From The Dump To The Boardroom: How Rashvin Pal Singh Made Upcycling Cool
The Biji-Biji Initiative founder tells Gen.T how he turned a pile of rubbish into an international business
Rashvin Pal Singh first got the idea for Biji-Biji Initiative when he saw a pile of discarded wood outside a new-build house in Kuala Lumpur. Most people would walk past without a backward glance, but Singh immediately saw the potential in this beautiful wooden flooring and ornate ceiling finishes, so he arranged to take them home. The rest, much like those interiors might have been, is history.
“Coming from an urban context, the most glaring problem we have with sustainability is the waste problem,” he explains, on the phone from Malaysia. “The linear economy simply doesn’t work. I realised that people could get excited about a circular economy as soon as I brought all the wood back to my apartment, put a post on Facebook to call for ideas, and then started making a few things.”
After they sold quickly on social media, he realised that what had begun as a weekend project could turn into something bigger—both for himself and Malaysian consumption habits.
"Humanity is at a turning point," he explains. "In our pursuit of modernity, we have wanted more and more, faster and faster. Our access to healthcare has never been better, and the human lifespan is the longest it has ever been in the history of mankind. Today, the average person has access to technology that was unfathomable just half a century ago. For all our successes, there is a dark side: our consumption patterns. We have been taught to believe that buying more things will bring happiness. In the name of progress, we have neglected the ecosystem around us. We have lost touch with nature and in doing so, we have suffered an extreme loss of biodiversity. Rather than completely cease to consume, our mission must be to reimagine consumption in a way that is beneficial to the people as well as to the planet."
For Singh, all it took to see the deeper value in discarded goods was to look beyond the surface. Waste is only waste because you no longer use that particular product yourself. But that is a very subjective attitude—look beyond the superficial, and you start seeing the intrinsic value in goods. In other words that old T-shirt or punctured bike tyre could be used in hundreds of new ways, and should never be mindlessly tossed away. "Circularity makes you think longer term," Singh explains. "It makes you go shopping to look at things differently, to see material value over brands. Stop thinking about the season and start thinking about timelessness. That mind shift is the only way we can change consumption habits."
Once he started thinking differently, Singh decided to give up his day job and focus on Biji Biji—which means "seed" in Malay—full-time. He employed a team of designers and started collaborating with workshops around the globe to re-purpose goods, making his design templates open-source so they could be used free of charge. A discarded rubber tyre, for instance, can be used to make beautiful accessories, while seat-belts that were declared unsafe for use by the car industry have been used as straps for luggage or even curtain rails in the home.
"The gap we identified was having the space and the tools to upcycle goods," he explains. "When we started talking to the public we realised they were hungry for this concept, they just didn't know how to do it practically. But in most towns and cities you can find access to a workshop with tools—and then you can do anything. It is so empowering to bring something to life like this."
The passion in Singh's voice is clear as he speaks—and he talks effusively about the creativity that it takes to repurpose an object into something completely new, and how much more satisfying that is that creating something from nothing. The Biji-Biji ethical fashion label is booming, selling everything from backpacks to bowties, all made with upcycled materials, through its e-commerce channel. In addition, the team continues to work with communities around Asia to train and employ people in green energy creation and upcycling techniques.
"The main beneficiaries are the underserved communities that will be empowered to recycle and produce new products made of plastic waste," he says. "We are working with those from remote villages with a lack of access to recycling facilities—they start to develop a sustainable mindset through our educational programmes."
While one might expect the majority of Biji-Biji's supporters and customers to be Gen Z eco-warriors, Singh has been surprised to find that the majority of his most loyal customers are over 60. "The combination of creativity and a love of nature has lead to this passion for ideas and free design—people feel empowered to solve this, and it's creating real communities around the world. We do work with a lot of people under the age of 25, but the biggest group is retirees, aged 55 to 70. They're super passionate and they reconnect with the idea of using things differently—the concept of not being wasteful and appreciating every product."
To test Singh's theory that this is a global movement, I decided to visit the closest workshop I could find. I'm currently in South Africa, and in the centre of Cape Town—under the shadow of Table Mountain—I spent the morning in a creative hub packed with tools, materials and hard-working designers. And here, thousands of miles from Singh's home in Malaysia, people were inspired by his designs—proving how rapidly good innovation can spread.