The progress of our soul is like a perfect poem. It has an infinite idea which, once realized, makes all movements full of meaning and joy.
This is credited to the great Indian poet, philosopher, and social reformer, Rabindranath Tagore. The same man also once said, “It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple”.
Most of us want to live a life that gives us happiness and joy, but somehow over a period of time we complicate it with so many meaningless things, which more often than not doesn’t give us any expected pleasure.
Let us not get into too much philosophy, rather look at some facts. According to a World Bank report, India generated 277.1 million tonnes of waste in 2018, and approximately 75% of this waste was openly dumped. As you would understand, most of the waste particles seep into land, flow into water bodies, or produce harmful gases.
While some of the waste is unavoidable, but if we look closely there are many things that can easily be prevented or replaced with sustainable alternatives. Either because of the convenience or lack of awareness, we keep using environmentally damaging items and discard them indiscriminately, when their purpose is finished.
Do we really need single-use polythene bags, disposable cutlery & stationery, plastic artifacts, single-use water bottles, plastic sheets, plastic file covers, plastic toothbrushes, and many other knick-knacks which we pick up in our everyday life.?
Here is a startup, which is trying to make a difference by offering eco-friendly alternatives and helping us make a transition to a sustainable lifestyle.
GreenSouls offers a diverse range of eco-friendly products under the brand name mitti se mitti tak… The Mumbai-based company is founded by three neighbors, who while working for the zero-waste initiative in their apartment society, decided to make a difference to society at large.
The three neighbors are Avani Dave, Shweta Vijayan, and Nehal Desai. GreenSouls started in January 2017 and are offering products that are eco-friendly, recyclable, biodegradable, upcycled and even efforts are taken to minimize the transport-related carbon footprint by sourcing the materials locally.
We caught up with the co-founder of GreenSouls, Nehal Desai for a fascinating discussion on her journey, the company, challenges, and future plans.
Nehal uses her creative flair to design and develop eco-friendly products. People say charity begins at home, Nehal personified that by recruiting her domestic help as the first employee. Since then, GreenSouls has employed only women artisans from socially underprivileged backgrounds for creating and developing its products.
Here is an edited version/excerpts of our conversation with Nehal Desai, on her journey, how the team got together, the help that GreenSouls received from the Amazon Saheli program, building a women-centric startup, and the future goals. For the full discussion please watch the video.
Tell us about your journey?
I have specialized in Textiles but have also studied Home science, which is now categorized as liberal arts. I have always been a creative person – learned block painting and tried my hands in fabric designing.
After marriage, I went to Shanghai with my husband, over there I learned the local language and started a restaurant. We were part of the Indian community in China, where we used to initiate various social initiatives and tried to give back to the nearby communities.
About 10 years back we came to India and took some time adjusting to our home country and taking care of my two kids. As the children grew older, I got more time to think and reflect.
After living outside the country, you have a very different perspective about what is possible and not possible. It is very easy to go on the roads and grimace about the trash in the open, but that trash is thrown by us. The mindset needs to be changed and it is unlikely that it can come from the less privileged people, hence it has to come from us.
Somewhere around 2013, with like-minded people in the society, we decided to make our society of 450 households a zero-waste society. When we were doing this we realized that most of the waste can be avoided, like disposable plates, spoons, cups can be replaced with available alternatives.
However, people are not aware of these alternatives and there is a gap in the availability of alternative products. That’s when I along with two other friends, Avni and Sweta got together and formed GreenSouls to bridge that gap.
The idea is to bring environment-friendly products to the public and see if they can become a viable option. Our brand is mitti se mitti tak.. and we are trying to find sustainable solutions for your everyday living.
Mitti se mitti tak… means circle of life, from the earth and to the earth. Adopting a sustainable lifestyle is not a choice anymore it has become a necessity and way of life.
Was there a trigger point when you created the first set of mitti se mitti tak… products?
The trigger happens every day, for instance during our initial days when we were looking for sustainable packaging options for carrying pencils, we were getting random pricing from suppliers. As we were not sure of how much quantity we would need, we decided to create our own packaging, which looks good and is biodegradable.
We had pieces of jute lying in our house, we cut them nicely, stitched them, and voila we created a beautiful pouch. The same package is now one of our best-sellers.
