Sonalie Figueiras is the founder and editor-in-chief of Green Queen, an award-winning impact media platform advocating for social and environmental change in Hong Kong. Besides her mission to shift consumer behaviour through inspiring and empowering original content, Sonalie Figueiras is also the founder and CEO of Ekowarehouse, a global sourcing platform for certified organic products which aims to make safe, quality food accessible and affordable for the whole planet. We chatted to Sonalie about how to live our lives more sustainably; from the clothes we wear to the products we use and the food we put on our plates, as well as how businesses can make meaningful changes to how they work.
Earth.Org: A big part of Green Queen and your own lifestyle is advocating for alternative protein and shifting away from “big meat.” What prompted you in your personal life to shift to a plant-based diet and how difficult was it to implement into your life?
Sonalie Figueiras: I would say I’m 90% vegan but there is the odd time where I may consume eggs. It’s very difficult because my mother is an extraordinary cook -truly extraordinary- and I grew up with her food so I’ve already given up most of what she makes and she’s wonderful in that she has worked really hard to adapt to me and make a lot more vegetarian and vegan foods. But baking is something she is really good at, so once in a while, I will have a bit of her cake. But I have to say that if I were alone and just deciding for myself all the time, then I would very happily just be completely plant-based.
My journey started in 2011 when I watched the documentary “Forks over Knives,” which covers “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell and his son. It really made the connection for me about why a plant-heavy or a plant-majority diet is healthier and better for the planet. It convinced me to try out raw veganism because of my health issues. For about six months, I went on this raw vegan journey and I really enjoyed it. I am a natural lover of things like juice pulp, crackers and green juice. And I love salads, and a lot of raw food is basically a repurposing of salad. And so for me, it was really easy, but it was not for my then-boyfriend or my family or friends. So it wasn’t something that would’ve worked long term for me. But it stayed with me, and so I just decided to continue mostly eating vegetables and plants.
Eventually, a few years ago, I stopped buying meat and seafood. We had already mostly cut out dairy and in any case, in the last couple of years, so many phenomenal options have popped up, that are for me as delicious as the non-plant-based option. When I would go to restaurants, I would choose the plant based option and one day, I just decided that I no longer felt right consuming flesh. It started out more as a health thing and then it became a health sustainability choice and then the ethics came in. It feels wrong for me personally to consume meat when I don’t need to.
As for Green Queen, when I started it, I advocated for ethical protein consumption so I wrote about sustainable seafood as I believed it to be an ethically-reared meat and organic-hormone-free dairy. But three years ago, I decided that I didn’t really agree with that anymore and so I decided to turn Green Queen into Asia’s only what I call “slaughter-free” media. There’s enough media outlets out there advocating for meat and dairy and I wanted us to be the slaughter-free one. We want to talk about a food system that is equal, ethical, healthy and sustainable, and we want to showcase the innovators and pioneers.
I came across alt-protein companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Food through my other company, Ekowarehouse, and I knew that they would spark a revolution. I wanted Green Queen to be the place to get that information.
EO: you said that when you first started Green Queen, you were a proponent of ethical meat consumption. Did you get any backlash when you decided to change your platform to being completely meat free?
S: No, because I did it very quietly. Perhaps we should’ve publicised the fact that we were the new “claughter-free” platform but we just stopped covering meat. We did get some restaurants and companies that wanted us to cover them but we had to tell them that we don’t cover meat or dairy anymore. Sometimes we’ll still cover a restaurant that has a vegan menu, so we’re quite pragmatic in that way.
45% of land on Earth is used to raise livestock; this is an old figure so it’s probably worse now. Most of the crops that we grow are used to feed livestock which is ridiculous when there are so many people suffering from hunger. Also, a third of food that is produced globally is wasted!
