Fabric of Change
By allowing people to earn points in exchange for unwanted textiles, recycling company Shanghai Xutao Greentech reduces waste while inspiring people to be more eco-conscious.
BY ALY WIN CHEW
PHOTOS KOH KOK YONG
ager to seek new life experiences, Singaporean Koh Kok Yong travelled to Shanghai to study 20 years ago. While pursuing his master’s degree at Fudan University, he was urged by his parents – who run a recycling company in Singapore – to evaluate the feasibility of starting a similar business in Shanghai. What he researched was somewhat alarming: The city’s monthly textile waste output alone weighed 20,000 tonnes.
“I found that most people simply discarded their unwanted clothing. Textile recycling was still a relatively foreign concept back then,” says Koh.
While this appeared to be a good business opportunity, he also felt the need to think beyond numbers and do something about the situation. “I believe in helping to make the world a greener place, and I also wanted to help the city that has been very kind to me,” he shares.
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In a bid to learn the ropes of running a business in China, Koh started a humble recycling operation in 2006 that was registered under a friend’s company. His project was primarily focused on purchasing unwanted textiles and reselling them to Third World countries.
In 2014, he established his own company, Shanghai Xutao Greentech. He also adopted a slightly different approach by placing recycling bins in 2,000 residential areas across the city. Besides making the collection of textiles more efficient, these bright green bins that stood out in the various neighbourhoods were a means to raise awareness on recycling.
But starting his company in an unfamiliar business landscape was not without its challenges. Koh recalls having to navigate a complex company registration system and, later on, dealing with workers who demanded a full month’s salary even though they had quit. “I spoke with many people about how I should go about registering the company properly, and spent hours negotiating with errant workers. In the end, you just have to learn how to deal with things as you go,” he says.
His hard work paid off. Around two years after embarking on his venture, his business was running smoothly. He then introduced high-tech recycling bins with in-built weighing machines that workers could track remotely. This boosted efficiency as workers could now determine when a bin was full.
The new bins also encouraged people to be more environmentally friendly, by allowing them to earn points based on how much they contributed. These points could be redeemed for daily necessities through a mobile app. Donating 10kg of clothing will give users a small packet of laundry detergent.
Shanghai Xutao Greentech currently has more than 3,000 textile recycling bins across Shanghai. Koh’s company, which started out with 30 workers, now employs about 120 people. Most of them are based in Haimen City – where the recycling plant is – located a 90-minute drive from Shanghai.
Besides to developing nations, his company also resells a portion of the textiles to recycling plants. There’s a charitable element as well – some of the clothes that are still in good condition are disinfected before being donated to impoverished communities in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Xinjiang.
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In turn, he has learnt from the Chinese the importance of guanxi, or relationships, which he insists is often misunderstood by those living outside of China.
“People who don’t work in China often think that guanxi is associated with shady dealings. But it isn’t. It’s about knowing the right people who can open doors for you. It’s about building relationships, making friendships,” he says.
The businessman also adds that China is more innovative a place than some people give it credit for. “The notion of the Chinese being copycats is outdated. China has moved on from being a manufacturing hub to an innovation-driven economy. There’s actually a lot we can learn from the locals in terms of how they are taking a technology- driven, sustainable approach to business,” he says.
“ Thereʼs a misconception in some circles that China doesnʼt care about the environment. But the people Iʼve worked with have shown that they are passionate about the cause. ”
Koh Kok Yong, CEO of Shanghai Xutao Greentech
Some of the people he has struck up a close relationship with are officials from the country’s home affairs and environmental protection departments. “There’s a misconception in some circles that China doesn’t care about the environment. But the people I’ve worked with have clearly shown that they are passionate about the cause. And that’s how we’ve become close friends. We all share a common goal,” he concludes.
RAGS TO RICHES 8.9 MILLION PAIRS OF JEANS
That’s what can be created from the 4,000 tonnes of textiles that Shanghai Xutao Greentech collects in a year.
APRIL AND MAY
are the months when clothing donations are the highest, with people replacing their winter clothing with summer attire.
of clothes, shoes and bags. That’s what the average person discards annually.
in more than a dozen countries, including Singapore, Nigeria, Turkey and Uganda, purchase the second-hand clothes collected by Shanghai Xutao Greentech.
RECYCLING A PAIR OF JEANS SAVES 10,850 LITRES OF WATER
that are typically used to create the clothing item, according to the Worldwatch Institute.
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