People, Profit and the Planet: Solutions for Ecological Coexistence

A conversation about social entrepreneurship helping revive humanity’s connect with nature through eco product design and collaboration

LILA: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and eCoexist, the organisation you have founded. How did this organisation come to be?

Manisha Gutman: eCoexist was established in 2006 to create a commercial channel for the natural Holi colours being made by women farmers in Karnataka. During my time as a member of the Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, I had initiated the Safe Festivals campaign, which led to the design and production of totally natural colours for Holi. This was done along with Vanastree, an NGO based in Sirsi, Karnataka. They needed our help to market the colours and therefore I set up eCoexist to handle the commercial side of this work. Over the next eight years we worked with the women and developed a robust brand of natural colours called Rang Dulaar. The next year in 2007, we also started the Eco Ganesh idols project and then in 2010 the cloth bags work began.

LILA: Even though eCoexist’s mission is not driven solely by profit, your organisation is set up as a social enterprise. What motivated you to revive the idea and practices of ecological coexistence through an entrepreneurial project?

Manisha Gutman: While at Kalpavriksh, I was trained in the aspects of research, education and advocacy for environmental issues. However, being a designer and a trained architect, my heart lay in creating solutions. I also realised that unless we were willing to confront the realities of the market economy, natural alternatives would never become mainstream. Although we spoke a lot about livelihoods in the NGO sector, cash income was generated by market transactions. I wanted to create a business that would respect mutual sharing of resources as much as the value generated by cash transactions. To do this, we had to create an enterprise that could handle both.

While we have not been afraid to enter into a business, we have also consistently questioned the ethics of business and moved towards equitable and transparent fair trade.  We have straddled the two worlds of business and charity simultaneously, keeping overheads to a minimum and ensuring that empowerment happens in more ways than financial empowerment. eCoexist has worked with a range of vulnerable groups – from prisoners, to people with special needs, women farmers and self help groups. We take ownership of both ecological and social injustices and this is the entrepreneurial space we choose to inhabit.

LILA: The popular understanding of demand and supply has often privileged the price of a good over its utility, that is the satisfaction or value a consumer gets from consuming a certain good. Since eco-friendly products are often more expensive than their common counterparts, how have you gone about creating a market for eCoexist’s products?

Manisha Gutman: We believe that the satisfaction that a consumer arrives at is not only linked to the utility of the product they are using, but to the meaning that product can bring to their lives. Our work and dialogue has been primarily with consumers as we have attempted to understand consumer choices from the deep inner need to consume. To enable ‘conscious’ consumption, this inner need has to be examined and we help the consumer to do this.

For e.g. when devotees come to us to buy Ganesh idols, we ask them if they are aware of why they are conducting the ritual worship. We ask them if they know about the impact their rituals have on the environment and whether they would be willing to make a change in their choices if they knew that it would save marine life. After such a dialogue, the consumer sees the need to make a shift and is willing to spend that extra buck for an eco friendly item. For those that cannot afford to buy our products, we have given DIY solutions and taught them how to make their own items. For the very poor we have invited corporates to make donations to enable them to shift. In this way our engagement with consumers goes way beyond simply convincing them to buy our products.

Eventually, if a consumer truly starts to reuse the cloth bags she buys from us, she will not need to come back for more. The driving force of our marketing strategies is long-term environmental change, and we invite each consumer to take ownership of this change.  When this consciousness arrives, it brings the consumer a much deeper sense of value and satisfaction.

Rice Ganesha, part of the eco-Ganesha idol project

LILA: What insights has this provided you into understanding consumer behaviour and the possibility of changing attitudes that lead to a sustainable future?

Manisha Gutman: Each one of us is a consumer and in the same vein, each one of us will suffer the consequences of our collective consumption. The rich may be protected from the aftermath of natural disasters slightly longer than the poor, but none will be spared ultimately. To understand consumer behaviour, we have to understand our own behaviour, what motivates our choices and where is the source of resistance to change. What I can see and change within me, I can show and help others to change in themselves. It took me a fairly long time to change the household to stop using plastic bags altogether – I faced resistance from elders and from staff and it would create friction between us. I worked out easy solutions for them and kept reminding them again and again until everyone of us took the cause to heart. When we had done it ourselves, we offered these ideas to our consumers too. Having understood and lived through the bottlenecks we were patient with the resistance we faced from consumers. And so we need to lead by example. When we find that a change is difficult or slower in ourselves, we can be compassionate with others as they struggle to make the same change.

In all our campaigns, we have never used guilt as a factor to motivate change. We believe that long term and deep inner change can only come from love as it requires perseverance and faith.  We are here for the long haul and therefore our work progresses slowly. For those who would like to invest in our work, they need to be prepared to wait for decades before seeing results. Our cloth bags campaign began in 2010 and ten years later the government of Maharashtra has finally banned plastic bags.

