Savants of Sustainability

In the enduring battle to save the planet, these three veterans of the field are forging ahead to ensure that green practices prevail.

by / Published: 20 Apr 2017

Savants of Sustainability

Saving the environment is cool now. We turn off our lights for 60 minutes for Earth Hour. ‘Green’ and ‘eco’-related buzzwords pepper the press releases of new malls and buildings. Waste separation has been mandatory in six states and two Federal Territories as of two years ago. We’re getting there, slowly, but how green are we really?

Despite all of the above, we still lag far behind our regional neighbours in environmental awareness and practice.But we can do more. With many environmental awareness dates falling in April, we spoke to three expats who have made it their mission to drive green sentiment in Malaysia.

Claire Sancelot
Zero Waste advocate and Director of The Hive

French-born Claire is an economist by trade and spent 10 years in Hong Kong working in sales and marketing. She moved to Kuala Lumpur with her Malaysian husband and three daughters in 2015 and immediately set her sights on living the zero waste life she had championed in Hong Kong where she was famed for her one-woman green movement. Her zero waste path began when her oldest daughter was born and she realised that the biggest threat to this generation is climate change.

Living by the 5 Rs is a good start, as Claire points out: “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (compost) and in this order. Not everything can be recycled and some things require a lot of energy to be recycled. The best is to refuse what is disposable and replace them with reusable products like your own bottle for water and coffee. And adults don’t need to use straws!”

Malaysia still has a very long way to go, but all it takes is commitment. “It’s actually easy to be zero waste in Malaysia if you’re committed. Even bringing your own containers to food stalls and the wet market is a start,” remarked Claire.

Besides being an important proponent of the Zero Waste movement, Claire’s pride and joy is The Hive in Bangsar. The co-op is an individually-owned business dealing with local producers and offering ethically sourced goods; but it’s still a foreign notion in this part of the world. Opened in October last year, Claire sources fresh produce from local organic farmers while cleaning products, toiletries and jams are made in Kuala Lumpur, mostly by women operating small home businesses.

To end, Claire had this to say, “Small changes go a long way. Start with basic investments like a good water filter. Refuse plastic bottles, bring your own containers for take-away, always have shopping bags and your own lunch box for the office. All this is cheaper, healthier and zero waste!”

Matthias Gelber
The Green Man

Matthias has always been involved in basic ‘green’ practices since he was a teenager in rural Germany, but two major events catalysed his transformation from casual environmentalist to eco-warrior: acid rain destroying the pine forests and radioactive pollution from the Chernobyl disaster.

After campaigning for the German government to tighten legislation against pollution and to clean up the environment, Matthias began giving environmental talks in Southeast Asia around 1996. He chose to stay in the region and spread awareness through campaigns, activities and talks.

Having made Malaysia his home base for over 12 years, Matthias has been busy – 2008 was the same year that he founded EcoWarriors Malaysia; two years ago, he launched the Negawatt Revolution, which aims to reduce Malaysia’s energy consumption by 10 per cent; and just last month, construction on his self-contained, mobile Tiny Home was completed.

He believes that more educational efforts are needed to promote a green lifestyle at a grassroots level and implementation should be done in gradual stages. His book, The Greenman’s Guide To Green Living And Working, was written to help Malaysians take practical action towards making a positive impact on the world.

In the end, he says, living green isn’t just about preventing doomsday from happening. “It’s more fun being green. You don’t need to be perfect, but work on improving and creating more positive than negative impact. You can be the change.”

Rubén Cortés
Director and Co-founder of Build for Tomorrow

‘Nature’ always meant ‘fun’ for Rubén, who grew up around animals in Mexico City and looked forward to Saturday forest excursions with his family. However, things turned serious when he entered university and studied the effects of environmental issues on economic analysis and insurance policies. 

After a hop over to Malaysia, he stumbled upon Wild Asia, one of the oldest social enterprises in Malaysia addressing environmental and societal issues. Instantly intrigued, he made contact with founder Dr Reza Azmi and joined a team on a public sector sustainability consulting job.

“I learned a lot on the project and finally got the chance to use my marketing skills for something I truly believed in. Then I proposed to Dr Azmi that we should promote what all these beautiful destinations in Malaysia were missing: buildings with low environmental footprints,” he says.

Thus, Wild Asia’s Sustainable Building Initiative became Build for Tomorrow, and Rubén threw himself into his newfound vocation. He and his international team help to advise business owners on what they can do to make their buildings more efficient as well as launching building projects of their own.

As a social enterprise, Build for Tomorrow also cross-subsidises their services to deliver affordable energy, water and waste solutions for community projects. One of their most significant projects was the first Earthship in Malaysia, completed in collaboration with the local Temuan community in Negeri Sembilan.

To those who still think saving the environment is inconvenient or unprofitable, this is Rubén’s message: “It takes change to get there, but there are only gains to be had. We have to stop blaming each other and get some big changes happening. We need to do it for the next generations.”