Eco-activism, sustainability, and food security in China: A conversation with Sonalie Figueiras

Science & Health

Sonalie Figueiras, founder of Hong Kong-based sustainability platform Green Queen, talks about China’s environment and food security goals, and challenges that censorship presents for eco-activism.

Image via Green Queen

Below is a complete transcript of the China Corner Office Podcast with Sonalie Figueiras:

Chris: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us today on China Corner Office, a podcast powered by SupChina, a New York-based news and information platform that helps the West read China between the lines. I’m Chris Marquis, a professor at the Cambridge University Judge Business School, and today’s episode features a discussion with serial social entrepreneur and eco-activist, Sonalie Figueiras.

Sonalie is a native of Hong Kong, and she has started a number of companies in the region. Perhaps most well-known is Green Queen, the impact media platform she founded 10 years ago. As a media company based in Hong Kong focused on sustainability and social impact, Sonalie’s work is at the intersection of many important China topics.

One area we discussed is the Chinese government’s increasing focus on environmentalism in recent years and its many efforts to meet its ambitious goals. It was quite interesting to hear Sonalie, in particular, reflect on the lack of growth of the plant-based sector in China.

She told me that in 2020, she predicted China would play a more active role in alternative proteins but that has not yet come to pass. Her rationale for the prediction which made a lot of sense to me is that food security is an important element of national security which is clearly a top priority for the Chinese government.

The country has faced a lot of crises as well and its meat supply chain in recent years such as with the African swine flu which since 2018 has wiped out an astounding 50% of the country’s pig population. This fact combined with a strong top-down responses to security issues made China an obvious market for rapid growth of alternative proteins.

While the government has not yet focused its attention here yet, Sonalie does have a number of recommendations for entrepreneurial firms that want to grow the sector in the future. Chinese consumers are known for being picky, and she has a number of suggestions for how companies can better meet their expectations.

In addition to the environmental context of Sonalie’s work, we also discussed the changing media environment in Hong Kong and associated challenges. It was particularly interesting to hear her takes on the paid media culture in China and also the increasing potential for self-censorship of the independent media in Hong Kong.

Thanks so much for listening, and enjoy the show. Sonalie, welcome to China Corner Office.

Sonalie: Hi, it’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Chris: Great. Yeah, really excited and looking forward to learning more about sustainability, green issues in China and Asia more generally. And as a leader of a media outlet focused on these issues and yourself an entrepreneur in these issues, I know you have a real good pulse on some of the key challenges, key issues and sustainable production. I’d love to just hear a little bit about what some of those are from your perspective.

Sonalie: Absolutely. Well, obviously, there are some challenges and obstacles that are general to Asia Pacific, and then there are some that really are specific to each country, right? So, for example, just really quickly if you talk about the difference between the Chinese market in mainland China versus the Indian market, you are coming from a very different… You’ve got very different obstacles.

So, there are plenty of hundreds of millions, even consumers in mainland China that can afford to pay a little bit more for plant-based meat, that is not the case in India today, right? The disposable incomes are not the same. Even if you would both classify… You would classify the consumer as middle class in both, their buying power is not the same, right?

So, an Indian consumer may be much more price-sensitive than the average middle-class Chinese consumer. So, that’s a big difference, so you wouldn’t be able to generalize. But overall, you could definitely say that compared to certain Western markets and Pacific markets like Australia and New Zealand, the conscious consumer persona is not exactly the same across Asia, and that’s to varying degrees true in all the different countries and subregions.

So, the motivation to buy something because you want to protect the planet is quite different and is not developed to the same degree and within the same degree. So, it’s just both from a breadth perspective and a depth perspective, it’s just, it’s a different set of motivations. And for example, animal welfare is not top of mind in the same way.

Chris: I’d love to dig into some of those like consumer trends as well. But how about as far as some of the, I go to China or different cities and other Asia cities, Hong Kong, Hong Kong less than mainland China, but there’s pollution, a lot of plastic waste, a lot of packaging use.

I mean, if you use one of these express services… I mean, you have something boxed up and then they come and they add their whole other gigantic cardboard box around that and lots of tape, what’s your sense on some of those issues and how sustainable things like packaging and production, I know that you’re involved in the packaging industry as well.

