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Greater Good: Talking Environmental Protection With Sacha Van Damme

by Charlie Zhang

In today’s eco-conscious world, it’s easier to dump the word “environmental” around than to practice it. As we scramble to reduce our impact on the environment, we find ourselves caught between progressing the economy and finding sustainable solutions. Oftentimes, one must come at the expense of the other. The issue is deep and complex, but we’re all aware, and it’s at least helped us take action.

Sacha Van Damme is one of those rare individuals who is just as committed towards environmental protection as he is aware. He’s a Hong Kong native who’s the co-founder of fashion label MARIE FRANCE VAN DAMME and founder of Perma Club, a site in Clearwater Bay with rich permaculture focused on educating visitors on the mechanics of biodiversity. 

“When I was younger, my family had a boat and when we went out, we could see Manta Rays jumping. We could see turtles. We don't really see those things anymore in Hong Kong. The city used to have a very rich sea life.” says Sacha Van Damme

When he’s not at Perma Club, he’s figuring out ways to make his fashion label as eco-friendly as possible. From production to shelf, MARIE FRANCE VAN DAMME is a testament to how a business can take full control of its operations and create an environmentally-friendly infrastructure.

All of Sacha’s endeavors are devoted to protecting nature, but it wasn’t always clear to him that that’s what he wanted to do. We sat down with Sacha to discuss his operations, his philosophies on environmental protection and what fuels him to do what he does with such devotion.

What do you remember of nature during your childhood?

I was born and raised in Hong Kong. My parents met here. I've always lived out in Clearwater Bay, Sai Kung. So my childhood was mostly being outdoors in nature, in the ocean. I've never really lived in an apartment building, so I've always been kind of outdoors.

I went to an international school. Going back to 1999, the first class of geography was on the concept of pollution. I think ever since, I've always been conscious and aware of our actions having an impact on the natural world. So I grew up learning to respect nature. When I was younger, my family had a boat and when we went out, we could see Manta Rays jumping. We could see turtles. We don't really see those things anymore in Hong Kong. The city used to have a very rich sea life.

Was environmental justice mainly at the top of your mind?

It wasn't just about environmental justice. It was also about social justice — the people down supply chains.

“So if you're going to buy goods and services that don't really respect the environment nor its people, then you're kind of helping grow businesses that do not really come in tune with your own beliefs.”

Can you give us an example?

For example, you could be a huge activist, but if you're going to put Nutella on everything that you eat — you're responsible for helping fund deforestation in places like Borneo because Nutella is like 25% palm oil. So it's just about trying to put links between our behaviors as consumers and the impact that we have on both the natural world and the social world.

“Almost 95% of everything that we source is a natural fiber.”

At what point did you decide you were going to move towards this environmental career at full steam?

It was in University, the first year of economics, our professor was actually very good at helping us break it down. One of the first assignments we had was this: the average GDP of a person in the United States is 10 times that of someone in Nigeria — does that mean he's 10 times better off. We completely failed it because there were all these other indicators of wellbeing that we weren't considering. And what are the indicators of wellbeing? Things like, family, love, the environment and culture, among other things.

“Wellbeing is not necessarily tied to wealth. I think everyone has this concept or idea that in order to be happy, you need to make money so you can buy anything you want. But livelihood is not necessarily correlated to money. It's all the other things as well.” says Sacha Van Damme

He taught us about where the world was headed in the next 10 years, looking at all the energy required to do things like growing meat. I went into university with the goal of studying finance and becoming wealthy. That completely changed when I realized money is just an artificial value tool to justify certain actions. That's why I'm like, man, everything else matters — more health, clean water, clean environment. I actually do think that we can live in harmony with nature. If we look at short-term economic interest over long-term goals, that's what's going to lead to a more unjust world.

Can you tell us about MARIE FRANCE VAN DAMME?

When I came back from university, I joined the family business. We were originally garment manufacturers. There was a big shift in the industry due to fast fashion. The price of clothing has been driven down, making it cheaper, a lot more accessible, while the cost of materials has been going up. The only way we would have been able to sustain the business was through exploitation of labor. That was not something we were interested in. 

