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Asia's Polluted Skies: From Challenge to Opportunity

BANGKOK – Every year and throughout the year, pollution increasingly takes its toll across Asia. But there is also hope and opportunity as evolving Asian consumer behavior and activism further encourages the transition away from a focus on “development at any cost.” As the Milken Institute Asia Summit #MIGlobal 2018 convenes in Singapore, this trend should be front and center.

Governments and businesses must recognize that there are ways to better align short-term economic interests with the longer-term goal of ending the rampant pollution that too much of the increasingly urbanized Indo-Pacific region is known for.

I see this in my own work with impact investors and start-ups, including through serving on the advisory board of Equator Pure Nature, a Thailand-based “cleantech” company that produces, markets and sells a line of natural, environment-friendly, biodegradable household cleaning products under the brand name Pipper Standard.

With growing numbers of consumers in Asia concerned about the impact of polluted skies and water on them and their children, the trend toward healthier products that began in Europe and the United States has come to the Indo-Pacific region. It is time for all Asia to transition to a more sustainable approach to development—and put an end to the rampant pollution that all too often helps ensure hashtags #smogageddon and #airpocalypse end up trending on social media each year.

Pollution’s Deadly Impact

The stakes and costs are high. Air pollution leads to loss of productivity as employees call in sick or come to work late, and more critically leads to loss of life. This is largely a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.

One-third of global air pollution deaths are now in Asia, according to the World Health Organization. That’s 2.2 million out of the world’s 7 million premature deaths each year from household (indoor) and (outdoor) air pollution.

In South Asia, Indian cities such as New Delhi, Varanasi and Patna are now among the most polluted in the world, according to a WHO database of more than 4,300 cities.

In East Asia, due in part to China’s rapid industrialization over the last five decades, Chinese cities—particularly those in the northern province of Hebei in which the independent municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin are located—continue to draw attention for smog-filled skies. There is, however, progress in China’s ongoing war on pollution as a government clampdown on coal burning this past winter delivered bluer skies in Beijing.

And in Southeast Asia, a literally burning issue remains worries about the possible return of the deadly haze that has in the past blanketed large parts of the region—a consequence of slash-and-burn agriculture in Indonesia. In 2015, fires in Indonesia laid waste to 2 million hectares of land, causing US$16 billion in damage and frayed relations between Indonesia and haze-impacted neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand—not to mention soaring health concerns as facemarks came out and outdoor areas and even schools closed.

But in all this, there is also business opportunity. Thailand, the second largest economy in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia), offers up a business case study.

The Thailand Case Study

Earlier this year, the Thai capital city of Bangkok experienced some of its worst air quality in decades. Rapid urbanization and industrial development has led to a marked increase in pollution here as elsewhere in Asia, contributing to accelerating allergy and asthma growth rates.

Some 18 million Thais, or more than a quarter of the population, suffer from allergies, according to Equator Pure Nature CEO Peter N. Wainman, citing data from the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Association of Thailand (AAIAT). Among children in Bangkok and the surrounding areas, the rate is significantly higher, affecting some 49.3%. The rates have skyrocketed in less than a generation. Over the past decade, the number of children in the Thai capital suffering from allergic rhinitis, the most common allergy, whose symptoms include nasal inflammation, sneezing and itchy eyes, has climbed by around 40%.

“Allergies are a problem of modern society,” says Dr. Porawat Makornwattana, an allergist at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. “Once a country becomes industrialized, the allergy rate goes up like an epidemic,” he adds. “It happens in every developed society. This is a well-known phenomenon.”

Indeed, Thailand’s allergy rates parallel those in China, where more than 460 million people—or roughly one-third of the population—suffer from allergies, according to the World Allergy Organization.

In the United States, one of five people has allergies, and rates among children have tripled since the 1960s. The causes for the spike are likely both environmental and genetic, but some doctors say the trend’s explosive scale suggests that heritable factors are less likely to be the primary culprit. Pollution can heighten sensitivity to common allergens, such as dust mites, or in some cases it can even trigger allergic development later in life, Porawat says. The same can be said of factors like second-hand cigarette smoke.

A global consumer trend toward organic, all-natural products seeks to reassert control over environmental factors at the most local level: in the home. Wainman and I have seen this same movement take root in Bangkok, where organic farmers’ markets, all-natural body care, skin care and spa products, and hypoallergenic, nontoxic cleaning brands all have witnessed strong growth in recent years.

A Healthy Environment Starts at Home

Wainman, a former US investment banker, experienced a debilitating allergic reaction 10 years ago that he tells me he traced back to a chemical fabric softener he was using at home. The ordeal led him to work on the underlying technology that ultimately led to his creation of the Pipper Standard branded line of natural home cleaning products, made from fermented pineapple, and his overall effort to in essence change the nature of cleaning for good.

“I knew I couldn’t do anything about the traffic or pollution outside, but I had power over what I brought into my home,” Wainman says. “It’s made a huge difference in my life.” (More here from Wainman: on CNBC Squawkbox with Martin Soong.)

Indeed, the company message—“A healthy environment starts at home”—sums up well one of the growing opportunities that exists in Asia for smart companies seeking to leverage consumer trends and concerns related to the region’s enduring pollution challenge.

In Asia’s polluted skies, I see a transition from challenge to opportunity. As Asia’s overall economic influence grows, so too will that of Asian consumers in shaping the world around us. And that, as the move away from chemical-based to more natural products continues, can be to the benefit and the health of businesses and consumers alike.


Curtis S. Chin served as U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He currently serves at the Milken Institute as Asia fellow and is a managing director at the advisory firm RiverPeak Group LLC.

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