The spark can come from everywhere, all the products we have designed have come by spotting a need and then designing a suitable eco-friendly product.
How did the partnership with your other co-founders happen?
We stay in the same apartment society and when we were working for the zero-waste society, we got to know each other. Initially, I and Avani got together, then we bullied Shweta to join the group.
All three of us come from very diverse backgrounds. I handle the creative aspects, Shweta understands marketing and how things work in the corporate sector while Avani comes from an HR background and worked in the financial services sector. Between the three of us, we make an excellent combination.
How did you go about operationalizing the idea?
We luckily stumbled upon a few things, as I mentioned about the jute pouches for the pencils. When I was stitching them at home, my domestic help got very curious and told me that she can also make them.
With my assistance, she was able to do it and that’s how it started. We would do the cutting at my home to ensure that sizes are uniform and then she used to take it to her home to do the stitching and embroidery.
She, in turn, informed her neighbors, and then more ladies joined our tribe. Not only it gives these ladies extra financial support but this work is more enjoyable and very different from their daily chores. They were able to use their creativity which they would have learned over time and utilize it productively.
Whenever we visit them, we could see a different spark in them, they would be extremely enthusiastic in showing their work to us.
Then we decided that apart from offering eco-friendly and recyclable products, we will also be women-centric.
The joy which they get started to reflect on our products, therefore we started creating products based on their skills and incorporated them into our product designs.
At any point in time, we have about 20 women working with us.
How did you go about finding customers?
Initially, it was very difficult. Though we incorporated the company we did not have any major investments as we were not sure the direction GreenSouls will take. When it comes to marketing there are huge budgets involved.
We tried to look at e-commerce platforms, but that involves understanding the technicalities, manual efforts, and training, which was difficult for us.
Having said that, the word-of-mouth publicity was happening, people from society and friend circle were reaching out to us. We got a big order from a school to make the bag for the children to carry books.
In 2018, March, we got an opportunity to register with the Amazon Saheli program, which is an initiative by Amazon for women entrepreneurs in India. They have been very supportive right from Day 1, handholding us at every step. We got featured on their homepage and were also one of the five small sellers across India to be invited for one of their events.
After this, we really took off and now we are on other e-commerce platforms like Flipkart, Qtorve, and others.
How is the customer response
We do get many repeat orders, as we keep seeing names repeating for our online orders. We also get many bulk and corporate orders including from Amazon.
What are the future plans?
We are looking to expand to other regions like Europe and list ourselves on other sustainability-related e-commerce platforms.
We will increase our product categories as well, covering other aspects of daily sustainable living. We will be launching a new range of products like bamboo toothbrushes, neem wood combs and will also give variations to our existing products.
How do you get your raw materials?
We do not want to increase the carbon footprint of the product by importing raw materials. I would rather use a little less sustainable raw material than sourcing it from outside.
At this stage, we are sourcing everything from Mumbai as the minimization of the carbon footprint is very essential. If in case we go to other cities, as we are getting inquiries from other women groups, still we would like to continue with our localization model.
Are you looking for Funding?
Right now we are sustainable but with growth and expansion, we would need additional funds.
What was the idea behind the name GreenSouls?
The name touched the right cord for all three of us.
If in case I forget the carry bag while going shopping, I would rather hold everything in my hands than taking a plastic bag.
Going green should not a fad and passing fancy for any of us, we cannot survive if we don’t imbibe sustainability in our habits.
What is your personal connection with the environment and nature?
From the time we moved back to Mumbai, we felt why is our city not like Shanghai. Even there was a phrase popularly used, to make Mumbai like Shanghai, but it cannot happen unless we change the mindset. Over time the realization came that if I am not ready to take the step, I cannot expect cleanliness to happen.
When I was in Shanghai, even I have used a lot of plastic, disposable cutlery, etc, as it was convenient. Over there was no repair culture, if something breaks you get a new one. This pains me even now, the amount of plastic and disposable I have used there.
I want to change my carbon footprint which I have made over the years and help in bringing a change to others as well. We can take inspiration from our ancestors, who never generated any carbon footprint.
Here is the complete video of our discussion with Nehal, where she gives a detailed story about GreenSouls, her journey, and future plans for the company.