By Garima Bora
Sustainability has gained a lot more importance and attention than it did some decades ago. With the effects of climate change becoming more obvious, being sustainable has started to become more of a norm than just a lifestyle. However, it is easy to forget that our lifestyle has such practices.
Mothers are often said to be the most sustainable people on earth. From managing leftover food and household waste to recycling clothes, women are the leaders of running a sustainable lifestyle.
Anika Parashar, founder and CEO, The Woman’s Company, explains that as women have been running homes for generations, they are aware of all kinds of problems from health to household. “Women are the ones who primarily make the choices as to what food, toys, shampoos are coming to the house, and they want these products to be eco-friendly and long lasting and something that doesn’t compromise the health of others,” she says.
Today, as women are getting empowered in every step, many of them have brought this thought process into businesses.
According to a study by the National Sample Survey Organisation, 14% of businesses in India are run by women. And a lot of them are driving the sustainability agenda in various sectors such as textiles, cosmetics, healthcare, and food and beverages. Companies such as Carmesi, Clan Earth, The Woman’s Company and Ruby Organics, which make organic, eco-friendly, and sustainable products, are run by women in India.
It is not just cosmetics and textiles where women entrepreneurs are working with eco-friendly operations. Women have even founded and are running companies that help in making green buildings by using agri-products.
One such entity is New Delhi-based Strawcture, which Shriti Pandey set up in 2018. A civil engineer, Pandey finished her masters in construction engineering from New York University in 2016 and worked as a project manager for a corporate consultancy in the construction space. She quit her job for a rural fellowship in India and this became an “inflexion point” in her life. “I saw stubble burning happening in a tribal village of Madhya Pradesh. I realised that even though most people are aware of the problems of stubble burning, no one was really keen to find a solution,” she says.
Apart from causing pollution, it also reduces productivity for farmers for the subsequent season as the tillers who have resorted to stubble burning would need more input to get at least the same amount of output. But no one was looking at it from that angle, she says. “That’s when I thought that the only way a farmer would not burn it was if you do value addition to it, where you pay them for it. That is when they have an incentive to not burn stubble and have the resources to collect it and, say, give it to an entity for processing.”
Running a firm that is not part of the conventional system isn’t easy, and it gets more difficult in a sector like construction.
She put her engineering brain to work on the problem and realised that stubble can be used to construct buildings. This led her to create Strawcture in June 2018 to manufacture bio-panels where 90% of the input is straw (agri waste). These biopanels do the job of bricks in construction. Today, Strawcture sells its products to entities in more than 11 states. Key clients are in healthcare, educational institutes and office spaces.
Path of obstacles
Parashar of The Woman’s Company points out that one of key challenges as an entrepreneur in this sector is the price point. Creating eco-friendly, sustainable products require better ingredients, more time to prepare and a totally different manufacturing mechanism. This makes the process more expensive and so the product is also priced higher. “The products we create are long lasting and free of toxins and plastic. But it can sometimes get hard to convince customers the reason behind the high price points,” she says. The company produces personal hygiene products that are free of chemical and safe for the environment.
One way manufacturing costs can come down is by widespread adoption of the product concerned. But the high price of these products discourages people from using them.
Deepthi Ravula, CEO of WE HUB, a startup incubator for women entrepreneurs, points out that in sustainable-product manufacturing, everything is expensive — raw materials, technology, machinery. A behaviour change is required. “Even though there has been a growing awareness about sustainable lifestyle, entrepreneurs face a challenge: people are not aware of the sustainable issues and how it will directly impact them. Thus, any sustainable product or solution is regarded as an extra utility and not a necessity,” she says.
For Strawcture’s Pandey, mixing sustainability with the practices used in an old industry such as construction brings a whole different type of challenge. Construction has not seen a lot of innovation in building blocks, and nothing around sustainability. The last innovation that happened was “literally cement”, she says, not just for India but globally. “So, people are not used to changing a lot in this system. You’re used to certain materials and the way houses and buildings have been built for generations. It is a much bigger ask, both emotionally and financially, for a customer to change behaviour. It’s definitely a much harder industry to innovate and bring in and create new products,” she says.
It can be a long and painful process. Getting an architect to convert to using sustainable products can itself take two to three months. “This will get you a trial order as they want to try it out before giving you a full-blown project. Testing takes time in our space. Even if you’ve gotten a product tested, people are suspicious. They would say things like ‘if you build a structure during monsoon, I’m gonna wait till the winter to see if it works or not’. So the discussion period is much longer in our space,” she explains.
However, sheer hard work and persistence have helped people like Pandey bring in some changes in customer behaviour. More architects have also started seeing value in sustainability. Besides, there is growing awareness among consumers nowadays.
Ravula says people have become more interested in following sustainable practices and living. “They expect businesses to play a positive role in society and feel that when it comes to driving a positive change, companies or firms bear as much responsibility as governments. We are seeing a rising number of consumers opting for sustainable products. Consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact,” she says.
Such trends have made Pandey and Ravula believe that the future can be bright.
Pandey says she will be happy to see more startups and firms embracing sustainable materials and agri products such as hemp as building blocks. There should also be more clean, non-toxic paints.
India’s climate policies have consistently aimed at fostering green growth, with the development of green businesses being a focus area, Ravula points out. “India is better positioned than ever to become a model of corporate sustainability for the rest of the world,” she adds.