One Man’s Commitment To A More Sustainable Malaysia

Sustainable To Move Forward For A Better Future

“SMEs account for 97.2% of total business establishments in Malaysia, generating 38.2% of its GDP and providing employment for up to 7.3 million people in the country and their role in ensuring a more effective implementation of sustainability is of crucial importance.” – Vernon Foo

Malaysia has been making progress in its commitment to sustainability in recent years.

The government has introduced several initiatives, such as the National Sustainable Development Strategy and the National Climate Change Policy, to promote sustainable development and reduce carbon emissions.

The country has also set a target to achieve 20% renewable energy capacity by 2025.

In addition, Malaysia has become a leader in sustainable palm oil production, with over 50% of its palm oil now certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The country has also implemented measures to reduce plastic waste, such as the plastic bag charge and the ban on plastic straws in some states.

Malaysia is making strides towards a more sustainable future, but there is still a long way to go. recently spoke to Vernon Foo, the CEO and founder of CM ECO. Established in 2018 and based in Kuala Lumpur, the company offers a range of biodegradable takeaway food packaging made from natural materials such as sugarcane bagasse, starch and paper.

Their motto is empowering SMEs and creating sustainable communities, and we feel privileged to have been able to speak to Vernon.

5 questions with Vernon Foo, the founder of CM ECO

  1. What inspired you to start your company?

    I’ve always had a relationship with nature. I grew up on the beaches of Cherating till I was 5 and we moved around a lot.

    In the early years, I spent time fishing with my father, going camping and short trips on 4×4 and mini expeditions through the jungle. I’ve always been an outdoor person and also spent a short time volunteering in South Africa in 2010.

    Through the years, I realised that the places we used to frequent have now been developed and some, more commercialised.

    As a result, when upkeep is not done right, we see rubbish in these places and it is a sad sight to see. More often than not, it tends to be plastic waste.

    When we started in 2018, we were looking to build a business that could help supplement our living after leaving our corporate jobs.

    In that transition, we learnt that in this day and age, building a profitable business is a given, but more importantly, we wanted to build a strong purpose for the company, one that allows us to feel good about giving back to our communities and those around us.

    As time passed, we grew with the business and we fell in love with the idea of a time when people, the planet and profit can co-exist in harmony.

    Today, my team and I have set out to help create and build thriving communities that strive on emphasizing strong economic, environmental and social growth –  a space where people are empowered to make better decisions on how they can contribute as individuals or businesses back to their communities and their surrounding environments.

  2. Can you share some of your company’s success stories?

    From the time we were established, we grew alongside our involvement with district councils around Selangor and Perak.From participating in Ramadan briefings to awareness talks with vendors and the public, we went on to be the primary green packaging supplier for the Selangor State Government’s “Pahlawan Bebas Plastik” Project in 2020.

    During the pandemic, we were severely affected as supply lines were down and we pivoted into creating sustainable living programs for young families.

    In 2022, we then further delved into training modules centred around Circular Economy and ESG.

    This led to many opportunities for engagement with universities such as Nottingham University Malaysia, Sunway College Ipoh, HELP University and UCSI, where we speak on plastics waste mismanagement, what are some of the initiatives currently undertaken by Malaysia and what can students do as individuals to make better choices moving forward.

    We have since received awards from some of the councils for our work supporting their sustainability initiatives.

    In mid-2021, I joined SAMENTA (Small and Medium Enterprises Association) advocating for better sustainable practices and inclusion of the SME voice in dialogues when government agencies and ministries set out to implement blueprints and execution plans on matters to do with better environmental impact.

    By the end of 2021, I was elected as Chairman for Sustainability and Circular Economy.

    This then paved the way for my involvement with the NRECC, formerly known as the Ministry of Environment KASA, as a think tank and working group member for the Malaysia Plastics Sustainability Roadmap.

    In Q4 2022, I was also invited to be a founding member and given the opportunity to lead as VP of Sustainability, ESG and Circular Economy at MASSCI (Malaysia Association of Sustainable Supply Chain and Innovation). 

    I have also participated as a panellist and moderator at the ASEAN level on matters surrounding topics such as green packaging and waste-to-energy.

  3. Can you elaborate on the importance of the role of SMEs in promoting sustainability?

    When it comes to saving the planet, or even making better impactful decisions, it goes without saying that it is a huge undertaking.

    In our journey as businesses, we have to change the way we tackle these problems.

    That starts with multi-stakeholder collaborations that range from the government (ministry, agency, municipality), industry, educational institutions, financial institutions, NGOs, associations, and the general public level respectively.