Sonalie: So, I’m the co-founder of sourcegreenpackaging.com, which is the first wholesale marketplace that is dedicated to sustainable packaging, and I can tell you very upfront that we are focusing on the U.S. market first. Our view is that today, while there are pockets of demand across Asian markets, the big demand is not there.

We are not seeing that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, and we are definitely not seeing that businesses are willing to pay double or triple to replace single-use plastic from fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives. Whereas, actually we are seeing that in the U.S. and in Europe.

And another thing to keep in mind is regulation. We’re not at the same levels of progress and regulation. We do not have very strong anti-plastic waste regulations across Asia. They are changing in China and India, being the two biggest markets that are making moves here.

In India starting from 2023, single-use plastic is going to be hugely curtailed. China has already made a big stink about excessive food waste and has recommended that brands change 30 to 50% of their packaging. So, there’s the beginnings of it in the big markets because I think the waste crises are just so costly to municipal governments and national governments.

But there was a Shopify survey done on US customers that came out last year that showed that over 50% of US consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. I mean, they’re actually willing to shoulder that burden. Whereas, I don’t think we could say the same thing for Asian… I think, Asian customers know it’s a problem and they would love alternatives, but they’re not going to pay more for it. They’re not going to choose a more expensive product just because it has sustainable packaging. So, that’s a big difference.

So, for us we see the demand will come in three to five years, that’s when that market will be key for us. But right now, where the demand is from the merchant side, the corporate side, from the end consumer side, it’s in the United States and in Europe to a degree. I think-

Chris: Got it. You mentioned regulation and that there’s been some moves. I mean, I remember a number of years ago, there was an effort to try to get those plastic bags out of the market in China. But I agree with you that at least when I’ve been there, I mean it’s just, it’s amazing how plentiful the packaging is, so to speak.

But the Chinese government and other governments around the world have recently been focusing a lot on carbon neutrality and I think that this may play into that. I mean, the plastic is from fossil fuels. What’s your sense on either corporate or government side about these goals?

Sonalie: My sense is that carbon neutrality remains very much an energy conversation and an offsetting conversation. What we’re seeing here in ESG commitments is like, “Okay, we’re going to offset,” but what we’re seeing in Europe for example is offsetting is a scam. So, we’re at different points in the zeitgeist.

Where in Europe companies have had sustainability managers for a long time, here that’s new. That position is new but it’s happening. And they are now recruiting, going on to hire sustainability managers. But are they given the same space as financial managers or operational managers? No.

One of the things I often argue about in a keynote that I do at corporates, is big companies should have a chief sustainability officer that is accountable to the CEO, and that is part of the C-suite. That is the only way that sustainability will truly be baked into the entire business rather than what I see a lot in the West and here is sustainability managers that have their little team, and they live in a bit of a silo.

And they get trotted out once in a while to share initiatives and do a little SDG presentation, but they’re not given the space and the tools and the resources and the responsibility and the budget to really strategically change the fundamental approach to business lines with a sustainability lens.

Chris: Yeah, makes sense. What’s your sense then, I mean of the government, the Chinese government’s announcements that they’re going to be peak coal 2030, carbon neutral 2060. There’s a lot of plans, and like the recent five-year plan around this.

And I mean, ultimately it’s companies that are going to have to actually shoulder a lot of that burden, I mean through… because they’re the ones who have the factories that are polluting. And so, what are you seeing as far as the early stages of those national initiatives spilling down, or is it still too early to tell?

Sonalie: Well, I think there’s a lot to unpack there. So, first of all China as with any other country when it comes to sustainability initiatives and these decarbonization plans, it’s a lot of creative math, right? It’s a lot of, “Hey, so we’re going to move the emissions from here to here,” so everyone’s doing that, right? And that, again, comes back to the offsetting and that’s a whole different debate.

But in terms of whether China can achieve it, I mean I would say they must never… The Chinese government must never be underestimated. They have this power that very few governments have where they can genuinely overnight… I mean, they tomorrow could say, “We’re never going to use single-use plastic again,” and it would have to happen. I don’t know anywhere else in the world that they could do that on this scale.

