Cover Attiya Zulkarnain, Haris Kamal, Najmia Zulkarnain, Ariff Faisal and Harith Ridzuan

Meet the people behind these homegrown brands that aim to bring greater awareness about the impact of our consumption, from fashion to gelato, on our planet

In this month’s issue, Tatler talks to the people who are trying to make a difference—each from different walks of life but all with the very same goal: to try to make the world a better place, no matter how cheesy that sounds.

See also: How 4 Innovative Environmental Advocates are Working to Solve the Plastic Pollution Crisis

Atiyya and Najmia Zulkarnain, founders of Unplug and Real.m

Though sisters Atiyya and Najmia Zulkarnain of eco-conscious brands Real.m and Unplug admit that normalising eco-consciousness as an everyday practice is an ongoing battle, they’ve observed an uptick in local interest towards homegrown, ethical labels that offer everything from food and skincare to fashion. “When we started in 2015, the general public’s knowledge of sustainability was little to none at all,” says Najmia.

“While the conversation about being eco-conscious today is loud and clear, especially with the younger generation, the accessibility isn’t 100 per cent there yet. When we talk about commercial spaces or platforms, I don’t see a lot of eco-conscious lifestyle brands, save for skincare ones. Even zero-waste shops have a hard time taking off. The bottom line is that if you want to see substantial socioeconomic impact, then it takes all parts of society to drive that level of change.”

See also: Climate Change 2022: 5 Main Takeaways From the IPCC Report

Atiyya, meanwhile, wonders whether the concept is being seen as merely a trend. “I find that worrying because what happens when sustainability falls out of fashion? Will it still be a thing if it isn’t trending? If we want to make actual progress, it should be seen as a normal, everyday thing you do and not just a fad.” To avoid intimidating sustainability newcomers, it was important to the sisters that they offered different approaches towards the lifestyle; the more accessible sustainability is, the more everyone will be on board.

However, the higher price tag associated with many sustainable lifestyle choices are often met with incredulity and hesitation.

“We just carried out a sustainable survey of 73 respondents the other day, and one of the questions we asked was: ‘Is living sustainably easy for you?’ The most popular answer was ‘no’ because sustainable products cost more,” Najmia says. “Some people have asked us about why our organic cotton shirts cost more than a bigger label’s but what they don’t realise is the cost to make it, and the hours it took to weave, sew and source the material of the garment. This is why we need to be transparent about our costings, so that people can understand why they are priced the way they are. Progress is slow, but with local researchers and policymakers urging for the adoption of ESG [environment, social, and governance] standards, major companies are interested in collaborating with us, so I’d say we’re headed towards the right direction.”

See also: Is Fashion Truly Sustainable?

Further down the pipeline, the two intend to adapt Unplug into a benefit corporation, a certified governing body that measures and verifies a business’s social environmental impact. Even if the procedure to become one is lengthy, the two are willing to go the extra mile. “Sustainability isn’t just some buzzword, and it’s more than just buying alternatives,” says Atiyya. “Malaysian society isn’t there yet, but things as simple as sorting out your recyclables properly, no overconsumption, taking care of your belongings to prolong their life cycle… it’s a way of living, and it’s something that we should be teaching our kids as soon as they’re able to learn. It’s more than just a business, and it’s more than just a trend to follow.”

Harith Ridzuan, founder of The Green Factory

Harith Ridzuan never aspired to run the family business. The eldest of 10 siblings, the 36-year-old Ampang native had always wanted to be a scientist but was groomed from a young age to take over One Tech, a furniture business founded by his parents in 1993. When Ridzuan formally took over the reins in 2012, he took it upon himself to review the company’s outdated business practices and revamp its furniture design. As he was searching for a new direction, he wondered how much the furniture industry contributed to the country’s deforestation problem.

“Malaysia has one of the largest wood industries globally; however, we are not known to be sustainable. I observed there is a lot of wastage in the industry,” explains Harith. “I saw there was an opportunity to shift the company’s direction to become more sustainable.”

Though he had had no insight into the green furniture industry, through his research, Harith grew increasingly passionate about sustainability, championing green manufacturing and sustainable woodworking.

