This Sustainability Leader Is Turning Trash into Treasure
Aining Ouyang of Renato Lab has evolved the company from an upcycled design studio to a circular economy consultancy
Aining Ouyang has an admission to make. Despite being the chief operating officer of Taipei-based circular economy consultancy Renato Lab, which works with organisations to come up with innovative ways to reduce waste, cut their carbon footprint and generally up their sustainable game, she wasn’t always an enthusiast for the subject—or even someone who knew very much about it.
“Before I entered this field, I didn’t know what the circular economy and sustainability actually were,” she says.
While Renato Lab is all about the science, she comes from more of an arts background. After studying business administration at Chinese Culture University near Taipei and finding it “kind of boring”, she changed course and studied cultural engineering and art history at Paris’s prestigious Sorbonne, before working in the arts, in roles including marketing and event organisation.
“It was the first time I realised that if I worked hard, I could make changes in my life,” she says. “A few years later, I thought it would be possible to make other changes”—such as when she made her second career change, into sustainability.
“People asked me why I made the change in my career. But it wasn’t so risky: I learned that change is possible before I joined this company. I decided to work in the arts because I believe art can change people’s perspectives. Sustainability also allows us to shift our understanding.”
After working for a couple of years in Paris after graduation, she returned to Taiwan at the end of 2012. Renato Lab was established in 2014, and she joined in 2016, after she was approached by its founder Wang Chia Hsiang and another former colleague. “They said to me that Renato Lab had a series of projects turning trash into products. I was familiar with the design field, although just about marketing products, but I thought it shouldn’t be so difficult for me.
“A year later, when I had more understanding of sustainability, I found myself asking: how many tables or lamps or chairs are needed in this world? Are we just going to be a recycled version of Ikea?”
As a result, she spearheaded the company’s transformation, repositioning it from a designer and maker of recycled and upcycled products into a circular economy consultancy.
“Raw materials, products and waste are all the same things at different periods of their life,” says Ouyang. “At every stage of an object’s life, some circular economic actions can be taken: when it’s trash, recycling; but earlier, when it’s still a product, you can repair, or lease instead of buying; and at the raw material stage, you can use recyclable materials.
“Over the past few years, the way we work with clients is changing year by year; you can see how the world has changed in the past five or six years,” she says. “In 2017 we usually got requests, from manufacturers in Taiwan, usually SMEs, like this: ‘We are a Something company; we have a lot of Something—can you do anything with that?’ A few years later, they already have goals or a commitment of some sort; for example, they want to reduce plastic. They know what they want, and we find an action plan for them.”
Renato has, for example, worked with e-waste company Super Dragon Technology to upcycle discarded circuit boards into Restone, a new material that has been used to make everything from tables to ice buckets to bookends. It has designed channels for public recycling of disposable cups, and for recycling e-waste via convenience stores. And it has worked with hair care brand Aromase to introduce recycled packaging, in the process saving 13.8 tonnes of plastic and reducing carbon emissions by 93.7 percent.
The company is also focused on educational initiatives. It organises regular knowledge salons, was behind the Future is Now and Disaster or Design exhibitions in 2019 and 2020 respectively, and has produced a circular design guidebook for the electronics, electrical and appliances industry.
Companies that work with global supply chains are usually at a more advanced stage than most when it comes to considering circular economics, she says, with certain standards of sustainability often a condition of working with them, particularly publicly traded companies subject to listings requirements. Certain industries are also ahead of the curve, Ouyang adds, such as ICT, a sector in which Taiwan is a leader.
These days the company tends to work with larger organisations, mainly because they have more bandwidth to consider sustainability issues. In fact, finding a way to apply the same sort of services to SMEs that Renato Lab does to larger companies is something she describes as “one of my focuses in the next decade. It needs to be budget-friendly and easy to implement, and we need to create a common language to make it easy to understand. When people talk about circular economics, there’s a lot of jargon”.