LILA: Can you tell us more about your interactions with investors? In a world where everybody wants immediate results, or are too constrained to invest in long-term, habit-changing enterprises, how have you gone about finding and building relationships with investors?

Manisha Gutman: eCoexist began with a humble sum of Rs 1 lakh which was loaned to me by family. I returned the money to my parents as soon as I could , but my sister insisted that she wanted to stay invested in the firm as she had a deep faith in my vision. In the past thirteen years we have not taken any other investments from anyone , although several people have offered us resources in kind – we received furniture, equipment and mentoring from experts for free. We raised funds for the groups we were working with, and ensured that these funds went directly to them for the causes we were working on. My partner Lolita offered her time and commitment to eCoexist without any expectation of return for six years and in 2013 she became a partner in the firm. My sister Natalie, left her funds with us allowing us to continue to use it as working capital. We have always hesitated to take money from funding agencies or other investors because of the strings attached and the expectations they have from us.

We have been looking for investors who understand that the process of changing mindsets is a long term process that may last over generations and that they cannot have the same measures of impact assessment as they do for other startups. Until we found such investors we did not want to take funding. While some feel that this has slowed down our growth we have been at ease with the pace we have moved with.

So many people have invested in us over the past thirteen years – they have invested their faith, their time and their resources to us. Consumers have invested their loyalty to us. The lack of monetary investment has not stopped us from doing what we wanted to do as help has poured in from all directions. Money is only one tool to achievement and even within limited funds we have achieved a lot.

While communicating our vision to friends and networks, we are now finding the kind of investors we are looking for and the company is growing to include them. These funds come with no strings attached, and no timeline for fulfilment. The application of funds will be done with the funders participation, who being a financial expert, will also help us grow our resources. We will have the engagement from the funder that we wanted along with his financial help. This is how we have approached the topic of investment. Those who invest, invest in us and our vision.

LILA: Often the consumers for such products turn out to be people belonging to wealthier backgrounds, and hence are fewer in number. However, the bulk of harmful material usage comes from sections of the society that cannot afford better, environmentally safe products. Is there a way to address this concern of accessibility? How could we do this?

Manisha Gutman: It is a fallacy that the poor pollute more than the rich. The individual consumption of the richer sections of society is way more harmful than that of the poor. Also, the rich set trends and standards that the poor aspire for.

In the costing of a particular product, we have found that if one were to truly take all the costs involved in the mainstream way of doing things, it would become unaffordable for anyone in the end. This is because the costs of pollution to nature have never been factored into costing. Nature has been subsidising all our consumption for years and we are reaching the limits of what is ecologically safe.

While keeping this in mind, we look for ways to balance out the divide between our clientele. We have offered DIY solutions, and we also routinely give out a proportion of our products for free to those who make a request. We also run schemes where the more affording might be able to pay for a less affording group to use the same products.

We have been delighted to see clients from lower economic classes also coming to us to ask for eco products as they become more conscious – when we receive such people we try to offer them solutions within their budgets.

LILA: On the production side also, eco-friendly products often require a different set of skills, raw materials, and production processes. Since artisans also have to spend more time creating such products, the fear of lower returns becomes a reason for them to opt for more mainstream production processes and businesses. Can you tell us about your engagement with the artisans that make eCoexist products, as well as the production processes they use? How do you find a balance between fair price and market demand?

Manisha Gutman: Over the past thirteen years, we have also been deeply engaged with producer groups keeping all our negotiations open and transparent. The raw materials and the hand-made processes are often more expensive, fragile and time consuming than industrial processes. In each product line, the challenges faced by the producer groups differ and have to be understood carefully through discussions. For e.g. in the case of the Ganesh idols, the damages incurred in clay idols are much higher than Plaster of Paris idols and this was the main concern for artisans. We offered to buffer their losses and ensure that they get the price that they ask for. Simultaneously, we also analyse their processes and see where their costs can be reduced.

When we first began with them, they did not believe that we would be able to create a market for eco Ganeshas but 12 years later, more and more artisans are asking to work with us and willing to move into biodegradable materials.

As the market demand grows, we have competitors who arrive trying to replicate our efforts. While there are many who are only in it for the money, we are planning to pick out the more authentic ones and invite them to work alongside us. As more and more people supply the eco products hopefully the price of the products can be reduced. Also if the government starts to provide subsidies for natural biodegradable and recyclable materials, rather than subsidising toxic chemicals this would help the market for eco products even more.

