Drowning in Trash – Is There Hope?

Every minute a truckload of plastic waste ends up in the ocean, which amounts to over 8 billion metric tons on a yearly basis. In effect, plastic has been found in 62% of all sea birds and in 100% of sea turtle species. Plastic pollution endangers marine wildlife and throughout the life cycle, have potentially negative consequences for human health as well.

Asian countries are major contributors to the ocean garbage problem, and that’s clearly visible in the everyday life here. There’s very little action on the policy-level to increase recycling and individual awareness or interest for environmental issues is minimal. In the grocery shops products are packed in excessive plastics and often still put into a separate plastic bags, which are anyways treated as free give-a-ways. Plastic spoons are given with purchases of yoghurt and ice cream, straws with any drinks. Packed in plastic of course. These items belong to the top items found in oceans; Ocean Conservancy’s international coastal cleanup operations have collected more than half a million straws and stirrers through their campaigns.

Last week a friend in Finland created a group with the mission to fight micro-plastic waste (here a great article on the topic) and to find feasible solutions and options for better recycling, re-usage and alternative materials. I’ve been following the discussions in the group with great interest as the members are professionals in variety of essential fields – including scientists, business representatives and policy-makers. Their knowledge and passion are bound to be creating lasting impact and I’ve got a surge of energy and ideas just from reading the discussion threads.

Simultaneously, I’ve been observing yet another Asian country literally drowning in trash. This past week I’ve been traveling through Sri Lanka for the first time, and been at awe at the natural beauty of the place. Unfortunately, the other side of the reality is that it’s being destroyed at a devastating speed. Waste in every imaginable form is lying around everywhere, from streets to canals to the world heritage sites and lastly to the beaches and ocean.

Still recovering from the devastating 26-year civil war and with wide-range social issues, I’m not blaming the population in general being rather ignorant and ill-aware of environmental protection. But frankly they have to learn, just as us all have to, if we are to tackle poverty and other developmental topics generally perceived to be higher on the agenda. These issues do go hand in hand. From agricultural production to tourism, the incomes of the developing countries depend on the nature, and they can’t afford piling up endless amounts of trash in oceans and on the lands.

Amidst the depressing sights of endless piles of garbage and sheer ignorance, I did also observe a shimmering of hope as well. One day on the way from Kandy to Habarana, our driver suddenly stopped the car to scold a guy he saw dumping waste to a road-side canal. He was extremely upset and we ended up having an interesting conversation with him about the common behaviour of tossing out garbage to the nature. It creates hope to have people like him speaking up and spreading awareness.

Coincidentally, we spent our last night in a hotel in Negombo that I noticed being very advanced in their green practices. At first my attention was caught by their shampoo and lotion bottles, which were made out of recycled and natural materials and re-filled, not intended at single use only. Then I took a sip of water from the bottle provided, which was made out of glass! The note on the neck said they reuse the bottles as part of their sustainability efforts (just imagine how many plastic water bottles they avoid!). The hotel also informed us that the waste water generated in their hotels is recycled and used in the gardens! Coffee beans and vegetables are sourced from local smallholder farmers that they support for increasing sustainable farming practices.

There is hope. We all do need to do our part, and no individual action should be underestimated. Everything from easy actions as saying no to

 

a straw and using canvas bags to more advanced zero-waste living principles should be welcomed and appreciated. Certainly the biggest impact is created on policy-making and -enforcement levels and by businesses, but in order to change the world for better every step matters. There are people everywhere who care, and we need to use their voices to encourage more action. We need to use our voices, collectively, to make louder noise. Together we can.

 

 

Circular Economy and Women Leadership

There’s plenty of talking these days about corporate responsibility and business interests in sustainable development. Women leadership and gender empowerment are drivers for more sustainable business practices and profitable impact creation. Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an event at the Singapore Sustainability Academy that combined these two – women leadership and responsible, sustainable business.

The Singapore Sustainability Academy (SSA), which was opened on World Environment Day on June 5 this year, is a training and networking facility on sustainability, “promoting low carbon economy, resource efficiency and sustainable practices among businesses and the community.”

The SSA further serves as a platform for the Women4Green initiative that the property owner and developer CDL has kick-started. Sustainability at the Singapore’s own private sector property developer has been led by a power-woman Esther An for a long time, and she has served as a role model for many women in sustainability. It is no wonder that CDL then has taken up the challenge of leading sustainable development not only in their own comfort zone but much beyond.

Yesterday, the topic of the panel discussion and event was thought-leadership in circular economy, featuring and promoting successful circular economy business models. Four companies were represented in this sharing and learning panel; CDL, Accenture, Interface and Ikea. And I doubt it being a coincidence all representatives were women: Experienced, smart and passionate business practitioners and leaders in their different industries.

