In this episode of Entrepreneur for Good, I speak with David Yeung, founder of Green Commons, about his impossible mission to encourage people to leave the meat-based lifestyle for the betterment their health and the planet.
This mission was born through David’s personal experience and difficulties as a vegetarian who regularly traveled the world and lived abroad. When he returned to Hong Kong, he found some like-minded others interested in creating a change, called “Green Common”. Over time, David has scaled that group into a number of organizations with the same mission, including “Green Monday”, an initiative centered around the idea of helping people replace animal-based protein with plant-based protein.
Being very pragmatic about achieving his mission, David has had a very simple goal at the outset, which is to get people to give up one meat-based meal a week, one day a week, and take steps from there as they’re comfortable.
“We’re entering uncharted waters, so by definition, it’s a learning and trial-and-error process. So think big, dream big, but be ready to fail – and simply learn from it very quickly, and move on. And I think that applies to any entrepreneur in any field.”
– David Yeung, Green Monday & Green Common
About The Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome. It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organziations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
About David Yeung
David Yeung is a noted environmental advocate and founder of Green Monday, an innovative social venture that takes on on climate change, food insecurity, health issues and animal welfare with a diverse platform that shifts individuals, communities, and corporations towards sustainable, healthy, and mindful living.
Under Green Monday, David launched Green Common – the world’s first plant-based green living destination – to introduce a revolutionary food and lifestyle experience. The movement of Green Monday has now spread to over 10 countries, with 1.6 million people practicing Green Monday at its Hong Kong origin.
Follow David and Green Commons:
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
David: So I’m David Yeung, and I’m one of the co-founders of Green Monday. And we’re trying to change the way people eat around the world towards a more sustainable and healthier diet.
David: Well, there are a lot of things that are wrong with today’s food system, in many ways. One of the key things is people eating way too much meats. Livestock industry, a lot of people do not know, is one of the biggest culprits for carbon footprints, and it’s also a very inefficient way to produce food. It takes a lot more land and a lot more water resources to produce the same amount of food if you’re eating meat versus if you’re eating plant-based food.
And also, from a health standpoint, with the animal factory farming practice these days, so many chemicals and artificial things are added to food that this is not the healthy way to eat.
David: So what we’re trying to tell everyone – and what we’re trying to empower and enable everyone to do – is shift towards a plant-based diet and a plant-based lifestyle.
Now, we don’t necessarily ask people to “convert” to become a vegan or a vegetarian, but rather a holistic shift. So if someone used to be a big-time carnivore, we say, “Hey, can you go green one day a week, or can you cut down on the portion of meats that you eat on a regular basis?”
Which is why we came up with the name “Green Monday”. The idea is – well, Monday is symbolic to a new start, and at the beginning of each week, let’s start a new habit. And of course, from Monday, we hope it will grow into every day – and from food, it will grow into the whole entire lifestyle, to become healthier and more sustainable.
When people talk – when we talk about the term “sustainability”, or when we mention “climate change”, “global warming”, people think of these as mega issues that only major corporations or governments can deal with. So each one of us is quite powerless. So because our impact is so small, people would think that, “I may as well not do anything, because at the end, what does my little change mean to the world?”
However, the way we look at it is, if we can engage everyone to take a baby step and synchronize that baby step to be taken together, then it becomes a giant impact and a giant leap.
So the key is: How do we lower the barrier and make it engaging, make it approachable, make it super easy for anyone to do? But at the same time, they know that if they do it on an ongoing, sustainable, long-term basis, and if they start to spread this among their friends and family, this will create a mega impact as well.
And at the end, governments and corporations – no matter how big they are – they still need the change from individuals.
Well, on one hand, it is a very tough sell because food is such an integral part of everyone’s daily habits. And of course, people want to choose what they love to eat. But on the other hand, food is also a great entry point. Because if you can find a way – if we can find a way – to make plant-based green diet delicious, tasty, affordable – and hip, trendy, popular – then it also becomes something that is super easy for a lot of people to jump onto the bandwagon.
So we look at it as a difficulty or obstacle, but at the same time, is also an opportunity. It’s also the quickest way to engage people, because you will never forget to eat.
Now, with the rebranding of Green Monday, rather than calling ourselves – “Hey, try to join our ‘meatless movement’,” or “Try to join our ‘vegan movement’,” we simply use the word “green”, which is a positive, engaging, encouraging platform.
