“As beautiful as the forests were in Kalimantan, I saw that they were very vulnerable at the same time. That made me realize how vulnerable I was as well, because we are a part of Nature.” – Ben Fijal
“I’ve been transformed to the point of realizing – look at all these people around me who have what I can never have.” – Tim Fijal
Ben & Tim Fijal
Co Founders | TRI Upcycle
On overcoming self limiting beliefs, cultivating a sense of awe as the driving force for change, and the strength and fragility of nature.
It was in October of 2015 when Ben Fijal, then an eighth grade student at Bali’s Green School, was shown the eye-opening documentary Heart of The Haze, which captured the devastation caused by the peatland fires in Kalimantan that year. It was a harrowing sight as cities were engulfed by a murky brown smog that came from the desolate landscape; displacing families and endangered wildlife.
Discovering that this was a perennial issue – occuring every year for the past two decades – shocked and perplexed Ben, and it was only a few months later that he, along with his parents, some classmates and a group of local Balinese students, embarked on a journey to see the situation firsthand.
Moved by his initial trip to Borneo, he chose to dedicate his middle-school graduation project to taking action on deforestation in Indonesia. Hence, TRI was born.
The idea was simple – to create and sell artistically designed bandanas, and use them as a unique tool to spread awareness about deforestation – allocating all profits to fund grassroots organizations on the ground in Kalimantan that are working to protect forests. Ben and his dad, Tim, co-founded TRI as a business in September 2016 with no prior experience or knowledge; only a desire in their hearts to make a difference.
Some say it’s the most important thing you need, and by their example, it’s hard to argue against the evidence. In less than two years, TRI has grown into a small team that has so far raised funds to repair and operate a “floating library” that provides education to hundreds of indigenous children in remote villages in Kalimantan, planted mangrove trees for a restoration project in northwest Bali, donated five dams to block illegal canals and rehydrate vast areas of Central Kalimantan’s Sabangau Forest, paid for wages of two patrols to protect Aceh’s Leuser ecosystem against poachers and illegal farming, trained more than 25 firefighting volunteers in Kalimantan, and aided members of the indigenous Dayak tribe to become professional videographers, enabling their voices to be heard widely on deforestation. And they’re just getting started.
For the latter half of 2017, Ben took a semester off of school and Tim took a leave of absence from Green School to embark on a journey around the world to present to school children in multiple countries, meeting forest protectors, fellow upcyclists, and opening up avenues for the sales of their products internationally.
Despite their inspiring example of resourcefulness in the fight against deforestation, both Ben and Tim have their feet firmly planted on the ground, acknowledging that they have only barely begun to scratch the surface with their young company, knowing that there is still much to improve on.
Within a lively after school setting, we sat down to reflect on the sacrifices made along the way, the importance of listening, and how they both learn best. Ben and Tim also reveal the books they’ve recommended most, and the best advice they’ve ever received.
Can you both describe your own personal relationship with nature? What are some lessons that being in nature has taught you about yourself, others or life as a whole especially after your expedition to see the peatland fires in Kalimantan?
Ben: I’ve always been around nature. I was lucky enough to be in Vancouver for most of my life, and we would always go on walks through beautiful forests with our dog. When we moved to Bali, we were surrounded by even more Nature! I get to surf at the beach near our house, and my school (Green School) has no windows or walls and it’s in the middle of the jungle. Nature has become a part of me and when I go to big cities, I can’t help but miss being around it.
In terms of what nature has taught me – I guess, as beautiful as the forests were in Kalimantan, I saw that they were very vulnerable at the same time. That made me realize how vulnerable I was as well, because we are a part of Nature.
“I saw that they were very vulnerable at the same time. That made me realize how vulnerable I was as well, because we are a part of Nature.”
Tim: Working at Green School – I didn’t expect the immersion in nature to affect me so much. But I remember realizing it for the first time after being here for about a year. I was in Jakarta for a conference and woke up an hour after dawn with only the hum of the AC being audible. I realized at that moment in that sterile hotel room how connected I had become to nature through my life in Bali and at Green School.
As a Canadian, I always had boots and socks on, bundled up to protect myself against the cold. Here in Bali, I feel like I’m in my element and so much more connected to Nature with my bare feet on bamboo and earth every day. I wake up with the first rays of the dawn sun in a wooden house every morning and I can hear nature sounds outside. Nature has become part of my heartbeat and, living in Bali, I feel like I’m in my native habitat.
Being in Indonesia where so many natural resources are threatened by the demand of consumers from all over the world, it was really shocking to see the devastating impact of consumption firsthand in Kalimantan.
To witness orangutans up close and really feel what close relatives they are to us, and then to understand how helpless they are to defend their own habitat is deeply moving. It makes you realize how vulnerable these ecosystems are that we rely on so heavily.
Another point of connection I have with nature is when I go snorkeling with my wife and kids here in Bali. The reefs aren’t even what they were even seven years ago when we first got here because of all the bleaching caused by climate change and acidified oceans.
That instills in me both a sense of urgency and appreciation – I want to go out there with my boys and witness the awesomeness of nature while those corals are still living.
“Here in Bali, I feel like I’m in my element and so much more connected to Nature with my bare feet on bamboo and earth every day.”
Tell us about the amount of hard work that goes into having your own brand, especially one with an inspiring upcycling model as TRI. What were some of the sacrifices you’ve had to make along the way?
Ben: As a teenager in high school, I had to give up my weekends sometimes. My friends would be hanging out and having fun, and I would be out getting sponsors for TRI. So I had a fear of missing out.
Sponsors are one of the ways we make money, and at the beginning I was going up to local businesses and asking them if they wanted to sponsor us for 1 million Rupiah for a year.
It was tough because sometimes I did this alone, and I experienced that feeling of failure when some people said they weren’t interested. So there has been some sacrifice of my personal time.
For TRI itself, I think being committed to upcycling and being an ethical brand can be limiting, and it can feels like we sacrifice opportunities that way. We make stuff out of retired bedsheets, and not everyone is into bandanas, handkerchiefs and tote bags. Upcycling can narrow our options down in terms of product range. I guess that’s something we can discover more in the future – how to upcycle more products. It forces the hand to be more creative. So that’s good.
“It was tough because sometimes I did this alone, and I experienced that feeling of failure when some people said they weren’t interested.”
Tim: It has been a lot of hard work, but when you’re driven by something you believe strongly in, it doesn’t necessarily feel like work. Regardless, I’ve had a lot of late nights; I have a full time job at Green School that’s passion-driven as well, and we’re very lucky to live in Indonesia where there are a lot of talented and big-hearted people around who are eager to get involved and support.
The sacrifice also revolves around our commitment to give. Social enterprises generally have an agenda to make money for themselves too, and that’s part of what drives them. There’s nothing the matter with businesses making profits, but we’ve decided to take a different approach.
In our case, TRI has been an exercise of radical giving and an experiment on my part as a parent to try to expose my kid to doing something not for the sake of money, but just to see what happens when we respond to our own consciences.
We give away all of our profits as well as our own time and resources. We’ve done pretty well, but when we don’t sell enough products, we have still stuck to our commitment to give, so there has been personal financial sacrifices also.
So that’s been a challenge – to stay committed to the cause, to believe what we’re doing is worthwhile, and that as a social enterprise, we will reach a place of financial sustainability before long.
“TRI has been an exercise of radical giving and an experiment on my part as a parent to try to expose my kid to doing something not for the sake of money, but just to see what happens when we respond to our own consciences.”
But indigenous people on the front lines of deforestation are dealing with far more significant challenges and sacrifices, even giving their own lives in the protection of forests. Our work with TRI is a small act of solidarity with these courageous humans that work to protect the lungs of our Earth.
What part of TRI do you both enjoy working on the most? Conversely, what is currently the most challenging part for you both?
Ben: My specific role in this social enterprise is to be an ambassador and spokesperson for it. That’s something that I enjoy doing – to stand up there and talk to kids my age and even older than me about deforestation.
It feels good to share what I know and see that young people are learning and maybe changing their behaviour or way of thinking of themselves as consumers because of this.
What’s challenging is actually the same – being someone who is the “face” of TRI. It’s pressure for me to be that.
Sometimes I feel awkward to take so much credit for TRI because there’s a team of people that support us and put a lot of hard work into communicating our message and selling our products.
But I know that because I am a young person, people are more willing to listen when I speak up about this issue, so I know it’s important I take on this role.
“Because I am a young person, people are more willing to listen when I speak up about this issue, so I know it’s important I take on this role.”
Tim: There’s a lot that I love about it. I love the fact that TRI has taken us to Kalimantan four times in the last year where we have made new Dayak friends who are doing such inspiring work to protect forests in their own way. I am so grateful for the opportunities we have had to meet with forest protectors in other countries, including one of my personal heros, Jane Goodall.
I love working with and learning from Indonesian artists and producers with whom we share ideas about design, sourcing, more sustainable production methods, etc.
As a dad, I love watching my son present and seeing the response he gets from the adults and kids he shares with. It’s highly motivating to see young people engaged and wanting to take action.
“It’s highly motivating to see young people engaged and wanting to take action.”
Most of all, I love the team of young, brilliant and hard-working people that we have built and affectionately refer to as our TRIbe.
The challenging part for me is balancing another full-time job that I care deeply about and to manage a tendency to feel consumed by TRI’s mission when I’m at home. I have to be sensitive to Ben being a teenager and not put too much pressure on him.
I think the other challenge is simply generating revenue. We’re doing ok, but we really want it to grow. We’re not experts and we don’t have too much experience in any of this, but generating a significant revenue so that this is a viable business is certainly the biggest practical challenge.
In spite of the difficulties, what are some of the unexpected benefits of building a brand like Tri Upcycle?
Ben: As a 15 year old, I was able to travel six months around the world. For the first half of this year we were spreading the TRI message and growing the community.
It’s also the connections – we meet a lot of people, and its good for me personally because I’m building a network for my own future.
Another benefit would be the fact that I’ve turned into a more conscious consumer. Two years ago I would’ve never cared about conscious consumption. Since then I’ve gained so much knowledge from events and research about how our consumption affects forests.
“It’s also the connections – we meet a lot of people.”
So I have developed a stronger conscience, especially when shopping in the supermarket where I always check labels of the things that I buy.
I like Oreos, they’re a good cookie, I’m not going to lie! But I’ve cut them out of my life because those Nabisco guys just haven’t been responsible in the past about sourcing sustainable palm oil, and I’m not sure we can trust big guys like that to do the right thing for our forests.
In terms of clothes, I’ve also thrifted a lot more in the past year. I just think a lot more before I buy now.
“I have developed a stronger conscience, especially when shopping in the supermarket where I always check labels of the things that I buy.”
Tim: We don’t tow the line religiously around 100% avoiding palm oil or purchasing new clothes, but what Ben is referring to is a gradual awakening. That’s a fringe benefit of doing something you believe strongly in.
Humanity has got its eyes half closed right now, and in some cases completely closed. We don’t really want to see the reality of what’s happening to the ecosystems that sustain our life. As a result of TRI, I’ve done a lot more reading and learning about that.
In some ways that can be depressing, but it can also be empowering and it can jolt you into action. I feel like I’m a lot more aware than I used to be as a consumer, and the situation challenges you every day, and that’s a good thing – to think about our respective roles in contributing to the problem and to the solution.
The process is a good one.
“We don’t tow the line religiously around 100% avoiding palm oil or purchasing new clothes, but what Ben is referring to is a gradual awakening.”
In terms of the day-to-day running of TRI, what has become more important to you since you started, and what has become less important?
Ben: Over the past year I spent more time figuring out what my role was, and now that I’m established as a spokesperson and ambassador, that has become more important.
That means prioritizing presentations and knowing more about our cause. The rest, like going to events and selling products at the booths, which I still do sometimes, have become less important.
Tim: I think the refinement of our message has become more important; really trying to learn from all our failures (and we’ve encountered many) has been great.
A favorite failure would probably be initially thinking we could make a million dollars for the peatlands of Indonesia by selling bandanas. I thought it would be so simple, and what better place to start than here in Green School? To rally a whole community around a concept.
Well that didn’t quite work out the way we had anticipated and we learned pretty quickly how naive we were.
We have had to explore further afield for our cause, and we’ve had to reach out far and wide to nurture the level of engagement we’re aiming for. It’s a work in progress, but we’ve come a long way.
“It’s a work in progress, but we’ve come a long way.”
I realized that you just have to be smart about how to engage people in a movement. It’s not that simple and our ideas were initially not as great as we thought they were. So now we’re refining our messaging around more targeted campaigns and we’re getting traction.
What self-limiting beliefs did you have to change over the recent years to become the person you are today? How did you overcome them?
Ben: When we first started out, I wasn’t an expert about global warming, or the forests in Indonesia. I wasn’t a professional presenter and also, I was a 13-year-old kid! I was just a kid, how could I possibly be convincing or do something to help find a solution to a problem so big?
