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Serai Spotlight (IWD edition) with Dee Poon of Esquel Group

March 3, 2022

Dee Poon is the Managing Director of Esquel Group, a global textile and clothing manufacturer. As one of the world’s largest cotton shirt producers, Esquel supplies textiles for a range of brands including Muji, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. 


Dee is also the Managing Director and Chief Brand Officer of Esquel’s retail brands, PYE and Determinant, which showcase the company’s premium cotton products. 


With a vision of Making a Difference, we chat to Dee Poon about her number one priority, her thoughts on sustainability and how she aims to tackle climate change. 


What are you most proud of in this journey of promoting sustainable fashion?


I’m most proud of how Esquel has promoted sustainable fashion by not just stating the obvious but by drilling into the products and what we’re trying to say. We’re not just making blanket statements such as ‘buy less’, ‘buy better’ or ‘no more plastics’ but we’re trying to come up with the best solutions around the pain points of sustainability. 

Which female entrepreneurs do you admire the most and why?

I always say that I admire my mother, Marjorie Yang. I’ve had the privilege of being her daughter and her employee to see the choices she’s made personally and in the workplace. Seeing her lead and get involved with the company and other organisations has always been so inspiring to me. 


Another woman I admire is my godmother, Michelle Yeoh. We might not think of actresses as entrepreneurs but in many ways, they are. Michelle started out as Miss Malaysia and moved to Hong Kong, starting as a model, and becoming a kung fu actress. At this time, this was unheard of in the 1980s. She didn’t know any kung fu nor Chinese and so watching her train and learn her lines was mind blowing. Then, to see how she moved from the Hong Kong film market into the global arena to become a producer of action and feature films, as well as documentaries has been so inspiring. I love how she continues to find ways to kick ass and show women their potential.  


This year's theme for International Women's Day is Break the Bias. Have you faced any bias in your career due to being a woman? And if so, how did you overcome it? 


I think the hardest thing about bias is the fact that we live within it, making it very difficult to perceive the views as bias. There have been situations where people have said, ‘Gee, you’re aggressive’ or ‘You’re really argumentative”. These words wouldn’t have been said to a man. 


I really think the hardest thing about bias is we’re not conditioned to notice it and so if we’re trying to break the bias, the first thing we really have to do is acknowledge certain things are just not okay. 


What do you hope to see change or progress for women in the next five years?


I would like to see women being recognised and appreciated more. I’m friends with a married couple who have young children. When the dad does one thing for the family, he gets showered in praise. However, even though the mom does around 95% of the tasks, people just say it’s expected. That’s not okay.

Women are culturally conditioned and expected to do things just because we’re capable but it doesn’t mean we should not be recognised for them. I would like both women and men to see these discrepancies in our lives. 

As the next generation of ethical leadership, how do you think you’re doing things differently? What are your priorities for Esquel? And how do you aim to achieve sustainability? 


First of all, we're very lucky because even in previous generations, sustainability was something management and leadership believed in. What’s different now is more people across the entire organisation understand its importance. With that, we’re driving people to think deeper about the problem and how to address it from multiple angles. With more people getting involved in sustainability, we have the opportunity to dig deeper, and examine our products and footprint to change the world. 

How has a personal experience influenced you to lead a more sustainable lifestyle and take Esquel in the same direction? 


Through my mom, I’ve always been exposed to the sentiment of ‘saving the planet’. This motivated me to start an environmental NGO when I was in college.This was right around the time when ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ came out which really inspired a group of us to take action.


The exposure I had to air pollution while I was living in Beijing around the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics had a significant impact on me. It was so hard to breathe. 


Since we work with cotton, it’s exposed us to how much water is used during the production process. 


As a retailer, we’re trying to make better clothes. I want to encourage people to buy and keep clothes for longer. The average brand that we work with performs wash tests one to five times which is shocking because it reflects that the customers are only anticipated to wear the item one to five times. So at PYE, I’ve set the wash test to 25. Even though the customer is realistically going to wear the clothing over 25 times, I want to be comfortable knowing they can wear our clothing every week for half a year without affecting quality. 

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About the series

To celebrate International Women's Day 2022, we sat down with seven female trailblazers in the fashion and sustainability industry to talk about their struggles and challenges, career learnings and advice to young women.