Roar writer Karen Ng interviews Devana Ng, the Co-Founder of green startup Distinctive Action. They discuss the brand’s mission, the plastic crisis, and individual responsibility.
Plastic is the omnipresent reminder of our dedication to convenience over the environment. Wrappers, electronics, and flooring alike are all ingrained within our daily lives. Most glaringly, though, are the plastic bags that inhabit so much of the modern urban space. Through Distinctive Action, Co-Founders Devana Ng, Flavien Chaussegros and Jorge Torres seek to provide an alternative to plastic; one that is non-toxic, biodegradable, compostable, marine-safe and water-soluble.
Plans for the future
What does Distinctive Action have in store for the next five years? “It’s really on R&D [research and development] – innovative products and the innovation in our DNA. We are partnering up with a team in Hong Kong. We want to develop more packaging that is plastic-free, especially for the F&B [food and beverage] industry, because – such as in a pandemic, you can not buy clothes, you can not buy unnecessary items… But food is something you must buy. Unfortunately, there is a lot of food packaging that is still plastic. So: creating another new material to bring to the manufacturer – and saying, ‘there is a better solution right now for your food packaging. Would you like to change it?’” The new material will likely be ready for launch in two years’ time.
Why businesses should go green
It’s easy to imagine businesses – particularly smaller, independent shops – might worry about the cost of switching to sustainable products like the #INVISIBLEBAG. “I think, when people worry about the cost, we will say that we advise you to use plastic bags. It’s the perspective of using alternative packaging and solutions. [Polyvinyl alcohol] is never comparable with plastic; plastic is too cheap.”
“In the long run, the #INVISIBLEBAG is cheaper than plastic because of the afterlife. We give a choice to your client: how will you get rid of the #INVISIBLEBAG? You can dissolve it in water, or,” Ng says as an example, “Unfortunately, you trash it in the landfill. It will still decompose faster than a plastic bag. Everyone knows that [plastic bags] stay there for a hundred years or a thousand years, because the chemistry compound is too strong. [With the #INVISIBLEBAG], you don’t have to spend time and money on the waste management, you don’t have to occupy the space of the landfill. In the long run, it’s definitely cheaper than plastic.”
Ng muses on the importance of sustainability in any business: “At the same time, going green is a must-element that a company should consider right now. No matter if it’s a small company or a big company – when you use better packaging, it’s not only about how you give it to your clients. It’s also your brand’s added value. What we focus on is not only the cost. When a brand is using better packaging, they use these elements [as their added value], rather than cost.”
Moments of note since Distinctive Action’s establishment in February
Have there been any surprising or unexpected moments since Distinctive Action’s founding? “Since we founded the company, there have been some difficulties, for sure. In the middle of Covid-19, the difficulties are not only for us – they’re almost for everyone in the world. But doing eco-friendly items in the market… We have to spend more effort on convincing the brands to use eco-friendly materials, because as you said, cost is something that people sometimes – they do worry.” Ng also describes the obstacle of product awareness: “When you sell clothes, people know what clothes are. People know the design, people know that you wear it. You don’t have to spend ten times effort to tell them, ‘these are clothes.’ But when you do it with eco-friendly materials, people do not know before.”
Ng shares that some businesses they approached were reluctant to confront their role in plastic pollution, opting instead for the old and easier way out. “You have to spend ten times effort on explaining, on convincing, on talking to brands. ‘Hey, why don’t you use it, instead of just plastic?’ And we do have some feedback from big brands, like really big brands: ‘We have these worries, so you know what, in the end we will still use plastic.’ Why? You know plastic is bad! You know there is a better solution. Why don’t you use the better one instead of just plastic?’” Ng laughs. “That’s the surprising moment. Sometimes, people are too scared to make a change.”
Environmentalism in Hong Kong
The collective environmental mindset of Hongkongers does seem to have heightened over the past years. Campaigns to protect wetlands and natural spaces have garnered more widespread attention, and a number of zero-waste stores and Tetra Pak recycling bins have even been set up around the city. “I think Covid-19 is definitely a trigger for people to realise how much trash we create. People realise we have a choice now. There are more bulk-buying stores in Hong Kong, and people are trying to reduce plastic packaging. I do think the environmental awareness is there. It’s increasing.”
“It’s too practical for a supermarket, or any merchant, to go, ‘do you need a bag?’” Ng comments on the place of plastic bags in supermarkets: “Instead of asking, you should just not ask. You should just not give a bag, so people will feel like this is not something that is necessary. If [people] really have no bags [of their own], they would ask – but you shouldn’t ask them first. They will automatically say, ‘yeah, I need it.’” Hong Kong’s Environmental Levy Scheme on Plastic Shopping Bags has been in place since 2009. In most places around Hong Kong, a plastic bag costs 50 cents. “If one day, you forget to bring your own bag, do you mind paying the 50 cents? People do not care about the 50 cents, because 50 cents is too little! If tomorrow I asked you to pay 5 dollars for the plastic bag, would you still adapt and pay? That’s the thing, 50 cents is too little. Honestly, if you go to the supermarket, people don’t care.”
“We have been discussing this with some sustainable influencers. They say that any retailer – not just supermarkets – should educate the operations team. For example, for frozen food, you don’t need each single item to be put in another plastic bag. It’s not necessary. It’s completely just [down to] behaviour. At a personal level, we [the Distinctive Action team] really try to do our best to recycle. We don’t use plastic bags as much as we can, we bring our own bags all the time, we go to wet markets instead of supermarkets. We try our best, but the thing is that there are still a lot of people who are still using plastic bags – and I don’t think it’s only plastic bags. Plastic bags are something you can still bring your own bag [in place of], and you can still avoid it. The most important thing is the brands and manufacturers with their packaging. Those things, we cannot avoid. And those are the things we have to look at how to reduce.”
Advice regarding the universal climate crisis
Without a doubt, the climate crisis – which includes the pollution and plastic crises – is a universal problem. Nonetheless, there are people who view it as someone else’s problem. To people who might think of sustainability as a burden or unwanted change, Ng responds: “This is something that is not about [a specific] country, or what you are trying to do. The most important thing is: we all live on the planet. Environmental things are only the things on Earth that you need to be concerned [about] – many things that you need to be aware of, and try to the take the distinctive action [for]. That’s how we called our company, ‘Distinctive Action’. One person cannot change the world. But together, we could.”
Referring to herself and her two Co-Founders, Flavien and Jorge, Ng adds: “If there are only 3 people doing this to influence a hundred people, it’s too difficult. But what if there are 97 people doing that, and the 3 people have no choice but to change, because it’s too much pressure from the other 97 people? The most important thing is: how to take your distinctive action every single day – by recycling, by reducing the waste… And then you spread the positive message to the people next to you. Because the thing is, pollution, the climate crisis, or any other thing, are things you have to consider.”
Ng points out the significance of taking one step, as opposed to inaction. “[With] the sustainability lifestyle, you can start from the small little things. For example, [if] you are not vegan today, you are not vegetarian today, and you are still eating meat, you can – step by step – change it. You cannot change it overnight, but it’s the small little things that you can start to do… And having awareness!”
This article explores the mission and story behind new startup Distinctive Action, in discussion with Co-Founder Devana Ng. The first part of this interview was published on the 1st of October, and can be found here. Please visit the Distinctive Action website for further details on purchasing the #INVISIBLEBAG.