While haze-filled images from India and China often dominate media coverage, pollution increasingly takes its toll across much of Asia, including Southeast Asia and even in Singapore – the site of this year’s Asean Summit.
But there is also hope and opportunity as evolving Asian consumer behaviour encourages the transition away from “development at any cost”. As the Milken Institute Asia Summit convened recently in Singapore, this trend was front and centre as leaders focused on how best to navigate a region in transition.
Governments and businesses must recognise that there are ways to better align short-term economic interests with the longer-term goal of ending the rampant pollution across the increasingly urbanised region.
I see this in my own work with investors and start-ups, including through serving on the advisory board of Equator Pure Nature, a Thailand-based “cleantech” company that produces and sells a line of natural, environment-friendly, biodegradable household cleaning products under the brand Pipper Standard.
With growing numbers of consumers in Asia worried about the impact of polluted skies and waters on them and their children, the trend toward healthier products that began in the West has come to our region. It is time for all Asia, including Southeast Asia, to transition to a more sustainable development approach – and put an end to pollution that ensures hashtags like #smogageddon and #airpocalypse end up trending on social media each year.
Pollution’s deadly impact
The stakes and costs are high. Air pollution leads to loss of productivity as employees call in sick or come to work late. More critically it leads to loss of life as a result of strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections, according to the World Health Organisation.
One-third of global air pollution deaths are now in Asia, says the WHO. That’s 2.2 million out of the world’s 7 million premature deaths each year from air pollution.
In South Asia, Indian cities such as New Delhi, Varanasi and Patna are now among the most polluted in the world, according to a WHO database of more than 4,300 cities.
In East Asia, due in part to China’s rapid industrialisation over the last five decades, Chinese cities continue to draw attention for smog-filled skies. There is, however, progress in China’s ongoing war on pollution as a government clampdown on coal burning this past winter delivered bluer skies in Beijing.
And in Southeast Asia, worries grow over the possible return of the deadly haze that has previously blanketed large parts of the region – a consequence of slash-and-burn agriculture in Indonesia. In 2015, fires in Indonesia laid waste to 2 million hectares of land, causing US$16 billion in damage and frayed relations between Indonesia and haze-impacted neighbours Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – not to mention soaring health concerns as facemasks came out and schools closed.
But in all this, there is also business opportunity. Thailand, the second largest economy in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, offers up a business case study.
The Thailand case study
Earlier this year, Bangkok experienced some of its worst air quality in decades. Rapid urbanisation and industrial development has led to a marked increase in pollution here as elsewhere in Asia, contributing to accelerating allergy and asthma rates.
Some 18 million Thais, or more than a quarter of the population, suffer from allergies, according to Equator Pure Nature CEO Peter N Wainman, citing data from the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Association of Thailand (AAIAT). Among children in Bangkok, the rate is significantly higher, at 49.3 per cent. Over the past decade, the number of children in the Thai capital suffering from allergic rhinitis, whose symptoms include nasal inflammation, sneezing and itchy eyes, has risen by around 40 per cent.
“Allergies are a problem of modern society,” says Dr Porawat Makornwattana, an allergist at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. “Once a country becomes industrialised, the allergy rate goes up like an epidemic,” he adds. “It happens in every developed society. This is a well-known phenomenon.”
In the US, one in five people has allergies, and rates among children have tripled since the 1960s. Pollution can heighten sensitivity to common allergens, such as dust mites, or in some cases it can even trigger allergic development later in life, Porawat says.
A global consumer trend toward organic, all-natural products seeks to reassert control over environmental factors at the most local level – in the home. Wainman and I have seen this same movement take root in Bangkok, where organic farmers’ markets, all-natural body care, skin care and spa products, and hypoallergenic, non-toxic cleaning brands all have witnessed strong growth in recent years.
A healthy environment starts at home
Wainman, a former US investment banker, experienced a debilitating allergic reaction 10 years ago that he traced back to a chemical fabric softener he was using at home. The ordeal led him to work on the technology that ultimately led to his creation of the Pipper Standard cleaning products, made from fermented pineapple.
“I knew I couldn’t do anything about the traffic or pollution outside, but I had power over what I brought into my home,” Wainman says. “It’s made a huge difference in my life.”
Indeed, the company message – “A healthy environment starts at home” – well sums up one of the growing opportunities that exists in Asia for smart companies seeking to leverage consumer trends related to the region’s enduring pollution challenge.
In Asia’s polluted skies, I see a transition from challenge to opportunity. As Asia’s overall economic influence grows, so too will that of Asian consumers in shaping the world around us. And that, as the move away from chemical-based to more natural products continues, can benefit the health of businesses and consumers alike.
Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.