Austrian-born Petra Schweiger has made it her mission to make Asia plastic-straw-free. Her business Lily FLD supplies fully sustainable, biodegradable drinking straws. I met Petra when we both were invited to speak at a conference in Hong Kong and we immediately clicked. My assumption that Petra is a woman with many stories to tell was true. And today, I would like to share a glimpse into – what she herself calls – a colourful career path with you.
We all know the pictures of Styrofoam being washed onto the beach, fish and turtles caught in plastic rings and polluted seas. For Petra, the problem literally is right at her front door. Living in Shek’O, a picturesque beach area on the South part of Hong Kong Island, she experiences the extent of our plastic excesses on a daily basis: the water has become more and more polluted, plastic parts were blown into her garden by last year’s cyclone Mangkhut and there is no recycling.
On a trip back to Austria, Petra discovered a company producing sustainable straws. As she was looking for a new challenge, she decided to just shoot the company an email that she was interested in becoming their wholesaler for Asia. And it worked out.
The first year was tough. Nobody was interested in the product. It took some time until the pricing of the sustainable straws was making sense. Sustainable straws will not compete with conventional plastic straws for long, but still prices must be reasonable and doable. Petra still tries to keep her organization lean and minimize cost to keep competitive.
“I never thought that the business would explode like that after two years. I just really love the product and wanted to do something with it. And it was the right time. If I had started six months later when the ‘trend’ started, it would have been too late.”
Petra started out in 2016. She knocked on many doors in Hong Kong and tried to establish relationships within the Food & Beverage (F&B) scene. One of her first contacts at Zuma introduced her to likeminded groups working on sustainability and, slowly, Petra’s network grew. Today, she has established her name and reputation, is a panellist and even gave a live interview on CNN for World Ocean Day.
For 2019, Petra’s plans are to expand and further develop the markets. Japan is definitely a topic for her. But also working on the circular economy, maybe even recycling, in Hong Kong is something she considers really exciting.
Petra told me that she does face opposition from some people who think bio-based plastic is bad for the environment. “This is wrong. We are only at the start of the development and it is better than the conventional plastic. Products always change after time and get better.”
We compared it to electric cars which are often criticised for using electricity produced with polluting coal. However, their development has started a discourse about sustainable cars and brought the topic into our minds. Hence, products are evolving. The same will happen to alternatives to plastic. But the discussion has to start somewhere. In cities like Hong Kong which do not recycle, all trash goes into landfills. This is not an alternative either.
A “Colourful” Career Path
I asked Petra, how she ended up in Hong Kong and it turned out that she has quite a colourful CV. At the start of the new millennium, Petra and her then partner decided to go on a trip around the world. The timing seemed perfect: they both were quite settled in Austria and it seemed to be the last chance to go abroad before finally settling down. But as you know, life happens when we are busy making other plans…
After high school, Petra was unsure of what to study. She opted for an education for two years to become an export manager. “It was a good combination of business, languages and working with other countries. I always wanted to travel. Hence, I started as an export manager for a company trading paper and carton in Vienna. It was a small company and I learned a lot.”
After that, she joined a company in the field of refractory products. She was – together with a technical partner – in charge of the Middle East and North Africa. One summer, an intern joined the department who studied at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. “Now I’m 24, what am I actually doing?”, Petra asked herself. She started talking with her intern about the studies and one day she found all the forms on her desk. “I just registered.”, Petra said with a smile. “And then I started studying alongside my job. The first year, it worked really well because there were courses in the evenings or on the weekends.”
And then there was this trip around the world… Petra took a break from her job and studies. And when she came back, the company offered her a part-time position which made it possible to finish her studies as well.
Everything ran smoothly, but deep inside Petra knew this could not be everything. She still wanted to live abroad for some time. Petra applied for internships in China and ended up with a consulting and research company in Shanghai.
“I really wanted to go to Shanghai, be on my own and be independent. I enrolled for Chinese classes and then I just went.”
She stayed there for six months and became friends with a woman working for H&M. Through her, Petra realized that she wanted to move into an industry where a technical background was not requirement to lead projects. Petra realized that even though there was a lot of technology involved in the garment industry, it was something that she could learn on the job.
