Anchor Image: Sissi Chao (Courtesy of DBS Bank)
They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Sissi Chao doesn’t just relate to that adage — she’s made it her life’s mission.
While most would toss their spent coffee grounds and orange peels, Chao instead turns them into water bottles and pens: stylish ones, at that. Fishing nets and crusty bottles recovered from the sea? She can make those into a chic pair of sunglasses. It’s a little bit of ingenuity — and magic — that she parlays with Remake Hub. (She never quite tires of the wide-eyed reactions she gets from telling people that yes, that bottle’s made from used coffee grounds and some biodegradable materials.)
Her young social enterprise helps companies come up with ways to upcycle materials usually thrown away in the course of production. A tech company might have leftover plastic protectors peeled off from new screens: combine those with the excess threads from a garment factory, and Chao can create sturdy fabric hangers without expending any new resources.
As the daughter of parents who owned a textile factory, Chao saw firsthand how the fashion industry garnered its title as one of the world’s most polluting.
Not only does it produce 10% of human-related carbon emissions, fashion is also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply; Did you know that producing one cotton shirt takes 2,700 litres of water to make — enough to hydrate a person for almost 4 years? And that’s assuming that you get your requisite 8 glasses a day.
Chao is keenly aware of the fact. She wishes more would be, too. That’s why she posits herself as the Earth’s messenger — and she wants to let everyone know that the Earth is not happy.
“We are so insignificant in the world,” she marvels. And not in a ponderous, tender way, but in a manner that’s almost indignant. The earth has lived over 4 billion years, and humans for only 200,000,” says Chao. “If you convert that into 24 hours, that’s only three seconds we’ve lived on the planet.”
She inhales, and breathes out sharply. “That’s it,” she says. “If the planet doesn’t like you, if you do too much to it — poof.” She flicks her wrist. “If we don’t behave ourselves, who knows what will happen?”
But beneath Chao’s straight-talking exterior belies her genuine desire to help heal the planet — so that it can be preserved for the generations to come.
Chao was recently in Singapore with client-and-partner DBS Bank. Their collaboration is also symbolic of the bank’s own commitment to sustainability; Recently, Chao helped produce hoodies for DBS’ events, made of recycled materials to help them understand that it can feel just as good as a product made from virgin material.
“Only humans can help solve the problems that other humans have created,” she says. “I don’t see Remake Hub as a business, I see it as a mission — and I’ve made it my mission to clean up as much waste as possible.”
But said mission is not without its own challenges. Getting companies to change long-held mindsets is a problem, she says. “Designers, and people, only had linear thinking,” says Chao. “We take, we use, we throw away. There’s no thought about what happens after.”
Chao’s alternative is more circular, where one thinks about how an object or material can be reused — a pressing issue, given how there’s soon going to be no new resources to use. She doesn’t blame the previous generation — her parents’ — for their profit-led views. Then, there wasn’t a crisis as pressing as it is now, there was no sign that the resources that they were so flagrantly draining would run out.
For Chao, everything is linked. There isn’t a person out there who shouldn’t be concerned about sustainability — it’s not a trend or bandwagon to be adopted to earn you points for being ‘woke’.
“If we continue on like this, by 2050 there’ll be more plastic bottles than fish in the ocean,” Chao deadpans, then shrugs: “So when you take your kids to go yachting, fishing — I’m sorry, there’s a 50 percent change you’ll get a plastic bottle rather than a fish.”
“Like what I said — the planet will take its revenge and clean up the things that it doesn’t like: which are humans. And if humans don’t take responsibility and solve the problem that they have created, then the result isn’t going to be pretty.”
Chao might seem pessimistic, but only because she knows what needs to be done to prevent that dystopia from happening: to make sustainability a common thing.
“We need to make sustainable practices a normal concept,” she stresses. “It has to be something that must be considered, rather than being a bonus. We have to change our principals.”
“Because if we don’t behave ourselves on the Earth, who knows what will happen?”