Forbes Middle East

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Sustainability From The Top Down

Hannah Stewart
Sustainability From The Top Down
Gundeep Singh, chief executive and founder of the Change Initiative takes a top-down approach to explaining his unique project, quite literally. Standing on the roof of his new site in Dubai which serves as a one-stop-shop for sustainable living—a way of life that aims to reduce use and wastage of natural resources—the passionate CEO demonstrates first hand that sustainability is not only imperative as the world’s resources deplete, it’s commercially viable too.

“We have taken all the necessary solutions available to make the building efficient,” he remarks, pointing to solar panels soaking up the early morning sun and some unfamiliar contraptions—adiabatic cooling he explains—which increase air-conditioning efficiency by 15 to 20%. To top it off, dispelling the myth that sustainability comes with a hefty price tag, Singh expects costs for these additions to be recovered within three months. It is immediately clear that this unassuming building which houses a world of sustainable wonders is itself a manifestation of Singh’s vision.

Inaugurated on 1 May 2012 by His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Makhtoum, the Change Initiative’s flagship store in Dubai has been developed in light of pressing global challenges and in line with the UAE’s national vision to promote sustainability and environmental protection. With $27 million invested in the project to date, and high profile investors including Robert F. Kennedy Jnr, Mr. Abdullah Mazrui and Skagen Group, the sustainability of this venture at least, seems in safe hands.

Reluctant to divulge too much financial information—after all this detracts from the real purpose of the visit—Singh, whose career includes high profile positions in India and the UAE including with Al Ghurair Group and HSBC, explains, “all I can say is that we are very well capitalized for the future.”

Stepping from the roof into an elevator which descends past a state-of-the-art business center en route to the retail outlet and almost-complete restaurant on the ground floor, it is hard to sum up this inspirational place. Singh, however, has no such problem, “it’s simple. It’s a one-stop sustainability shop for both retail and commerce.” From a B to B area including spacious paper-free meeting rooms, and sustainable furniture by Vitra, to a retail store offering an assault on the senses, the Change Initiative caters to every area of life from cars and kitchens, to food and jewelry.

With a number of educational ‘lounges’ throughout the store and Singh’s “please do touch” policy extending to a catalytic dress which converts bad air to good, and a concertina cardboard chair that can seat up to 16 people, shoppers are compelled to embark on a learning experience designed to encourage purchasing whilst changing attitudes. “You can actually use a tap, see a shower working and understand. We just don’t tell people this is how it should be. We are actually physically demonstrating, explaining and giving a reason to accept or not accept on your own terms,” he stresses.

To further engage the customer, the CEO has a fully furnished ‘apartment’ at the rear of the store demonstrating exactly how sustainability can be incorporated into a household.  Giving a tour of the apartment, the insightful businessman articulates a view that is reflected in the quirky apartment, “I believe that sustainability is not about dying tomorrow, and the end of the world, it can be fun and interesting and it can be quite elegant.”

Customers are not the only ones buying into this innovative venture. Around 60 well-known companies are partnering with the Change Initiative; from Philips and Siemens to Roca and Dulux, to name but a few. For Victor Schoone, Middle East manager for Roca, the Change Initiative is “an entity which is only interested in promoting sustainable solutions which truly make a difference and which are acceptable from a market point of view.”

Taking a similar line, Sankar Vishwanath of Vitra adds, “this is a unique opportunity for us to partner in this venture to make a difference...promoting our product range to companies that are looking for solutions that make an impact on their environment policy.” This network of partners, all of whom are set to have a permanent presence in the store, offers a full range of sustainability solutions to the discerning consumer with a conscience.

But does the consumer with conscience need deep pockets to match the bespoke service that Singh is offering? While from the outset he made it clear that sustainable does not equal expensive, the adjectives that Singh uses to describe his products—timeless, elegant, top quality—suggest high and not-so-biodegradable prices. But he is keen to set something straight. “The physical point that people are missing is that there is a logical correlation between price and quality,” he continues, “If you pay less, you get less, if you pay more you get more, and that is more or less correct.”

Pointing to a kitchen on display, he states that while costing perhaps 20 to 30% more, cheaper counterparts fail miserably by comparison on all counts from appearance and functionality, to sustainability and longevity. “I can’t understand. Why wouldn’t people buy things that would last for a longer time?” he remarks. This is part of the attitude that he is attempting to influence.

Complementing Singh’s belief and enthusiasm in his project are his ambitious goals. With doors barely open to the Dubai store, the Change Initiative aims to be present in 50 locations across the world over the next seven to ten years, with eight new stores anticipated in the first two years.

Though Europe is not on the radar for now, and describing the US as a “concurrent market”, the founder-CEO has plans for expansion into Singapore, Hong Kong, India and China amongst other Asian locations, with a store also due to be launched in Doha within the next 12 months, and one in Riyadh to follow.

Fearing the consequences if developing countries start to live and consume in line with more advanced economies, the Change Initiative’s leading man also has his sights set on emerging economies and he is optimistic that the developing world can correct the mistakes of the west. “Nigeria moved straight from no phones to mobile phones—they didn’t have to dig up the ground and lay the lines. In the same way they [developing countries] could move, let’s say, from no power to sustainable power.”

With a growing portfolio of companies to his name offering different sustainability solutions, along with patented technologies and product development—a solar-powered machine that can cut desalination costs down to one-tenth is just one of his latest creations—the man behind the Change Initiative seems to have the vision and capacity to make these possibilities a reality.

And where better to begin than the UAE which is home to one of the highest per capita uses of energy and water in the world? For those who point to the challenges of tackling sustainability in such a country—changing mindset and behavior posing as great a challenge as developing the required infrastructure and technology—Singh has a different take on things. “It’s like the old story of someone going to Africa and saying, ‘I’m sorry I can’t sell any shoes out there, nobody wears any shoes, when in fact, this is probably the best place to sell shoes!” he remarks. While an oversimplification at best, Singh nevertheless gets his point across.

For the inspirational individual who traded his yacht for an eco-friendly hybrid car, leading by example is key. Lamenting that many companies producing sustainable materials fail to actually use their own products, Singh is taking an entirely different approach. His own home is a shrine to all things sustainable, and his young children, aged five and eight, are growing up with the same values, starting with turning off the tap when brushing their teeth! A poignant tale of Mahatma Gandhi that meets each visitor on entrance of the store says it all:

“A lady brought her son and said he ate too much sugar. She wanted Gandhi to tell him to stop. Gandhi said to bring the child back the next week. The next week she brought the child and Gandhi said ‘stop eating sugar child’. And the child did. A month later the lady came back and said ‘my child has done what you asked, but why could you not have spoken to him the first time I came.’ ‘Lady’, said Gandhi, ‘a week earlier I was still eating sugar.’”

The Change Initiative’s first store has opened its doors, displaying a whole world of sustainability, but the devoted founder is still on a journey. By his own estimation, he is just 20% along the way to achieving his final aim. “I think you can actually have zero footprint. You can live a life where you balance yourself with nature. Not being philosophical, but being practical.”

From the rooftop down, the Change Initiative campaigns to prove that sustainability is not only a necessity, but commercially viable, with an element of fun thrown in for good measure. In a world where natural resources are depleting faster than humans are acting, not only sustainable living but men like Gundeep Singh are in short supply.
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