Awareness about sustainability is growing worldwide among both consumers and corporations but how much traction does it have in Southeast Asia and Malaysia in particular? WARC speaks to Sue Yee Khor, co-founder of non-profit organisation Zero Waste Malaysia and a pioneer in the movement, to get a pulse check on-the-ground, advice about how to increase climate literacy and the opportunities for brands to work with advocacy groups.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on conscious consumerism in Southeast Asia. Read more

Key insights

  • Overcoming the language barrier and translating technical terms are the biggest challenges in a multiracial country like Malaysia with a diverse group of people.
  • The aim is not to have perfect zero waste because no one can achieve total zero waste; humans are bound to consume, so zero is just the goal.
  • Equip employees with basic sustainability knowledge so that when they become managers, they know how to make decisions not just for profit but also for the environment.
You first started Zero Waste Malaysia in 2016. Tell us about how the movement has progressed since then. Is it mainstream yet?

At the beginning of the journey, there were only about 100 people in the Facebook group. But since then, awareness has spread through education, advocacy and community activities. We have 41,000 people in our Facebook group now. But if we are talking about the whole population in Malaysia, the movement is definitely not mainstream yet.

What are the challenges of championing the movement in Malaysia?

Malaysia is a multiracial country with a diverse group of people. Overcoming the language barrier is the biggest challenge because most of our social media content is in English as we believe this is the language that most people will be able to understand.

But for environmental content or content in general, it is more relatable if the language is your mother tongue. People will have stronger feelings toward the message you are trying to convey.

However, the language barrier is tough because in Malaysia, about 60% of our population are Bahasa Malaysia-speaking. Our strategy is to keep our social media content straightforward by keeping it in English but most of our resources online, ie handbooks and reports, are published in four main Malaysian languages including Mandarin, English, Bahasa Tamil and Bahasa Malaysia. So the next challenge probably will be the manpower issue.

Are there things about sustainability that are hard to translate?

It’s mostly the technical terms, such as composting or the circular economy. It took us some time to find the proper terms. We turn to university lecturers to understand the terms we can use. Some zero waste alternatives, such as menstrual cups, are also something we spend a bit of time on to try and compile the respective translated versions.

Source: Zero Waste Malaysia

Tell us about the Trash Encyclopedia initiative.

The Trash Encyclopedia is a one-stop platform and resource for anyone, including uncles, aunties or kids to use. On our Facebook group, the second most common topic that people post about is whether something is recyclable or not. And if it’s not recyclable, how do I properly dispose of it?

We identified this as a need to create a resource or database to show people how to deal with common household waste. And encouraging them to take a step back to understand how much waste we produce in the first place.

What advice or best practice can you give regarding what you’ve learned about how to educate people on adopting more sustainable lifestyles?

One of our core values is to lead by example. So if today I'm not practising a zero waste lifestyle, it will be a bit hard for me to convince others. But there’s nuance in there. We are not aiming for perfect zero waste because no one in this world can achieve total zero waste. As humans, we will consume for sure.

The general public, including corporations and consumers, feel that the term “zero” is scary and intimidating. They think it means that they can’t shop, eat or drive anymore. They think that they have to ride a bicycle to save the world. People think that a zero waste lifestyle is an extreme lifestyle but we explain – zero is just the goal.

That’s why in our education efforts, we want to emphasise that no one in this world can achieve zero waste. So we really have to pull down their barriers because the moment they hear zero waste, they will shut down their minds already.

For organisations, our advice is to make sure that educational resources are based on the local context and accessible to everyone, such as covering all kinds of major languages spoken in that particular country. For example in Malaysia, there are certain items that cannot be recycle whereas they can be in Singapore because of the availability of recycling facilities.

In your experience, what kind of messaging works to incentivise behaviour change?

What we've been seeing over the past few months is that scary facts are what our audience likes, like the fact that Malaysia might be the worst at generating waste. Things that really scare people seem to be what works for our crowd, probably because a lot of them want a reality check. So we try and come in from a perspective where we also tell them how they can do better. And that's why we also link them back to our resources.

So it’s like fighting fear with facts. Does that tone work?

It doesn't work all the time and it depends. For example in Malaysia, we recently struggled with flood issues. I think recently, a lot of people are starting to realise that this is climate change too. People are starting to react positively to our posts, where they agree that climate change is coming, as opposed to typical Malaysian culture where they tend to blame the government for everything. But we do see a lot of people standing on the side of climate change also.

Is there a recognition that individuals are also accountable for climate change?

For Zero Waste Malaysia, our mission is about individual actions. But we also can't deny that there are issues with the government and policy.

There are a lot of very good organisations that are working hard to push the top-down approach. The Zero Waste Malaysia management team is also involved in stakeholder meetings with the government to see how we can help with the top-down approach.

What’s the middle ground between the top-down and bottom-up approach?

There is a huge gap between top and bottom levels. Most of the communities might be angry because there’s no systemic change but at the same time, the top level doesn’t know what's happening on the ground.

Zero Waste Malaysia represents the community level so we make sure to voice out our concerns during any government stakeholder meeting. But this process is super long. To come up with a roadmap has taken a year because it involves too many industries, brand owners, community groups, plastic manufacturers, etc.

But what we can do at a medium level is engage with corporates and help the movement bring the sustainability mindset to employees and top management. We do corporate education, such as conducting workshops on how to cultivate a zero waste culture among employees.

How is Zero Waste Malaysia helping corporates with sustainability?

We have an internal employee transformation program which is two weeks. The first week will be about awareness and education. The second week is action-based engagement where employees are given a seven-day Zero Waste Challenge with daily missions. For example, Monday will be a meatless Monday and then they will take pictures of their actions and submit to the group.

We find that a bit of peer pressure works to motivate employees to take small steps, one at a time. Some corporates also have KPIs for their employees, such as a requirement to participate in webinars that are related to sustainability.

After the action week, we also organise a feedback session to ask employees to reflect on their lifestyle change during that particular week. We encourage people to think about how to take a step back and rethink what actions we can take to contribute to a lesser waste situation.

It will definitely be helpful if we can equip employees with the basic knowledge, so it will help them to make any decisions afterwards or when they become a manager. They will know how to make decisions not just for profit but for the environment as well.

If collective action is needed for the sustainability movement to grow, who are the other stakeholders in Malaysia that brands can consider?

Not just the ministries but the local councils, brand owners, manufacturers, recyclers, educational institutions and the underprivileged communities. The communities should really be part of the ecosystem as well because waste management systems in the city and rural areas can be different.