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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.