Q&A with Sally Lim, the Australian Co-Founder Behind 2°EAST Sustainable Watches

Q&A with Sally Lim, the Australian Co-Founder Behind 2°EAST Sustainable Watches

As a relative newcomer on the watch scene, 2°EAST was born out of Sally Lim’s desire to replace a broken watch with an eco-friendly version. After searching for a responsibly-made watch with little success, a chance encounter with a like-minded manufacturer at a watch fair led Sally to co-found ethical watch brand 2°EAST. We interviewed the Hong Kong based Australian co-founder to learn more about her lean start-up, the sustainable lifestyle brands she swears by and why phrases that begin with “they should” makes her wince.

EWP: Why did you decide to start your business? 

Sally Lim: I have always had some business plan or other bubbling away, and have started a few others with varying levels of success.  

I moved from Australia to Hong Kong about eight years ago, and discovered the city’s famed entrepreneurial spirit.  The easy access to China, and regular trade shows for every conceivable product category make researching ideas and suppliers simple and inexpensive. We could meet dozens of suppliers in an afternoon at a trade fair and visit three or four factories in a day (in those joyous, innocent times pre-covid).

As is the story for many female founders, this business became a serious option for me after my daughter was born. I used to work in pharmaceutical development project management, which I loved, but the work was intense and hours long. It didn’t leave a lot of time for much else. 

2°EAST co-founder Sally Lim with husband Glenn and daughter Evie. Image supplied.

In addition to its entrepreneurial spirit, Hong Kong is known to be a paradise for watch fanatics. My husband started going to the annual watch fairs and in doing so, sowed the seeds of 2°EAST. 

The volume of watch brands and styles and manufactures was staggering, but there was a real lack of focus on ethical and sustainable manufacturing.  

I had been looking to replace my recently broken watch and despite being completely surrounded by reasonably priced options, they were all packed with plastic and foam lined boxes, or had polyester straps and plastic spacers inside their dials.

We met my current business partner, Ron, through these fairs and he suggested we go into business together. He has been in the watch business for years, and owns a factory a short train ride away. Ron was happy to take up the challenge of making a watch that met my long list of eco-requirements, so after an eventful few years, here we are.

EWP: Highlights of running your business? 

SL: The people I have connected with in the sustainability community have been the highlight so far.  It is easy to become overwhelmed with the environmental disasters we are facing, but then I’ll meet the people fighting for change, creating new technologies, and making a difference for all of our futures and my mood is instantly lifted.  I absolutely have more hope for our future than I did when I first set out on this project.

EWP: What do you find the most difficult about running your business?

SL: There were a lot of challenges in sourcing the materials we wanted, in sometimes comical language difficulties, and in dealing with covid shutdowns of suppliers, but these were all manageable.  What I didn’t expect was how difficult it would be working alone. I never realised how much I relied on my past colleagues and team mates to bounce ideas and talk through decisions. There’s also a lot more opportunity for self doubt to creep in without pep talks in the lunchroom.  

Self doubt is by far the biggest challenge, it’s incredibly hard to celebrate your own achievements, it goes against all our cultural and gender modesty norms. I am hard wired to talk myself down, so promoting the business I built is much harder than I ever expected.

EWP: What makes your watch brand different?

SL: I use the slogan “watches that don’t cost the earth” because it nicely summarises the fact we make sustainable watches at a very reasonable price. It’s a simple statement but there is so much that goes into doing that. I designed 2°EAST to be sustainable and ethical from day one. We choose the most sustainable, highest quality materials available, and work only with suppliers that use the best – eco friendly and ethical – practices.     

I personally really love the difference changing the straps makes to the look of the watch.  There are some blog posts on our website giving the background on some of the illustrators who designed the patterns on the recycled NATO straps and their inspiration, which makes them all the more special.

EWP: Your favourite sustainable lifestyle brands?

SL: There is a great scene of really cool sustainable brands local to me here in Hong Kong. My favourite being Retykle.com, a Hong Kong based resale platform for childrens wear.  I sell my daughters clothes and toys on the platform and use the credits to buy new (to us) clothes that I will later send back again. It is really a game changer.

For years, one of my friends in Melbourne has been trying to convince me to switch to period pants. I belatedly switched last year and now am a regular over-sharer of all things period-pant related to anyone that has the misfortune of somehow broaching the topic in my vicinity. Because I didn’t listen when I was in Melbourne and haven’t been able to travel home for so long to check out the many brands available there, I have only tried Thinx. I so far only have positive things to say about them.

Stasher silicone bags are also in my top three. Storing kids snacks, my snacks, my headphones, keeping my e-reader dry near the pool, stashing away the pastries we couldn’t finish from the breakfast buffet… MAKING POPCORN. How did I ever cope without these?

EWP: How do you unwind after a big work day?

SL: Once my daughter is home from school, her energy fills the whole apartment and no more work is getting done.  She is an excellent distraction from anything I may otherwise have been worrying about. Until she sleeps, the rest of the day will be spent pretending to be a bear or a walrus or something similar.

I read at every possible opportunity, am addicted to solving codewords puzzles and recently taught myself to solve a rubik’s cube (for the first time at 40-something).

EWP: Best business compliment you’ve ever received?

SL: “I adore your business and the mission behind it. Proof that sustainability can be sexy AF.” From an illustrator and environmentalist that I *LOVE*.

EWP: Influencers/books/films that have influenced your sustainability thinking?

SL: I remember being really affected by “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan when I read it on what was otherwise a relaxing holiday in 2008. I don’t remember if I had been particularly environmentally aware prior to that, but that was a major turning point for me.

Not long after that I bought a copy of “Food, Inc.” on DVD and after watching that, drastically changed my eating habits and for quite some time avoided any more environmental disaster related movies.  

More recently I have really enjoyed everything about Marieke Eyskoot’s book “This Is A Good Guide”, because it really, really is. It covers so much about living consciously and sustainably. She is also great to follow on social media. She has put into words with her #sustainabilityagainstshame movement a lot of things I was seeing and feeling but not yet really understanding. (Also I love her morning walk stories on instagram because Amsterdam mornings look incredible).

The True Cost documentary was probably my first real introduction into what a complete disaster the fast fashion industry is. A good follow up to this is the (free) course “Fashion’s Future: The Sustainable Development Goals” on futurelearn.com. 

My most recent purchase is the new book from (fellow Aussie) Emily Ehlers, “Hope is a Verb”.  It is beautiful and funny and helpful and optimistic and basically everything we need. She’s awesome.

EWP: What are some things that you’d like customers to know that you rarely communicate on social media?

SL: Because of our incredibly lean business model (i.e the business side of things is mostly a one woman show run out of my home office), and the fact we sell directly from the manufacturer to the consumer, our overheads, and therefore markups, are very, very low.

Comparing our specifications against similar popular watches, I don’t know of any other brand that is more transparent, or cheaper, or has better quality for a price anywhere in the ballpark of where we are.

EWP: Quotes you live by.

SL: I have always been bothered by the tendency people have to say things like “they should really…” or “I wish they would…” There is very rarely a “they” in question. Who is this mysterious “they”? It’s an easy way to distance yourself from an issue if you believe there is an all powerful “they” that can fix it. There often isn’t.  

Emily Ehlers said this much better in her book: “If you’ve ever thought, ‘wow, someone should really do something about that’.  Remember: You’re someone.

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Images supplied.

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