Wealth and Health and Wellbeing and Profits

Parag, our Manager of Health, Wellbeing and Climate Products, recently attended the Global Wellness Summit in Singapore. Below he gives his account of the summit…

The Global Wellness Summit, held in Singapore, was an interesting outing for this writer. For several reasons. When you’re more used to schlepping down to university campuses for a gabfest with the same 200-500 nerds with whom you’ve worked most of your career, stepping into a gathering from a different industry is an experience. In some ways, I was certainly out of my depth. In other ways, the reaction when I told people what we do was gratifying. Whether they actually go home and spend money on measuring and cleaning the air in their communities, homes, and workplaces is a different matter of course.

Wellness is a big tent. And this was evident from the spread of attendees and their conversations. By and large, the crowd was energised and receptive to new ideas. They embraced gong baths as readily as discussions of public policy on mental health. Okay, maybe the gong baths were more popular. For yours truly, the abundance of vegetarian food and fresh fruit was a pleasant surprise. The schedule was not too packed, though some plenaries and breakout sessions could have benefited from a bit more oversight.

Interestingly, while the money was clearly coming from the global north and much of the conversation was directed towards reinventing or reinvigorating your average granola bar aficionado, there were a fair few representatives from wellness businesses in developing countries. At this point, the reader, and the author, are probably tempted to collectively roll our eyes. Eyes that, having grown up in a spa-friendly part of the world, are a wee bit sceptical about new-age notions of “finding oneself” in what are apparently the more spiritual parts of the world. However, even a sceptic such as yours truly cannot deny the attraction of a tasteful resort in the Himalayas or the Vietnamese jungle. Many of these establishments are catering to a certain kind of traveller and while it may sometimes be tasteless or artificial, what they do isn’t usually illegal or unethical, so it’s not perhaps different from yours truly travelling to York for a spot of ye olde England. Substitute Yorkshire pudding for self-harvested gourds.

From an unscientific sample of attendees, i.e., the people I spoke to, it seemed that the summit was dominated by the leisure and spa industries. People flogging wellness as a ‘retreat’, away from the hustle, bustle, pollution, stress and bad dietary choices of everyday life. That was an important realisation for me – reinforced by some of the speakers – that the summit was focussed on a sort of ‘clinical’ view of wellness. Go somewhere, eat something, follow some program. The organisers themselves acknowledged this in describing how they settled on their ‘wellness moon-shot’: a world free from preventable diseases. That was one thing everybody could agree on – guest lecturer and delegate – but not much else. For everything else, you need a subscription.

There were, however, interesting sessions on things such as wellness retail and wellness architecture, and I was pleasantly surprised by how substantive were the discussions in many of the breakout sessions. A former surgeon general of the United States spoke about the economic impact of preventative health measures. A professor emeritus from Italy spoke about the impact of lifestyle stress and pollution on foetal stress. A measured and critical yet sympathetic response to a question about Goop was probably the highlight of the conference for me. There was genuine concern about the impact of modern living conditions on human health, physical and mental. Could I have done with fewer talks that were clearly business pitches? Yes.

It was difficult, however, to escape the feeling that this was very much about wellness for the 1%. To be able to pay this much money for registration and travel halfway across the world, one needs margin or volume, preferably both. The summit would doubtless benefit from finding sponsorship money to increase the diversity of voices from frontline workers. And maybe paying lab rats from innovative Glaswegian start-ups to enjoy an exquisite vegetarian buffet or two.