We sat down with Diane van Zwanenberg, founder of plastic-free natural and vegan beauty brand Coconut Matter who is making strides in promoting low-waste living in Asia and beyond. Diane has led the alternative beauty and cosmetics industry in Asia since she first introduced her pioneering plastic-free packaging brand, and has since encouraged many to become more aware about how their daily choices affect our environment. Below is our exclusive interview with Diane, where we discussed life before Coconut Matter, her evolution of minimising waste, the future of the industry and the strength in following your dreams.
Coconut Matter is a sustainable, vegan, plastic-free beauty, cosmetics and personal care brand founded in 2015. After decades of international corporate experience, Diane decided to do something different. Determined to tackle the plastic pollution problem and general wastefulness that she saw in many cities, Diane challenges the beauty industry’s status quo to develop products that don’t add to the global waste crisis, and to help people switch to a more responsible lifestyle that leaves a smaller impact on our planet.
GQ: It’s so great to be sitting with you, Diane! You have previously spoken about becoming a conscious consumer when you became a mother, which led you to eventually starting Coconut Matter. Was sustainability always a big part of your life before?
DZ: No! It wasn’t something that I thought about at all! This is why I am really impressed by the younger generation of today, who really do think about the environment. When I was still building my corporate career, it was always more about me. I didn’t even know that plastic bags were a problem! I only saw the convenience of it, and wasn’t concerned about the footprint it left behind.
GQ: You chose to make personal care products more sustainable. Do you think that Asian consumers are really starting to pick up the fact that this industry creates a lot of waste, and will adopt mindful consumption en masse?
DZ: Asia is a big place to generalise. I would say that different cities in Asia are at different paces. For this low-waste movement to take off, there is a real awareness required across all sections of society. Hong Kong is actually more ahead than Singapore. For example, I do see people bringing reusable cups for takeaway in Hong Kong, but this isn’t the norm yet in Singapore. But I would say that we are heading in the right direction – there is more green grassroots activism springing up around Asian cities, and I am encouraged by Hong Kong’s example of progress.
GQ: It’s really amazing how all Coconut Matter products are plastic-free, and throughout the supply chain you try and minimise waste as much as possible. How difficult is this task, given that personal care products tend to contain ingredients with a very short shelf-life?
DZ: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult! I really have to think outside the box to ensure that my products are plastic-free and contain only natural ingredients too. Certain products, like shampoo, have to be made with a very different formula [for example]. Other products, such as deodorant, require a lot of research and testing to get right so that it can be packaged plastic-free. Different oils absorb into paper materials at various rates, so we really had to be clever with the ingredients we chose. Also, our deodorant tubes contain 19 ingredients in total – more than the average natural odour repellent. This is because in addition to packaging without plastic, I also want to help people feel good too, so I add in calming ingredients like lemongrass with de-stressing properties.
GQ: Do you think a completely zero-waste supply chain is ever possible in this industry?
DZ: Wow. I think the question of whether we can ever achieve completely zero-waste is honestly very difficult. But we can, and should still try to approach it. Obviously, it would require systematic change at so many levels – the entire system has to be redesigned. One key step forward is repurposing more items.
Another important step is to make sure that those products that consumers, in general, won’t actually bother to properly recycle, are packaged plastic-free and biodegradable. Because honestly, how many people do you know go to the extent of really washing and reusing, or recycling? These habits will take time to develop, so for now we really need to switch to plastic-free across all consumer products as much as possible.
GQ: Your products are made from wild coconut oil sourced from the Solomon Islands, through an Australian social enterprise. Why is this better than sourcing coconut oil locally, and what about the footprint caused by transportation?
DZ: I have been an avid coconut oil user for many years, and the reason why I have to use wild coconut oil harvested from this particular farm in the Solomon Islands is because it is honestly special. It is processed within one hour, so more nutrients are captured – you can smell and feel the difference.
The quality of the product aside, I also want to make a social impact with my business. The biggest export from the Solomon Islands is their rainforest. So if we give them an alternative option to make a livelihood by producing coconut oil, we can help save their forests. In terms of the carbon footprint from transportation – I am very aware of that. I am trying to tick as many boxes as possible, and hope that in the next few years I can roll out a carbon neutralising program, such as a tree planting project, for my customers to join. I’m always thinking of what to do better!
GQ: As a woman leader, what do you believe is the main challenge that young girls and women face today, and what advice would you give?
DZ: I think that young women of today are quite fearless – more so than me! But I do believe that one of the struggles today, with the onset of technology, is the fact that this generation is used to instant gratification and results. In lots of times in later life, there is no quick fix for big problems. Big problems require breaking down, and taking it bit by bit, over time. My piece of advice? Just follow your heart. I can’t lie to you, this journey that I have been on has been incredibly challenging. When you are fighting an issue so big, you might feel like the world is against you. But if you are doing it with your heart, you will be alright. Especially women – we are so in touch with who we are, so we persevere. I’ll let you know that I have a bank, and it isn’t filled up with money, but with moments. Moments like when my customers tell me that I’ve helped them live a more plastic-free life – it is these things that I hold dear to my heart and will keep me going. So there you are – follow what your heart tells you!
GQ: We have to ask: team rice or noodles?
Noodles! I love ho fan!
Coconut Matter just announced a global Kickstarter campaign for their zero waste deodorant, support the campaign here.
Lead image courtesy of Diane van Zwanenberg.