So, I do believe that if they’ve set those targets, I mean one thing you can say about the Chinese government, they’re planners much more so than Western governments because there isn’t this constant change in leadership and maybe party interests.

So, right now we’ve just seen all the plans for five years, and I believe that they will get there. But will they get there by averting a plastic crisis, or will they get there by insisting that X number of percentage needs to be green energy which they can make happen? That remains to be seen, and I think it’s probably more energy and then offsetting.

But I don’t think that Chinese companies necessarily have a huge choice. But in this case, it’s a positive thing. I mean, I wish we could do that for a lot of companies, right? Say, “Hey, you got to go green tomorrow –

Chris: Yeah, totally.

Sonalie: … You have two years.” I mean, that would be better for the world, but we can’t do that. China can do that. So, I actually think we’re going to see some pretty great stuff coming from China on this because I think they do commit to certain goals and metrics, and they will find a way to get there.

Chris: Really interesting. So, that then makes me think it’s interesting about predicting what they’ll do, and I totally agree with you. I mean, this is one of the reasons why I’ve been studying China is that this energy transition, I mean, could happen there in a really interesting and powerful way that it can’t happen elsewhere, certainly in the U.S. where I spent most of my life.

Chris: I’d like to ask you, one of the reasons I was really interested to talk to you is that you had, I think, had a prediction about China having a much more active role in alternative proteins and food tech, and I would love to hear a little bit about how you see that market evolving as well.

Sonalie: So, one of the things that I want to be really upfront about is that I think that I got that prediction quite wrong. I really thought three years ago that if there was one country that was going to onboard the cultivated meat… I mean, because alternative protein is plant-based, fermented, and cultivated. Fermented is still not really a big subsector in China. Plant-based we can get to that, but cultivated meat which is a science-backed sector that requires huge R&D development, I truly thought that China was going to be one of the leaders on that.

And we said as much in our launch report, we do a report called The Asia… now the APAC Alternative Protein Industry Report, and our first report came out in January 2020. And in that report, we had picked China and Singapore as two key markets for cultivated meat. And so, we turned out to be very right about Singapore. Later that year, they of course were the first country in the world to regulate the commercialization of cultivating meat with the American company Eat Just.

But China ended up taking a much less active role, a bit of a backseat. My sense now on the ground, just off the record, when I speak to founders is that China is on a wait-and-see kind of situation. Now, there was big news because there was… Last week, China put it in their AgTech plan, cultivated meat is of interest, novel proteins. So, that was seen as like for the first time in three years, the government was actually calling that out, and that was very exciting.

But if you look at actually, like, the support, the financial support, the infrastructure support, support for universities to develop these technologies, it’s just not really been there. And I was having an interesting discussion with a founder recently this week and he was saying, “Meat is not considered a must-have essential in China.”

Because my argument was really well, China likes to control its future and its supply chain and is more and more nationalistic, jingoistic wanting to control, have more China-made stuff. There was that huge mess with… The most consumed meat in China is pork, and there was a huge mess with African swine flu which decimated up to 25% of the Chinese pig population… no, that was the population worldwide of which China is a huge consumer. And I thought that would spur them on.

Now, from a national security point of view, because if you are a government that plans which China does and you are looking at the future, there is no way that food security is not on your agenda. And so, for me I see cultivated meat and food security as their fates are aligned, right? Because if you can grow your own meat and you don’t need to be importing the meat or growing the animals and having to manage the animals and deal with disease, you are really in control of a huge part of your supply chain. So, that was my argument.

Now, when I made that argument, we hadn’t had COVID. So, COVID hit, and I definitely think that that’s also part of the reason why China’s taken a backseat, right? They had other things to worry about. And then, they closed off to the world, and it was like, “Well, let’s focus on what we need to focus on,” and they’re cleaning house and other areas. So, that’s definitely one of it.

But what one of these entrepreneurs was telling me earlier this week was, “Meat’s just not an essential.” I mean, he literally said, “Well, actually fighter jets are essential but meat is not.” Now, I pushed back and I said, “Well, okay. I hear what you’re saying, but China’s come a long way in terms of quality of life. And a fair number of Chinese people eat meat every day now even if it’s not steak, but they’ll eat pork minced in their dumpling or their Jian Bing or what have you in their soup.