We transitioned the business from being mass market manufacturers — one of the brands that you'd be familiar with is Marks & Spencer. We were doing a lot for them at the time. We transitioned from doing manufacturing to developing our own line, controlling the supply chain and developing it with the highest level of integrity. We source all the materials ourselves. Almost 95% of everything that we source is a natural fiber. We do silk dresses, mostly. We work with a few suppliers in China that do beautiful silks because that's where most of the silk comes from.

“There's always a new trend. There's always a new color. There's always something that's “in,” but that's all artificial.”

How do you practice social justice with the label?

We work with little ateliers in Europe. They've been practicing for about 200 years so there's really no exploitation of any labor in those systems with that kind of heritage. Our office is in Kwun Tong, which is a pretty large space and we're lucky enough to have our own seamstresses. The second thing we do is make things in-house. Since last year, almost 100% of our production was literally five meters away from our desks. So when it comes to producing, we also practice what we call just-in-time fashion, which is kind of like a slow-fast approach where we take time to develop beautiful materials. Once we have the materials, we only cut and make what we need and put it straight onto the market.

People always want new things. How do you keep things fresh with your label?

We order according to demand, so we're not producing stock just for the sake of producing stock. For that reason, we don't really have clearance sales or discounts. We don't throw stock away. We educate the consumers: buy once, wear forever. What I've noticed in fast fashion is that it's always been encouraged to change a trend. There's always a new trend and a new color that's “in,” but that's all artificial — phony value creation just to sell more products, right? Fashion will chase trends, but style is timeless. So we don't really go on that trend wagon.

“You can have everything you need in a garden: you can find clean water, you can manage your own sanitation. You can be disconnected from marketplaces, while growing your own food and medicine.”

For those of us who are unfamiliar, what exactly is Perma Club?

Perma Club is the site with a garden, an outdoor kitchen and a composting toilet [laughs] in Clearwater Bay. My wife started an organization called Frieda Club. So Perma Club is the site location, Frieda Club is the organization that my wife started — promoting Mexican culture while associating with nature. So she had been renting Perma Club out and been hosting a bunch of workshops and experiences out in the garden to share what we do.

What was the idea behind Perma Club?

I wanted to see if I could challenge the establishment and have fun with permaculture, hence "Perma Club," and make it accessible. We created a site where you can see how you don’t have to rely so heavily on supermarkets.You can have everything you need in a garden, like clean water. You can be disconnected from marketplaces, while growing your own food and medicine. Instead of, let's say, spending your weekends in a mall, you can enjoy being outdoors and cook with friends and family.

So I started renting my site out for a very small fee, anything from $200 – $500 HKD a day just for administration so that people could, for example, host a group of 20 kids from a school and do activities out there. Kids as young as three would play games like animal yoga, where they'll pretend to be animals and stretch out. Then, they'll run to the garden and do a scavenger hunt with magnifying glasses so they can identify critters, worms and bugs and understand why their presence is important to the garden’s ecosystem.

“It's widely accepted that since bioplastic is made from plant matter, it means it's better for the environment. I challenge that, though.”

What exactly is permaculture?

You can look at environmental impact as a spectrum. One side is “destruction;” the middle part is “sustainability,” where you're neutral and just sustaining the system; and the other side is “regeneration,” regenerating natural habitats. Permaculture is looking at natural patterns and engineering regeneration.

The big question today is how big business can scale up without hurting the environment. Have you seen any viable solutions these days and do you think it's even possible?

It depends. I do think there's a lot of greenwashing these days — for example, coffee shops that give you bioplastic cups. It's widely accepted that bioplastics are good for the environment, but I challenge that. For me, that's greenwashing because bioplastics come from food sources, like corn, soybeans. We're actually destroying natural environments to grow surpluses. All these food-grade products are essential to have since they feed animals and provide biofuel.

“If you're Greenie, and you think, "I have all these bio-plastics. I'm good." Well, think twice because you're actually destroying a natural ecosystem to produce it.”

For the question about scaling up, I still don't have the answer, to be honest.

Final Thoughts: Why should people care about the environment?

If nature is destroyed, it won't be able to sustain our livelihoods. Nature is not infinite. Nature is a system. It's a cycle. We depend on it to live. If we abuse it, it might no longer be able to feed us to sustain our livelihoods.

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