The ways I overcame these beliefs were just through practice and research. I was also connecting to researchers and conservationists in Borneo and learning from them.
It’s nice to see how far I’ve come in the past couple of years in terms of how I present and communicate.
“I wasn’t an expert about global warming, or the forests in Indonesia. I wasn’t a professional presenter and also, I was a 15-year-old kid! I was just a kid.”
Tim: I think the same as Ben. Who am I? Some “bule” (foreigner) that walked into a jungle in Kalimantan who thought we should do something about it?
Who am I to tell people that they should care about forests or not? I fly in airplanes and have palm oil in my toothpaste.
I’m acutely aware of my potential to muck things up like so many other well-meaning foreigners have done before me.
Which is why we’re aware that we don’t have all the answers, and instead we focus on supporting informed and engaged people on the ground who are dealing with the situation first-hand.
“We’re aware that we don’t have all the answers, and instead we focus on supporting informed and engaged people on the ground who are dealing with the situation first-hand.”
How do I overcome self doubt? I think about those orangutans that we saw firsthand and how helpless they are, all the people in Kalimantan that suffer as a result of the haze, and the fact that the whole world is impacted by climate change as a result of deforestation.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in New York or Timbuktu, those carbon sinks in Kalimantan matter to you. If that’s not enough to motivate a human with a conscience, what is?
What are some of the ways that you like to learn? (Whether it’s picking up a new skill or finding ways to improve your own lives, relationships or the brand.) Are there any particular habits you’ve picked up that have been effective for you?
Ben: At Green School, we’re more experiential driven learners. We’ve done coral reef conservation classes, gardening classes – things that you do with your hands. That way of learning stays in my head, unlike opening a text book and just memorizing.
“I learn by doing.”
When we first learned about the fires in Borneo from the film ‘Heart of the Haze’ which was presented here in school by the Borneo Nature Foundation, we thought we just had to go and see it first hand.
To actually meet the people there, as well as the indigenous people fighting against the fires, made me want to do something about it, whereas if I just stayed here and watched the film, I would have probably just thought “what am I going to do about it?”
Tim: TRI has offered us a really rich learning experience in so many ways. From every interaction we have, we’re learning something. We learn about conservation, marketing, product development, design. It’s all by doing.
Tim, over the years you’ve been here, and now working in Kul Kul Connection, are there some things that the local community here at Sibang Kaja taught you about yourself that you previously have never realized?
Tim: For me, it’s everything. I came to Bali with a bleeding western heart, thinking, “Look at all these people, they don’t have what I have, and wouldn’t it be nice to help them!”
I’ve been transformed to the point of realizing, “look at all these people around me who have what I can never have.”
Because of the way that I grew up with my biases and my privilege, it became a question of how they can help me to become more humble, grateful and connected to community.
I’ve never learned more precious lessons about being human than I have here in Indonesia.
“It became a question of how they can help me to become more humble, grateful and connected to community.”
Both TRI and Kul Kul Connection certainly require a lot of listening; to various perspectives, stories and ideas. What does it truly mean to listen for you both?
Ben: Of course it’s absolutely important to listen to various perspectives and ideas. Whether its listening to indigenous stories, or from conservationists – when you listen, you learn.
The more I listen, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more confident I become at what I do.
For TRI I have to be a good listener because if I didn’t know anything about my cause, people would call me out on it.
“The more I listen, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more confident I become at what I do.”
Tim: I think I’m at that stage in life where I realize the older I get, the less I know. I’ve always been a good listener, I don’t like to talk too much, and as an introvert I think that can actually be a gift in some ways. I feel more shy to express myself but people feel more comfortable around me to share their knowledge and wisdom. So I take it in as much as I can.
“I think I’m at that stage in life where I realize the older I get, the less I know.”
In terms of TRI, by going into something that you have a very limited knowledge about, it puts you in a good position to be a listener. You have that urgency to understand.
Having said that, I think the human population is less inclined to listen than they are to speak, despite the fact that we have two ears and one mouth.
That’s a challenge wherever you go and it’s a hurdle for sustainability at a time when people really need to hear one another and reach a deeper understanding of how interconnected we are.
“By going into something that you have a very limited knowledge about, it puts you in a good position to be a listener. You have that urgency to understand.”
What do you think is the secret to successful teamwork, especially in an environment with different backgrounds, ethnicities and opinions just as you have in Green School and Kul Kul Connection?