So, I think that, yes, I see that point. But overall, I still think that… I think, it’s more that they just want to see what the risks are for the industry and they want to see how will the first country likely to be, the U.S. honestly, regulate the cultivated meat and then label it and then go through consumer testing and then put it on the market, see what the response is. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about cultivating meat. I mean, it’s not ready at scale. So, I can understand that they want to be more on a wait and see approach.

Chris: Got it. And I guess, I mean the logic that you laid out about national security, very salient issues around swine flu and other food security issues. I mean, you shouldn’t say that you haven’t hit that prediction yet. I think, it might be too early to tell, I think, particularly given COVID.

Sonalie: That’s what an investor told me that my predictions are just five-year on. But my point is I thought they would act sooner, but I think the pandemic stopped them. And I also think they want to just wait and see. But one thing I will say is that there are a lot of tools and resources in China for cultivated meat to become much bigger than it is today because there’s really less than five startups today. And they are usually spinoffs from universities.

But there’s plenty of money that wants to go in it. There’s plenty of talent, and there’s also plenty of appetite for meat that belongs to China that’s grown for Chinese people by Chinese people, right? And if you think about the pandemic, it’s not just food security. Food security has many different facets, right? There’s the climate issue.

We are literally not going to be able to grow some of the crops that we grow today because of climate crisis, worsening conditions, so weather patterns and the like and arable land issues. And that’s across the world, right? So, coffee and chocolate are going to be hugely problematic, for example.

But two, there’s also, “Well, what happens if there’s another pandemic and the borders close overnight and you’re not able to import?” And even today, we’re still feeling shocks in the supply chain, globally, across many different industries including food.

So, if you control your production locally, right, that’s a win. And that’s why you can see there’s huge investment in indoor Ag in China. It’s starting, right? And there’s huge investment in making their farms more efficient and more climate-resilient. So, for me cultivated meat is just, it’s another part of that, it’s just further down the line.

Chris: Yeah, I totally agree. And so, that’s, yeah, maybe five years from now we can talk again, and I’m sure your prediction will come true. So, I can see really a lot of logic why the government is interested in this. What about consumers though? I mean, the Chinese consumers, I mean I think you’re right. I mean, I think that meat actually has become something that people have, at least a huge amount of the population does. But the consumers, Chinese consumers are very, very picky around what they eat. And what’s your sense about consumer acceptance?

Sonalie: Well, I think we need to talk about plant-based meat first because plant-based meat in China has not been the success story that it is in the West at all and in other parts of Asia like even in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand to some extent, even in India, what we’re seeing early interest, no. Chinese consumers are very sophisticated, and their use, their cuisine is very multi-layered and multifaceted.

For the last year, my sense was, things are not going well for these plant-based companies, the few that are there, my understanding and so Impossible Foods has not made it there because there’s still an issue with regulatory approval for their heme which is the fermented GM yeast that gives it that rich iron blood mouthfeel that replicates meat which I mean is quite integral to their product. So, that is not yet approved, so they have not entered China.

Beyond Meat is in China but very quiet over the last year. There was a couple of food service launches and Starbucks and such but it hasn’t really gone much beyond that. You’ve got OmniFoods that’s there, so they’re obviously the Green Monday offshoot that’s started in Hong Kong. They’re there, but I mean even then I think it’s challenging.

I think that Chinese consumers are very discerning, and the key thing to remember is that the environmental motivation and the animal welfare motivation is not quite there yet. That’s not why they’re buying plant-based meat. So, if you have a consumer and they’re not super pro-animal rights or super worried about the climate crisis, they’re not going to forgive low-fidelity products. And I do think that in the West, we do forgive to a certain extent when we’re coming from that environmental or ethical buying motivation, right?

That being said, that’s why Impossible Foods being so high-fidelity was able to really capture people that didn’t care about environment and ethics to the same degree as maybe your activist vegan, right? But I know that I’ve forced myself to like products or eat them when they weren’t amazing because I just didn’t want to eat the alternative with the animal. That’s not happening in mainland China. So, that’s one issue.

