x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The sense and sustainability of The Change Initiative

Selina Denman talks to Gundeep Singh, the man behind The Change Initiative, about swapping his high-powered corporate job and showy lifestyle to focus on eco-friendly alternatives.

Gundeep Singh, CEO of The Change Initiative, and his wife Shilpi at their villa in Arabian Ranches. Jaime Puebla / The National
Gundeep Singh, CEO of The Change Initiative, and his wife Shilpi at their villa in Arabian Ranches. Jaime Puebla / The National

Growing up dirt-poor in Delhi, it was not unusual for Gundeep Singh to go for days at a time without food. So when he earned a scholarship to attend Cornell and then Harvard and started forging a career for himself in business, he made a list in his head of all the things he would buy when he was rich.

"The idea was 'think and grow rich', so I had a list of 100 things that I wanted to buy, including a yacht," he says. "I had almost achieved 99 before I thought: 'What am I doing?'. I grew up in a house where we quite often didn't have food, so I looked around and thought, 'I want to have this and I want to have that'. It's only when you have all those things that you realise that that's not what gives you happiness."

After graduating from Harvard, Singh returned to India and, within a few years, had become the youngest general manager for the Southern Pacific Corporation in South East Asia. In 1999, he joined the UAE-based Al Ghurair Group, and was the managing director of Khalid Al Ghurair Enterprises until he left last year to launch The Change Initiative, a Dubai-based, one-stop shop for sustainable solutions.

"Khalid and I had been travelling around the world looking for business opportunities, with the aim of buying companies in the sustainability or clean tech space. I felt that there was going to be demand for clean energy sources. Unfortunately, none of the deals worked out because the valuations were incredibly high, but it did raise a lot of interest in my mind."

Singh went away and did his research. He realised that global supply chains were governed by a culture of "no longevity" but that, when it came to issues such as climate change, sustainability and eco-awareness, people "felt very far removed. They were asking the question: how does this impact me? And everybody was blaming everybody else".

So he decided to establish a global supply chain for sustainable solutions - a space where he could demonstrate to consumers, businesses and even governments that there were sustainable alternatives to almost any product on the market, from detergents, skincare, jewellery and furniture, to food, clothing and computers.

"We wanted to be realistic and offer solutions that could be demonstrated. So this is a washing machine that can be recycled and it uses less power and water, but it doesn't have this. This is a pesticide that contains almost all organic ingredients, but there is one ingredient that is not organic and you should know about it, but it is still better than something else. These things are just better - not the ultimate. When it comes to sustainability, there are no perfect answers.

"I wanted to move away from the entire concept that being in harmony with nature means you have to be a tree-hugger. You can have fun and still be reasonably responsible. We are a consumeristic society; we just have to be better consumers."

But first, Singh had to look to himself. In his pursuit of "the 100", he had become a poster child for unsustainable living. "I was horribly unsustainable," he says. "Probably the worst guy on the planet. I had the yacht, the crazy cars, the crazy lifestyle. But I realised I was doing things not even for the sake of pleasure, but just because I could."

In some ways, Singh was a symbol for one of the greatest challenges facing the global sustainability movement. Those who have very little are, by default, sustainable. But as they lift themselves out of poverty, the ultimate aspiration is to acquire more and more. So even as some western societies begin to question their culture of ultra-consumerism, developing countries around the world are ratcheting up consumption, placing ever-greater pressure on the planet's diminishing resources.

"It's a strange cycle where one society has learnt and is trying to build a culture of reasonable consumption, while the other set has learnt that it's good to have a lot of things," Singh admits.

So the yacht had to go. And the fancy cars were replaced with hybrids. "That one hurt the most," Singh admits. "But you have to learn to live with it."

Next, Singh started making changes to his home in the Arabian Ranches. All of the lighting is now solar powered and all bulbs are LED; motion sensors throughout the house control energy usage and make sure that lights go out if there is no one in the room. The floors are glass coated, which means they require 80 per cent less detergent to be cleaned. In the kitchen, Singh introduced an induction cooker and one of the most energy-efficient fridges on the market. All of the furniture and paint is low VOC (volatile organic compound); bathtubs were removed and replaced with water-efficient showers; and any leftover food is turned into compost using a Bokashi bin.

"We make a point of doing little things like switching taps off when they are not in use and we only use filtered water. We've tried to do everything differently but realised that if you do something that completely infringes on your lifestyle, you'll not get very far. So you have to do things that make sense.

"It's taken me three years. It was an important decision, but I realised that enough is enough. We are borrowing from the future and spending today. But the future doesn't belong to us. It belongs to other people and we have no right to take what they haven't given us. It's unfair."

For those of us looking to make changes in the way we live, the easiest place to start is with food and water, Singh says. "Look at the things that are around you that you can change. Another easy thing to do is be less fashionable. I used to buy clothes all the time. I now have two suits and three or four shirts. My PR person hates it. I'm not saying that we shouldn't still look good, but you don't have to buy hundreds of ties and shirts and change them every season. Start with that little tweak. Those are the things that don't really hurt."

Of course, even with the best intentions in the world, there were some things that Singh couldn't bear to part with. Getting rid of the yacht and cars was one thing - cutting meat out of his diet was another. "I tried to be a vegetarian and I failed miserably. But some of the changes stuck. If you get six out of ten right, you're doing well, I think."

And was it difficult to get the rest of the family on board, I wonder? "My wife is already a million times more sustainable than me, so she taught me a lot of things. And my sons, who are six and nine, were already way ahead of me, so I'm the bad guy."

In fact, Singh's wife Shilpi was more than happy to get rid of her Porsche Cayenne and replace it with a more manoeuvrable hybrid car, she admits. "It takes two to clap. You have to do things cohesively."

As far as Singh is concerned, this is only the beginning of his journey to sustainability. "We have probably changed things by 15 to 20 per cent. It's the next 20 per cent that will be really tough.

"But the future is when we become better; that's how humanity has always been. Considering that we are at a stage where there is already a bit of a fight for resources, the options are limited. We don't have a choice; we have to do this."

sdenman@thenational.ae

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