TALK STAGE: Sustainable Design: A Feasible Idea or Just a Fad?

October 2, 2022:  Today, it is not uncommon to hear that the concept of environmental sustainability is being practiced in businesses globally, including in Thailand.  The increasing awareness of the trend has been on the rise in almost all industries, even in the arts, fashion and design.  While this has been a welcome change, there are doubts as to the feasibility of the trend in the latter groups as artists and designers are known for their extravaganza ways of creating highly elaborate works.  So, is sustainable design here to stay, or is it just another trend that will fade away? 

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At the Betterism Design Talk event at the recent Sustainability Expo 2022 at Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, three of Thailand’s top experts in design and arts were invited to share their visions and stories of their path to success in sustainable design.  They were Mr. Teerachai Suppameteekulwat, Founder & Managing Director of QUALY, Ms. Wishulada Pantaranuwong, Social Activist, Artist and Founder of Turn to Art Co., Ltd, and Mr. Amornthep Kacchanon, Founder & Design Director of AmoArte.  

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The first speaker to come on stage was Mr. Teerachai Suppameteekulwat, Founder & Managing Director of QUALY, a design and manufacturing company of environmentally friendly products and materials in Thailand. Having come from a background that was in complete contrast to  his current work, Teerachai shared his story, saying, “My family has been in the plastic manufacturing business for a long time, until one day when plastic was being called the environmental culprit, the enemy of sustainability.  So, we decided to change, that from now on, we would be a design company that helps to create ‘sustainability’ instead.  We help our clients through innovations and creativity, so that no matter whether they are consumers or manufacturers, they find it easier to become socially and environmentally responsible. When trash disposal is guilt-free and the designs are nice, our clients should be quite pleased. ”    

The total turn-around of his family’s business from producing plastic to crushing and changing it into new raw materials was not all that troublesome.  In fact, Teerachai saw the change as a necessary investment that can save the planet at the same time.  For example, he switched to sourcing his materials by buying marine trash from foundations or communities that collect them professionally.  He also invested in machinery that processes these wastes into renewable materials, thus delaying the use of new materials from nature.  Teerachai pointed out that Mother Nature needs time to replenish her resources and so he, by investing in putting the production of renewable materials, can already save the environment and all the communities involved.  And great designs, he added, are vital to generating profits, once the clients like them. “Our brand philosophy is in our designs.  In many cases, we print them on our container boxes.  So, it is not just our clients to whom we communicate, but everyone from our delivery guys to the people just browsing through our products on their phones.  They don’t need to buy anything, but they are already aware of the message.”       

Teerachai also invites his clients to donate their trash – empty plastic containers, bottles and cups –to his company in exchange for discounts on the purchase of QUALY products.  “There aren’t many businesses like ours around here, but we will keep taking your plastic waste until there is a new process for finding a better material to substitute it.  Everyone need to be aware that eventually all plastic containers, no matter how good their quality, have to be disposed of.  So, by taking your trash to give them a new purpose is how we take care of the planet.”      

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Next to grace the stage was Ms. Wishulada Pantaranuwong, a social activist, artist and founder of Turn to Art Co., Ltd. She is a well-known figure on the circuit of arts created with recycled and waste materials and who has collaborated with several leading brands and organizations.  Familiar with the amount of trash she had to sift through before being able to select them for work, Wishulada addressed a question to all the manufacturers of goods: isn’t it about time to think of the origins of the trash so we can reduce it along with our carbon footprint?  In order to do so, she encouraged everyone, both manufacturers and consumers, to use the 4Rs rule: RETHINK, REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE.         

Moreover, Wishulada also shared her experience in collaborating with slum communities, noting that this was not just to source her materials but also to get in touch with the people and invite them to participate in sorting waste.  They can also see that trash can be turned into many other things such as art exhibitions or fashion items, for example.  At the end of the exhibitions, they can also be reused or re-distributed to others.  In her case, she has donated old stuffed animals used in one of her exhibitions to UNICEF for distribution to underprivileged children in slums.    

“Sustainability is the balance between your passion for doing a profitable business and looking after the environment at the same time.  If you only think of yourself and not society, in the end your business will not thrive.”

The final speaker of the day was Mr. Amornthep Kacchanon, Founder & Design Director of AmoArte, a Thai bamboo and sugar palm wood furniture brand, who started his business over a decade ago out of a passion for bamboo.  Having just returned from an exhibition in Paris where his works caught the eyes of the locals, he attested to the fact that “Good design is the vital key in establishing environmental awareness and sustainability.  When we succeed in attracting people to marvel at the esthetics of this bamboo and sugar palm wood furniture, it is only then that we earn the opportunity to tell our stories, which is more than just making a sales pitch.” 

The story that Amornthep wanted to share with everyone was the fact that bamboo is a highly sustainable plant.  Bamboos are fast growing, strong and flexible. After treatments for molds and mites, their durability increases.  When fashioned into modern designs mixed with a hint of the traditional look of bamboo furniture, they can be very sophisticated.  Amornthep sources his bamboos from several rural villages and communities.  When they began to see that his modern bamboo furniture could be sold at a much higher price than what they usually make in their traditional style, these villagers started seeing a better future for themselves, too.  Instead of growing the plant seasonally in small numbers and selling it at a cheap price, they now focus on farming it commercially to make bigger profits.     

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As for his sugar palm wood furniture, Amornthep said that all of his works are created from “wasted wood”: the sugar palm trees that no longer bear fruit.  Because they had been struck by lightning or infested with swarms of mites, the farmers often leave them alone in their orchards despite no longer having any use of them.  Known for its strength and durability, sugar palm wood was commonly used as pillars for local houses or use to build boats in the old days. Having learned this from the farmers, Amornthep became confident about turning this “wasted wood” into larger pieces of furniture.  By showing the farmers that he is capable of breathing new life into this wood, Amonthep believes that he has inspired them and the sugar palm growing communities to see that they now can create a better way of life by simply not letting anything go to waste.           

At the end of the talk session, the three design gurus seemed to agree that true sustainability can only happen when everyone in society cooperates together. Mr. Teerachai said, “Awareness is the key and business operators need to realize that now.  The demand for sustainable products and environmental responsibility is on the rise from the consumers’ end.  Therefore, business owners should take what they do into consideration and look at the extent to which they can adjust to this trend.  Be the first to take the initiative.  Don’t wait until society finally forces you to change.” 

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Meanwhile, Ms. Wishulada offered her thoughts, saying, “ It’s refreshing to see an increasing number of new generation artists and business operators paying more attention to environmental and waste reduction issues.  But I would like to urge all business operators and material manufacturers to be more concerned about minimizing waste from the beginning of production, and not just be content with the “environmentally friendly” label.  Show that you really mean business: make sustainability your organization’s DNA ; put it to use and don’t just follow the trend. ”

Mr. Amornthep concluded by saying that business operators should pay more attention to creating sustainability, observing that if society has a full understanding of it and becomes the driving force behind the change, then all businesses will follow suit.  More importantly, the change has to begin with all of us.  Everyone needs to be aware that all resources in the world can be depleted one day.  We can start by taking care of what we own and prolong their usage for as long as we are able to.  That is how sustainability should be.