Sunday, August 29, 2010

Going green and good!

I've always had great admiration for people who take a risk to start something on their own. Leaving behind the cushy safety of a well established job and company to do what we would really like to do is something we put off till "some day", which for many of us never comes. I'm diverting from my usual style and obsession with poking fun at Sid to do a series of "interviews", as and when the opportunity arises,with friends and acquaintances who have taken the plunge to get involved in some really interesting work.

The first of these is with Aparna Bhatnagar, who lived in the same hostel with me in Delhi during our college days.  With impressive academic and professional credentials, Aparna chose to leave her cushy corporate life and start the Green and Good Store, promoting responsible and environmentally friendly shopping with a range of great products. As I did a piece earlier on becoming more aware of the environment and making smarter choices, I thought this would be a great continuation with some inspiration and advice from Aparna.  



Question: How did the idea of the "Green and Good Store" occur to you?

During my work at companies such as Citibank and Dun and Bradstreet, I realized that there were many people like me who wanted to contribute to society and the environment but found it difficult to take time out from work and family pressures. Since most of us were generally short on time, volunteering regularly with NGOs was difficult. I felt that there was need to find a way of making an impact with actions that we took as part of everyday life. In the mean time from my volunteering experience with NGOs, I realised that there were many NGOs that made amazing, high quality products and the sale of these products was an important source of fundraising and awareness generation for them. However, they found it very difficult to reach people due to financial and geographical constraints. And people like me, who would have appreciated these products, had no way of finding them and their products. I felt that by incorporating these products, that had a good social impact, into our daily lives we could make a difference with small little actions all the time! We any way buy things we need and often things we don’t need, if we could just substitute some of these with alternatives that supported or generated employment for the disabled or marginalised, we could do so much good!
I began with trying to change the way I lived, the way I shopped. It was tough as there was little information on what these products were, their impact and where I could find them. A few products that were available were available only in a few select stores and often at exorbitant prices. There was no single place where I could get a good range of such products at reasonable prices. Therefore, in mid 2008 I decided to quit my job and start a store that made it possible for people to live sustainably and make an impact, socially and environmentally, as part of everyday life. We chose to start an online store because firstly it gives you great geographical reach and secondly this is one channel that NGOs, artisans and a lot of green entrepreneurs find difficult to leverage. Another promising thing about internet is the way you can communicate with people, the way you can narrate the story behind products and actually reach the people who care. Also, it’s green! We don’t waste energy on lighting or air conditioning and since we are hosted on a green server and we can really keep our carbon footprint very low.

Question: Just for the benefit of some of us novices, what makes a product green. Is it like the 5% atta in a wheat flour mix allowing food brands to title their products "whole wheat" or "natural" or is there some sort of universally accepted benchmark?

Great question Reem! There’s so much of passing off everything under green that people are getting really mislead and confused.

To understand what “Green” is, we need to look at the product’s life cycle. Right from what goes into it to how it’s made to its usage to its disposal. A product needs to be green all along its life for it to rightfully claim the “green “status. Also we need to consider the policies of the companies making them, do they pollute in other countries? For example Styrofoam is banned in many countries but the same company happily uses it in others or the company follows legal restrictions in developed countries but pollutes in the developing countries.

So importantly look at
1.     Source – what are the ingredients? How were they obtained/grown? Did that destroy or pollute the environment? How did it impact people and animal? Look at what has gone into it. You could also look at where the ingredients come from. For example the recent Nestle issue of palm oil being sourced from a company (Sinar Mas) that was destroying Indonesia’s forests.

Block printing
2.     Manufacturing Process – what happened during the manufacturing of this product? What was the impact on soil, air, water and people who made them or lived near the place they were made? Was there animal testing or cruelty? Even something perceived harmless such as “Pure Cotton” can severely pollute the soil as its farming is highly synthetic fertiliser and pesticide intensive. Farmers who grow regular cotton are 6 times at more risk on getting cancer. Ground water in these areas is heavily polluted. Soil fertility declines with excessive use of these chemicals while pests just get more resistant. Compare organic cotton in contrast. No synthetic chemicals are used and farmers use traditional and natural methods of pest control and crop growth. Ground water is safer and people are not exposed to harmful chemicals either!

3.     Distribution – How does it reach you? How energy intensive is the distribution? A locally produced version is likely to be greener on this aspect. How is it stocked? How is it packaged? For example  bottled water – does it make sense to pack something that you consume in 10 minutes in something that will last for thousands of years but is thrown away after single use! Isn’t it much better to carry your own water in a flask that you will buy once and use for years for so many things!

4.     Use – What happens to the soil, water, air and people when they use this product? Are there any toxins or harmful chemicals that are released or come in contact with the user? For example detergents that claim stronger than ever before, what’s their environmental footprint? Is there a simpler natural way to wash our clothes?