    Within industry representation, SMEs account for 97.2% of total business establishments in Malaysia, generating 38.2% of its GDP and providing employment for up to 7.3 million people in the country their role in ensuring a more effective implementation of sustainability is of crucial importance. 

    When it comes to the adoption of green practices, the involvement of SMEs from earlier on will allow for better information flow into the mix during these dialogues and provide better and more accurate feedback on implementation strategies, cost vs benefit analysis and so on.

    This helps bridge the gap from policy making to the roles that all stakeholders need to carry out, to control measures to navigate toward successfully implementing these changes.

    On the other side of the lens, given the contribution of 38.2% to Malaysia’s GDP, it becomes paramount that our SMEs are better equipped to compete on the international stage with changes such as carbon border tax, ESG reporting, carbon reporting picking up steam as core requirements to be exporters to certain countries.

    This is the case, especially for export-ready SMEs and failure to understand this would lead to our SMEs losing their spots and dropping off the supply chain entirely.

  4. Since founding CM ECO, what have been some of the hardest tasks in getting buy-in from SMEs to promote better sustainability, and how have you tackled this problem?

    • What is it made of?
    • Is it really eco-friendly?
    • Customers could not tell the difference between degradable, biodegradable and compostable and what these terms mean for the products. 
    • It’s a great initiative but does not contribute to my bottom line. 
    • These cost more than conventional plastics. 
    • Most alternative products early on addressed the sustainability aspect but not so much the features required by F&B operators for certain food types and items. 

    A lot of the issues above stem from the lack of knowledge of what is currently happening to our planet.

    We were at the time, the one and only packaging supplier, which spent an enormous amount of time educating and creating more awareness on the issues with climate change, the dangers of microplastics and conventional packaging.

    In doing so, we have been able to position ourselves differently and to date happy to say that we have quite a few clients who have been with us for a number of years.

    We are proud to also say that we have been able to help equip them to tackle larger clients who now have sustainability policies in place and as a result require food to be supplied alongside sustainable packaging options.

    In addition, as demand continues to rise in quantity, pricing for these goods have come down a fair amount and are at times on par with paper-based packaging, which is generally accepted as a greener alternative to plastic-based packaging.

    Paper-based packaging, however, when lined with plastics is no longer recyclable and ends up in our landfills anyway. This again comes from the lack of knowledge of options offered in the market and the need for us to continue educating and building awareness.

  5. What is your view on things such as the plastic bag charge and the ban on plastic straws in some states? What are some more serious steps that are not taken by the government that should be taken? Do you feel there is a genuine commitment by Malaysia to promote better sustainability practices?

    With regards to the plastic bag charge, some states did it well and some better than others.

    If we’re talking about the change in habit, the Penang state government did it really well, they were charging RM 1 per plastic bag and that was a price point that was too high for most Penangites, and they refused to spend that money for it.

    Instead, they opted for reusable bags that they carry in their cars whenever they wanted to buy groceries etc.

    Alternatively in Selangor, customers were instead charged 20 cents for bags.

    While it created new funds for the state government to collect and use for initiatives for better sustainable practices, I feel it generally doesn’t tackle issues surrounding mentality when it comes to the disposal of waste and waste mismanagement in general.

    If we want to talk about more serious steps, then having an all-out ban will result in SMEs creating other sustainable alternatives that customers can use to substitute, or redirect the resources to other products where the value chain and waste management plan post-consumer is clear and able to cope with recycling/ resource recovery with circular thinking in place.

    This has been announced by NRECC Minister, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, to come into effect in 2025, in line with the Zero Single Use Plastics Roadmap 2018-2030. I hope this leads to better practices overall by both consumers and SMEs.

    Like the ban on straws that came earlier on, most F&B businesses were actually quite happy to remove straws altogether from their packaging range as it was a removal of a cost item for them and in doing so the ability to say that they were going green. 

    To sum things up from the examples above, similar to the straws, should the plastic bag ban come into place and consumers be educated on the need to bring their own containers and reusable bags it’s still business as usual.

    The key difference is a whole lot less plastic waste to manage and deal with, costs can be allocated to other initiatives and a cleaner environment.

    From another perspective, while we balance implementation strategies and timing, we need to be accountable in keeping communications open on progress as it will help all stakeholders play their part in being both competitive with our export capabilities and living in line with what the world needs.

    It is critical when we involve all stakeholders above and have the right leaders in place to ensure we have the will to follow through on these changes for things to improve in the long run.

To know more about CM ECO, please log onto their website.

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