Shen Hui Tan
Co-founder - merchandise.blue, Founder - Kizuna
Shen’s introduction

My first job was with a major consulting company in Japan. I appreciated my time there, but was always yearning to do something with a greater direct impact, and something that gives me a greater sense of purpose. I am blessed to have the opportunity to travel the world, and be exposed to different perspectives, ways of living and available alternatives!

A series of serendipitous events led to the founding of merchandise.blue with two highly experienced and interesting friends. Merchandise.blue offers merchandise like uniforms, towels and bags in more environmentally progressive textiles made of materials like seaweed, organic cotton and recycled fishing nets. 

When the opportunity to open Kizuna arose, it was clear that I wanted to apply similar values and principles to this physical space.

You hold sustainability at heart: co-founding merchandise.blue, a B2B company that offers sustainable and fair alternative textile, then opening Kizuna, a café in Potong Pasir. For the latter, you entirely revamped the space and you decided to use recovered materials. What kind of challenges have you been through to make this happen?

Because of the people whom I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had in the last couple of years, sustainability was one of the key considerations in my design brief for the building of this space. To me, sustainability applies not only to the environment, but also to the business. I hope to prove, if only to myself, that we can try to do things better even when running a for-profit business.

I hope to use this place to spark thoughts and conversations about the circular economy, environment and sustainability, and introduce some concepts that may still be fairly new to the people in this old neighbourhood. 

As a small company with limited resources, balancing profit and purpose is a constant challenge. I have met a variety of challenges on this journey, including but not limited to:

  • Lack of accessibility: I wanted to fit the space with furniture and finishings made with more environmentally progressive materials, like lampshades made of mushroom mycelium or chairs made of 100% recycled plastic waste. However, many of these items were not readily available in Singapore. Many were also designer items, with price tags that did not make sense for a small business like ours.
  • Lack of know-how: I wanted to design the space to minimise the use of air-conditioning but we lacked the expertise/buddies whom we could get advice from (if only the “green supplier” directory/“buddy” system set up by The Matcha Initiative were available earlier!! ).
  • The external environment: The unexpected spread of COVID-19 also meant a sharp spike in the use of takeaway packaging materials. Moreover, our cafe opened in the midst of Circuit Breaker in Singapore. With everyone scrambling for takeaway packaging materials in the early stage, securing them was already a challenge. We couldn’t be too picky about the suppliers. Moreover, because of COVID-19 and F&B regulations, we use an insane amount of disposable gloves, which are unrecyclable and are bad for the environment.  
  • Educating the neighbourhood/customers: We are located in an old neighbourhood in the heartlands. We get customers asking for plastic bags all the time, and sometimes, they get rather worked up when they find out that we do not offer any.


So while I started off with ambitious ideals and goals, I had to manage expectations. Even though we cannot be 100% sustainable, we can still do whatever we can, with whatever we have, and make improvements when we have the capacity to do so.

  • Since a lot of materials and items were not available to us, we decided to take the approach of repurposing items that would otherwise be discarded. For example, salvaged timber was used to deck the frontage of the shop and our cafe counter, wood offcuts from Singapore mahogany were used to create our dine-in tables, an old fire rated door that stood in this space before was restored and reused as our main entrance door.
  • We specially acknowledge and thank customers when they bring their own mugs or containers for taking away drinks and food.
  • Instead of printing out kitchen orders on thermal paper, which are usually bad for health and the environment, we opted for a kitchen display system where orders are reflected on a tablet. We have also adopted email receipts for customers who require receipts.
  • For customers who want plastic bags, we give them used but clean plastic bags that come our way, such as those from suppliers when they deliver goods to us.
  • We have recently started giving away empty alcohol glass bottles to customers who want them, and are in the works to give away used coffee grounds when it becomes more manageable.
  • I had to make calls on what it means to be sustainable. For instance, we still use plastic Tupperwares at the cafe because alternatives like glass or metal may not be suitable.
That’s truly impressive, all the thoughtful efforts you put in every action! And very inspiring! Now can you tell us more about the local artists whose work is viewable in the café, how did you come to collaborate?

Our approach to using materials that would otherwise be considered as waste is apparent in our cafe. The first very thing you notice is the heavy use of salvaged timber in the facade and interior of our space.

We have also worked with many locals to showcase how waste can be turned into something aesthetic and functional. Some of our most notable partners to date include:

  • The Table Guy, who took on the challenge of marrying eco-conscious production values with local design sensibilities and resources, and delivered the stunning Kizuna Table. The Kizuna Table used exclusively offcuts (waste product pieces) from larger furniture build projects, in salvaged Singapore Mahogany wood. And now, the Kizuna Table is available for sale to the public.
  • Our friend Sarah, the designer of our zero-waste pattern apron: in line with our commitment to sustainability, Sarah designed and produced aprons made from a zero waste pattern based on the dimensions of beautiful gifted fabrics from Musubi.
  • Our friend from Rehyphen gifted us with this beautiful piece of artwork in our space. Rehyphen pioneers an up-cycling initiative where they collect discarded cassette tapes from locals and weave them into a piece of MusicCloth as an effort to reduce and eliminate e-waste, while giving the product new life. She selected “The Art of Noise” tape for us, and spent about 180 minutes to weave our logo. This MusicCloth has also been transformed into beautiful wearable pieces and accessories like clutch bags!

Kizuna's Collab Serie with The Table Guy
Education is also something you care about. Can you share how you’re trying to raise awareness among your customers?

This is really a tough one. After several months into the business, regular customers now know that we do not offer plastic bags (new ones anyway), and would make an effort to bring their own carriers (:

Whenever we have the time, we share stories like those about the tables and the aprons with the customers. To many of them, offcuts and zero waste patterns are new concepts. I’m happy to be able to expose them to more interpretations of sustainability this way, and I hope for more collaborations in the future to do even more.

What are you most proud of?

I am happy to have built a platform to show that sustainability can be beautiful and feasible for a business, and look forward to more collaborations and more improvements in the future.

What would be your top 3 pieces of advice to The Matcha Initiative (TMI) users?
  1. Just start, even if you cannot achieve 100% sustainability. It is ok. It is more important to start and reduce the environmental impact, even if it is not a gigantic leap.
  2. Being financially sustainable in your business is also important for you to continue on your quest to be more environmentally sustainable.
  3. Find a community and talk to others. You may discover new ideas and solutions to your problem.
How could you help The Matcha Initiative (TMI) users?

I can share my experiences about setting up a space, and I am open to collaborations that promote sustainability.

Shen kindly accepts to answer your questions.
If you need additional insights, you can send her a message.