The owner of Komunal88, JC Blachere never thought that being sustainable is a marketing trick. It has been the core of his activism since he started, and he shows it to people how it’s done. Photo by Rintang Azhar/NOW!JAKARTA

Since opening his café-market in 2015, the French owner of Komunal88, Jean-Christophe Blachère has been running a sustainable and eco-friendly business model that gains a big success in Jakarta. It’s way before an eco-label is a trending activism among urban communities. For JC, as he is often called, sustainability or environmentally friendly practice is not a marketing trick, other than humankind’s responsibility for the planet we’re living. After five years of maintaining his business with the team, he also encounters the paradigm that sustainability is an affordable thing to do. NOW! Jakarta sat down with him to solicit his secret mantra!

As long-running café-market in Kemang, please tell us a little bit about what Komunal88 has been doing?

We have been running, as we call it, the café-market since 2015. I think we are one of the precursors on the fighting waste and single-use plastic ever since we started the business before it becomes a trend. The main thing that we fight against is anything disposable. Anything single-use, in my opinion, is very symptomatic of very negative modern culture and something that should never be accepted.

The way we develop our business is based on the matter of philosophy. I think people have to be responsible for their own life and help improve themselves within the community. It’s very difficult to persuade and convince people, so what we have been trying to do is to show them (the consumer) the way.

Could you show us the way you do it?

Nothing we do is 100 per cent positive or zero waste, you can say that Komunal is right, but the business will produce waste. We have been trying to pursue ‘zero waste to landfill’. We have a number of programmes, from A, B, C to D, but it doesn’t happen in order. We started from a little bit here and there.

Since the beginning, we don’t have a take-away cup for our coffee and drinks. We have ceramic tumblers and sell them to consumers at an affordable price—probably half price cheaper comparing to tumbler from one of the international coffee chains in Jakarta. We’ve never made a profit from it. It’s an extra effort at the very beginning. In exchange, we give consumers 50 per cent discount on the takeaway coffee if one uses Komunal88 reusable tumbler as a part to create the culture. Now, we give a 50 per cent discount to anybody with any tumbler.

Second, we have a plate mat made of silicone. Instead of using a paper napkin or paper tissue, we have them made by cotton, which is reusable. And yes, we need to wash them with detergent or use electricity to wash them. We try the best we can rather than use trees to produce paper that people will use once and then throw it away. It doesn’t sound realistic. In packaging, we also do the same. We offer a deposit on the reusable takeaway box. The consumer will be charged IDR 35,000. When they come back and return the box, we will give the money back. No styrofoam and plastic bag, and we will say we don’t have it. I want people to think about it.

Three years ago, we also made an agreement with Waste4Change to help segregate our waste into four categories and distribute them in the recycling or upcycling process. It’s a big step for us as we commit to working with them. I want people to think about it. We do this in order to let people question us. Some people are upset but we actually need to have a conversation about it.

Do people recognise how Komunal do those things? Do you promote the programme?

Being responsible and environmentally friendly is not a marketing trick for me. It’s something that we need to do. That‘s it. People will come and experience the way we do it here so maybe they will be educated and start telling others. It’s the same when we have a suspended coffee, as ‘pay it forwards’ programme, allowing someone to have a cup of coffee for free because sometimes people can’t afford for a stress relief.

We also prefer to work with a number of social enterprises to sell their artisan product here, which we provide free of charge. The products are recycled and upcycled. Any communities or SMEs that contribute to society and the environment. As long as their activity is based on the circular economy, I am going to help them as much I can do without any financial consequence to it.

Some people think that small scale businesses can’t afford sustainability because they will cost more, and they need to shift the capital. Do you think this is a nonsense mindset?

I get it when people think being eco-friendly is expensive. I don’t think it is. I just want to give an example of the takeaway cup. Explain to me how it will be more expensive for me to sell reusable tumbler at first rather than to give away something that I’m going to pay. It cannot be more expensive.

It’s just the same with the plastic straw. We use a bamboo straw and also sell them because we have a supplier in Bali to support the community. We have the sarong of it made by Afgan refugee in Puncak, Bogor. We try to provide a lot of things to a lot of people. Our tumblers are produced by three different artisans. OK! Bamboo straw is more expensive than plastic straw, but they are not disposable. It cannot be more expensive. We need to get rid of disposable culture.

If we go back when you first started this business and you see that business keeps running, how do you ensure people, especially entrepreneurs, that going sustainable and eco-friendly is not expensive?

Look. There’s no magic solution for anything. We sometimes don’t have any technical solution for it. It’s the technology that we have so far and if there is a new one, of course, we will take that or practice that. So, why don’t we try reusing or composting the waste, instead of producing waste. We have to cut down our plastic use to the bear minimum. It’s been a work in progress to be able to run the business for five years so far.

I don’t think that sustainability will cost too much. What costs more is having sustainable seafood or any sustainable ingredients for our kitchen. Where do people draw the line today when it comes to fishing? Dynamite fishing? Poison fishing? Let’s continue killing ourselves. I understand that particularly Indonesian fishermen are in the very bottom of society. That’s why we have to pay them more so they will not exploit marine life in a harmful way and cost further environmental degradation.

At the end of the day, for me as a human and entrepreneur. I have to be able to answer three questions. How do I use the planet? What‘s my responsibility towards my neighbour? And what’s my responsibility towards my children? And we will link this to the planet and humanity.

The French owner of Komunal88, Jean-Christophe Blachère.

Does it affect the business especially when you have to deal with purveyors in the supply chain?

Yes, but we do what we could do because we couldn’t force it too much. We use locally produced goods and ingredients, in most cases. For us who run a culinary business, it’s really difficult to find individual farmer or fisherman, unless they are in a group or cooperation (koperasi). Indonesia is logistically challenged—it’s hard for independent fishermen, cattlemen and farmers to market their product. We select our suppliers with certification on sustainability. That’s why we also work with WWF Indonesia, which helps us a lot.

If people also realise, we also could press the supplier, a big supplier such as having glass-bottled Coca-Cola here at Komunal88. I only asked them, if they want to sell their product here. It has to be packed in the bottled glass. It’s reusable so they will collect the bottled and supplied with other glass-bottled Coca-Cola.

Has there been any transformation and change in making the business more efficient?

Waste is not only food waste. There is energy waste, packaging waste, a lot of other kinds of waste. Our waste production is very small because we do not use any plastic or disposable stuff. It’s cost-efficient. We calculate the kitchen and ingredients we need as we prepared it fresh. We also present a decent portion of the food, not too much lest it will potentially generate the organic waste from leftover food. We also prefer to give 40 per cent discount on the bakery item if they buy for pieces after 5 PM rather than to throw it away Mostly it will be sold out and could result in another capital for the next day operation.

Our staff, anyone on team is the sustainability expert on their own. They are part of it. We don’t designate a specific experts for it. people are learning along the way we do it.

Do you partake in bigger movement to campaign this especially for the culinary business who later come along? What is the challenge?

We participate in the Jakarta Less Waste Initiative, organised by the local government that also invites other businesses to join the cause. I am hoping it will later create awareness in the wider audience and trickle down the multiplier effect. We have been doing this in a very small scale and now we are happy to participate in much bigger movements.

Rintang Azhar

Rintang Azhar

Rintang is a previous staff writer for NOW! with experience in hard news and lifestyle journalism. He specialises in art, design, culture, fashion, environmental, and urban issues.