In 2018, The Guardian wrote an article that was based on the consensus of 60 scientists, researchers and academics around the world who concluded that the number one thing that you can do as a consumer to reduce your carbon footprint is to reduce your meat and dairy consumption. That’s when things changed for me. Of course we should use public transportation, reduce our electricity usage and buy less stuff, but the article made the connection between what’s on our plate and our carbon footprint in such a way that you couldn’t argue with it.
That’s why I think we’re at a real turning point now. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods had the message of “you do not need animals to make meat,” which was revolutionary because no one had thought of it like that before. Choosing these companies, you do not need to sacrifice anything; you still get the texture and taste, the cooking likeabilities of meat, but you are doing a huge favour to the planet.
Data shows that if everyone on Earth had the same diet as the average American, we would need 7 planets. We literally cannot support the amount of meat eating that happens in the world. In Asia, we’re going to hit 5 billion people soon. China and India have huge population growth with a rising middle class that is spending more money on food, particularly meat, seafood and dairy.
EO: How easy is it to live a zero-waste lifestyle or shift to a plant-based diet, especially in Hong Kong?
S: Let’s start with the plant-based diet. We are the home of Green Monday, the conglomerate that started Green Common, which is the first grocery and deli cafe plant-based chain in Asia. They are also distributors of alternatives like Beyond Meat and Miyoko’s Cheese. Then, they have another arm, Omnifood, which has released three groundbreaking alternative foods. There’s OmniPork, which is a minced pork alternative, OmniStrip, which is a strip of pork alternative and they just started retailing omni luncheon meat which is essentially a plant-based version of spam.
1 in 4 Hong Kongers are attempting to follow a flexitarian diet. What Green Monday, along with Mana! and Treehouse and others have done for Hong Kong is incredible. These are people who have worked tirelessly to transform what plant-based diet really means and offering people plant-based options. So, it’s strange to say that it’s hard to be plant-based in Hong Kong. This is a city where you can go to the wet market and find 10-50 types of tofu. Most of which costs less than HKD$10. So how can anyone say that it is difficult to be plant based? I just don’t think that’s true…it’s perception and I think that many of us in that field have been fighting that perception, here in Hong Kong but also globally, and I think the tides are turning. We do a column every month for Green Queen called, “Where to Eat Plants” about the latest plant-based news and openings and every month it’s packed- there’s over ten things, sometimes 20, to report on. And this is only in Hong Kong!
EO: This year, Green Queen released The Asia Alternative Protein Industry Report, which is the first in-depth report about plant-based, cultivated and whole foods, seafood and dairy alternatives across the region, Sonalie, what was the most surprising finding that you had when you were compiling this report?
S: The ability of Asian companies to get the price point super affordable and accessible is really remarkable. If you have affordability and the customer is educated on the health profile and sustainability profile, that’s where the transformation occurs. Impossible and Beyond are both working to lower their prices but at the moment, they are imported products and local players are able to really get that price point. In India, Gooddot is able to be cheaper than the equivalent in KFC and McDonalds locally. I thought that was astounding because there’s this perception that plant-based food is so much more expensive, but in Asia, that’s just not true.
EO: In China and India, the intake of beef and mutton will see a 110 and 138% rise, while research from the FAO indicates that the demand for poultry in southeast Asia will grow 725% from 2000 to 2030 so Impossible and Beyond foods are doing fantastic things for the Asian market but how do you think we can push more consumers- the ones that would be demanding beef, mutton and chicken- to seek out and consume these alternatives? Do you think this is something that comes purely from consumers? Or do you think governments need to push this?
S: As we mentioned earlier, we’re not going to be able to meet that animal protein demand. So we need alternatives, whether we agree with them or not.
We need an environment that fosters entrepreneurs. And right now, mainland China and Singapore are two places where the government is quite friendly. Singapore is a great example. Singapore has really rebranded itself as the place for food tech and for alternative proteins; Temasek, the government’s investment arm, was an early investor in Impossible foods and they continue to support the company. So there is no doubt that a supportive government and regulatory environment is important. Singapore is doing this because of food security which, combined with the climate crisis, will be affected everywhere.
