In the first year of running Sustainable Living Lab, founder and director Veerappan Swaminathan paid himself just S$500 a month – less than the salaries he paid to each of his staff members. By its fourth year in 2014, the consulting firm was drawing more projects, so Mr Veerappan was able to pay himself “the market rate” for consultants.
Last year, it posted a revenue of just under S$1 million on the back of projects involving high-profile clients such as Japan’s leading packaging company Nippon Closures and various government agencies. The firm has now expanded its operations to Indonesia and India where it’s spreading its message of sustainable solutions, community building and social enterprise.
Sustainable Living Lab sees itself as an innovation lab that helps companies around the world create more sustainable practices and products. In Singapore alone, it pioneered the maker movement which taught ordinary people technical skills for repairing their own home appliances – instead of throwing them away at the first sign of damage. It also looks at ways in which Singapore can improve its recycling efforts.
But Mr Veerappan, 34, isn’t just passionate about sustainability. As a trained mechanical engineer, he is also passionate about futuristic subjects such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of things. Recently, Sustainable Living Lab pioneered a curriculum for the teaching of artificial intelligence to students aged from 13 to 18; the syllabus and materials have so far been adopted by hundreds of schools in South Korea, Poland and India.
If there’s anything that binds Mr Veerappan’s different passions, it is the understanding that the world is being disrupted at a pace hitherto unseen, and that the only way to thrive is to face these changes head-on and carve new opportunities for one’s company.
What put you on the path of sufficiency and sustainability?
I don’t think there was any inciting incident that made me this way. I’ve always looked at things long-term. And it struck me that if this is the world that you and I are living in, we have to be responsible in caring for it… To be honest, I wish I wasn’t singled out for exhibiting conscientious behaviour. I wish being environmentally-conscious was the norm for everyone in the world. Right now, it feels as if we’re living in some strange reality show where we are pretending there are more Earths out there we could migrate to should this one become uninhabitable, that there are infinite resources on Earth leading to infinite growth for the economy, that the climate crisis will never affect us. I feel that so many of us are still living in denial when the fact is – whether you’re young or old – climate change is directly impacting you now.
In your opinion, how well are we faring in terms of our environmental efforts?
Not very well, I’m afraid. For a developed country, our Environmental Performance Index figure is somewhat low at 64. The developed countries around us such as Australia, Taiwan, Japan and New Zealand all have scores in the 70s, so we need to work harder at this. On a city-to-city comparison, there are also exemplary cities and states such as Bali, Cebu, Tamil Nadu and Surabaya that have banned or reduced single-use plastics. We can take a leaf out of their books.
How can we as individuals do better right now?
According to studies, many Singaporeans grossly underestimate how much food waste we produce. One reason for this is that many of us live in an HDB apartment that comes equipped with its own rubbish chute. This chute is like a magical device that makes all our waste disappear instantly. As a result, many of us fail to gauge how much waste we produce, because we don’t have to look at it piling up in our homes – as it might in a home in the UK, France or Denmark. There are also certain cultural practices that we need to question. For instance, this idea of losing face if the event we’re organising runs out of food – a fear that caterers always exploit by insisting they provide food for more people than the expected number of people turning up. But, as we know, a lot of food goes to waste in such events.
What other habits should we watch out for?
Food waste aside, we’re also very quick to throw away furniture or electronic goods when they’re scratched or spoilt. Each time there’s a public holiday accompanying a certain celebration, there are always old furniture or electronic goods left in the void deck. We at Sustainable Living Lab have run free courses for people to learn how to repair their own wares instead of throwing them away. Our workshops are equipped with just about every tool and spare part you need. People often think, oh, it’s okay if I throw an object away, it can be recycled into something else. But we know that recycling actually requires a lot of energy and resources too. So the best way to help the environment is to simply repair the old object and not purchase a new one. Also, on the subject of festive celebrations, we also buy new clothes to mark them. We have to ask ourselves again: Is this necessary? Of course, that’s a sensitive question because there are age-old cultural beliefs involved.
If you were in charge of reducing plastic waste on a national level, what might be your first step?
Public Hawker Centres are under the National Environment Agency, a statutory board of the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources which has purview over the waste issue in Singapore. One possible first step is to disallow usage of single-use disposables by hawker stall owners by making it a term of their hawker stall rental agreement. This needs to be coupled with alternative ways for hawker stall owners to deal with take-away food. We could reduce single-use disposables quickly that way – but that would just be the first step.
Written by Helmi Yusof for The Business Times.
Photo: Kevin Lim/BT