Bjorn Low has a confession to make: “As much as I try not to get a real tree for Christmas, there is something about a real tree that beats a plastic one – and that’s the distinctive pine smell that tells you that Christmas is here. A real tree brings more life and positive energy to a space than a plastic one can.”
Raised as a Catholic, the founder and managing director of urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City has always celebrated Christmas. But since he became aware of the amount of fuel and resources it takes to ship a tree from Europe to Singapore, the eco-warrior has been searching for more sustainable solutions.
“Last year, we did buy a cut tree. But after the season was over, we took it out to the garden, chopped it up and turned it into compost. Other years, we opt for our plastic tree which does the job well enough.”
“This year, though, we’re exploring the idea of making a Christmas tree out of recycled wood. We’re looking to piece together a tree-shaped sculpture out of pallet wood and decorating it with ornaments.”
For over a decade, Mr Low has been advocating for sustainability in Singapore and around the world. Concerned about the accelerating impact of climate change, the father of two had earlier ditched his high-flying advertising career in London to work on organic farms across Europe.
He returned home in 2012 to co-found Edible Garden City with the aim of improving food production sustainability in Singapore, a country that imports 90 percent of its food. Today, Edible Garden City has helped design and build hundreds of commercial and residential food gardens on rooftops, in kitchens and other spaces. It also supplies herbs, microgreens and flowers to several restaurants.
For Mr Low’s own Christmas dinner, he and his wife Crystal will shop for ingredients at stores such as Little Farms grocery chain or Huber’s Butchery at Dempsey, “where you can make a conscious choice on the kinds of meat you purchase, such as organic-certified meat and poultry. These stores allow you to do your due diligence by knowing where your food comes from and how they’re being farmed.”
Mr Low, who studied biodynamic agriculture in East Sussex after leaving his advertising job, said: “The training changed my perspective of how animals should be raised. For instance, I witnessed how turkeys were bred in certain English farms. They were not squeezed in small battery farms and then slaughtered. They were more free to run. And though they may be more expensive to buy, particularly during Christmas, I feel that consumers should support these ethical farms by buying from them instead.”
Mr Low, however, is optimistic that things are changing for the better here – albeit slowly: “There are more people trying to bring in small-batch meat products from ethical farms and farmers they know… Meanwhile, more florists and nurseries are bringing in potted Christmas trees which you can transfer to the garden after the season is over.”
Of course, an even more ethical option may be to simply replace the tree with other Christmas-themed potted plants that may survive longer in Singapore’s climate, such as poinsettia and sea holly. “But some people need the tree, turkey, eggnog and other familiar things they grew up with to give them that festive feel. I couldn’t ask everyone to change the way they celebrate Christmas, but I would ask them to search for more sustainable alternatives where they can.”
Tan Szue Hann, Managing Director of Miniwiz
When architect Tan Szue Hann was young, he loved unwrapping presents at Christmas time: “It’s such a joy seeing a beautifully-wrapped present with your name on it and then finding out what’s inside.” Then there are the seasonal party poppers which he happily pulled apart to watch confetti scatter through the air. “I loved the little surprise toys within them.”
As the world became more conscious of the waste it’s accumulating, Mr Tan’s attitude towards Christmas celebrations quickly shifted. “You become aware of how much waste these celebrations produce, and you think about how to have a more meaningful Christmas with the people you love, without the need for those things.”
Presents are now wrapped – if they have to be – with recycled architectural drawings, butter paper sketches and old office printouts. Instead of gifting books, Mr Tan gifts e-books, streaming subscriptions, online shopping vouchers and e-gift cards – none of which needs to be wrapped. For special occasions such as weddings and Chinese New Year, the father of two opts for e-ang paos via e-banking apps to eliminate the use of red packets.
Mr Tan is the Managing Director of Miniwiz Singapore, an upcycling firm that transforms waste material into interiors, furniture, clothes and other consumer products. It also turns plastic and agricultural waste into building and construction materials that have been used to construct the EcoArk in Taipei, the Jackie Chan Stuntman Training Centre in Tianjin, and other buildings.