LILA: The problem of waste is becoming one of the most pressing concerns of urbanisation, as we have not been able to create effective systems for its management and disposal. However, when we go deeper into the problem, we realise that it is not so much about the management of waste as it is about the material included in our waste that leads to pollution. As these problems move closer to our backyards, do you see a more conscious society evolving, which understands consumption and waste in a more sustainable way?

Manisha Gutman: In my city, Pune, I am amazed at the level of awareness that has grown over the years I have been here. Waste is now segregated at source. In our neighbourhood, we have absolutely no open dumping of garbage, and a citizen’s group actively monitors the neighbourhood. We have several private recyclers that collect e-waste regularly from the public park in our vicinity and the local officials are closely supportive of all the citizens’ efforts.

I truly believe that Indians are intelligent and conscious and when they come together under the right leadership, they can make amazing progress.

The management of waste starts with me – with what I put into my dustbin and what I choose to keep out of it and use again and again. It then goes to the women who pick up my garbage and how they manage it and finally to the municipal corporation and the systems they have put into place. We are all part of the ‘waste management’ system.

Children are now slowly being taught that the waste they generate is ‘their’ waste. And the people who help them dispose of it are doing them a favour. This awareness when it filters down to the last person will change the way we, as a society, approach our own waste. eCoexist has worked on several projects closely with Swach, a large cooperative of rag pickers in our city that has done path breaking work in waste management. These projects have addressed both the material of the waste as well as the issues of the women who are handling it for us.

eCoexist upcycles egg crates into a string of lights

LILA: How does eCoexist conceptualise and engage with the idea of waste, and circular economy? Can you tell us about your project with Swach?

Manisha Gutman: We started working with Swach immediately after eCoexist was set up. Because of the stigma around waste, the rag pickers were treated very badly. Swach’s main intention was to improve the status of these women. This issue was also very dear to my heart. Secondly, Swach also wanted to ensure that the next generation of rag pickers don’t have to do the same work as their parents. So they would periodically approach us to design products that these women could make, in order to gradually wean them off rag picking. This was a little tricky, because though the rag pickers were paid poorly for the work they did, they played a very important role. And secondly, we also found that when the women go out to pick through waste, they are free; there’s no one breathing down their neck, which they prefer to some extent over sitting down in one place and making things with their hands. So over the years we tried to overcome this challenge by teaching them how to make products from waste – like making pichkaris [water guns] for holi out of waste bottles; envelopes for sanitary pads; etc.  That was also the time eCoexist was working on waste management on the Ghats after Ganesh Chaturthi. So we tied up with Swach to bring these women in and work on waste segregation on the Ghats, as well as teach the devotees to do it. That project was right up their alley, and turned out to be a success. Once the women were trained and there was no role for eCoexist to play, we stepped out and Swach continued their work. So in this way we have done many projects with Swach through the years.

The challenge in all this, as I was saying earlier, is that the rag pickers do have an important role to play, but people don’t respect them. The waste that people themselves should be segregating is dumped on them, and then they don’t want to pay for it. So naturally rag pickers don’t want their children to be doing such work. But there is a larger question in this – of how mechanised vs labour intensive systems you want. I believe that the more money I can put into people’s hands, the better. I would rather not mechanise things, especially in a country as largely populated as ours. Labour-intensive processes with minimal mechanisation are good for an equitable distribution of wealth; otherwise money ends up going only to a few pockets. This is also a general principle that we at eCoexist try to follow.

In many countries they have managed to mechanise most of the waste segregation process, but what that does is, it takes the onus off the consumers. But if you have a labour intensive process, even the consumer gets involved in it. If you insist that the consumer must segregate at source, then you are also saying that everybody needs to think about what they are throwing away. Also, when you mechanise things, there is no intelligence in the process; the intelligence only comes in the design of the machine. But beyond that the machine is not really able to sort through the materials. Some of these things really worry me. Like metal, sanitary waste, glass, battery and other toxic waste – all this often injures or harms the rag pickers. So at eCoexist, we often think about ways to design a bin with a magnet that can segregate the metal waste. Similarly, in our neighbourhood we have separate e-waste collection. But we still don’t have a system to manage other such waste, like batteries, glass, etc. So there are pros and cons to both.But before we think about mechanising, these are the things we need to figure out.

In a country with a large population, surely processes need to be mechanised to some extent, but people should also respect labour more.

LILA: You have also started an initiative called Beauty of Recycling. How does that take these ideas forward?

Manisha Gutman: We began the Beauty of Recycling campaign in 2010 when we had our first exhibition at the Fab India store in Pune. The aim of the campaign was to highlight the financial and aesthetic potential of waste. In 2010, when we looked for groups designing products out of waste we were able to locate only six groups in the whole country who came to exhibit their work. The Beauty of Recycling festival became an annual event for the next five years and grew into a seven-day mela [fair] where we used all kinds of media to show that recycling could be financially profitable as well as beautiful. Product design, fashion, music, theatre, art installations, storytelling were all part of this festival. Five years later in 2015 we were happy to find nearly 29 product designers coming to Pune for the event. At this point we realised that the awareness had grown and we were now ready to make our own products.

