By Savitha Rao
Savitha Rao reminisces on the twists and turns on her road to becoming a passionate advocate of sustainability
My friends know me as a planet loving activist. A typical day involves working on ideas that blend sustainability with craft, or of nurturing our livelihood programmes for women. An unlikely space for someone who started off her career in the corporate world.
My career in international marketing took me to many corners of the world. From Tokyo to New York to Paris to the jungles of Vietnam and many fascinating parts of the planet.
But at some point, I decided to start off on my own. I was very clear that I wanted it to be something that focussed on the greater good. Around that time a dear friend gifted me a copy of Business as Unusual by Anita Roddick (the founder of
Body Shop). Reading it brought the epiphany that as long as one is not selling liquor, cigarettes or ammunition, one can do good in any work. I realised that I could channel my love for fabric and do good. A few months later I was invited (by the same friend) to a spiritual workshop. On the last day of the workshop I decided to give myself 90 days to start my venture. Things started to fall in place. On the day I typed out my resignation I counted and, to my amazement, it was exactly on the 90th day.
I started off my entrepreneurship as a buying house, working closely with international markets. Since I had spent years in the business of menswear, a world I loved, I decided to start a brand of menswear accessories. I did the ground work – registered a brand name, designed the logo, conceptualised a range of products, and worked intensively on product development. The project was on its way to a launch when I read an article on the North Pole melting.
It moved me immensely. I went through a phase of angst where I felt that the world was heading towards apocalypse and here I was, dreaming of creating accessories. It was like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Eventually, I put that project on hold and decided to do something directly connected with sustainability.
As I researched the environment issues I started to see that unless change starts at the individual/household level we cannot see tangible changes at the macro environment level. I decided to begin with the one person I knew I could – me.
At that point, I was not the most eco-friendly person I knew. My travels through the world had in some sense conditioned me to accept and expect convenience and luxury. The fashion clothing industry I came from was all about change. Every season meant new collections. We were creating high quality products that we expected the consumers to change every few months. In a sustainability context my eventual transition to who I am today is like the journey of the bandit who became Valmiki.
As I started exploring sustainability, I was appalled by some of my own habits and the general way of living I saw around me. I started to mend my ways with vigour. I started to carry a cloth bag around for shopping to avoid plastic bags. If I forgot the bag – I would either not shop or buy as much as I could carry in my hand. This, needless to say, evoked surprise and confusion from my neighbourhood shopkeepers. Eventually, they understood my reasons for doing so.
I started to be mindful of taking care of all objects – clothes, phone, computer, car – everything is carefully used way beyond the time frame envisaged by the manufacturer/brand. I started composting kitchen waste, growing a little garden in my balcony. I started to become conscious of things previously taken for granted – short distances which previously involved a vehicle – I would now walk. Interestingly, my walks helped me visit places and meet people I would never have encountered while travelling in a car. The simple act of walking catalyses multifold awareness. The quest for living sustainably at some point results in a wise detachment. Previously, I would hold on to objects out of nostalgia. Slowly, I moved to a space where I could release them with love and gratitude to someone else who needed it.
I embraced sustainability in my way of living first, and then in my work.
Our urban ways of living in India are not sustainable. We’re generating non-biodegradable waste at a pace no government or civic body can handle. Today at Clean Planet (the eco brand I started few years ago), we make a wide range of planet-friendly products that help people bring sustainability into their everyday living in a practical, stylish and affordable way. Several of our products are first of their kind in the world and in India.
We make eco-friendly bags with inspiring messages and poems printed on them, eco-veggie bags that help people to eliminate plastic from the refrigerator, eco-gift bags that make gifting fun and planet friendly, 100 per cent natural laptop and tablet sleeves that are made with zero synthetic elements.
In our livelihood programme, Clean Planet – Empower, we train women to handcraft delightful products from vintage fabrics.
While it meant a more challenging path, it has been incredibly satisfying.
The commitment to bringing sustainability into my work has had several challenges. It is not (yet) a choice for the faint-hearted. There was no role model or clear path. Walking, stumbling and walking again – roads have emerged.
The journey has taken me to interesting places – from fancy offices in world capitals to villages and communities in India which are home to some of our best craftspeople and women’s groups. The human spirit shines through in some of the most difficult circumstances. In that sense I have met many teachers in this journey.
Sustainability is inherently holistic. One can’t approach it in a piecemeal way.
The journey in this space, catalysed my metamorphosis into a more aware and active citizen. I started working on civic issues. It requires enormous perseverance. I lobbied for a year and half with the BMC to get traffic lights installed on a busy intersection on an arterial road in Mumbai. It eventually happened! My office road had no lights since it was a ‘private’ road. I reached out to all buildings on the road to illuminate their part of the road. Everyone co-operated. As a consequence, our road has light. These experiences inspired me to start a civic campaign, “India KuchKar” which has been embraced and supported by people from Gangtok to Chennai.
Normally campaigns are created and administered by the organisation that created them. India KuchKar is a first of its kind: an open source campaign (i.e we make content available to anyone who wishes to use it) to make a positive impact in their environment. It inspires and empowers citizens to make a difference. Prime Minister Modi has appreciated the campaign and shared ideas from “India KuchKar” in his Mann Ki Baat.
I was always spiritually inclined. The journey in the space of sustainability deepened it. How beautiful nature is. How wise and all-encompassing. How foolish we are to try to manipulate and control it. My experiences on this path remind me that I am not a powerless, limited being. I can bring about massive shifts, not just within myself, but also in the world around me. It puts me in touch with a force that is greater than myself. I am awakening to the fact that we are spiritual beings in human form. When we remember that we can create miracles.
Each one of us can make a difference. Together we can change the world.
About the author : Savitha Rao is an activist and entrepreneur in the sustainability space. She is passionate about creating a sustainable, equitable and joyous world.
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