His efforts started small: he noticed there was a lot of excess wood at his furniture factory, so he would later take them and create furniture, kitchenware and decorations. Harith would later set up The Green Factory, becoming Malaysia’s pioneering manufacturer of sustainable wood products. He says upcycled wood is unfairly portrayed as inferior to “new” wood but assures us that it remains solid and high quality. The only difference, he says, is that upcycled wood may have nail holes that may affect its appearance, but otherwise, it is as good as new. 

See also: The Best Green Furniture in Recycled Materials

Harith says The Green Factory counts hotels like the Mandarin Oriental, Alila and RuMa as clients, adding that the products are also popular in cafés around the Klang Valley.

He builds recycled wood products prototypes in his 1,117 sq ft workshop which also serves as a training centre. The company aims to increase the adoption of sustainable production of timber products in Malaysia; this includes sourcing eco-friendly materials, using green designs and waste management.

Though he spends most of his time these days managing the company, Harith occasionally drops by the workshop to experiment with new ways to repurpose discarded pieces of wood and turn them into beautiful products. Part of his passion and objective, moving forward, is to train the next generation of green carpenters. Harith believes it is never too early to start thinking about succession planning; he already has a 100-year succession plan to future-proof the business and, much like his father, talks to his young children about the business—though he does not want to force them to join the company if they do not want to.

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Elena Cheurina, founder of Ozero Swimwear

“It’s a lot of overconsumption,” Elena Cheurina of Ozero Swimwear says. “People don’t realise it, but there’s just so many clothes being churned out every single day by so many brands worldwide. If you think about it, we’re not just talking about spring-summer, fall-winter anymore. Malaysia has other seasonal collections, like Raya clothes for instance.

“What causes the cycle of overconsumption is the mindset of the consumers when it comes to seasonal clothing. You buy it for the one time you’d ever wear them, and then you never wear it again. There’s nothing wrong with wearing the same clothes. And the thing is, being a model, I have a first-hand account of just how much clothing is being produced every year.”

And one of those one-and-done clothing, was swimwear.

Two years prior to launching the brand in 2018, Cheurina realised that there weren’t a lot of good quality swimsuits in middle-ranged prices, and decided that she would make them herself. During her market research, she learned more about the cheap, conventional materials used to create swimwear—which were polyester and Lycra—as well as the consequences of using them. Then, she chanced upon Econyl, a recycled nylon that is woven with yarn created from plastic waste, old rugs, carpets, textile waste, used garments, fishing nets and reclaimed old debris. From thereon, Ozero’s idea solidified further. 

When she finally released the swimsuits, the initial reception was lukewarm at best as the concept of sustainable swimwear was still fresh. But Cheurina hesitated to brand Ozero as eco-conscious at first. Passionate about designing with a cause, she stresses that being sustainable was more than just branding and until today, she continues to look for alternative materials that are more sustainable.

“Let’s face it, it’s still plastic. While they don’t use crude oil to make Econyl, it still sheds microplastic in the environment, which is one of the biggest environmental problems today. “But trying to find stretchy, comfortable and durable fabric for swimwear is exceedingly difficult because, at the end of the day, nylon is pretty much the go-to high performance material [of choice] as it has high resistance towards harsh conditions like chlorine, sun, tanning lotions, sunblock and so on. This is why it’s such a challenge to source a better option than regenerated nylon.”

See also: Paul&Shark, Fashion's Innovative Champion Of Sustainability

When asked if sustainability was considered an expensive venture for business as well as their consumers, Cheurina says it’s both a yes and no. On one hand, while sustainable materials are both difficult to procure and source, they last longer and cost less when you buy less, thus making them a long-time investment if they are well-kept. “People ask me all the time if I could do cheaper ranges, but the only thing I can say is that if you want it cheaper, then it’s not going to be sustainable,” she says.

Ariff Faisal and Haris Kamal, founders of Kualesa

After working in the corporate world for several years, Ariff Faisal looked for a purpose and a means to change the world. He found his true calling during a snorkelling trip when he was shocked to see an entire coral reef dead. Ariff later learned about the harmful effects synthetic fibres had on the environment.

Cheap synthetic materials have long been a staple in the fashion industry. They take a long time to decompose, while creating long-term pollution. What’s more, washing such clothes releases microplastics from the fibre which eventually ends up in the ocean. After looking through his wardrobe, Ariff discovered that many of his clothes contained polyester; at that moment, his eco-conscious side woke up and he dove headfirst into the world of sustainable textiles.

