Q&A w/ ReThink Organizer Chris Brown: “There’s Very Little Awareness Of The Impact Sustainability Can Have On Running A Business”

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Chris Brown is the founder and director of ReThink, Hong Kong’s first dedicated sustainability conference that brings together corporates, organisations and nonprofits together to answer how businesses can accelerate change towards a more sustainable future in the city. We recently had the opportunity to chat to Chris, who told us more about ReThink, what makes it different from all the other sustainability-related events out there, how important it is for businesses to step up their efforts in Hong Kong and how we ought to get there. 

GQ: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to start ReThink here in Hong Kong. 

CB: I’ve been an organiser of business events for my entire career for nearly 20 years. In that time, I’ve worked on some really amazing events and really bad events too. But the time in my career that had the biggest impact on me as an event professional was working a series of healthcare events in the U.K., which had the ambition of revolutionising how healthcare professionals in the country engaged with and benefited from live events. Traditionally, these were organised by quite old fashioned clinical associations, and we noticed in our research that the demographic of the healthcare professional was changing and the events no longer spoke to this community. So we turned those events on its head. They were vibrant, they were designed with delegates in mind. A lot of the time, event organisers have lost sight of who the events were for. We became the biggest provider of free clinical training in the U.K. for healthcare professionals and it was a really great business model. Then, I got asked to move to Hong Kong, and we had developed some research to see if this model would work across Asia and the answer was that it didn’t. I’ve also launched some IT and cloud solutions and security events, and those were really amazing and they are still on today. However, I felt like something was missing. It took me a while to work out what that was – it was the conviction we had with the healthcare events, to make a positive impact and to give back, I really missed that. So I decided it was time for me to do something that meant more and would contribute to society. By then, my partner and I decided we wanted Hong Kong to be our home for the long-term, so I took this opportunity to take a step back and work out how to use the skills and experience I had developed over the years to bring together professionals to drive change. I was never a sustainability activist, but certainly in the U.K. I found living sustainably easier. That was a frustration for me when I moved here, and it led me to think about it here and do some research here to look at what events were running here that addressed this issue. 

GQ: Why start a sustainability event? What makes ReThink different from all the other shows and conferences out there?

CB: I didn’t want to launch an event that was just funded by a large company. I spent a lot of time just researching and meeting people, hiring a translator to speak to business owners about what sustainability meant for them. The summary answer is: not a lot. There was a general awareness of climate change but very little awareness of the impact it could have on running a business in Hong Kong. It became an opportunity to deliver a potential – how can we educate businesses in Hong Kong about the future risks posed by climate change and how can they turn these risks into an opportunity?

What makes ReThink different from others is because we are focused on impact, action and collaboration. It is impactful because the fees are donated to charity and every stakeholder at the event is helping to improve the lives of Hong Kong’s most in need. All the conference sessions and panels are designed to focus on the actions that the delegates can take into their organisation. In terms of collaboration, we have an open door policy for partnership too, and we have been able to bring together in a neutral platform industry players that would otherwise perhaps not come together. 

GQ: What are going to be some of the main themes running through ReThink 2020? 

CB: The content program has been designed around four key themes, covering all themes on both days of the event. These are: sourcing and manufacturing, waste and resource management, people and culture, and distribution and changing markets. The idea behind that is that no matter what organisation you come from, whether it is hospitality or logistics or retail, we’re talking about issues relevant to every kind of business. We get delegates coming from different sized organisations, right across the business ecosystem including SMEs to large global corporations, to get the cross industry dialogue happening. That way, we can get this culture of shared responsibility and hopefully from that, we get new collaborations and partnerships that can make a difference. 

GQ: ReThink brings together different stakeholders, from NGOs to businesses, professionals and experts and focuses on what corporates can do. How important is it for businesses to step up and tackle the environmental issues we face in the city? 

CB: It’s mission critical that businesses understand it’s not just their responsibility to adapt and change, but that there are inherent risks to the future viability of their business posed by climate change. And a big part of that is increasing awareness of these risks. By having an open door and inviting different stakeholders from various industries, they can get the knowledge from ReThink to bring it back to the value chain to take environmental issues seriously. 

GQ: What are some of the biggest challenges that corporates tend to face when it comes to really putting sustainability into practice? 

CB: Growing awareness of sustainability is here to stay. Businesses need to understand where they are now, before they set their goals and pathway to change. That takes transformation. I think the biggest challenge is transforming from an IT and data perspective, from a governance and culture perspective, they also need to deliver this change ambition of being more sustainable. There are often too many organisations thinking great – let’s be sustainable. But they misunderstand the steps to get there and what it means to be successful in terms of driving sustainability. 

GQ: We see a lot of businesses now launching environmental campaigns, but critics might say much of it amounts to greenwashing. As a consumer, how can we detect greenwashing?

CB: As a consumer, you’ve got to do your due diligence. Look under the carpet, do your research. Sometimes people feel like there is an obligation to be perfect. But there is no need for that – we just need a lot of small changes from everyone to make a difference. So it’s really about being conscious as a consumer, even if it takes work and it isn’t easy. I believe over time, and I’d say it will be around 5 years, we will start to see the collective consciousness take hold. Hopefully, we will be able to rely less on individual consumers to provide the checks and balances against retailers and businesses and we’ll see change from companies. 

GQ: But before we get to that stage, do you believe that there is a responsibility as an individual to boycott companies that aren’t taking action or is that too far? 

CB: I don’t think it’s taking it too far. I think for companies that don’t take any action, there is a responsibility for consumers to respond appropriately to that. I think where it can become a bit unbalanced is where companies are making huge changes and investment into their supply chain and adoption of new technologies, but the general public might not be aware of it and the impact it’s having. We all see many global brands being attacked for their lack of response, but it’s where those brands are actually investing significant resources into a more sustainable supply chain or materials usage. So we as consumers also have to be careful, especially with extreme action, that it’s being directed in the right direction. 

GQ: There definitely seems to be a lot of pressure on companies to make sustainable changes now around the world, but it could be said that perhaps this pressure is lagging in Hong Kong. Do you agree, and if so, why? 

CB: I do agree. I think that Hong Kong is behind significantly in many areas, in terms of appropriate policy, in terms of engagement from large corporations and certainly on the high street level. You’ll see it with the bubble tea stores and polystyrene takeaway boxes, for example. The consumer consciousness is far behind. There will always be arguments about the culture and how small businesses rely on these cheaper materials that aren’t sustainable, but I think there needs to be a huge step change in Hong Kong. Right now, it’s small, but hopefully through platforms like ReThink we can amplify the noise for the change that is needed. Hong Kong’s ecosystem is delicate – we are a harbour city and we are fragile to the effects of climate change. The damage is already being done, and the potential for this damage to be irreversible is there. So we need to change the way we behave far more quickly than we currently are. 

GQ: Ultimately, what do you hope to achieve with ReThink and what’s in store for the future? 

CB: I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past few days. My goal is that everyone who attends the event – there will be about 600 attendees over two days – goes back into their organisation and starts one new conversation about change. So that’s 600 new conversations, and that could be incredibly powerful. In the future, we’ve decided to move venues next year to the Hong Kong Convention Centre in Wanchai. That way we can broaden the delegate profile, have dedicated content including those in Cantonese to engage more people to learn about the risks and opportunities. Next year will also take place on the same day as World Oceans Day, June 8, so we will be focusing also on Hong Kong’s relationship with the ocean and the emerging blue economy we’re seeing. We have big plans ahead and we’re really excited about it.

GQ: Final question – team rice or team noodles? 

CB: Noodles! 


Lead image courtesy of Chris Brown / ReThink.


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