Under the Green Idea grant offered by the Environment Department, eCoexist did a year long exploration in the design of products from three waste materials that had no resale value – namely very thin plastic bags, thermocol packaging waste and metalised film food packaging such as Lays crackers packets etc. Along with Studio Alternatives, we designed three products from these that could easily be made by someone with a low level of skill. The intention was to add value to the materials so that people would collect these and know how to reuse them – either for their own use or for sale in the markets. From these three experiments, the insulation panels we made from thermocol packaging using waste cement bags was our most intelligent and applicable design. A pilot production was done and experimental ceilings made for municipal schools that run in tin sheds. This project is now waiting for funding to take it forward.

During this period, our own understanding of recycling has also evolved. We now feel that recycling can easily become an excuse for people to continue to produce and use non-biodegradable materials wastefully. We feel now, that the focus has to be on reduction and reuse, much more than on recycling. While the idea of a circular economy is inspiring, in nature, circularity is achieved with biodegradability. Man-made materials that don’t biodegrade are very difficult to recycle a hundred percent.

To achieve the level of circularity that Nature has we need to revisit the very materials we are using.

Even so, the quantum of waste generated by each individual also has to be reduced whether recyclable or not.

LILA: The interconnections between all our activities are becoming increasingly evident as we acknowledge and live through the anthropocene. How do you think different fields of thought and action can come together in such a scenario? What other avenues do you see eCoexist entering, for instance, beyond the products you have already created?

Manisha Gutman: eCoexist has been a thought leader in the space of eco product and design for the past thirteen years. The campaigns we have chosen to work on have brought us a rich and deep understanding of the interconnectivity of all things and our effort has been to evolve holistic solutions that encompass the triple bottom-line of people, profit and the planet.

However, the severity of the crisis now needs us, as a species, to go deeper and make some more fundamental changes to the way we see humanity’s place in the ecosystem. To do this, we will need to ask some hard-hitting questions and be willing to give up some of the things that create a false sense of security. This is an internal process of reviving an inner consciousness that will possibly threaten a lot of the current paradigm and may lead to conflicts before we settle into a new way of being.

In anticipation of these processes, eCoexist would like to chart out a path for this inner shift to happen within people. To enable this process of questioning and show people that some of our fears are imaginary. To revive an internal connect with Nature even for those that are stuck in urban habitats.

Towards this, eCoexist has already started hosting multi disciplinary dialogues between groups of professionals. We are entering into collaborations with similar networks in India and abroad. We are working on developing a course on Ecology and Consciousness and starting a new project called Healing with Nature.

Many of these new avenues may not involve materials and products as much as they will create experiences and help educate. We believe that once the inner connection to Nature has been revived, people will be ready to walk the path to sustainability on their own as they start responding to the inner prompts of a more natural lifestyle.

LILA: What kind of knowledge creation and sharing systems need to come in place in order to spread these ideas and nurture such sensibilities?

Manisha Gutman: When I was growing up, we sang a prayer whose words meant – from one lamp let us light another. All true education happens in this way – from one mind to another from one heart to another, from one hand to another. To me, this also speaks of the spark of consciousness, which is beyond data and information. It is the inheritance of wisdom which is based in direct inner experience.

When we start looking to Nature to teach us, we can all have access to her wisdom and are not limited by barriers of language and education. Dattatreya, a figure in the Hindu pantheon said that he had 24 teachers – the majority of which were different elements of nature.

The experience of nature is available to all of us even if we live in cities. The sun that rises, the skies, the clouds, the minimal urban wildlife that we have access to can all teach us how to connect. We have to learn to become ‘students’ in the true sense. To be able to sit with these natural teachers and receive what they have to offer.

Many indigenous cultures and traditional scriptures carry this wisdom within the practices they recommend. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel we can start by dipping back into this treasure house of understanding and reviving some of these with conscious application. The ritual of touching the earth in reverence at the threshold of a doorway; the practices of worshipping medicinal plants like the Tulsi; the custom of asking permission from the crop before the harvest – there are innumerable beautiful traditions that remind us of our place as simply one of many species in the ecosystem. Spending time in silence, in solitude and in nature when we can is another possible method of reconnecting.

While we may try to create new institutions to bring this exposure and learning to our younger generations, it would also help to pause for a while and reflect on where we went wrong, so we do not repeat the same mistakes and fall back into old familiar paradigms. We need to start by acknowledging that we do not have all the answers to what the future holds. And in that silence, wait for the wisdom to emerge.

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
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