And we say, “Even if you do a tiny change, you are still making a step towards a greener world.” So we turn a negative into a positive. We turn what people perceive as a sacrifice into something that they can add value and contribute to the world.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR ENTREPRENEURS
David: Well, this is a – I think people are losing their trust in big companies. And that is not necessarily just big food companies, but big companies in general. The last seven or eight years, too many things have been exposed – how big companies have exploited the system, whether it’s from the food industry standpoint, in the finance industry, you name it. So a lot of those behind-the-scene things have been exposed, and people are losing that faith or trust in these brands.
And also from a second – I think another reason is, these mega companies, they do not know the “pulse” of the new – whether they’re Millennials, or the New Age customers. They simply don’t know exactly – what are they eating, and what is the trend going to be.
So that gives a huge opportunity to a lot of food entrepreneurs – or nutrition, innovation, etc. – a lot of opportunities. And consumers at the end will vote by the consumption and say, “Hey? You know what? This segment,” such as almond milk, or coconut water, or aloe drink, or whatever that is , “is the feel that I want.”
So a lot of times, the big companies – first of all, by default, because they’re big, they also move slower. But second is, they simply don’t get the pulse. And again, finally, is people losing trust in them.
Well, it used to be – when we think of “vegan” or plant-based food, it used to belong to the niche. Just the ultra-healthy people, the yoga people, fitness – just that niche group.
But now, people are all very aware that hey, the protein that you’re getting from meat – whether it’s through our education and advocacy, or simply from many news that they read – they know that this way of acquiring protein is not the healthy way.
So with plant-based, I mean, there are a lot of companies such as Beyond Meat, such as Impossible Foods. And there are many, many examples that are coming up and using pea protein or other types of plant-based – a lot from nuts, for example – and to come up with these new products. These could be plant-based chicken, plant-based seafood, plant-based burger.
And they taste very much the same as what people are used to tasting from the regular food, but is healthier, and is also nowadays affordable. So this no longer just belongs to that healthy, ultra-healthy sheep niche of people, but rather, this is getting into mainstream.
Now one very, very good example, I think, is the dairy industry – dairy versus non-dairy. There are a lot of data that is showing that the dairy industry is losing market shares significantly, simply even over the last three years.
I just read the news couple days ago that skim milk, the sales of skim milk in the entire United States dropped 13% in one year. We’re talking about an entire segment, a sector of product dropped 13%.
That’s actually a debacle, basically. It’s not a single product or single brand – it’s a whole category of things, because people realize that, “Hey, if I’m gonna drink skim milk, I may as well drink almond milk.” That is lower calorie, and healthier, and also better for – well, there’s no animal involved, so no cholesterol.
So what we see is there a lot of alternatives that are now becoming mainstream. So it’s not just that tiny, cute niche that it used to be.
Well, what is very exciting is, from an innovation standpoint – and even from an investment or venture capital standpoint – there are so many opportunities that are coming up from everywhere around the world. The food business, or food industry itself, is a mega-business. A lot of these blue chip companies that have been around for 30, 40, 50 years – or even 100 years – these are mega, multi-billion dollar market cap companies.
But now people are starting to shift and say, “Hey, I’m aware that that is GMO food,” or “I’m aware that this food has way too much antibiotics or way too much pesticides in it.” And they want to shift towards – whether it’s organic, or natural, or plant-based, or non-GMO – and that is a mega trend that is happening around the world.
And food safety is such a major issue nowadays, because everywhere – particularly in many countries in Asia – food scandal is almost becoming a regular thing that they see or they read on the news. So I think from a business or entrepreneurship standpoint, this is just an amazing time.
Well, I think 2015 or ‘16 is definitely the tipping point. We’ve been kind of growing and getting up to that point when the mainstream starts to realize the natural food market, they start to come in, they start to try and then ultimately just adopt it for good.
And I think in the US, the last seven or eight years, that momentum has been building. But around 2015 or ’16, that’s when we just see that natural food – or healthy food – is becoming the food industry.
When we go to the food – the Expo West, which is the biggest food trade show, based in LA – I mean, not only do all the vendors fill up the halls, but the number of visitors and people who come to visit that is just unbelievable. And it is exceeding any expectations in terms of the organizer of how many people are coming to these trade shows.
And then organic food, right now in the US – Whole Foods is not the biggest retailer of organic food. It’s actually Costco. So from a pricing standpoint, is also coming down to the point that it’s becoming mainstream, and affordable, as well.