Ariff recruited his best friend, Haris Kamal, to start Kualesa, a brand offering batik-printed polo shirts and solid-coloured polos and T-shirts for men; women’s wear is on the cards, too. This direct-to-consumer online apparel business uses bamboo lyocell, an eco-friendly, biodegradable alternative to the textiles most commonly used in the fashion industry.

The brand’s founder and chief executive says it made sense for the two friends to work together as Haris, the co-founder and chief operating officer, had experience working in the e-commerce industry and was familiar with setting up an online business.

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The pair decided to use bamboo lyocell in their apparel because bamboo is a sustainable source due to its rapid regeneration: new bamboo shoots can reach their maximum height in just eight weeks, so there is already a recent shoot standing in the place of harvested bamboo.

Kualesa garments are soft and comfortable, and the fabric has temperature-regulating properties. “It is great for those who lead an active lifestyle; it is also biodegradable and crease-resistant,” says Haris. To make the fabric, Haris explains that harvested bamboo is pulverised into pulp, then spun into textile fibre before it is woven into the final product, bamboo lyocell fabric.

For Kualesa, the material is then printed or dyed with unique designs. Adding to the fabric’s sustainability is the fact that 99 per cent of the water and non-toxic chemicals used are processed, and recycled to use again. Thus, significantly reducing water consumption. The two co-founders have also made it their mission to restore the rainforests of Malaysia by planting one tree in the rainforest for every order. Kualesa is working with the Orang Asli in Kuala Tahan in Pahang to strategically plant a variety of tree species while providing the people with meaningful work opportunities.

Just as the fashion industry constantly evolves, sustainable clothing is also changing. Ariff says they are exploring sourcing from other plants besides bamboo, including coconut husks, pineapple leaves, banana leaves and food waste.

“The plantation industry is producing a lot of waste, and we see an opportunity to use excess material and turn it into clothes. We hope more brands will do the same in the future.” He believes the market is ripe in Malaysia as many members of younger generations are eco-conscious and more informed. “There is a lot of information online on social media that exposes people to the message on how we all need to live a more sustainable life.”

See also: The Future Of Fashion: What Is Thrifting And Upcycling?

Syed Zain Almohdzar, Dato’ Dr Nick Boden and Joey Azman, founders of Klean

Despite regulations and campaigns to reduce the production and use of single-use plastics, Malaysia has a serious problem with the stuff. Recycling is the obvious solution, but there is no incentive for the everyday person on the street to collect plastic waste and recycle.

Malaysian start-up Klean wants to turn that approach on its head with its unique reverse-vending machines (RVM) that reward people with points for recycling their plastics and aluminium cans. Dato’ Dr Nick Boden, a chiropractor and entrepreneur, says the idea behind the business is to re-educate people about recycling and change their perception of plastic waste. Inspired by Germany’s highly successful container deposit schemes, where nearly all containers sold are recovered and recycled, Boden hopes to emulate that success in Southeast Asia with Klean.

“We believe that using points is the best way to increase the intrinsic value of that container, so people realise they are throwing away something valuable,” he explains. As an example, South African Boden cites Klean’s partnership with Resorts World Genting which offers a free theme park ride in exchange for five plastic bottles. He says this helps improve the perception of the value of a plastic bottle, which nets as little as 10 cents per bottle at the recycling plant.

Chief technology officer Syed Zain Almohdzar explains how each RVM unit comes with features including sensors and cameras that are paired with artificial intelligence (AI) to separate plastic from aluminium waste. Users interact with the RVM via the Klean mobile app as they deposit their recyclable waste into the machine and redeem their points by scanning a QR code generated on the screen.

See also: Meet the Gen.T Honourees Fighting Plastic Pollution 

Zain is motivated by the results of a six-month pilot project during which Malaysians disposed of 100,000 plastic bottles, and redeemed nearly 90 per cent of the points allocated. He adds that the recycling data collected by the machines is invaluable in generating Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reports that include details on the total items recycled, carbon footprint saved, and which brand of drinks is recycled the most.

The start-up plans to roll out 30 new RVMs in crucial locations around the Klang Valley following their partnership with logistics giant DHL. There are also plans to create mobile RVMs that can be driven to different locations to collect plastic and aluminium waste in various communities.