We’re just not going to have enough arable land to grow food at the same pace as we do now. Pioneers, activists, scientists, food anthropologists are trying to figure out how to stave off disaster because they know it’s coming. The reason why I focus on food more than anything else is because food is the only thing that unites every single one of us on Earth.
Touching on subsidies: the entire meat and dairy industry is subsidised, from Europe to Asia to parts of the US and Latin America. We’ve got to stop subsidising Big Meat and Big Dairy and we’ve got to start subsidising the alternatives. We need to flip this idea that meat is the apex of food, and that without meat you don’t get protein. There is a lot of research coming out about whether we are as carnivorous as some people imply. In the anthropological world, a lot of research suggests that we are mostly omnivorous, not carnivorous. That’s something that I like to mention to people because it seems like we’ve become a carnivorous species, but that’s not the case. We’ve always been an omnivorous species that primarily depends on plants, nuts, seed and insects. Meat was something that we had once in a while.
EO: D: while a lot of ground has been gained in businesses becoming more environmentally aware in various aspects of their operations, some are dishonest in their green claims and others may use it as a front for harmful practises. How can consumers be sure that the brands and the businesses that they support aren’t lying about their green credentials or that they aren’t engaging in greenwashing?
S: One of the things that we really try to do at Green Queen is that we back everything we say with research. The great thing about social media is that everyone now has a platform. The problem comes in figuring out which platforms are credible. Consumers are completely overwhelmed! I think you have to do research. And I wish I could say to people “here’s a list of companies and everything they do is perfect and you can trust them.” What we do at Green Queen is we help to be that guide for people. But we have to keep checking because sometimes, a company will start out really great and then a couple years later, standards slip. It’s a work in progress, but the reality is that the onus is on the consumer to really do that research.
So when I’m looking at a company or an influencer’s social media account, I check that their claims are backed up with credible sources and research, reputable certifications and that they’re getting third party audits for some of the claims they make. If a company tells you that they’re sustainable, what does that mean? Are they showing you some kind of programme they’ve done, some kind of life cycle analyses or carbon audit? If they’re in food, are they part of any ethical or sustainable agricultural credential programmes, or are they following a regulatory framework- and being tested for it?
I think you have to rely on these third party labels and standards in order to make decisions. I run this organic trade platform and people are always saying to me “Oh, I don’t trust organic.” There are bad actors everywhere but at the end of the day, Ekowarehouse only works with suppliers that are certified organic according to government or international non-profit organic agricultural standards. There are going to be some bad actors that slip through the cracks, but you will be getting a more sustainable product, something that is better for the soil and the planet.
EO: What are some things that can be put in place to encourage people in Hong Kong to incorporate sustainability in a highly consumerist and convenience driven culture?
S: People often assume I’m going to say “go plant-based.” But actually, my number one piece of advice for anyone in the world, but especially in Hong Kong, is to buy less stuff. I challenge everyone to go a month without buying anything except food. I have never had someone come back to me and say “I’m miserable – that was horrible.” It’s challenging, but not impossible. People tell you to go on a media detox- “Don’t read the news, it’s too depressing.” Go on a stuff detox and see what happens to your mental health!
EO: Talking about shifting your behaviour, what are you hoping will change in a post-COVID-19 world?
S: I’m hoping that we are going to travel less and that there will be less commuting worldwide – maybe a balance of working from home and in person. I really hope that the fashion industry is really using this time to reflect because I think the whole industry needs a rethink. There are pioneers that are moving the needles but I think this has forced every fashion company to figure out what we’re going to do in a world where people can’t shop in person. And of course, I hope that we’re going to look at what’s on our plate. Almost every country that is a big meat producer had massive outbreaks at slaughterhouses and abattoirs because conditions at these places are poor.
If you love meat and you don’t want to give it up because you love the taste of it and you really think that humans evolved to eat meat, what about looking at labour rights? Meat factories and meat industry workers are some of the most exploited workers in the world.