Interface’s Chief Sustainability Office Erin Meezan obviously has a lot to share, as the company could righteously be called the world’s leading sustainability company. They have been incorporating sustainability into their core operations for decades, and currently are advocating for “Climate Take Back” – a vision of reversing climate change through collaborative action of all stakeholders. Pretty bold. “Take back” models are common circular economy opportunities and now a company is saying let’s use this for taking back our climate, work together to not only stop climate change but change it to positive.

Interface is not a consumer-facing company and in that a lesser known brand for a wider audience. A company that reaches consumers and has an impact on their consumption and awareness, is Ikea. I mean, who hasn’t heard of Ikea? And they are luckily using their reach and visibility to advocate for sustainability as well, and with amazing initiatives at that. At the event their SEA sustainability chief Hui Mien Lee shared how Ikea has taken sustainability into their core operations; they have a democratic design committee for new product development, meaning that all product design is weighed against their five principles of form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. And all five have to be met in order for the product to go into production and sales. They also use an internal sustainability scorecard for each of their products and measure sales against it.

Circular economy is the future of business and a way for more sustainable future. Yesterday’s discussion provided examples of successful circular economy models that are profitable and responsible. And as shared by inspiring women leaders in such different industries (and often male-dominated), the event achieved great energy for pushing for more collaboration. By learning from each other and working with each other we truly can achieve positive impact through creation of sustainable business models that follow the Triple Bottom Line framework and add purpose to the mix. And women leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing Coral – A Film Everyone Needs to See

As an avid scuba diver, I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the destruction underwater, the damage human conduct is causing to the oceans. At one dive trip I felt I saw more plastics than fishes – a scenario that’s predicted to become a reality by 2050. The good news is that corals are highly endurable and prone to survive, if given the tiniest of chance. Which means, we can still change the faith of our oceans, we can still save the underwater world.

Yesterday I watched the award winning film “Chasing Coral“, a truly eye-opening documentary made in collaboration with WWF. The film shows the beauty of the underwater world, and its destruction. In other words, the reality. The team spent 3 years shooting the film, including support from underwater videographers and scientists around the world, and the outcome is stunning. Both in good and bad, as the shooting shows the true beauty of the coral reefs. The film explains their function and importance, and features the reality and feared future that the changing climate is causing.

Coral reefs don’t need to be saved for their beauty, for our recreational purposes. They need to be saved because the life in oceans, and lives of many people depend on them. That’s right, coral reefs are not just important for the marine life. People receive many benefits from coral reefs as well. It’s an ecosystem that protects coastlines from storms and erosion; provide jobs for local communities and are a source of food and even new medicines (yes, in addition to the recreational value which further brings economic benefits to many). Income, food, physical protection, cultural and recreational values – coral reefs are invaluable for so many reasons.

Coral reefs contain the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, and they are vulnerable to human action causing global warming. Ironically, coral reefs are also protecting humans from some of the impacts of global warming, as they protect coastlines from the damaging effects of waves and tropical storms.

I have a new mission for my next dive excursion. I will continue shooting the beautiful scenery and vibrant underwater life, but I will add to that the other side of the reality. I will no longer choose the best angles to feature the beauty, but the best angles to feature the reality. And that reality often includes plastics, bleached corals and little marine life. From now on, I will start showing the underwater world as it is, not as I would wish it to be.

Watch the Chasing Coral film and you’ll understand, too. And care.

 

Individual Climate Actions Matter

A recent study revealing the most important and impactful actions for individuals to fight climate change, has been getting wide public attention. The study that was conducted by researchers from Lund University in Sweden, highlighted four major ways for individual behaviour for curbing climate change, among which “having fewer children” has caused the most debate and discussion.

The researchers had analysed “39 peer-reviewed papers, carbon calculators and government reports to calculate the potential of a range of individual lifestyle choices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” As a result is a guideline for individuals who want to achieve greatest impact through their own actions for fighting climate change. In addition to not having children or at least having fewer children, the other major contributors would be avoiding air travel, not owning / regularly using a car and going vegetarian.  

None of these are big news or surprising, but the emphasis on having smaller families has stirred public discussions. In a small country like Finland, where I’m originally from, the common counter-argument is that the existing population is aging and the continuously declining birthrates are risking the future of the economy. Further, it’s pointed out that the population growth needs to be brought to a decrease in countries where birthrates are the highest – typically pointing out to Sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world as a whole. Finland’s average 1.65 children per women seems low in comparison to Niger with the 7.6 average or Somalia’s 7.4. Yet, a child born in a developed country like Finland, will contribute to climate change a great deal more than a child in a developing country.

