The resounding downfall of the Dutch businessman, who claimed to be able to clean oceans from plastic, brought back to the forefront the need to verify projects that embellish upon the slogans of “circular economy” and “environmental protection”, to ensure that they adhere to the promises, principles, and goals that they proclaim. While it is normal for any type of commercial investment to make a profit, it is unacceptable to deceive people with false slogans and promises, just to achieve more profits.
Only weeks before he disappeared along with the tens of millions he had raised from investors, Sjoerd Fauser was considered a pioneer of the green economy in Asia and Europe. Last July, Forbes magazine placed him on its cover as the wonder entrepreneur capable of solving the problem of plastic pollution in the world, just as it had previously put the looter Sam Bankman-Fried on its cover, crowning him “King of Cryptocurrency,” just before the fake stock exchange he founded was exposed to have plundered billions. In 2022, Fauser was named on Asia’s Sustainability Leaders. Soon after, his fake green castles began to gradually collapse, until government and press reports finally revealed details of the deception that lasted eight years, with the help of public relations companies, revered media, including glossy magazine covers and prime-time appearances on global networks. This scam was only possible in the absence of strict laws defining what is “green”, and banning use of the slogan to bypass basic financial regulations.
With increasing talk about securing resources sustainably, through balanced use and reuse, recycling, and waste reduction, Fauser came up with an exciting idea through which he could turn this concern into a profitable business venture. The concept focused on the estimated 85 billion plastic clothes hangers used annually in fashion stores. Due to their poor quality, these hangers are used once to transport and display clothes in stores, before they end up in landfills, waterways and oceans. The idea was to collect used plastic hangers from stores as well as waterways and oceans, to re-use them in manufacturing new hangers that are of better quality and more appealing in design, so that they match modern taste and high-end fashion and encourage people to reuse them either in stores or at home.
To launch his project, Fauser used catchy phrases that appeal to investors and consumers alike, such as “cleaning the oceans,” “greening,” and “circular economy.” These noble slogans attracted tens of millions of dollars from investors, some with the aim of riding the “green wave” to accumulate profits, and others out of a genuine desire to protect the environment and conserve resources, while also achieving a reasonable margin of profit. The launch of the product in 2019 was accompanied by a major campaign on the side-lines of London Fashion Week, claiming that the source of the recycled plastic was the sea and waterways, and that the ingredients used were completely recycled and can be recycled many times again. Associating itself with high-end fashion labels, the project attracted more funding. However, Covid-19, which struck months later, disrupted the fashion industry, and with it the clothes hangers market.
Fauser was quick to find another business opportunity in the pandemic itself, as his marketing skills helped him secure generous contracts to sell respirators and face masks, with the help of politicians who opened doors for him as a “green investor,” after he marketed the products as “locally designed” and manufactured from “sustainable materials” and “recyclable components.” However, it later turned out that the end products had come ready-made from warehouses in China and did not conform to the required specifications. After the end of the pandemic in 2022, the “green businessman” relaunched his clothes hangers project from Singapore, in a flashy ceremony proclaiming his products as a “blue wave,” accompanied by a media campaign that, once more, deceived even more international media outlets, who considered Fauser’s work a “breakthrough that will save the seas from plastic pollution.” But when the rain washed the stains a year later, it became clear that the promises were a mirage, and that only 25 per cent of the plastic used was sourced from rivers and lakes, while the rest came from landfills and virgin plastic in China. The final product was no different in quality and components from any other clothes hangers from Chinese factories. It also turned out that the new “sustainable” hangers ended up, like their predecessors, in landfills and seas. China itself would not allow for them to be imported for recycling, because it prohibits the import of used plastic. Thus, it turned out that the program was replacing waste with waste, with none of the conditions for sustainability.
Sjoerd Fauser is not the only one riding the circular green economy wave to make a quick profit, by attracting financiers who see an opportunity and consumers who are genuinely eager to contribute to the environment and reduce emissions. It is certain that “greenwashing” is a common practice today among large and small companies, governmental and private bodies, and there are many examples of it in the Arab region, with many PR companies specializing in this fashionable domain. The clearest description of this phenomenon is that a company or organization spends more money and time marketing itself as “environmentally friendly,” than it actually spends on improving its environmental performance. Combating this type of deception is a prerequisite for developing a true green circular economy, based on balanced management of resources, while also making a legitimate profit.
Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine.