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People How Dee Poon Is Building A Greener Future

How Dee Poon Is Building A Greener Future

How Dee Poon Is Building A Greener Future
By Oliver Giles
September 01, 2018
After experiencing the alarming consequences of natural disasters, Dee Poon is on a mission to promote sustainability. She talks to us about the big environmental questions—and solutions—that occupy her mind

Dee Poon loves Hong Kong. She loves the fact that it’s so convenient, that Cantonese is such an expressive, slang-packed language and that the city is literally an urban jungle where she can spot porcupines and wild boar just outside her apartment building. But often, when Dee returns to the city after one of her frequent business trips, she feels worried for it.

“You know how in lots of sci-fi movies and books the city is totally disconnected from what surrounds it?” Dee muses. “The city feels like a bubble, and in sci-fi stories big threats always come from outside the city. That’s what Hong Kong feels like to me sometimes—as though we’re moving towards that super-alienated and dystopian future.” 

Dee wears a Vintage Alhambra necklace, ring and earrings, all by Van Cleef & Arpels; a jacket and trousers by Zadig & Voltaire; a shirt by PYE; and heels by R Sanderson (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)
Dee wears a Vintage Alhambra necklace, ring and earrings, all by Van Cleef & Arpels; a jacket and trousers by Zadig & Voltaire; a shirt by PYE; and heels by R Sanderson (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)

The threat looming large in Dee’s mind is climate change. You’d be forgiven for thinking that whatever calamities global warming brings, Dee would be largely immune. As the daughter of two tycoons (Harvey Nichols owner Dickson Poon and Esquel Group chairman Marjorie Yang) and a successful businesswoman in her own right, she has the means to whisk herself to safety.

But Dee, who is on this year’s Generation T list, recently experienced the terrifying effects of global warming first-hand.

See also: Go Behind-The-Scenes Of Dee's Cover Shoot

Close to home 

Days before we met, Dee travelled to Foshan after a flash flood had swept through one of the Esquel Group’s manufacturing sites there.

“The story is so horrifying,” she explains. “The flood began in the middle of the night and water literally came rushing into people’s rooms. Some of our employees live on the ground floor and woke up to find the water level up to their beds. All power and electricity were obviously out, so they had to find their way through the water in complete darkness.”

Fortunately, no one was hurt. Dee, who is managing director of brands and distribution for the group, was on the scene with her mother within days.

Dee wears a Vintage Alhambra necklace and ring, and Perlée diamonds and pearls of gold rings, all from Van Cleef & Arpels; anda dress by Chloé (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)
Dee wears a Vintage Alhambra necklace and ring, and Perlée diamonds and pearls of gold rings, all from Van Cleef & Arpels; anda dress by Chloé (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)

“All our staff were incredible,” Dee says. “They actually had everything cleaned up and were nearly back to normal in just two days. But those few days were very scary for everyone involved.”

See also: Eco Warriors: Sabrina Pang-Fung Of EcoDrive Hong Kong

This isn’t the first flood that has affected Esquel, with previous floods in Vietnam and Malaysia sweeping away employees’ houses.

“We are so fortunate to live in Hong Kong, where these kinds of things don’t really happen, but it also means that, as a city, we can be disconnected from what’s happening elsewhere. When I’ve told people how I feel, some people have said, ‘You should get involved in that charity fundraiser where you sleep on the street for 24 hours,’ but I honestly don’t believe an experience like that can give you any genuine insight into what people go through in the world.

"People can lose everything through an act of nature, which, unfortunately, is likely to happen again. This is not to belittle or ignore the issues we face here in Hong Kong. But certainly, extreme weather events like floods are just going to get worse with global warming, and the people who will be most affected are those with the least.”

Dee wears Magic Alhambra earrings, and Perlée clovers, diamonds, and pearls of gold bracelets, all by Van Cleef & Arpels; and a shirt by PYE (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)
Dee wears Magic Alhambra earrings, and Perlée clovers, diamonds, and pearls of gold bracelets, all by Van Cleef & Arpels; and a shirt by PYE (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)

Making a difference

So Dee is determined to do something about it. “I’m thinking about climate change so much at the moment that it makes my head hurt,” she says.

“I don’t think all of us should go and join an NGO or be an activist—that doesn’t make any sense. And it’s not about being a martyr and saying, ‘I’m going to give everything up—I’m not going to enjoy anything for the sake of the environment.’ It’s about how to strike a balance and use our skills.”

For Dee, that means looking at how she can change things within Esquel, which manufactures more than 100 million cotton shirts a year for a range of brands, including Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Aside from her work on PYE and Determinant, respectively Esquel’s own upmarket and mid-market men’s shirt brands, Dee is working on Integral Conversation, an annual sustainability-focused forum hosted by the company.