The question of population growth and where and how it should be decreased is not a simple one and needs a holistic approach.

What I found the most interesting outcome of this study, was the perspective of looking at individual choices and individual capacity to create impact. People tend to be selfish and choose to highlight the actions they take which are easy for them. Such as in my case, I could easily argue I’ve been vegetarian for over 20 years, never owed a car and don’t have nor plan to have children. It would be easy to derive that since I got 3/4 “right”, I don’t need to worry about my frequent air travels. Right? But no, it’s not right. Because I can do more and I can do better. And we all should do as much as possible, not just stick to the easy contributions.

Blame-game is not going to work, and I wish to keep the tone of the conversation positive. The way forward is not in pointing out the things each of us already do “right” but to discuss what else we could do. In my case, it’s not enough to satisfy myself by ticking many boxes already, but looking at other, damaging practices, that I could change. That’s in terms of improved recycling, buying less plastics, prioritising public transportation where possible – and reducing air travel (that’s always the tough part!).

I believe the key to increased individual climate action lies in encouragement and making positive impact creation easy. Discouragement, finger pointing, shaming and comparisons are typically ways to push people away, lifting up protective shields to pinpoint either what they do already or how one person’s actions matter so little.

So let’s find positive, encouraging ways to discuss potential individual climate action. Realistically, I think having children ain’t going to be on that list. It’s too personal a matter and something most people are unlikely to compromise with, if given the choice. Reducing car driving and air travels and boosting a vegetarian diet are much easier, and to my thinking more beneficial topics to advance. Not to put a ban on any, but where each person can find a way to contribute meaningfully.

 

Learning Should Be Fun and Interactive – Climate Game is Aiming at That

A friend of mine is working on an interesting project – developing an interactive climate change game for school students, roughly of ages 12 – 16. The aim of this game is to be a tool in the schools to teach about the global impacts of climate change, and trigger the students to consider what they can do to help in their everyday lives.

I love this idea and approach in education, as it helps develop thinking skills and encourages proactive action. It will motivate students to consider their actions and see the bigger picture of global interconnectivity. This approach to education further builds self confidence of the students as they are treated as thinking individuals, whose opinions and perspectives matter and who are trusted to find and analyse information, process it and then come up with their own ideas and solutions.

In a world where “information” is readily available on a touch of a fingertip, it’s essential to teach the next generation to think. Critical thinking, questioning, evaluation and consideration on the information at hand are no easy skills and yet of utmost importance. The world is a complex place and there are no simple truths, therefore a thinking generation is a must for our future survival.

With some extra time on my hands, I promised to help by collecting climate change stories, challenges and solutions in Singapore and the Southeast Asia region. It’s easy to summarise big climate change issues in the region, varying from deforestation and ocean pollution to food waste an e-waste recycling. It’s also easy for me to feature solutions and good attempts at addressing the issues, as it’s been my daily work for years to work together with companies in shaping their sustainability strategies, supporting strategic stakeholder engagement and promoting the communications on success stories and sustainability initiatives. The tougher part is in formulating these topics into easy to digest info packages and especially in creating questions, tasks and ways for the players to interact and understand their individual contribution and opportunities.

I will also be pushing for private sector involvement in the game content. I’m personally passionate about engaging the private sector to the development work and believe the private sector will be the future game changer in tackling climate change. And the players of the game will be the nex generation customers, employees and decision makers.

If you also have climate action stories to share or ideas for game content in terms of short tasks or questions, do let me know!

Are You Working for Free?

Are NGOs the new interns of the workforce?

Recently I had a discussion on this with a friend who leads a women empowerment NGO, and who’s been frustrated on the lack of financial support commitments from the private sector in honor of their work together. Companies are increasingly interested in hiring them to work together, but paying in pennies. As if an NGO didn’t deserve to be paid for the expertise work they do?

I’m a keen advocate and believer of NGO – private sector partnerships. There’s great potential for the private sector to make their operations more sustainable, to boost responsible and profit-creating business practices through partnerships with different NGOs, who have ground-level connections and expertise for example for sustainable supply chain development or community engagement. Interest and understanding for the opportunities have been growing steadily.

But do the partnerships create value for those doing the work? Are the NGOs benefiting from all the work they do for the private sector, fairly?

During my university years, one of the most common topics among students was unpaid internships. Great work experience, CV development, connections were often offered – but no paycheck. This applies from private sector to government bodies. Students, and worst even fresh graduates, have for longest time been expected to be working for free. And typically also without a hope of an employment within the said workplace, leaving them with nothing but experiences to pay their debts.

