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Q&A with Nature Squared co-founder Lay Koon Tan

22 November 2023 • Written by Lucy Dunn

Founded in 2000 by Paul Hoeve and Lay Koon Tan, Nature Squared is a Swiss ethical design brand that uses natural waste such as seashells, eggshells, fruit waste, and fish skins. The results are a myriad of innovative furniture, wall panels and accessories.

What is your role in helping protect our oceans and marine life?

Our production is based in the Philippines, which is heavily impacted by climate change and overfishing. To support local fishing communities and reduce their incentive to overfish or poach, Nature Squared has been purchasing their waste for over 20 years. We buy whole shells to discourage fishing by dynamite and also train communities to create luxury surfaces from waste seashells and fish skins, as well as develop their traditional weaving techniques.

How did the idea come about?

In 2000, my partner Paul Hoeve and I shared a concern about sustainability's neglect amid the march of globalisation. So, we sought a model that holistically addressed environmental and social concerns at grassroots level.

Concern about landfill methane production led us to work with organic waste, and monetizing by-products from subsistence farming and fishing led to other waste streams.

Our mission was to create jobs in the Philippines and build on heritage craft, whilst also aiming to create a unique, innovative, beautiful, and desirable product that defied luxury expectations. Nature Squared emerged from combining local organic waste, artisan skills, and Swiss-based R&D and engineering.

What do you think is the single biggest threat facing the ocean today?

The ocean faces multiple interconnected threats, including climate change, overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction.

While it's difficult to identify one as the biggest threat, at Nature Squared we believe pollution is the most significant issue. Polluted water harms marine life and damages ecosystems by disrupting nutrient cycles and food webs. Plastic waste, which persists for hundreds of years, harms marine organisms and can cause entanglement.

One of our production sites in the Philippines is situated next to a landfill and encapsulates these issues: methane production, polluted landfill leachate, and plastic pollution. The country is the third largest plastic polluter in the world.

What is your conservation motto?

Our mission is "Trade, not aid" — providing sustainable alternatives to the world's poorest communities. We believe that supporting and purchasing goods from these communities promotes sustainable development, whilst others believe sustainability means only buying locally.

We reject this idea, arguing that trade is essential to the progress of impoverished regions. Without investing in their development, there will be increasing inequality and unsafe practices, threatening our planet's sustainability.

What gives you hope about the ocean’s future?

In March 2023, UN member nations agreed to an international treaty protecting biodiversity in international waters, which cover nearly two-thirds of the ocean. Only 1 per cent of these waters were protected prior to this treaty, resulting in widespread overfishing, pollution, and exploitation.

Through its implementation, human activities like commercial fishing and drilling for oil and gas will be prohibited or limited, providing marine life with urgently needed protection. It will take time for the benefits of this treaty to materialise, but it represents a great step in the right direction and will pave the way for future improvements.

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