I was in San Diego not too long ago, and I was looking at organic kale for US$1.69, and I’m like, “Wow! I mean, 10 years ago this would be like $4.99. But now, it’s US$ 1.69.” And actually, it even looked better than the version from 10 years ago.
Rich: But what about in Asia? I mean, okay, San Diego, the US – like, what about in Asia? What’s happening here?
David: Well, Asia is a little bit behind the curve, but it’s catching up very fast. When we started Green Monday and Green Common in Hong Kong, at the beginning, people were like, “Hey, people in Asia are not going to follow this. I mean, this is a ‘Western thing’.”
But of course, before you know it, everyone is saying that, “Hey, I want to go Green Monday. I want to try a ‘flexitarian’ lifestyle”, meaning moving more towards plant-based – not necessarily full-time, but shifting the ratio.
Right now in Hong Kong, about 23% people are adopting a flexitarian diet, meaning through cutting down on the portion of meat, or choosing a day, or two, or three to go vegetarian. They’re doing it. That’s one out of five – one out of four, actually, nearly 1.6 million people.
So that’s – you’re talking about a lot of people, are ready to jump in. They just need a platform, and you just need to provide the tools to enable and empower them.
TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATIONS
David: Well, I think number one is: At the end, we still need all the basic skills that an entrepreneur would need, so marketing is always important. Research, in terms of nutrition, in terms of all the environmental impact – I think those are all important. Because the more transparent you are, the more people know that your food is clean, the more they will lean towards choosing your product. So from a nutrition/R&D standpoint, and then from a marketing standpoint.
Now, we still need all the techniques of traditional marketing, but now these people want transparency more than ever. So the more honest, the more frank you are, the more people would welcome or embrace your product.
And then, at the end, we are still talking about distribution. I think that is something that food, or food tech, is very different from other technology. You cannot just download it into your cell phone and eat from your from your mobile device, right? So distribution is still a piece that, from a food entrepreneurs’ standpoint, you cannot overlook – because at the end, people need to find the food at a restaurant, or at a supermarket, a local grocery.
So it is kind of like mixing between innovation, but at the same time, the traditional way of doing business.
SOLVING A PERSONAL NEED
David: I have been a vegetarian for 15 years, and I started vegetarian when I was living in New York. I then moved back to Hong Kong about 12 years ago, and it was very difficult for me to find plant-based food – whether it is going out or dining in. Both was a ultra-difficult.
And at the same time, I always needed to explain to people, one meal at a time. People would ask me, “Oh, so what happened to you? Why are you vegetarian? Where do you get your protein? Are you sure you’ll be healthy?”
They showed genuine concern about me, and then I showed genuine reverse concern about them. I say, “Actually, you know what? Do you realize what you’re eating is full of GMO or antibiotics? You’re eating secondhand antibiotics if you’re consuming meats nowadays.” So people are like, “Really?”
I mean, so that has gone on for a long time. And finally, the opportunity came along when a good friend of mine – he’s also an entrepreneur, a social entrepreneur – and he happens to be a vegetarian as well. He is a big marathon runner, and the less meat he consumes, the faster he runs.
So finally – we’d always brainstormed a lot of ideas, and finally it came to the topic of food, and then my eyes light up. I was like, “Hey, you know what? I really wanted to do something about this for a long time – both from a selfish reason, because I want to have more choice – but at the same time, I want everyone to join in.” So that was how Green Monday was started.
Besides transparency, I think authenticity is something that’s very important. They do want to associate it with a face or someone. That someone doesn’t necessarily need to be a mega-celebrity or a superstar, but rather someone that they feel like it’s just one of them. And they can see from that person, “Well it’s okay to change, and actually, this is a better way to live.”
So we have a couple –myself included – a couple people who are on the core team. So on a day-to-day basis, we are either talking to business or talking to the general public market and telling them that, “Hey, this is a lifestyle that everyone can adopt.”
So authenticity is one – and the other one, I think, is simplicity. People, when you say “vegan”, “non-GMO”, “dairy-free”, and then “raw”, “organic” – there’s all these criteria that are from people. And they just say, “Hey, at the end, I mean, I’m not a PhD in food. I just want to eat healthier, but I still want tasty food.”
So there are people who are getting very sophisticated and educated about what they’re eating, they would study the entire label. But if you talk to the general – the entire market of just mainstream people – they want something simple.