Another issue is frankly, I just don’t think that the work is being done by the brands, both the foreign brands and the local brands, to really segment their market properly and understand their consumer and lead with the right buying USPS. So, for me I would have led with nutrition and health and better branding and trendiness, right? I mean, we know that when something is trendy and well-made and quality and represented by KOL, we know that Chinese consumers will consume it.

But the plant-based meat brands seem to go for very average products that are not super appealing, their branding is. And, for example, another thing I would have done is instead of giving them ready to cook products for home, I would have done a lot more ready to eat like dumplings or spring rolls or ramen packs where you don’t have to figure out how to cook it. It’s just inserted instead of the pork or instead of the chicken.

I would have gone that way, and I would have focused on health and the quality of the protein and the nutrition. But that’s not really what was done. And it just doesn’t seem like the industry is taking off as much as everyone had hoped it would. This is just my view.

Chris: Yeah. I think, my exposure to, yeah, Chinese consumers in these issues is very consistent with yours. And those recommendations you have I think are… I had thought about those but very spot on and hopefully, maybe folks from some of these companies like Beyond or whoever else… I mean, I don’t know what Beyond is selling in China but I can imagine like they’re Italian sausages which they’re very popular in the U.S. for people that aren’t even vegan because they actually taste very good may not go over well in China.

Sonalie: Yep. And I think we mustn’t be lazy, and we must adapt our marketing, our branding and our product offering to every market. And in China, it’s not just one market, there are submarkets.

Chris: Many, many markets, yeah. I’d like to switch gears a little bit. I mean, it’s been really interesting to hear all of this insight into sustainability, plant-based packaging, carbon neutrality. But you’re a real pioneer in this, I think, even globally let alone in Asia, in Hong Kong, and in China, how did you get into this interest?

Sonalie: I feel like my story’s a little bit classic because in the beginning I was more in the health and wellness world, and I have this classic story of, I was sick. No one could figure out what was wrong with me. I had these health issues. They weren’t killing me, but they were making my life unpleasant and painful. And the doctors weren’t listening to me. I definitely feel I experienced what I call medical misogyny.

And to this day, I definitely do not have a strong trust in doctors even though I think they do amazing work and especially, I love surgeons and all that, but in terms of regular doctors, I think, not so good at diseases that you can’t just medicate. And I was misdiagnosed with a few things. But in the end, I’ve turned out to have a couple of hormonal disorders that have made life painful for me, made things difficult –

Chris: Sorry to hear that.

Sonalie: … And it took many… Thanks. It took many years to figure out what those were. And it was right around when Google came along and you could actually do your own research on the internet which I mean I would have been that kid who was like googling everything if I’d had it, but I started to do my own research. And the more I researched, the more I realized that the way that I was living and what I was eating was having an impact on my symptoms and probably had caused some of this to an extent.

So, a lot of hormonal disorders could be traced back to the fact that I spent a lot of my childhood consuming chicken, beef, and milk from the U.S. that was heavily filled with hormones and antibiotics. And my mom thought she was doing the best thing by buying the imported American meat and dairy –

Chris: Oh, so you weren’t in the U.S.? You’re in Hong Kong?

Sonalie: Yeah. And my mom thought she was buying the better thing. And at the time, that’s what was available. And so, we didn’t have access to information. She didn’t know any of these. She didn’t know there were hormones in the meat. She didn’t want to be… because my mom is very much like a, “Eat at home,” everything homemade type of person. So, it’s not like I grew up eating food from a packet at all but it’s just the raw ingredients were filled with hormones and antibiotics which were non-declared.

And definitely, my mom grew up in India so she definitely fed me a lot of meat, I think, felt like meat was key to being healthy and protein, all of that, what I think today is brainwashing had happened to her, right? And she was thinking, well, we’ve managed to build up our… We can buy meat every day and eat it at every meal and that’s a luxury and so on and so forth.

And so, I just went down a rabbit hole. And I started looking at what I was eating, and then I started looking at how my food was grown or produced or caught. And then, I started understanding about soil depletion and waterway pollution and toxicity because of plastics that were leaching into my food prep or what have you. And that’s just… It’s snowballed from there.

And then, I totally changed my life overnight. I changed what I was eating, what I was buying, what products I was using in the shower, the paint on my walls. I was freaking out about the VOCs and et cetera, et cetera and stopped all carpeting in any of my housing. I just really tried to detoxify my life and eventually felt like maybe there were people out there that needed the resources I was accumulating.