Klean’s chief financial officer Joey Azman adds they are building up their database of partners with the aim of offering a greater variety of rewards for users; so far they have onboarded partners such as Touch ’n Go, Flexiroam, Resorts World Genting, iQiyi, PurelyB and Lotus’s. Besides leveraging partnerships with brands, Klean’s founders say they aim to make it a self-sustaining business using ad revenue generated by advertisements on RVMs to fund future initiatives.

Boden believes that Klean is already playing a significant role in positively impacting the environment, diverting many single-use plastic containers away from landfills and drains. His hope is that Klean meets three out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations: good health and wellbeing, responsible consumption and

Hailey Yong, founder of The Unusual Greens

When visiting the markets in search of fruits and vegetables, many of us tend to pick the ones that are picture-perfect and free of blemishes. We often feel those with marks or which are imperfectly shaped are of lower quality or even inedible. Left untouched, this “flawed” produce is sent to landfills, side-stepping the possibilities of being sold at a lower price or channelled to communities who struggle to buy enough food.

That’s what then 19-year-old Hailey Yong and her friends had realised when they were doing research for a business pitch for regional start-up competition the Hult Prize in 2020. “Reality hit us when we saw what was really going on behind the scenes in the supply chain,” says Yong. “I remember strolling down the fruit section in a wet market when I saw an uncle separating the fruits according to how they looked. And if they were of different sizes and imperfections, he’d set them behind the stall. When I asked him what he was going to do with those fruits, he said he’d either throw them away or turn them into animal feed. That’s when I realised how massive the issue was.”

Knowing that sustainability can be a hard topic to breach, Yong decided on a more relatable, “digestible” message for The Unusual Greens (TUG): using these fruits to create healthy, all- natural gelato with an accessible price tag. “The end-goal is to break the stereotype against these ‘ugly’ looking fruits,” Yong says. “By [making] gelato, we’re able to reach a wider audience and get them curious about the ingredients we use, which then allows us the opportunity to explain TUG’s story and why we use imperfect fruits.”

See also: 5 Healthier Ice Cream Brands To Try

Not everyone is easy to convince, however. “While a majority of customers are receptive to what we have to say, a fraction of them will go, ‘If you use second-grade fruits, are they even safe to consume?’ While I can’t force them to change their minds, by continuing to educate people that they shouldn’t judge produce based on its appearance because it has the same taste and the same nutrients as conventional-looking produce, I hope [more people] would be willing to listen.”

While there has been an increased awareness of food wastage, Yong says the issue hasn’t received enough attention to allow people to truly understand the negative impact and lost potential of wasted produce. “Let’s talk about food loss first,” she says. “It’s basically food that gets lost at the start of the supply chain and before retail. Take what happens in the farms for example; I had farmers tell me that because of the lack of manpower, acres and acres of fruits are left to hang on trees because there’s no one to harvest them. That’s a lot of produce lost before it even gets on the shelves.

“And retailers have policies where they have to replace the products that are on display for new ones. Just to have the freshest fruit at the front. So, importers would then import at least an additional 30 per cent for them to do that. That incurs extra costs and carbon emissions because we go to imports instead of our local farmers. But it’s so much more cost-efficient if we went to the farmers themselves—and they grow great fruits! We aren’t just looking at the financial losses; we’re looking at a waste of resources as well—did you know that a single banana tree takes half a year to grow? Think about how much effort went into that tree.”

See also: The Lost Food Project's Suzanne Mooney: Rescuing Surplus Food Saves The Planet

Yong, now 21, is trying to solidify TUG’s operations in a more circular model, and while that can get expensive, she sees it as a long-term investment. Since last November, the enterprise has helped nearly 140 families from underserved communities by giving them fresh fruit to eat; supported small businesses by buying unbought fruits; and saved more than 400kg worth of perfectly edible fruits that would have otherwise gone to landfills.

In 2021, Yong and her friends went door to door, giving away cups of gelato to members of low-income communities. When she visited a single mother and her family in the low-cost flats of Lembah Subang, Yong asked the youngest child, a 10-year-old boy named Amir, what he would do if she gave him RM100. He told her he would give it to orphans, because they needed it more than he did. That encounter inspired Yong, and she has plans in the future to expand her scope to work with children, and give them opportunities to upskill and be empowered.

“I was fortunate enough to have the chance to initiate an idea, but these children? They don’t have that,” she says. “But they have dreams—and we want to give them the chance to live them.”

  • PhotographyKim Mun
  • StylingAndrea Kee
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