5.     Disposal: How will this product be disposed? Can it be reused or recycled? Does it biodegrade? Does it release harmful chemicals that can pollute the environment and create problems for people or animals? Will it pollute ground water or create mountains of garbage that will just stay forever!


Question: You've got some impressive credentials - both academic and professional - it's not easy to choose to be in what can be perceived as a less lucrative (financially) initiative.  Is it that easy to put all that aside and plunge into something like this?

Thank you Reem! Well after DSE I worked in an NGO called Seva Mandir for a year. That was the turning point in life for me. Till then I was interested in social and environmental issues but never thought of taking it up as a profession. I always thought that social workers and environmentalists were people who wore khadi and roamed around with Jholas J!  When I went to Seva Mandir, I got to work in remote villages of Rajasthan and meet a lot of people who were doing incredible work for the society and environment with hardly the right financial compensation. It was inspiring to work with them. The people of the villages taught me several things too, their affection and the knack of finding joy in simple things despite a difficult life was very humbling. The most important thing that I learnt there was that you don’t need money to be happy and doing what you love will make you happy and content with whatever you earn. This proved very helpful when I wanted to leave my well paying job.

Artisans making cruelty free leather products(animals that die a
natural death)
From Seva Mandir I went to IIMA with the objective of learning to manage socially oriented organisations, so that one day I could start something of my own. After IIMA I got placed with ICICI in microfinance, but later switched to Citibank and Dun and Bradstreet into regular business roles. Although, I kept volunteering in my spare time to pursue my interest in development I had tasted blood, as they say, with my Seva Mandir experience and knew I had to get back to the sector.  And that made me question myself on what was I waiting for? Good salary and a secure comfy life does make it tough to give it all up but I felt that if I didn’t just jump into doing what I loved full time I would lose the fire and settle down into a regular lifestyle where I would have every material comfort but no meaning and purpose in life and I decided to quit by my 30th birthday  no matter what.. and that’s what I did..Closed my ears to all the external voices and just jumped in!


Question: Do you feel that there is a strong enough market for your products? If you ask most people, the "green-ness" of a product/brand is not what really motivates them to buy it. If something they're already buying also happens to be "green", it's a plus but it's not something that draws them to a product initially.

You’re absolutely right. It’s a truth that for you and me to part with our hard earned cash the product has to meet our needs first. We have to like it and want it if we’re going to buy it. But this is also true that many times liking and wanting a product is created by advertising, marketing which influences our perception of it.  Unfortunately, and often deliberately we don’t have enough information about how un-green (if there’s a word like that!) a product is. We assume that if it’s in the market and selling well and approved to be sold it must be safe and okay. We also underestimate the difference our purchase decision can make to how businesses treat environment and people.

And also we do not have information on reasonably priced, equally great green and good alternatives and where to find them.

We feel that once people start knowing the stories behind the products, they start making better choices. It’s a slow process where this concept grows on you and you do start looking for alternatives to more things…I started that way.

Cushion covers made by tribal women in Udaipur
So what we want to do is talk about our products, talk about their impact and how they are better than conventional products. We don’t want people to compromise on style or quality …we want to offer people products that are superior on all aspects. We want to make it possible for people to lead a great lifestyle while being sustainable.


Question:Going green is becoming fashionable among a select few - it's sort of how fashion first shows up on the ramps of Milan or Paris, then filters from the luxury designers into mass department stores and then finally into even more accessible street markets.  Do you feel green brands will go through the same sort of process or will they retain their niche-ness? 

The amazing thing is that unlike high fashion some of the greenest people are ones who have the least! In many ways its going upwards! From the absolutely have-nots to the haves, from the developing countries to the developed, from then to now!

This is because of what we have perceived as definition of being developed. It’s a lot like Avatar- the movie. Imagine if the Humans were to start adopting some of the tribe’s values! Greening is almost like relearning a lot of what we knew once! Respecting nature, maintaining a balance where you take from nature as much as you are able to replace or it is able to sustain without disturbing the delicate balance and caring for other members of your community so that everyone is happy!

I do think responsible products will increase in spread and reach, and we will have many more sustainable products that will be introduced in the future. Businesses will have to reconsider the way the function. The sustainability movement will have to be really broad based if the challenges like climate change have to be addressed. Moreover Govts will get stricter on how things are made. You can already see signs of that.

Question: Tell me a little more about your products? How green and good are they? How do you source them and how does your business model benefit the artisans/makers of these products

The key concept behind the store is that of “responsible consumerism”. At the green and good store, we want to make it possible for people to switch to alternatives that are truly sustainable. We want to make it possible for people to make a difference as part of everyday life by a choice as simple as what they buy.