The internship problem has not faded away, but it has clearly escalated. Beyond recruiting young graduates to work for free, employers are now turning to NGOs with similar expectations. It seems common to engage an NGO for a partnership with potentially a nominal fee, to do work that otherwise would likely have been undertaken by a consultant charging a much higher amount.

NGOs or small businesses further face a dilemma of being expected to finish a major part of the job before getting a guarantee of any kind of payment. This applies to project funding applications which often require days, weeks, months even planning and preparation and have no guarantee of success. Service contracts, where half the work needs to be completed before agreement is even signed. Designers being asked for the design to prove the expected quality, before contracting or paying. Translators needing to do part of the translation to show their capacity. These are just a few samples I’ve come across, with huge risks and uncertain payments for individuals or small operators and full power for the bigger “partner” to determine the terms and whether agreement will be granted or honored.

Why do young fresh graduates work for free? Why do NGOs accept lowly paid partnership services? Why do individuals and small businesses do half the work without a formal appointment and hence without a security to get covered for the work done?

Big players nominate the field and create the rules. These can be companies just as well as governments. It’s modern exploitation. Big ones have the power over the small ones.

I’ve experienced this conduct even from typically ethical, responsible actors – such as multinational companies ranking high on sustainability indexes or embassies of western countries. Often I’ve in my mind questioned the practices but never been in the position to stand up for it – for the certainty of losing the job, the deal, the partner.

We talk a lot about responsible business, sustainability, environment protection, community engagement etc, even about looking after the own staff. But what about those who are giving a critical contribution, but being left hanging half-way in, half-way out? The interns, NGOs, small businesses – those whose services can be invaluable but not (adequately) paid for?

How can we break the circle of using free workforce?

 

 

 

 

 

Diving with Bull Sharks

“Envious to extremes!” “Eek! You are crazy, I will have nightmares for weeks thanks for this”, “You are one lucky scuba-girl!”, “Have you got all your limbs still intact?”

I got a great variety of comments from friends to my recently published video where I went diving with over 30 bull sharks in Fiji. No cage, mind you. It was a totally insane experience, and one very difficult to describe with words. Even the video doesn’t show the awesomeness of the dive but gives a glimpse into the world I just dived into. A world where I can mix and mingle with bull sharks in their own environment.

The reactions to my video were clearly divided by divers / non-divers; divers being green of envy and ready to book their flights to try it out themselves and non-divers thinking I’m insane at best and never wanting to set their foot into an ocean ever again. Sharks divide people, clearly. For some they are fearful, horrid predators, to others amazing, beautiful and gracious creatures that we get to observe underwater, when lucky enough.

I had read about this shark dive opportunity online so I had a faint idea of what to expect, but still the dive with so many bull sharks around me was even better than I could ever have imagined. You have to experience it to get that feeling, be in midst of 30 huge bull sharks to appreciate their awesomeness. We did 2 dives there, and saw probably a hundred different reef, black tip and white tip sharks as well, but the bull sharks were the stars of the day. Honestly, I felt no fear at any time, just enormous gratitude for the experience and breath-taking amazement.

The bull shark dive was organized by Beqa Adventure Divers (the acronym BAD might be cool but not descriptive) in Pacific Harbour, Fiji. When it comes to diving with the sharks, they know what they are doing.

The shark diving is organized in Shark Reef Marine Reserve, established in 2004, as a protected sanctuary for the sharks and to preserve the ecosystem where they live. They collaborate with the villages in the area,traditional “owners” of the reef, who have relinquished their respective fishing rights to the Shark Reef and get compensation from divers instead.

My major concern once first learning about this opportunity, was the fact that the sharks are being fed and hence guaranteed to be seen in such huge numbers. I’ve typically been wary about practices of feeding wild animals for enhanced sighting of them, but I observed or felt no harm being done to these amazing animals by them being fed. They are not caught, harmed by boat engines, touched by people or disturbed in any ways I could imagine even potentially harmful. Instead, it felt these guys truly cared for protection of the animals, of the reef ecosystem – and the villages and local communities who make their living out of the ocean (and us, their clients). They have extensive research material, blog posts and information on their website and collaborate with the government of Fiji.

I can’t express with words how amazing, eye-opening and wonderful this experience was, and I wouldn’t say that if I had any doubts about the activity being safe – both for the sharks and for us the divers. There are many ways to protect our oceans, reefs and their inhabitants – shark diving being an option when organized with benefits of all in mind.

I would like to encourage people to learn more about the oceans, about sharks and what their preservation means for us all. Set your foot in the ocean, don’t be afraid. I dived among 30 bull sharks and yes, still got all my limbs intact. And several cool videos and memories to last a lifetime!