarin Oriental, Coca-Cola, Cathay Pacific and professors from HKU and HKUST. Charities and Startups such as FeedingHK and Soap Cycle were also more than happy to be part of the green experiment.

Come October 2021; ReThink’s showcase has moved into the Exhibition Centre itself. In 2020 all lectures and seminars were held in one large meeting room, now there are five corporate-sponsored theatres, two workshops and a VIP lounge. There’s still only one exhibition hall, but the hall included over 130 exhibitors. Larger international companies such as BMW showcased their new electrical vehicles, while local green thumbs Grow Something brought in full vegetable growing kits, providing all-inclusive planting services for residential and corporate spaces. Materials included!

In an interview with Hive Life during the run-up to ReThink 2020, Chris talked about a survey he conducted in Causeway Bay that tried to gauge what local businesses thought of sustainability.

“Generally, the answer is not a lot,” he said, “I found there was some awareness of a global environmental problem, but little understanding of the impact that it would have on their business specifically nor Hong Kong as a whole”.

Ironically, it is not as if Hong Kong as a city is blind to issues of the environment and sustainability. WWF has had a regional headquarter in the city since 1981, and for one of the densest cities in the world, the majority of Hong Kong’s land is actually taken up by conservation-driven country parks which account for 56% of the territory’s land. However, stepping out of the bright green lights is a city where the status-quo simply has the environment play second-fiddle to the ‘real world’.

Hong Kong is not a particularly environmentally friendly society. Even for those who do want to play their part for the environment, Hong Kong is not easy place to do so. Sustainable and eco-friendly products are perceived to be for the wealthy, not something that the down-to-earth, realistic local has to deal with. It is much easier, and cheaper, for a coffee shop to give you a takeaway cup than it is for them to stock porcelain when most customers don’t mind either way – even if they’re dining in.

Opening new conversations

One misconception that underlay much of the two days was the idea that business and sustainability were incompatible. Sustainable methods are expensive, and it only makes sense that struggling businesses (all the more compounded by COVID-19) would choose profit over the environment.  

But speakers, which included representatives from highly successful businesses, all stressed this should not, and is not the case:

Joshua Wong, Manager of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable from Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels gave a worrying yet hopeful case. The Peninsula, one of his brand’s flagship hotels, no longer has king crab on the menu. Climate change has greatly reduced its numbers and the fisherman are unable to give him a steady supply.

Sustainble Communities Speech
Image: Cyril Ma

 “As a corporate, we know what sustainable seafood is,” said Wong “but […] we are not the ones who catch the fish”.

“This is really happening […] harming the environment ruins business”.

So, just as they were one of the first hotels to ban shark fin, they also cut Alaskan King Crab until a sustainable source is found.

The definition of sustainability was redefined too. While the convention’s focus was still primarily on environmental sustainability, discussions on value-driven leadership, women and minorities in the workplace, and cultural shifts also took place. The Change Makers stage was the primary location for these talks and included presentations from Ms Swati Bani, director of FSI: the Foundation for Shared Impact.

Image: Cyril Ma

“A philosophy” describes Bani of her organisation, “thought leadership”, rather than a traditional company or think-tank. FSI aims to solve societal problems by bringing together different organisations, experts, charities, businesses and the like to share knowledge, data and to ultimately collaborate on solving problems.  

Bani noted that social impact organisations may not even be sure what the problem they are solving truly is, and quite often when one is unsure about their actual goals, they end up wasting time, energy and investments (which are not infinite).

“Big problems are hard to explain”, said Bani. To this end FSI utilises data analysis which allows them to measure the impact of an organisation on their alleged goals, find the root problem and then bring people together to find solutions.

To Bani, and many others who spoke at Change Makers, sustainability is not just about green technology and carbon neutrality but ensuring that economic and policy changes won’t disproportionately affect those already disadvantaged like women and minorities.

Ideas and Solutions

While theatres were filled with speakers giving ideas, engaging us in a conversation about the future, the main hall was filled with existing solutions. Some were established institutions looking to show off their newest environmental foray – BMW’s new electric charging ports, Nescafe’s own slave-free and environmentally friendly accreditation, Britain’s wind farms, and several companies promoting their version of an easily usable recycling machine for housing estates.

Image: Cyril Ma

The hall’s air sanitization was carried out by one of the exhibitions – several robots that patrolled the walkways cleaning the air as it went. These automatons built by Rice Robots are already used in many established premises around Hong Kong such as in Lee Gardens and K11.