So that’s how we came up with names such as “Green Monday” – or our shop, which is called “Green Common”. It is meant to be so simple and easy – that hey, if you come in, we have done that selection on your behalf. You can trust this choice. We want to make it easy for you. You do not necessarily need to be a PhD in nutrition in order to eat healthy. And of course, the food that I selected are tasty. They’re not the type that’s super healthy, but also completely unappealing in taste, right?
So I think these are all kind of the mix that makes our engine work. So for any food entrepreneurs, I also suggest that it should be fun, it should be engaging, and authenticity and transparency. The more they can associate with a person, rather than just a big logo, and a lot of marketing dollars, and billboard advertising – those actually are starting to lose that appeal.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA MEGAPHONE
David: Well, I think usually with transparency, with authenticity, it means taking a long time to build that momentum. But thanks to the age of social media, we have a mega broadcast platform that 10 years ago, we did not have.
If you have to wait for word-of-mouth, wow! How much long does it take to get to seven million or 70 million people? But with social media, it gets viral so quickly. So I think if you have a good cause, if you have a good message, if you have something that people genuinely feel that they can share to their friends or their family, it actually can get viral super easily.
So we have only been around for four years, and we’re in 16 countries right now. Even I am amazed and stunned, in a way, by that progress. On a daily or weekly basis, we hear stories from people in Indonesia, in Holland, in the UK, in Mexico who are adopting Green Monday. And I’m like, “Hey, where did we get these people from?” And of course, it’s through the Internet and social media.
So I think that kind of compensates for the traditional deficiency, or the disadvantage, of doing it that human, authentic, personal way. Because it used to take a long time, but now social media really helps completely accelerate that.
Now, for example, with our food emporium – our grocery market and restaurant food service – the way I look at our measurement of success, it’s not just from a business standpoint. Of course, we need to be profitable, but beyond the margin – beyond the top line, bottom line – the other side of our business is wholesale.
The more people know about these products, the more existing restaurants and existing supermarkets will say, “Hey, I want that product, too. I want that product on my shelf.” So we are also distributing these brands and products into other supermarkets, and also other restaurants. Now, that makes it a lot more scalable, and also scale way faster – because at the end, building a store takes a long time. And of course, it’s also capital- and human labor-intensive.
So once you start to spread that out, and then you see that restaurant is using our product, that restaurant is using our product, and that supermarket is selling our brand, too – then it becomes a citywide, or soon maybe, a region-wide thing. That these products are simply everywhere, and they’re included naturally into the general food spectrum.
So, when I see that, “Hey, people are just picking up that product on the shelf,” or when someone just tells me out of the blue that, “Hey, I’ve been practicing Green Monday, or Green four days a week for the last six months,” those are all our measurement of success. And the more that happens, the more we know that the whole paradigm and ecosystem is really changing.
Well, at the end, scalability is always the biggest challenge. We cannot scale fast enough. I mean, we want to impact 100 million people – or even one billion, two billion, seven billion people. I think that is absolutely the ultimate goal.
How do we get there fast? How can we reach 100, 200, and then one billion? How do we get there? We’re still trying to solve that puzzle, but I think we are on the right direction, and that from the team standpoint is super encouraging.
3 TIPS FOR ASPIRING FOOD ENTREPRENEURS
David: Well, first of all, food entrepreneur or any entrepreneur – I still believe that accumulating business know-how and general business experience is still key. A lot of times, people are super excited – too excited about becoming an entrepreneur, entrepreneurship in general.
And I would actually say that: Hey, do work in a big company – even for a couple years, because that is still a good way for them to see how companies work and what is missing from the big corporations. Because by knowing what they are not doing well, then you know what you can do well.
So first of all, the David Yeung four years ago already has been in business for 14 years, I think. So it wasn’t like I was a completely rookie entrepreneur, but rather, I’ve been doing other business and accumulating business know-how. So that’s one.
Number two, I still think is: Think big and dream big – and also be ready to fail. You’re not going to get it right the first time, and chances are, there are a lot of things that…
We’re entering uncharted waters, so by definition, it’s a learning and trial-and-error process. So think big, dream big, but be ready to fail – and simply learn from it very quickly, and move on. And I think that applies to any entrepreneur in any field.
If authenticity is so important, then the third one has to be: You’ve got to do something that you absolutely believe in, and that you love. It has to be a part of you – genuine you, and what you believe in.
Rich: That’s awesome.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.