To raise sustainability in Bali, it takes a village

Meet the creative director behind the island’s entirely sustainable new lifestyle enclave

Thousands of antique shutters sourced from around Indonesia form the façade of the Potato Head Beach Club on Bali's Seminyak Beach. Potato Head
20 February 2019

It rightfully feels incongruent that plastic waste litters the shores of the Island of the Gods and dirty energy feeds its needs. While ‘green’ hospitality might be creeping into Bali’s tourism industry, Potato Head – the ultra-vogue Asian lifestyle group – doesn’t have the patience to wait.

Come October, Desa Potato Headdesa meaning ‘village’ in Indonesian – will open as a new benchmark for sustainable lifestyle and luxury. Already, the group’s Katamama hotel is formed of 1.8 million bricks hand-pressed by Balinese artisans, and its Beach Club continues to throw the island’s most famous parties alongside a transition to zero waste (it’s nearly there, down to 0.3 percent).

Adding to this will be a second hotel outfitted with materials made on-site from recycled community waste, events such as the Our Ocean conference and TED Talks hosted in its ‘ideas center,’ solar panels covering rooftops and driveways, and wellness offered through every sense, from music therapy to traditional jamu medicinal drinks. Here, Landscape News talked to the group’s British creative director Daniel Mitchell about what sustainability means for the island, this industry and the mind.

Potato Head creative director Daniel Mitchell. Potato Head

Having worked extensively with Balinese artisans, what have you observed about their relationship with natural world?

In Balinese, there is no word for “art.” They believe life is art. Everything is art. They have a fantastic relationship with the natural world because they’re using it to make a living and also beautiful works of art and design. It’s not something they’re conscious about, but the essence of being a human being: you live off the land, you respect the land, you nourish the land, and it’s a two-way thing.

It was something that really struck me when I arrived in Bali, and in Indonesia as a whole – it’s still very indigenous. Everybody makes things with their hands, and everything centers around craft. Coming from London, you just don’t see that anymore. With Katamama, we built the whole hotel with local artisans using materials from the earth that are in abundance. It’s a resourcefulness that’s been lost in modern manufacturing.

The brick exterior of Katamama hotel, with sustainable Indonesian wood inlays. Potato Head

When did you get interested in sustainability?

When I had my fashion store in London, LN-CC, it became quite well known around the world, and I was doing my passion at that time. But the bigger we got, as I achieved what I wanted to, I wasn’t really happy. We were buying all this stuff, pretty much the same as the season before, it would go on sale, then tons more stuff would come in and go on sale… As I researched deeper, I was shocked at how destructive the whole thing was. Getting a product from A to Z, the thousands of people involved – fashion is a very damaging industry. Something just sort of clicked that it didn’t match.

At the same time, I started looking deeper into myself with meditation and searching for something different to do. My wife is Indonesian, and we then had our first child, and I thought, ‘Let’s go to Bali, grow our own vegetables, live a different life, do something positive.’ I never thought I’d be working for somewhere like Potato Head. I just thought that because it’s such a beautiful, spiritual island, something would happen. That was almost five years ago.

Can you tell me a bit about your meditation practice?

It’s about living a balanced lifestyle. I still go out and have a good time, I’m not fully vegan. But I find that once you start meditating, it’s like exercise. It puts you in such a good frame of mind that if you stop doing it, you really feel it – you feel off-center. I have a daily ritual: every morning I meditate as well as visualize my day, really map it out, and give really deep gratitude. It’s really about letting go of your ego.

The entrance to Desa, a sustainable ‘village’ that will open in October. Potato Head

How would you describe Potato Head’s approach to sustainability?

What we’re finding is that quite often in this sustainability world, you have to compromise – it’s not going to feel as good or taste as good because it’s sustainable. We wanted to be the guys that make amazing experiences that are as good or better than experiences that are unsustainable. We don’t want that granola feel. We need to stand up against really well-designed products, or it just won’t work. People should come here and go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it’s sustainable.’

When the company decided to become more sustainable, was the transition difficult?

Yeah, it took a long time to change the mindset of the staff, and Bali in general is not set up for sustainability. There’s no recycling infrastructure, it’s just a mess. And even just getting out of old habits is scary. But what I found is that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing where to get things, finding the right producers, getting help setting up your composting and recycling. Once you have it all going, it becomes second nature. But at first it’s so daunting.

Waste from Potato Head, the surrounding community and beach litter is transformed into decor and building materials in Desa’s Sustainism Lab. Potato Head

Potato Head was lucky in that it had the start-up capital of time and money to make this leap, but many small enterprises don’t.

I think larger companies will have to help smaller companies, which will take more time to change. But there’s an abundance of new startups and a bit of a race of people offering alternatives that don’t cost more than harmful products, like materials made from seaweed. Hopefully there’s some funding from the government or larger companies’ CSR to help smaller companies adapt – it’s really a responsibility.

Potato Head often calls itself the Potato Head Family. What is the interplay between family and sustainability?

In order for sustainability to work, it has to start at home and in the community. Especially in Europe or the Western world, the sense of family is getting lost with people becoming more individualistic. But I feel like as time goes on and people wake up to things, having good relationships is going to become more important than it ever has, and the human race will come back to that.

I didn’t necessarily come from what’s perceived as a perfect, stereotypical family. I lived with my grandad for large parts of growing up, but I feel like it worked to my strengths because it showed me the value of having those relationships. Potato Head’s number-one value is ‘family first,’ and I think that is really beautiful. We call each other family members, not staff, and everyone believes in it.

Medicinal drinks and cocktails mixing local produce such as turmeric, ginger, lemongrass and tamarind are served at Kaum, Potato Head’s traditional Indonesian restaurant. Potato Head

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