Start-ups were not excluded and were highly welcomed. Breer, Hong Kong’s first sustainable beer company, makes beer from surplus leftover bread. CHOMP, a free-to-download phone app pairs up with local restaurants to sell you food that would otherwise be wasted at a discount. And IslandLife makes dehydrated cleaning products in tablet form – just add water.

Innovation sometimes merged with the whimsical: EcoBricks makes bricks from wasted plastic. The founder, tall and lanky Shervin Sharghy, was an investment banker who quit his job to literally make bricks. They now have staff and a factory in Sheung Shui, so Sharghy no longer needs to pour cement himself.

Image: Cyril Ma

There was diplomatic representation too with both the European Union and European Chambers of Commerce giving out cookbooks, fans, cups and other knick-knacks. The Finnish Chamber of Commerce had their own little food and drink stall with juice, and boxed spring water featuring a picture of the endangered Saimma Ringed Seal. Although it seemed odd to be selling boxed spring water at a sustainability event, the storekeeper assured me it was not only fully recyclable but that a percentage of proceeds went towards conservation for the ringed seals. Other representations included Canada and Great Britain, both of which held large stalls showing their latest developments in sustainable technology.

Building a sustainable future for all

In a talk given by Walter von Hattum, the European Union, Head of Economic and Trade, Hattum noted how the EU’s new Green Deal seeks to use their position as the world’s largest single market to influence sustainable development worldwide.

“We no longer trade for coffers, we trade for sustainability,” said Hattum proudly.

Ironically, the EU is not going the conventional route of reducing development into traditionally environmentally damaging industries such as clothing, travel and energy.

“We want investors to invest in polluting industries. Divesting doesn’t solve the problems.”

Instead, he hopes that through more investment – but with a sustainability caveat – there will be an incentive to create methods and technologies that will reduce pollution without completely destroying businesses.

Sustainability encompasses all parts of society. In his speech, Hattum specifically noted labour rights, governance and human rights. But at the same time, it also encompasses businesses, technology, education and many other issues.

Although the situation is serious – our landfills are running out, sea levels are rising, the Peninsula is still (last I checked) out of King Crab, Hattum says that “it’s not a race”; instead, “it’s a football game”.

“You have to work as a team.”

Not shying away from the political dimension, Hattum carried on to explain how the EU once tried to use their political and economic power to solve human rights issues quickly and decisively in Myanmar.

“It didn’t work,” he said.

Instead, learning from that lesson, he hopes that sustainable development through collaboration and incentivisation, rather than hard-and-fast rules or interference will allow them to “use our sustainability for a way to bypass the geopolitical issues that plague our day”.

Geopolitics aside, there are many valid reasons one may choose to be non-sustainable. The difficulty of accessing recycling sites, the price of sustainable products, lack of education on the long-lasting effects of climate change and pollution are all reasons, but if there is one takeaway lesson from ReThink, it is that sustainability is possible and can be for everyone.

“We don’t want sustainability to just be for the rich mid-levels girl with a chihuahua,” said Sunny Pal from Island Life, “It should be affordable and easy for everyone”. Their tablets are around 20$, delivered to your home in recyclable paper packaging.

Image: Cyril Ma

Our current lifestyle is unsustainable. In 2018, Hong Kong’s recycling rate was 30%, one of the lowest regionally, lagging behind Taiwan at 55% and Singapore at 61%. In fact, Hong Kong’s landfills were meant to be at capacity by the end of 2020. A quick expansion to the South-East New Territories (SENT) landfill will let us hold out until 2030 but the solution is admittedly temporary and does not solve the much deeper core problem.

We need new ideas, new technology and a new culture that promotes sustainable living across all parts of society. We need collaboration and inspiration.

“Tell us what help you need and we will help you – as long as you want us to,” said founder Chris Brown in his keynote speech.

“Please be inspired to accelerate the change.”

In his keynote speech, KS Wong, Secretary for the Environment, noted the government’s big goals for decarbonisation.

“Our tactic is more aggressive than other economies in East Asia,” said Wong.

“Other countries wish to decarbonise by 2050, we stated that we will do it before 2050”.

Plans are indeed ambitious with the government planning on introducing a charge for Municipal Solid Waste, which will hopefully incentivize recycling and a roadmap for electrifying all public transport in Hong Kong to reach carbon neutrality. Already, Wong noted, 1/8th of all private vehicles in Hong Kong are electric vehicles – the highest percentage in Asia. If the plan succeeds, Hong Kong will be a veritable sustainability leader not only in Asia but perhaps worldwide. However, it may take a leap of faith, or at least a long rethinking, past just government policy, to solve our issues.

This is part of a series of articles, interviews and takeovers on ReThink 2021. Find the rest here.