Why Do Singaporeans Lag Behind In Sustainability?

Jeanne Tai

Kia Jie Hui (right) sustainability advisor with Forum for the Future. This was taken at the launch of the Futures Centre, a platform for tracking and sharing change in trends relevant to sustainable business

They have some of the highest disposable incomes in Southeast Asia. But Singaporeans are the least willing to spend on sustainable products. Jeanne Tai finds out why. 

The numbers are dismal: Only 55 per cent of Singaporeans would be willing to pay more for sustainable goods and services. That's according to Nielsen's latest Global Corporate Sustainability Report, which was released in October. Compare this with 83% of Filipinos, and 86% of Vietnamese. In fact, the average score for Southeast Asia was 80%. Our ultra-competitive nation is, for once, last in something. Cue the handwringing.

But these results aren't shocking to insiders.

Sustainability not high up in the minds of Singaporeans: Nielsen Poll


Studies have consistently shown that consumers in developing countries are more willing than developed countries to spend on sustainability, says Kia Jie Hui, a sustainability advisor with Forum for the Future. Only 44% of North Americans in the Nielsen survey prefer to buy socially responsible brands – the lowest in the world.) 

Take green products for instance. Developing countries are typically willing to spend on these because they see and feel environmental problems more acutely, says Jie Hui. “These issues have a direct and visible impact on our regional neighbours' lives and businesses... For instance, a lack of water to run a manufacturing plant. Or air so polluted that workers can't come to work.”

“Paying more for sustainability is their way of saying: 'I'm willing to pay for my safety and health.'”

 Consumers in developed markets are also more awash with options, and savvier to the fact that labels like “fair trade”, “organic” or “eco-friendly” can simply be – well, just that – labels. Marketing ploys by brands. “It is an enlightened consumer who is skeptical,” says Jie Hui. “I don't think [Nielsen's figures] mean that Singaporeans don't know or don't care. They simply don't believe that they should buy from a company just because it says it's sustainable.”

If anything, sustainability should be factored into the basic cost of the product. “It shouldn't be an extra cost, because that means these products will only be accessible to the top 20 per cent of the income ladder,” she says.

It's Not About The Price Tag

That said, there are real stumbling blocks to developing a culture of conscious consumption here. The high cost of living in Singapore means consumers are more likely to be scrutinising price tags than product labels. It is still not intuitive for the average shopper to question if products are ethically-made, using sustainable practices. We also rarely consider the communities we impact through our purchases, says Bjorn Low, co-founder of social enterprise Edible Garden City (EGC), which champions urban farming. “In my industry, we'll have arrived when people start questioning where their food comes from – who farmed it? Is it from Big Agriculture, or a small local farmer? Am I supporting the small people in the food chain? Right now, it's only a niche group who asks such questions,” he says. 


So, what can be done? Experts stress that businesses needs to step up. “Singapore is a business-driven city,” states Nichol Ng, co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore, which collects and distributes donated food. “Businesses drive and influence many things, and need to champion this change.”

Experts would like to see more businesses “greening” their operations and running awareness programmes on specific issues like food waste or energy efficiency.

Ultimately, it's not enough for brands to slap on fair trade labels, or make vague pledges to sustainability. “It's about making information available,” says Jie Hui. “Instead of telling customers that your product is fairtrade certified, are you able to tell them where it is from? Which communities are benefitting?” 

 Attendees learn how to fix broken appliances at a Repair Kopitiam workshop organised by Sustainable Living Lab

Say Bye To Buy-And-Throw-Away Culture

Thanks to the digital revolution, Singaporeans are better informed and plugged into global sustainability campaigns. Never before has so much information been available to anyone with a smartphone. The issue therefore, isn't about raising awareness. It's about translating awareness into action. “Everyone knows the theory behind the 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle,” says Veerappan Swaminathan, director of social enterprise Sustainable Living Lab (SL2). “But how do you make people adopt them as habits?” Ironically, the preachy “save the world” approach may not always be best. Veerapan realised this after SL2 organised Repair Kopitiam – public repair workshops where people could learn to fix broken furniture or appliances.


The aim was to discourage a buy-and-throw-away culture. But surveys showed that only 5 per cent of attendees listed saving the environment as their reason for coming. More common were things like, “It was a good learning experience” or, “It sounded interesting”. Today, SL2 markets these workshops as a “social experience” – an educational session where people can have fun and mingle. The hope is that participants will also discover how easy it is to repair items, and do it more often.  Says Veerappan: “How do you make people do things as a habit rather than having them say: 'I do it because I want to be green'? So many 'ifs' need to happen for the latter: They must agree with the philosophy, must want to cultivate a “green” self-image, and make an effort to do things consistent with that image.”

Don't just consume, create

Another solution is to accelerate the growing “DIY culture”. It's become fashionable to pick up “forgetten” skills such as bookbinding or growing vegetables. Not just a weekend activity for hipsters, the DIY movement can have spillover effects, encouraging mindful consumption and a sustainable, conscious lifestyle. The grow-your-own-food movement, for instance, is a powerful way to get people to reconnect with the environment, says Bjorn Low, whose social enterprise Edible Garden City builds urban farms and runs community gardening sessions. “A volunteer [at one of our farms] recently underwent a personal transformation,” recalls Bjorn. “When someone dropped a vegetable on the ground, she called out, 'Don't waste it!'”... When people understand how difficult it is to produce a meal, they become more appreciative of food.” He believes this will lead to smarter purchasing decisions, such as supporting small farmers and organic smallholders.

Taken at an urban farm managed by Edible Garden City. The social enterprise hopes that urban farming will help reconnect Singaporeans with the environment.

The same applies for Singapore's Maker movement (simply put, the act of “making” things, as opposed to just consuming. The hand-made movement is also growing in popularity with leather tooling, woodworking and other artisanal crafts gaining a cult following. Veerappan, who also organises Maker programmes, says Making helps people gain respect for material goods. “If you're a crafter and you meet someone who makes soap, you're not going to ask for a discount because you know the effort that went into it,” he says. Making also forces people to question issues like social justice and unsustainable economic processes. “Once you understand the value of a product, you'll ask: 'How can this shirt be made for $5 only?' You'll start to realise that someone or something is being exploited to give you those prices,” says Veerappan. This leads to a better understanding of the need for Fair Trade certification.

And that simple realisation could be the first step toward change. 


Interested in socially conscious living in Asia? Check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.



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