Tim: Google has done a lot of work on this subject, and I’ve directed teams for quite a while. I think my instincts are usually correct in knowing that people want autonomy – whether they’re at the top of the hierarchy or the bottom. They want to feel trusted.
I like to nurture teams where people are trusted to create; to have crappy days, and failures, to never be afraid to share ideas no matter how stupid they think they are.
I also think it’s critical for individuals in teams to nurture their own sense of purpose into their work. It’s something that takes experimentation, patience, and really listening to one another.
“People want autonomy – whether they’re at the top of the hierarchy or the bottom. They want to feel trusted.”
Ben: Of course, as we said just now, listening is an important part of it. In our TRI team, everyone has their chance to speak to be heard about their ideas and opinions. Most of our team are Indonesian women.
My dad is who I work with most of the time for TRI, and being a father-son duo is sometimes not the easiest way to go. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to listen to him, but I have much respect for him, as he’s still my dad so I can still be comfortable around him.
Knowing what you know now, what are some specific steps that businesses here can take to add a social, or environmental component to them?
Ben: It’s important to find passion in the causes you care about, and find a way to link it with whatever you are doing. I’m passionate about wanting to save the forests for the next generations. Finding your passion is the main ingredient.
“It’s important to find passion in the causes you care about, and find a way to link it with whatever you are doing.”
Tim: You don’t have to look far to find a cause. There’s social injustice, environmental degradation – there are issues everywhere you look. You need to look at which issues trigger your compassion and longing to take action. That’s the starting point.
Other than that, you can get behind grassroots projects. The grassroots level is important right now because the climate change crisis will demand all hands on deck to be solved.
We can’t wait for governments and corporations to make responsible decisions. It’s important that local businesses explore locally to see what problems there are to be solved around them, then participate in solutions in a more hands-on way, or, empower local change makers at the grassroots level who are positioned to make a difference but are lacking resources.
“It’s important that local businesses explore locally to see what problems there are to be solved around them.”
What is the one book that you’ve recommended the most to others?
Ben: It’s a book and a movie! The Lorax by Dr Seuss.
We use a quote from the book in TRI presentations – “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, its not.”
It’s a timeless piece.
Tim: One that I’ve recently read and would recommend is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It gives a 200-thousand-year perspective on the history of our species, a very broad context, and narrows it down to what we’re experiencing right now and where we might be going.
The prognosis isn’t great for our species. We’re the first ones ever in billions of years of life to have such an impact on this entire planet.
So, knowing what I know from Sapiens makes me feel inclined to be a bit radical. We have a lot to lose, so why not take action?
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Ben: I guess, to be humble. It’s something that my dad gives to me – to not brag too much and be more self aware.
Tim: A documentary comes to mind called Planetary. I used to watch a five-minute segment of it before bed.
The conclusion of it is this – in order to save our ecosystems and ultimately our species, what we need most is to cultivate a sense of awe of nature.
If we are both individually and collectively awestruck by nature, we will protect it to our final breath.
“If we are both individually and collectively awestruck by nature, we will protect it to our final breath.”
Outside of the work or career ahead of you, what’s one thing that you would love to accomplish in life?
Ben: Maybe own a hamster! (Tim: I knew he was going to say that!) They’re special. They‘re like little dogs and I always thought it was cool how they have the tubes and running wheels in their cages!
Tim: We have an immediate and tangible goal in terms of getting more focused with TRI. The point where it first clicked for Ben when we made our first trip to Kalimantan was when we saw the illegal canals there that were draining the peatlands dry and creating a tinderbox out of the worlds most precious carbon sinks.
We learned from the staff at the Borneo Nature Foundation that if you block the illegal canals, the water rehydrates vast areas of peatlands so they won’t go up in flames.
Orangutans and other critically endangered species get a healthy habitat, millions of people in the region get clean air to breathe, and climate change is mitigated by protecting those peat lands from burning.
It seemed like really critical work to dam those illegal canals. There’s over 4000km of them, so there’s hundreds, if not thousands of dams that need to be built. I just have a picture of TRI playing a significant role in that.
We’ve contributed five dams so far, but we visualize giving hundreds, if not thousands, so we can see that whole ecosystem rehydrated and happy orangutans within it. So we’re asking the world to ‘give a dam’ and join our TRIbe.
If you would like to get in touch with Ben and Tim, you can email them at:
Tim : email@example.com
If you would like to know more about TRI, visit :
Facebook : Tri Upcycle
Instagram : @triupcycle