“Part of what I do for Integral Conversation is to curate the programme and organise the speakers. This year our theme is Industry 4.0: Working In Harmony, and we’ve got people coming from all over the world to take part. Pan Shiyi from Soho China, Karen Thornber, who’s director of the Harvard University Asia Center, and Leong Cheung, head of Charities and Community at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, will all be coming, among others. Shen Yang, the bass baritone who performs at the New York Metropolitan Opera, will be performing for one night.” 

Dee wears Perlé studs, a Magic Alhambra necklace and a Between the Finger ring, all by Van Cleef & Arpels; and a top and skirt by Givenchy (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)
Dee wears Perlé studs, a Magic Alhambra necklace and a Between the Finger ring, all by Van Cleef & Arpels; and a top and skirt by Givenchy (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)

Integral Conversation takes place every November in Guilin, where Esquel is also building a sustainable manufacturing site that will double as an industrial eco-tourism park.

“It’s a big area; it’s roughly the size of West Kowloon,” Dee explains. “Roughly one-third of the site will be dedicated to our core operations; the other two-thirds will include a botanical garden and possibly a turtle reserve—we’re still working on it.”

See also: 5 Eco Apps For Green Living In Hong Kong

One day, people will wonder at the exotic plants in the botanical garden, but the real magic will be happening behind closed doors at the manufacturing operation, where many of Esquel’s scientists and engineers will be working on boundary-pushing experiments to make manufacturing more eco-friendly.

“We’re working on reindustrialising natural dye, so we can move away from chemical dyes. And we’re working on recycling and upcycling at every level,” Dee says. “I literally sit with my teams and say, ‘If we sort the trash right, what else can we make?’ I’m looking at yarn scraps, fabric scraps, and things like cotton noil waste: what could that be turned into? We work with extra-long-staple cotton, which is very high quality. I’m sure you can make high-grade products out of our waste materials—it’s just finding the best way to do it.”

Dee wears Vintage Alhambra studs and necklaces, and Perlée diamonds and pearls of gold rings, all byVan Cleef & Arpels; and a jacket by Iris and Ink, available at the Outnet (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)
Dee wears Vintage Alhambra studs and necklaces, and Perlée diamonds and pearls of gold rings, all byVan Cleef & Arpels; and a jacket by Iris and Ink, available at the Outnet (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)

Sustainable lifestyle

Dee is currently so obsessed with sustainability that she doesn’t have time for much else—“I’m always thinking about it, and it’s a disaster because I’m not thinking about real work,” she says, laughing. Perhaps that’s why she remains one of Hong Kong’s most eligible bachelorettes.

“You know, when you’re 12 you think, ‘I’m going to have the perfect family and two-and-a-half children and a dog by whatever age,’ but life doesn’t always work like that. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself chasing opportunities or situations where I can learn and make a difference, and where I’m having fun.”

One thing Dee always makes time for is art. She sits on the international councils of both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate in London, and is a patron of the Asia Art Archive.

“I like art because I learn from art. Many artists, especially young artists, are involved in trying to create some kind of social, political or cultural statement. They’re trying to understand the world and they’re trying to explain their world. When you’re learning about art, you’re learning about technology, science, intellectual history, social history.”

Dee wears Sweet Alhambra and Vintage Alhambra earrings by Van Cleef & Arpels; dress by Givenchy (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)
Dee wears Sweet Alhambra and Vintage Alhambra earrings by Van Cleef & Arpels; dress by Givenchy (Photo: Richard Ramos for Hong Kong Tatler)

Sometimes Dee’s interest in art even leads her back to sustainability. “I’m reading Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. It’s ostensibly a book about colour, but as it turns out, it’s as much a travel book as it is a book about the origins of pigment, and how artists made natural dyes before chemicals, which is what we’re trying to do at Esquel.” 

See also: 5 Hong Kong Models Who Are Making Zero Waste Sexy

So even when she’s relaxing, reading a book at the weekend, it seems Dee constantly slips back into worrying about the environment and climate change. Does it keep her up at night?

“Sometimes, yes,” she admits. “Can we save the world or can we not? That’s a huge question. How do we make sure that our lives are aligned with trying to create a world where we can all live happily and comfortably and not full of fear? That’s another big, scary question. But questions like: How can we develop new products through recycled materials? How can we market eco-friendly products to consumers? Rather than being the questions that keep me up at night, those are the questions that inspire me to get up in the morning.”


Credits
Photography: Richard Ramos at Fast Management | Creative Direction: Francisco Anton-Serrano | Styling: Justine Lee | Hair: Dickey Blue | Makeup: Megumi Sekine | Stylist's assistants: Rosana Lai, Marie Haddad, Olivia Ko

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People Cover Story Leadership Eco Warriors Interview Generation T Dee Poon Sustainability

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