You might also like: 10 Major Companies Responsible for Deforestation
EO: Thank you, Sonalie. Now on to the audience Q&A portion of this event. What is your approach to educating people who are completely new to the world of sustainability?
S: I would firstly say that we shouldn’t lecture people- no one wants to be told that what they’re doing is bad for the planet and we’re sort of hard-wired to push away arguments and ignore them. One of the things that I do is research the psychology of how to get people to care about the climate crisis, but I think that the best thing that you can do is lead by example. If you’re a fashionista, buy second hand and tell people that you don’t buy clothes anymore. If you’re a foodie, cook or invite your friends to plant-based restaurants. I gift my friends with food. Food is a great way to push for the cause because most people love to eat.
EO: What are your tips for the general public to reduce the use of disposable masks and takeaway boxes during this pandemic?
S: I think if you’re not sick or high risk or if you’re not living with someone at risk or working in the medical field, it is generally accepted that it’s okay to use a reusable mask now. I’m definitely not judging though- please follow medical advice. However, we could be working harder to dispose of our single-use masks responsibly, because the shocking amount of masks we now see on trails and on beaches is so depressing. If you can go reusable, there are so many NGOs and local artisans making beautiful masks!
Takeaway boxes are tough. Perhaps we could get less food delivery, or pick up the food in person and bring your own container- that’s what I try to do. Or, you could simply cook at home, although with the F&B industry in Hong Kong struggling as much as it is right now, I try to support restaurants as much as I can.
EO: How has the creation of Green Queen influenced the landscape of sustainability in Hong Kong/ Asia?
S: Well, I hope we’ve had a really positive effect! I think that we really are a part of the group of people that started the conversation around sustainable food and sustainable living- we were talking about zero waste about 7 years ago. The way we’ve been an influence is that we’ve helped other media- in Hong Kong and abroad- discover a lot of brands, companies and pioneers. For example, we were the first to interview Lance Lau, Hong Kong’s Greta. That interview went viral and now he’s been interviewed by CNN, SCMP, China Daily- you name it- he’s done the interview. Everyone wants Lance at their events now. He is a major speaker. He is the face of student strikes in Hong Kong. I’m not taking credit for Lance’s work- he’s amazing, but we find these kinds of people. We are also the first to interview the chef from treehouse, Christian Mongendre and an investor found him because of the article.
I have hundreds more stories of us finding these businesses and pioneers; they’re the amazing ones, but we provided that platform to showcase them to the community and then their work got amplified. So I’d like to think that that’s how we play the role.
The challenges are still the same from when we started eight years ago- not enough money, not enough resources. Media is a very hard business because everybody wants media but nobody wants to pay you for it.
EO: What more can we do to get involved and influence others?
S: We recently interviewed this lovely lady who got tired of everyone critiquing her dietary choices so she went and got certified in vegan nutrition to help her justify it to others.
I bring this up because my answer to your question is: “can you arm yourself with data when you are being questioned and challenged?” I also think I said it earlier- bring people out to eat delicious food. Do zero-waste challenges with your friends. Figure out a way to get involved with whatever interests you in life; whether that’s your kitchen or your wardrobe or your beauty or food. And use that to draw people in.
EO: What advice do you have for businesses that are looking to become more sustainable?
S: What I would say is that businesses should take a step back to actually think about what’s their mission on the sustainability front. Find the purpose. Maybe a good way of approaching it would be to think about the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and pick a couple to focus on, but don’t do everything at once.
Then, I would say that it’s worth it in the beginning to look at bringing in a sustainability consultant to talk about your sustainability goals. However, a lot of the time, I notice that employees often take it upon themselves to start a green group amongst employees and get other employees to volunteer or invite speakers to talk with the company or order food from a plant-based place.
Mostly, you need to be measuring what you’re doing, be clear and you need to take it step by step, because you can’t do everything overnight.