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​Small eco-businesses face ethical dilemma amid seesawing sales 

Published on: 21-Feb-2020

​As more people in Singapore plug into the eco-conscious lifestyle, fledgling start-ups ranging from clothing thrift shops to "zero-waste" stores have popped up across the country.

But owners of these small businesses face a growing challenge of balancing the need to stay financially afloat with the ethical dilemma of not encouraging over consumption.

Ms Elisa Goh typifies the group, made up largely of millennials who fret about climate change. The 25-year-old, who co-owns online thrift store The Kint Story, recalls the conflict a year ago when she started the store with a fellow National University of Singapore (NUS) graduate.

"We found ourselves relentlessly pushing for sales, with new launches every week, making us feel no different from a fast fashion company," she told The Straits Times.

She knew change was necessary if they were to live up to their mission to promote an environmentally sustainable lifestyle with little or no waste. Ms Goh turned the venture into a side project, while working full time at a start-up that sells toxin-free, eco-friendly paint.

This change has allowed her to continue furthering her sustainability journey, while giving her more time to organise other eco-related activities - like upcycling workshops for customers to repurpose their clothes for new uses.

"Our venture is the perfect example of passion meets practicality," she quipped, acknowledging that the pressure to make good sales is hard to resist when one's livelihood depends on the business doing well.

NUS geography student Rachel Tan, 21, tells a similar story. She opened online thrift store JustoJusto last September, which she co-owns with her brother Timothy, 19, who is doing his national service.

Inspired by her love for thrifting, the Instagram-based store's tag line reads "slow sales", which Ms Tan hopes to serve as a reminder to get customers to purchase mindfully and consciously.

"The message to people is to buy slowly, by thinking hard about every item they purchase," she said.

MAKE CONSCIOUS CHOICES

The message to people is to buy slowly, by thinking hard about every item they purchase.

NUS STUDENT RACHEL TAN, who opened JustoJusto in September last year, an online thrift store she co-owns with her brother Timothy.

Ms Tan also has a separate Instagram account where she documents her sustainability lifestyle and advocates for climate action and a more sustainable world.

Ms June Fong, 32, who owns green lifestyle online store Trove of Gaia, adopts a more direct approach to prevent waste. She finds out customers' habits and recommends products that befit their lifestyles.

"I have no qualms telling them not to buy a product, even if it's counter-intuitive for a business. If they purchase products that end up not being used, it defeats the mission of my business and becomes a waste of resources," she said.

But educating consumers to buy mindfully amid volatile market demand and price wars has taken a toll on profits. Ms Fong makes about $1,300 in net profit each month.

She hopes to focus more on company initiatives in the future, through corporate talks and pop-up booths to raise brand awareness and advocate for a zero-waste lifestyle.

These small eco-businesses also face competition from bigger players, who can sell similar products at a lower price because of economies of scale.

Associate Professor Sharon Ng, head of the marketing division at Nanyang Technological University, said these eco-businesses need to differentiate themselves in ways other than price.

They should highlight their brand authenticity, as such businesses "have passionate owners who genuinely believe in the importance of being green, which is more believable and authentic than a big firm expressing the same values", she added.

Ms Fong harbours hopes her business will inspire people to lead a zero-waste lifestyle.

"I look forward to the day Trove of Gaia closes down as it means people have successfully transitioned to a zero-waste lifestyle.
"But that day is still very far away. Meanwhile, I do what I can to help us get there," she said.

Source: The Straits Times, 21 February 2020

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