And I’ve always been and still am someone that people call for, “What restaurant should I go to, or where should I stay?” I’m like, I love to share information and resources and suggestions. And so, put it up on a website, did not know how to manage a website, did not know that I was starting any kind of media company.

Looking back, it makes sense. Because when I was an eight-year old, I started my own magazine. I used to ask… my mom had a company and she would print… She would photocopy. I would write it out in felt-tip pen on A4 paper and staple it and then she would photocopy it and I would distribute it in school. And then, I started another magazine that I was printing in color from a computer when I was 16, and I worked for my school paper. So, it makes sense, but I didn’t connect those dots till later.

And then, we went from a small Hong Kong blog that immediately got a readership because clearly there were other people like me to a more well-known health and wellness and sustainable food media. Because I basically realized very early on, I didn’t want it to be a blog. I really wanted to be more like a media where I was providing information but it wasn’t just all about me.

I mean, just to be very clear I never planned to become any kind of media personality. I didn’t even put my name or my photo on Green Queen for four years.

And I had to really be coaxed into it because I was getting speaking engagements. And I mean, I still don’t even have my own Instagram. So, it really wasn’t… I wasn’t trying to become an influencer, I was really just trying to share information. And I did feel like there was a gap in the market for this kind of information, and we were absolutely the first in Asia to write about all this stuff.

And we were the first to… We were definitely the first media to write about alternative protein back in 2016. I was running another business which was in organic foods supply chain, and I was going to all these food shows. And I was discovering the future of food, and I was tasting things like Beyond and going, “Something’s different here.”

And then, eventually decided that I wanted to focus more on this future of food and wanted to give Asia a voice because a lot of the media is very Western-centric, very U.S.-centric, and then U.S.-centric and UK-centric. And it just grew from there. And then, about three years ago decided I was just going to go forward and be global and have a more global readership.

And about five years ago, we stopped reporting on animal products. Because before that, I was living under this illusion that there’s humane meat and sustainable seafood and organic dairy. And then, the more I read and the more I got into the research and I looked at the carbon reports from the UN, I just felt like it was completely, I couldn’t say that I was Green Queen and sustainable and health-focused and then be promoting industrial meat and dairy in any way, shape, or form. And I’ve given up seafood ages before because it’s just mired in slavery.

Chris: Yeah, wow. Interesting. Thank you for sharing that. It’s interesting to hear that last part about how… the standards that you’re keeping in your coverage. And a lot of times nowadays, there’s a lot of conflict of interest underlying media reporting. We’re all in our bubbles of extremism in some ways, and how do you think about that particularly vis-à-vis mainland China which has increasingly strong influence on the media landscape in Hong Kong?

I mean, how do you balance both your impartiality, covering things you’re passionate about with a looming influence of China and just trying to be fair and impartial, I guess?

Sonalie: Well, I think it’s all in your masthead, in what you say to the world that you’re doing. So, I’m very, very, very upfront about seven years ago, we put out this mission and said, “We are an impact media. So, we are trying to some degree to change people’s minds about climate change and what they can do about it.” So, I’m not hiding from that. So, everything that we publish is put through that lens. So, we’re not just a regular media.

I’m not going to report on microchips or a new phone or construction. I’m really going to look at everything through the lens of, “Am I informing you about the climate crisis? Am I inspiring you with stories of entrepreneurs and companies and solutions and NGOs that are working to change it? And am I empowering you by offering you resources and solutions that you yourself can put into action if you want to?” So, I have an agenda. And I think my issue is that most media does not cop to their agenda.

Chris: Got it. Yeah.

Sonalie: Even news media has an agenda, right? I mean, let’s look at the U.S. There’s the liberal news media and the conservative news media, but they all like to say that they’re completely unbiased. But I mean, I don’t know that anybody even really believes that anymore. I mean, you can look at what’s happening with even CNN, and you can see that we’ve lost trust in what is supposed to… And I think there used to be these middle media like PBS but that’s just gone out the window. And even the BBC in the UK is, in my view, much more aligned with the Tories and the Conservative Party than it is with the left. So, I don’t think they’re unbiased either.

