How a simple campaign grew into a plant-based powerhouse
When he first launched Green Monday back in 2012, David Yeung was met with more than a few puzzled looks. ‘We were treated like aliens,’ says the entrepre- neur, a wry smile crossing his face. ‘What I was talking about was just gibberish to most people.’
What he was talking about, incidentally, and what was so perplexing to his audiences back then was the burgeoning global climate crisis and the urgent need for us all to moderate our diets to slow down the decline. Today, this is such widely accepted wisdom that it’s almost banal, but back in Hong Kong in 2012, David was a genuine outlier.
He had in fact become vegetarian 20 years before. ‘At that time, it was just a personal choice,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t want to hurt any animals and I thought it was unnecessary to kill another life just for my pleasure.’ But a turning point came for him in 2006, when, like many others, he watched Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth and was suddenly awakened not just to the dangers of climate change but also to the impact that food – and the meat industry in particular – has on global warming. ‘That was a major eye-opener.’
After watching that film, everything crystal- lised for David. ‘In the case of sustainability,’ he says, ‘we are all part of the root cause of the problem, so we all need to be part of the solution.’ The key to slowing the tide, he felt, was not philanthropy or more chari- table giving, but instead a rethinking of our entire lives and lifestyles. ‘The planet doesn’t need us to donate,’ he says. ‘The way we’re living today, the way we consume, exceeds the threshold of what the planet can support. We need to change the way we live.’
His solution was Green Monday, which began as a campaign posing a very straightforward request to Hong Kongers: when it comes to your diet, try to have one plant-based day each week. It sounds simple enough, but the early reactions lay somewhere between incredulity and indignation. Trying to convince people of the necessity of taking this action was like hitting his head against a wall. There was a powerful force at play on the opposing side: ‘Ignorance is bliss,’ David says, with another grin.
Today, things look different. When David first launched Green Monday, the city’s vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian communities combined made up only five percent of the population; now that grouping makes up around 40 percent. ‘It has gone up eightfold in eight years,’ David notes.
Green Monday itself is also practically unrecognisable compared to those early days. Today, there are four separate entities under the Green Monday Group umbrella: OmniFoods, a food-tech business with an R&D team in Canada, focused on creating alternative plant- based proteins; Green Common, an F&B and food retail and distribution company with a multinational foot- print; Green Monday Ventures, an impact-investment arm funding mission-aligned businesses around the world; and lastly, Green Monday Foundation, a non-profit that partners with schools and corporates and runs advocacy programmes.
What’s more, last year, Green Monday Holdings, which includes Green Common and OmniFoods, successfully raised over USD70m in its first major funding round, the largest for a plant-based food company to date in Asia. This extra capital is being used, as David explains, across every department ‘to build manufac- turing capacity, to boost R&D, to build out our global team and our global sales and marketing network.’
A meteoric rise of this nature is never a given, but David and Green Monday have helped to create the optimal conditions for their success. Much of this is down to smart branding, which has seen Green Monday couple scientific facts around nutrition and the environment with aspects of sophisticated lifestyle marketing. ‘We cannot just go out there and lecture people,’ David notes, ‘because people would resist that. We need to actually create something new that is even better, a new lifestyle that is even cooler, more aspirational, sexier. That’s how human nature works.’
At the same time, on the F&B and food-distri- bution side, the company has capitalised on partner- ships and joint ventures in order to scale quickly. ‘To catalyse change, we’ve got to team up,’ as David puts it. OmniPork, one of OmniFoods’ flagship products, is used in Taco Bells across Mainland China, in Sizzler restaurants in Thailand, and at the Four Seasons and JW Marriott hotels in Hong Kong. Green Monday has partnerships with Starbucks and Ikea, and in early 2021 signed a major deal with McDonald’s across China. ‘Wherever food exists, we want to be there,’ says David. ‘There’s a reason we call ourselves Omni.’
At the same time, the group has clearly bene- fitted from being the right company at the right time. The population of Hong Kong is a microcosm for what has happened globally over the past eight years when it comes to consumer habits: the tide is inexo- rably turning towards environmental awareness and sustainable eating. ‘We used to be a vegan-food desert,’ David recalls. ‘You’d walk into a supermarket and the only things you could buy were tofu, mushrooms, kale and bok choy. Now you walk into McDonald’s, a 7/11 or a Michelin-star restaurant, you’ll always find plant- based food.’
Similarly, investors have become increasingly switched on to ESG topics and are now scouring the globe for those companies that will lead the green revolu- tion. Take, for example, the IPO of Beyond Meat, a company that makes ‘plant-based meat,’ which in 2019 became the best-performing public offering by a major US firm since the turn of the millennium. ‘The Beyond Meat burger was a game changer, for both the investment circle and just for the world in general,’ says David (who is also an investor in the California- based company). ‘It opened people’s minds about the possibilities of the plant space and blazed a trail for the whole sector.’
There are clearly plenty of reasons, both within the company and externally, for David to be optimistic about the future of his company – and indeed he is. But when it comes to the broader existential challenge of humanity’s effort to curb the climate crisis, he is less sanguine. ‘I’m not that optimistic in terms of climate change and the environmental ecosystem globally. Things will get worse,’ he says, citing as evidence recent biblical floods in central Europe and droughts across North America. ‘Hopefully we can find a way to stop the bleeding. But it is bleeding.’
How, then, does David manage to stay motivated, even in the face of such a bleak outlook? The usually cheery David becomes philosophical for a moment. ‘Sometimes we need to have the mindset of a doctor or firefighter,’ he reflects. ‘Firefighters don’t say, “The fire is too big, so let’s not save anyone.” I don’t over- think whether I can stop the entire fire. Let’s focus on saving this person now, then the next person, and then the next. That’s my mindset.’ It has proved a winning mindset up until this point; for all of our sakes, let’s hope it continues to be.