Li Seng is the founder of Green Nudge, a social enterprise that supports businesses and communities to achieve positive environmental impact through activities such as coastal cleanups and workshops, outreach talks and sustainability consulting. By raising awareness and co-creating call-to-actions with various stakeholders on sustainability efforts, Green Nudge aims to create a normative shift in the way we create and deal with waste to achieve a low carbon, zero waste future for Singapore.
Li Seng’s previous experience in the public sector in the central bank of Singapore dealing with financial regulations, combined with his current roles in the community and social enterprise sector reinforced his belief that effective public policies need to be supported by ground-up actions and engagement. Playing an interfacing role within the tri-sector, Li Seng is able to provide sectoral knowledge through a system thinking lens to make informed decisions and strategies. He is happy to discuss disposables, sustainability of events, public education, and is familiar with corporate social responsibility and community / youth engagement.
When I previously worked in the Central Business District, I noticed how office workers often displayed poor waste disposal habits from a personal lifestyle perspective.
Rubbish bins in office pantries were often overflowing and cleaners had to clear the trash bins more than once a day. What was also striking was the large amount of food wastage at eateries during mealtimes. This left a deep impression on me as despite being considered highly educated, many of the office workers appeared to have little awareness of the downstream effects when things go to waste.
These effects may not always be something that we can visibly see in urban cities like Singapore and thus may not affect us, but they are happening around the world. These observations thus motivated me to tackle these negative traits by shaping new and positive behaviour.
I started Green Nudge in 2018 initially as an initiative by tapping on a grant to ensure that events were held in a sustainable manner. In order to attract volunteers to help out at events to encourage proper waste disposal habits, I subsequently carried out coastal cleanups to illustrate the impact of waste to the physical environment. As the traction grew, we expanded our offerings to offer workshops, learning trails as well as talks and sharing.
I realised very early that Green Nudge cannot rely on donations to operate. If it did, most of my time would be spent canvassing for donations and this would shift my focus away from what I had originally set out to do. Instead, by turning this into a for-profit and for-impact entity through a social enterprise model by providing events and services for a fee, this helps to ensure that we will be here for the long-term.
This does mean that it takes some time to persuade and convince potential clients about the value that we bring to their work. Given that many people would see activities like cleanups to be volunteer driven, it was difficult to explain that working to facilitate an educational cleanup, including provision of relevant reusable cleanup equipment (to reduce disposable waste) is something to pay for. However, we slowly gained support when clients could see the value in working with someone who could not just reduce the administrative hassle in selecting a site and place for large groups of participants, but also provide an added value of educational sharing and discussion.
Another challenge was trying to convince event organisers that the lack of proper waste management at events could affect their branding in the long run. In ensuring waste and litter are properly managed, this minimises potential backlash from participants and consumers who are becoming more environmentally conscious. We were heartened to note that our efforts benefited one event organiser. Instead of receiving complaints, which was a frequent occurrence in past events, they received compliments for how the event had improved.
Among the slew of activities, I do consider cleanups to be really important one and an opportunity for us to share more.
With Singapore being surrounded by water, marine debris does affect us as a country a lot more than we think. Just a mere count on coastal debris picked up over 2 months each year by informal groups result in nearly 15,000 kg of trash being collected. This excludes the amount of trash picked up other formal cleaning services. With the use of single use disposables being relatively common around the region, the marine debris is an illustration of how trash from one area could inevitably end up affecting another area.
Given this forms the first impression for many, including individuals for whom it is often a first-time engagement with the environment, it is important for us to ensure that participants leave with not just a good feeling of picking up trash. In fact, beyond the act of cleaning up the shore, it is more important for us to drive home the message that sustainability efforts can start from our own homes, lives or offices.
By sharing more about the historical and cultural values of the sites that we clean, as well as invite participants to observe the surrounding features of the areas, we help to weave in the relationship between our actions and their impact to the environment.
We may not be able to prevent the marine debris in the ocean to be cleaned up overnight, but we certainly can help to share ways and encourage participants to be part of the solution in reducing marine debris litter and responsible use of disposables.
Over the course of Green Nudge’s work, we began to receive queries from individuals who were interested in pursuing jobs or careers in environmental sustainability. These started to trickle in since last year but picked up momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic period.
Whereas in the past, many were enquiries from students to apply for internship roles, queries received during the pandemic started to include general ones such as where individuals could find jobs in the sustainability sector.
Given that the pandemic has prevented many of our physical activities from taking place, it was also a timely moment for us at Green Nudge to consider how we can continue to drive home the message of sustainability. With concerns of job loss as well as preparing for a post-pandemic future, it was clear that environmental sustainability was going to be crucial. Rather than simply helping individuals to find temporary jobs, we find that sustainability can be accelerated by providing timely and transparent information that allowed jobs relating to sustainability to be found.
As we began to receive listing for jobs, we realised that many companies had varying levels of understanding of sustainability and how it could impact their businesses. What this translated to included job descriptions that were either unclear in their request for individuals with interest in the sector, or fielded unrealistic requirements that were hard to be found around the region. As a result, we noticed that these jobs were left unfilled. At its core, there was also a lack of clear definition to what sustainable jobs could look like and we felt that this could have impeded companies in listing our clear roles in the sector.
As the pool of talent in the sector grows, it is also important to note that sustainability as a role does not need to be honed specifically via qualifications. Many of the mid-career job seekers are likely to be equally or even better qualified in performing the roles. As such, we also would encourage companies to consider opening up functional roles such as marketing or accounting roles that can also help to transit the company towards a more sustainable approach of operations.
Based on my observations, many companies in Singapore, particularly SMEs appear to hold a perspective to focus only on the main business offerings and ignore issues like sustainability which may not directly contribute to the profit margins. As such, getting companies to consider taking on or offer services or products which are more sustainable tend to be more challenging. For many companies, the return of investment for issues like sustainability is not directly correlated nor immediate in its impact. With limited resources as well as a lack of contextual knowledge, the switch towards the sustainable journey is low although slowly gaining traction.
It helps that many customers and staff members are beginning to see interest as well as advocate for products or services which are more sustainable in nature. As the bigger players within each industry starts to shift towards being sustainable, we do observe a gradual shift by smaller players to at least attempt to explore and find out about the topic.
Information flow from various sources may also lead to confusion for many companies who maybe unclear about operational processes. This could mean that sustainability messages that are applicable to other countries may not be appliable in Singapore. For example, claiming compostable are more environmentally friendly in Singapore may not always be true because waste in Singapore is incinerated versus being placed directly in a landfill, which means that compostable items may not have a chance to be composted. Given that these items are also likely to be imported overseas, the overall waste or carbon footprint may actually be higher. As such, one way to reduce such confusion is to understand the context of Singapore’s waste management processes so as to better apply the principles in Singapore.
Contrary to the popular belief that one needs to be schooled in disciplines related to sustainability in order to make credible change, my background in a non-sustainability field actually allowed me to offer an objective take on issues in Singapore. I believe in being hands-on as well as on the ground to listen and understand the pain points of all stakeholders involved before developing a certain framework for a waste management project.
By leveraging my past working experience, I am able to distil talking points and messages from government policies on sustainability and help to convey them to members of the public through community or outreach events. I like to see myself as the middleman whom anyone can reach out to for advice, and play the role of a connecting node with various stakeholders to create lasting and meaningful conversations. In doing so, this help to shape long-term positive practices and behaviour towards sustainability in Singapore.
If you found TMI, you are already on the right track towards making your workplace a lot more sustainable! Indeed, it is useful to know:
Li Seng kindly accepts to answer your questions.
If you need additional insights, you can send him a message.