Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Dora Lam of Slowood
“As humans, we have a moral responsibility to safeguard the earth. Living sustainably is more than just saving our environment; it is about helping our community. Whether it be in the realm of fair trade or wildlife conservation, there is so much we can do to help the world we live in.”
Founder of Slowood
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
I am Dora, the Founder of Slowood, a retail concept in Hong Kong that provides plastic-free and zero-waste organic products and groceries for our customers, offering them eco alternatives for their daily basic needs.
Having grown up in this city, would you say that Hong Kong is a high consumption based society?
Yes – I would say that Hong Kong is a place of many opportunities and so generally, people have more spending power here. That said, they also have a lot of pressure at work so to help them relieve stress, they are willing to spend more on things they enjoy. With such high consumption naturally comes more waste.
Why do you think it is important to live a sustainable life?
As humans, we have a moral responsibility to safeguard the earth. Living sustainably is more than just saving our environment; it is about helping our community. Whether it be in the realm of fair trade or wildlife conservation, there is so much we can do to help the world we live in.
How did you come up with the idea of creating a retail concept that offers eco-friendly alternatives?
This goes back quite some time with a long history! The idea of Slowood actually stemmed from its sister company, Pimary, that primarily focuses on sustainable skincare products and homeware. I set up Pimary many years ago when I was still a flight attendant, much prior to launching Slowood, fueled by my passion for traveling around the globe and scouting out second-hand clothing, handicrafts and fair-trade products that I could bring back to Hong Kong to share with others. At the time, I was given a free space inside a shopping mall to display some of these products and so every time I came back from my travels, I had a whole new collection of items to showcase. After several years, my husband and I rented out a space in Tai Po surrounded by nature and that truly embodied the idea of slow living. By setting up shop here, it allowed us to provide a unique and relaxing retail offering for our customers. When it came to the idea of Slowood, my husband and I wanted to create a zero-waste lifestyle store in Hong Kong after being inspired by our travels to New Zealand. Having gained experience running a retail store like Pimary, coupled with my background in design, the natural progression was to create a lifestyle brand that could be sustainable yet still trendy and aesthetically beautiful so that was how Slowood was created.
What does “Urban Explorer” mean to you and how do you think you fit into this term?
In terms of exploration, I think our brand actually fits into this term very well because Slowood manifested through my own passion for travel and exploration. Everything you see in this store is a curation of all the brands I love and hand-picked across many different countries, from New Zealand and Canada to the UK and Hong Kong. Each brand is infused with its own culture and values, so to me, it is a collection of all these places that I hope our shoppers get to experience when they shop at Slowood.
Tiny Steps Forward to a Sustainable Future
People often have the misconception that zero-waste products cost relatively more compared to regular products. What do you have to say to that?
At Slowood, our mission is to make sustainable products accessible and affordable to all. To do so, we directly source all of our products to skip any third-party costs that originally mark-up the retail cost. Also, since we source zero-waste products, both packaging and marketing costs that you usually find in regular products are removed. Hence, many of the items are actually cheaper.
We see that many of your products are sourced internationally in places like New Zealand, Canada, and the Netherlands. How do you decide what products will sell well in Hong Kong?
In terms of our product curation, we look at so many different factors such as quality, likeability, and whether it adheres to certain environmental guidelines. We really enjoy learning about different brands and their stories so sometimes we will fly over to meet the founders and try cultivating a long-term relationship with them. One example is when we flew over to New Zealand to meet the team from The Herb Farm, the very first 100% natural skincare brand we ever represented. We sat down to really understand their brand and get to know the founders, and it took several meetings before we officially agreed to collaborate together. Till this day, we are still working happily together! At Slowood, we are drawn to our partners’ passion and dedication to their craft and helping the environment so we commonly prefer working with smaller up-and-coming brands as opposed to larger, more well-established brands.
Slowood has expanded so much in recent years with locations in Kennedy Town, Discovery Bay and Shatin. How do you think shoppers are responding to this whole new way of consuming, such as buying in bulk or refilling their shampoo at the refill station?
Currently, we have three stores in three very distinct locations: Kennedy Town, Discovery Bay and Sha Tin. From our observation, we can see that the mix of locals and international expats living in Kennedy Town are more susceptible to shopping sustainably. We stock a variety of products from Canada, New Zealand and the UK so that may resonate with our international clientele. That in mind, we also want to support local suppliers while catering to our local shoppers’ day-to-day needs. Hence, we opened up our Sha Tin location to provide this offering! Indeed, there is a significant difference in consumption patterns between these two demographics since the local market may find that certain brands, we offer do not resonate with them so we are continuously fine-tuning our product line to better meet their needs.
As a consumer yourself, how do you live a zero-waste life in a city like Hong Kong?
As a consumer, I try my best to live a sustainable life by bringing my own containers and shopping bags whenever I buy groceries, and avoiding places that use excessive plastic packaging. If I cannot find a certain item to help me better carry out a zero-waste life, I see it as an opportunity in my own business to provide this offering to our customers. However, our philosophy at Slowood is not about pushing our customers to live a 100% zero-waste life. Rather, it is about proactively taking action to slowly but consistently change our daily habits so that we can be more mindful in the way we consume.
If there was one thing you would like to wish for the future of the city, what would it be?
I believe that people’s habits can change but it just takes time to groom, especially for our younger generation. With proper education on sustainability, it will better inform future generations of this important matter so they can take action. At Slowood, we currently stock a sustainable bubble tea cup made by a group of talented Gen Z’s that care for the environment. We hope that by supporting this generation’s business initiatives, they will be compelled to change the world. At the moment, I believe these changes can also be accelerated with the support of the government. An example would be to completely ban the consumption of single-use plastics. Also, people can opt for more sustainable options in their everyday lives by simply recycling and re-using metal straws.
What destinations are on your bucket list?
I would love to go back to New Zealand because it is so peaceful and calming. I always laugh about how New Zealand has more sheep than people, so here you can truly be at peace with nature. I also really appreciate their efforts in practising sustainable living in such a seamless and organic way.
A great deal of your work requires the curation of new products into your stores. Now that traveling is not permitted, how do you discover new products?
Nowadays, the online web is a great resource to seek out new brands. Once we identify a brand that we are keen to work with, we will set up an online conference call with them. There are many ways to work around this “no travel” set-back during the pandemic so it has not stalled our business so far.
In 3 words, how would you describe Hong Kong?
Fast, Changing, Uncertain
What do you enjoy most about the city? Are there certain elements or characteristics that are visibly Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is a very fast-paced city, which has its benefits and also its downfalls. People here are very efficient and quick with whatever they are doing. However, the concept of “work to live” seems to take precedence in this city, so often times there are people that do not take the time to truly live. With our retail concept, we hope to inspire people to slow down and enjoy their lives.