Handmade natural beeswax candles
We believe that it is important to look at not just green but the complete picture of sustainability. Green is just one aspect of sustainability. The other aspects are social impact, economic inclusion and protection of traditional knowledge. There are interlinkages between all 4 aspects and true sustainability happens when we look at all four aspects while making a purchase.

We are very careful in our product and partner selection. We source many of our products from NGOs that work on issues related to social empowerment and with the underprivileged. The important thing to note is that these products are of excellent quality and much safer for the environment and consumers!  Others are sourced directly from artisans, green entrepreneurs

For example, we have products from Sadhna, an Udaipur based NGO that provides training and livelihood to tribal women artisans. The women are trained in various skills from embroidery, stitching, quality control, design and marketing and make really beautiful apparel, stoles, bags and home furnishings! Today there has been a noticeable change in the lives of these women artisans, who once were not even exposed to their own villages today are confident enough to make their own decisions in the family as well as at various other policy levels in their villages and are the bread winners in the family. Economic empowerment to them has meant a lot in terms of generating marked differences in their levels of survival and their wakefulness towards education, healthcare, economic status and family life

Another great product on our store is natural beeswax candles made by our partner Crawford Market that provides employment to underprivileged women from Dharavi. The Beeswax helps farmers in Maharashtra supplement their farm incomes. Besides having the several benefits of natural beeswax, these candles are environment friendly and have got great reviews from our customers who have used them!

During Holi we had introduced Natural Holi colours on our store from the Society for Child Development that works with intellectually challenged young adults in Delhi. These colours were made from flowers collected from temples and hotels around Delhi that would have otherwise polluted the Yamuna. These colours provided an opportunity for intellectually challenged adults to be financially independent, saved the Yamuna from pollution and were absolutely safe for people! Our customers loved the natural fragrance and feel of these chemical free colours!

We are also coming up with some interesting Rakhi offers on our store where Rakhee thaalis made by Vocational training centre of Umang will be put on sale. Umang is a Jaipur based NGO that works towards rehabilitation of individuals with disabilities.

We also have excellent quality apparel for men; women and kids from GOTS certified Organic Cotton Brand ‘Zeme Organics’.  

In case of traditional knowledge, we work with local artisan communities to help them retain their art and knowledge because it is closely linked to the preservation of ecosystem. For example, the Kavads on our store are now made by only 7-8 families living in a tiny town of Bassi. These artisans use Neem wood for making their handicraft. However, they have strict rules about when and how much of the wood can be taken. For example, trees are not cut during the flowering season and can be cut only during a particular time frame in a way that allows for its regrowth. In a way they protect mindless destruction of forests or ecosystem. They also have been allotted 200 acres of land where they practice sustainable forestry. When traditional crafts are preserved, the knowledge attached to them is preserved which contains rules and guidelines for preserving natural resources on which the art or craft itself depends. When the craft dies, this link is broken and people lose interest in sustaining ecosystems that had sustained them for ages.

Question: What are your future plans for the Green and Good store?

Lots of plans! We will be introducing many new products and new features on the store. Keep watching www.greenandgoodstore.com

Question: How about sharing some tips on responsible shopping or putting "green and good" context for some of the readers :)


Hand crafted blue pottery vase
·         The first principle of being a responsible consumer is something that all our moms told us…buy only what you really need. Hoarding goods doesn’t make you happy is only fills up your home with stuff you don’t need.  And whenever you buy it make sure that it is sustainable and does good to the planet and people who are involved. There are tons of tips but here are a few.

·         Take your own bag when you go shopping.

·         Choose products that have fewer chemicals – prefer organically grown products

·         Buy products with less packaging – refuse packaging if you can.

·         Shop online! It saves energy.. we don’t have to keep ACs and lights on all day.. and we are hosted on a green server..

·         Buy hand made products – they are less energy intensive, encourage a skill and give u a truly unique product
·         Buy from organisations you trust have paid a proper wage to their employees.
·         Buy from NGOs when you can, the money goes to the artisan and profits sustain provision of social services.
·         Prefer handmade paper it saves trees and does not pollute as much.
·         Carry your own water – avoid bottled water
·         Try products that are not cruel to animals  - like cruelty free leather or Ahimsa silk
·         Absolutely NO to products tested on animal
·         Look for certifications
·         Arm yourself with information - Read up on green issues, certifications, responsible consumerism organic farming, fair trade.. being green and good is about being aware and shopping intelligently.


2 comments:

Mann Sahib said...

Hey Reem, very informative one I must say. Here's another gentleman I know who's been doing some great work:
http://chuppitodo-childsexualabuse.blogspot.com/

Let me know if you plan on doing a series of interviews, will hook you up with him.

Reem said...

Hey Shamsher, thanks, though this time I really just facilitated the information flow...all Aparna's work! Yes always interested in finding out more about peopple who've branched out and are working on various projects - wouldn't mind getting in touch with the person you are referring to.