When her relationship with her long-term boyfriend ended, Petra decided to move back to Austria for a bit to go through that phase. She did not want to run away. She had no money – everything was tied up in an apartment they had bought before she left for China – and had to move in with her parents. Petra did some interviews for jobs in Austrian and also in China. Through her friend from Shanghai, she got an interview for a position with one of H&M’s suppliers in Bangladesh. She immediately packed her things and jumped into that adventure.
This supplier worked on a broad range of categories: from T-shirts, to jeans, fabric and shirts. They even had their own spinning.
“I learned so much at this place – technically but also culturally. I had never worked with Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis before. I really wanted to know how everything is created. And when I had questions, I could easily go into the production lines or fabric mills and everyone was really supportive.”
Petra always tried to build up technical knowledge even though she never pursued any technical studies. She soon got her first own account with Tom Tailor.
After 2.5 years she moved in-house to Tom Tailor, an apparel company, where it was a mix of production and customer side. Petra was in charge of product development: She developed the designs created by the design team in Germany to make them feasible for production. In total, Petra spent five years in Bangladesh and experienced how the industry changed the country.
In 2010, Petra moved to Hong Kong to join the product development of Esprit, also a clothing company. Even though she enjoyed developing products from the technical point of view, she was never really interested in observing the current trends in the fashion industry and develop them into products. Petra meticulously learned how to calculate prices really well from her Pakistani colleague in Bangladesh. Her wish was to transition to the purchasing department. But with her background it was hard. Petra, therefore, started to look outside of her company and soon joined a British company as the head of purchasing. She was on the move all the time. Every second week she travelled to countries like India – flying to a new location every day. Back in Hong Kong, all she did was catching up on sleep. She was completely exhausted from that lifestyle.
Petra felt she needed to change something and started sessions with a coach to explore what was next for her. Did she want to stay in the garment industry? What about sustainability? Looking back, Petra still considers working with a coach crucial – not only career-wise but also for your private life.
She started a project with some friends to sell CrossFit-related T-Shirts. However, this project ended because what started off as a side business, would have required more time and dedication from all business partners. “If I invest my time and money in something, it has to be more than just ‘mere fun’ at some point.” She changed jobs once again to join O’Neill, a sports brand. However, from the beginning, her gut told her this was not for her. On the side, she started looking for opportunities. She knew she wanted to start something on her own and ended up with her current sustainable straws business.
Petra’s Views on the Fashion Industry
When it comes to the fashion industry, Petra thinks we should not demonise everything.
“Of course, we choose with our wallet. But I would also like to stress that the consumers are sometimes overly suspicious. There is so much information available online and consumers should also trust companies more. And if they are not sure about something, they should contact the respective companies. If the consumer shows responsibility, the industry will improve because there is demand for it. And, of course, you can be critical. Only then, it can improve. But what really annoys me is the overall attitude that everything is bad and that the whole industry exploits people.”
According to Petra, economic development contributes to development of the society. “Bangladesh itself has zero resources since it was from India and Pakistan. All they have is human resources.” She told me about the story of the tea boy who was her first team member. “He was so keen to learn and interested in everything. We both benefited so much from each other. And you know what, the ‘tea boy’ has become a successful manager. And this is not the only positive story I have experienced. It happens on a daily basis in Bangladesh: someone has an opportunity to a better life because the industry is growing. Of course, we need to be careful and regulate the industry as well.”
Petra pointed out that there are labour regulations in Bangladesh such as that the working hours for women are limited to the day time. “But, of course, we cannot compare the situation in countries like Bangladesh to that in Austria, Germany or the Scandinavian countries where we have been having unions fighting for their rights for decades. There is still a long way to go.”
But her main message is the responsibility of the consumer: you need to ask the questions, you need to ask for information. The industry will only change if the consumers want it to.
Petra Schweiger is the owner of Lily FLD, a Hong Kong-based company supplying the Asian F&B industry with fully sustainable biodegradable drinking straws. Prior to that, Petra worked in the garment industry in Hong Kong and Bangladesh. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Vienna University of Economics and Business.