Considering that Singapore produced 7.7 million tonnes of waste last year – enough to fill 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools – there is a need to look closely at how the country can reduce its trash and repurpose its recyclable waste. These are the sorts of challenges that Miniwiz, founded in Taipei in 2004 by Taiwanese architect Arthur Huang, tackles.
At home, Mr Tan practises what he preaches. For his Christmas potluck parties, he requests his guests bring food that’s just enough to feed themselves. In other words, a couple would bring enough food for two, and a quartet would bring food for four. Mr Tan clarifies: “Potluck parties often result in plenty of food and food waste. If one were to throw a party for 10, each guest might think he should bring food for 10 people. But if each guest does that, you end up with 100 portions for 10 people.”
His parties always end up with “just a little more than enough” food. And even when he opts for catering, he sometimes undercounts the number of guests because caterers typically overestimate the amount of food needed.
Mr Tan says: “Christmas is a time to think about the people you love and carefully consider what they might need. In many instances, the gift of your time and company is more precious to a person than a physical object. In other instances, the gift of something that the person really needs at that moment shows how much you understand him or her. There needs to be more consciousness and conscientiousness in gifting, so we don’t end up with more waste for the planet.”
In Mr Tan’s book, the best gifts are the eco-friendly ones. He says: “I once gave a plantable pencil that, at the end of the life of the pencil, you could put it in soil and out sprouts a plant. These sorts of sustainable gifts are really meaningful because they extend their own life cycles with new incarnations that are beneficial to the planet.”
Stephanie Dickson, Founder of Green Is The New Black
When Stephanie Dickson started wrapping her Christmas gifts with newspapers instead of new wrapping paper, her family members rolled their eyes and said: “Oh God, Stephanie, you can’t be serious.”
But over the years, they’ve come round to seeing her point of view – that we all need to play our part in saving the earth, not least because future generations rely on us to behave more responsibly.
“They understand me better now and try to gift me things that are meaningful to me. For instance, for my birthday, my brother plants trees in my name via One Tree Planted,” says Ms Dickson. One Tree Planted is a non-profit organisation that combats deforestation by planting trees around the world for as little as a US$1 donation for one tree.
“This Christmas, to eliminate the possibility of getting gifts that I don’t need, I’ve asked my family to all contribute to the one gift I want – a pair of sneakers by Veja, the most sustainable shoe brand I’ve come across to date.”
Ms Dickson is the founder of eco-firm Green Is The New Black which organises the annual Conscious Festival. It features over 100 booths selling meat-free burgers, organic alcohol, home furnishings made from sustainably-sourced materials and other ethical lifestyle products. Started five years ago, the festival has expanded to Hong Kong and has plans to enter Europe.
Meanwhile, the Green Is The New Black website carries a directory of eco-conscious brands around the world, which Ms Dickson turns to when she needs to shop for Christmas gifts: “I only purchase things that are sustainably-made. So after I find out what my friends or family members need, I go through the Green Is The New Black directory for the best and most ethical option, looking at the local and Asian brands first, and then make the purchase in time for Christmas.”
Ms Dickson is from Australia and has lived in Singapore for 14 years. She runs Green Is The New Black with her business partner Paula Miquelis. Besides ethical products, Ms Dickson also likes to give the gift of experience. For instance, when her fiance’s parents visited Ms Dickson’s family in Sydney last Christmas, the couple didn’t give them physical presents.
“Instead we took them on my favourite walk in Sydney, which is Hermitage Foreshore Walk. You start at Shark Beach and walk all the way along the coast, where the view of the city and harbour just gets better and better. And then we took them to eat at Watson’s Bay Hotel which has delicious Australian dishes. They really enjoyed that. They didn’t want ‘things’ – they’d rather spend time with us.”
For Christmas dinner, Ms Dickson’s family typically prepares more vegetable dishes than meat, as half of the family is vegetarian. The family’s favourite dish is cannelloni “because of its Christmas colours – the green spinach, the white ricotta cheese and the red tomato sauce.”
Ms Dickson recalls, with a laugh: “It took a bit of training for my family to get used to my conscious lifestyle. And to be honest, they still make fun of me once in a while. But the important thing is that they understand the issues a lot more now and we can have better conversations about them. So it’s good, I’m happy.”