Do I think everybody knows that media is completely biased? No, I think some people like to believe that they’re still unbiased media. But at the end of the day, everyone’s got an agenda even the non-biased media, right?

Vegan activist media have an agenda. They want you to become vegan. Wellness media have an agenda. Gender-specific… Every media is creating a space for a community of people that buy into certain beliefs, and I don’t think that there’s necessarily something wrong with that. I mean, I think social media tapped into this thing that was missing, right? But it’s how things are framed.

So, I think that media that presents itself as unbiased news media that’s just reporting on happenings in the world should be held to different standards than an impact media that is clearly open about pushing their agenda of sustainability.

I also think that the bigger your platform, the more of a responsibility you have. And I’m sure you know that there’s a lot going on right now with Spotify and Joe Rogan and these conversations. So, this is all happening right now, and it’s… I’m sorry, if you have an audience of 11 million people, you owe the world more than if only one person, if only your mom listens to your podcast. That’s not the same thing, and I don’t want to pretend that it is.

And I think one thing that is going wrong is that we are giving everybody the same equivalency. And for me it’s like, “No, a scientist is an expert.” Someone who woke up one day and decided they don’t believe in science is not equivalent to that scientist as an expert. And so, that person should come with a warning, and their message should come with a warning. But that’s my view.

And I understand… I completely believe that everyone is free to believe whatever they want, but we’ve lost the sight of common facts. And I think in Asia, it’s almost even it’s beyond that because we don’t even have strong truth in advertising laws here. So, here the problem is less extreme political views that are damaging. It’s much more commercial agendas that are hidden.

Chris: Oh, that’s interesting.

Sonalie: There’s too much essentially advertorial across Asia that is not flagged as such. And consumers in Asia, my guess is that they have no idea how to identify an advertorial versus editorial, and I’ve flagged this and I’ve done anecdotal tests. I’ll speak to it.

And I have companies that call me and they’re like, “We want to pay for editorial,” and I’ll say, “Well, you can’t pay for editorial. By definition, it’s editorial.” And they’re like, “Well, how much is it?” And I’m like, “No, no, it’s an advertorial. It’s sponsored content.” And they’re like, “No, no, but we don’t want that. We want you to write an article, and we’ll pay you for it as editorial.” I mean, I have that conversation at least five times a year, right?

And then, I’ll test out readers and I’ll say, “That media was paid for that content,” and they’ll just have no idea. And they’ll say, “What? I thought that was just, they liked them that’s why they wrote about them.” And so, we have different issues in Asia. And a big issue is this lack of truth in advertising, and that’s something I’ve had to fight against because we’ve always been really upfront and 98% of our content is editorial.

I’m very, very strict. I almost… There are so many clients I’ve said no to because they don’t follow our mission or ethos, like “I’m not going to promote your financial services.” But I could make a lot of money if I did.

Chris: Yeah, no, that’s really interesting because I’ve had a decent amount of experience with media in China, various newspapers, magazines, and given growing up in the West and having truth in advertising laws deep in my bones, I guess, in independent media, really surprised at how co-opted in some ways the journalist and business end of the media. But I didn’t realize that extended beyond China to Asia more generally. I thought it was just a unique system in China.

Sonalie: And I’m not sure people have too much of a problem with it. And I’m not sure we, even consumers, I’m not sure they’re aware, and I’m also not sure that media is respected in the same way here. In India, I think there was a very strong freedom of the press and respect for journalist’s culture and ethos although that is under attack. That’s a different conversation.

But I think in the rest of Asia, I just don’t get the… I don’t think parents are like, “Yay, you’re going to become a journalist.” In fact, I have friends that are journalists. One of them was in China until very recently, and her parents consider her an absolute failure. And this is someone who went to Columbia Business School… School of Journalism is an outstanding reporter, very respected in her field, knows what she’s doing. And she’s not a doctor, she’s not a lawyer.

And I can tell you that I myself when I said I was leaving finance to start an organic wholesale platform and then Green Queen, I became known for Green Queen, I think people thought I was just loopy. Like, it’s just not respected in the same way. So, if it’s not respected then it’s also not really put under the microscope that much.

Chris: Right. Yeah, no, that’s interesting insight. I’d like to… The last topic of conversation that I have is in regards to Hong Kong and China relations, and I guess your media is… you’re very clear about what the focus is and might not be something that’s as controversial as maybe like Apple Daily or something. But I’d be interested to hear how you’ve experienced the changing media environment in Hong Kong over the last number of years.

Sonalie: So, it’s interesting. I was on the beach yesterday with a friend who’s an artist, and we were talking about censorship. And she said something that really resonated with me because I realized I was guilty of it. And she said, “The scariest part of the censorship is not the censorship from the government but the self-censorship.” She was talking about artists, and I realized I have self-censored.

I will not… Just this week, I changed wording to make sure that I wasn’t alluding to any kind of political sensitivity because it wasn’t relevant to the story. But I just didn’t even want to be flagged. And I guess my view is, “Well, my mission is different. It’s climate crisis fighting, so I want to keep being able to do that.” And if I can change the wording on a sentence and I can keep doing that, then I’m justifying that to myself.

But another thing that I did is last year, no, more than a year ago before NSL came in, we did a story on H&M and the cotton in Xinjiang. And I don’t know that I would run the exact same story today. I mean, it’s still there on the website. But that’s where we have more… I think, our danger is more on the ethical, the human rights side of things because we do write about sustainable fashion and sustainable production and human rights comes into that because of labor rights.

So, the food part is less of an issue, right? But I don’t want to misrepresent Green Queen. I mean, I don’t think we’re top of mind for any government official but you never know.

Chris: Exactly. I mean, just one thing has to happen. I mean, some article spreads and then who knows what will happen?

And I’ve definitely had people reach out and say, “You need to be careful.” So, not like a threat but just people who like my friends or people who wish me well and are like, “Just be careful,” or “Don’t put that in writing,” or “Maybe don’t cover this.” So, I have self-censored a few times. Not a lot, just a handful. But there you go. And then, when my friend yesterday said it’s actually the self-censor that’s the scariest part, it really made me think I had not. But I mean, don’t we all self-censor now?

Chris: Sure, yeah. I mean, people… you choose how you present yourself. And now there’s this other shadow that you just maybe don’t want to mention something that, yeah, like you’re saying that might actually impede your mission in the long run.

Sonalie: But overall, sustainability is not where the issue is. Like, I think it’s a semi-neutral ground for the government. I think, it’s mostly seen in a positive light that we’re bringing attention to sustainability.

Chris: Yeah. Just to close, do you have any predictions in this space over the next couple years where things will be headed?

Sonalie: I think I did a whole… I do my annual predictions, so I did them. But they’re more global in scope. I had about, how many do I have, 12 this year for alternative protein. What I think is really important is localization and regionalization, and it goes back to what we discussed with plant-based meat in China.

And I do want to say, you did ask me what do I think cultivated meat in China will be like in terms of the consumer acceptance and we didn’t really cover that, but I don’t think we know yet because there’s nothing there. But what’s really interesting is early surveys show that Indian and Chinese consumers are actually more open to cultivated meat than Western consumers.

They have much less of the ick factor most likely because they are not… they didn’t grow up with this image of a happy black and white cow in a field being… You know what I mean? That’s not… the imagery and the myths that they are given, so they’re not as committed to that. So, they really do understand the safety side of things, the health side of things.

I think that for me if I were in charge of building out products for the Asian region and for China, I would really focus a lot more on regionalization of taste, nutrition, and health as the leading. And if we have to use health as the Trojan horse to get in the climate fighting solutions, I’m up for it.

Chris: Health is important too.

Sonalie: Yeah. Let’s understand our consumer and our market’s motivations, and let’s give people things that are good that they want in a format they understand and engage with. I just. I don’t know why it only, yes, in the West, there is this phenomenon that has happened where people are choosing products just for the planet.

But that’s maybe not going to happen the same way. Let’s not assume that everything that’s happening in the West is going to happen in Asia. And let’s also be very ready for Asia to be a leader in many of these areas, if not, all of them.

Chris: Great. Well, interesting way to end the podcast. Just want to thank you so much, Sonalie for joining us here on China Corner Office.

Sonalie: Thanks so much for having me.