Imagine, in a year how many single-use plastic bags we might use and throw. This could be the bags from your grocery and vegetable buying or shopping in a mall for your new shoes or buying a book at the airport or the food parcel from a restaurant.
As per some statistics, humans use about 128 single-use carrier bags, per person per year. That makes roughly 1 bag in 3 days. Uhhmm..exaggerated?
The idea is to make you think.
“I care for the environment, but what to do? I buy things and I get a bag.” That was the statement from one of my friends after her shopping expedition at the newly opened mall (pre-COVID).
If you re-use the plastic bag, great. But is it possible all the time? most times it gets torn in 1 or 2 uses.
So what is the solution, simple, carry a good quality reusable bag.
If you are searching for options, go no further, read on, we had Udit Sood founder of EcoRight, which is making the planet plastic-free one bag at a time. EcoRight is a sustainable fashion brand that makes innovative products using fabrics like recycled cotton, jute, and cotton.
Here is an edited version/excerpts of our conversation with Udit, for the full discussion please watch the video.
EcoRight is a brand which is helping the planet, get rid of the plastics one bag at a time. We’d love to know your story, Udit. Over to you.
Post my MBA, I started my career with Hindustan Unilever, which was a great platform. The training program put me through rigorous years of marketing training. Post that I joined the startup world with Zomato. In Zomato, I ended up having a lot of different kinds of responsibilities.
And that gave me the confidence to take this plunge into my own entrepreneurship journey. At a very young age in Zomato, I was given a lot of responsibility. I saw the functioning of a young startup with its chaos and growth, and managing in that setting, gave me a lot of confidence.
I always wanted to do something that was good for the environment. It sounds cliche, but since the very beginning, I’ve been brought up in a household that had a very severe allergy to plastic. So we never had plastic in our own home; it was always about not wasting stuff – these values were a bit ingrained in me since that time.
And I was thinking about what I wanted to do as an entrepreneur. It was at the forefront that I just don’t want to do some business, I want to do something which has a larger purpose, which has a larger impact on society beyond just the financial gains.
For financial gains, working in the corporate world was great fun. It’s about the bigger picture. All of us are aware of the kinds of problems that plastic causes, it’s no longer a secret. We see it on the roads, we see it in the news every day! And beyond just plastics, we see the kind of impact unsustainable human growth has had on the environment.
One of the things that I like to talk about is – when we measure human/country success, we talk in terms of GDP. But, GDP has no environmental component in it. So, what happens is that all of our measures of progress are about how as human beings we are developing further, more industrialization…
But when it comes to the cost of the environment, that is something that we don’t see immediately. We see a little bit in the long term. And I thought that if we can find a way to merge sustainability with business, merge sustainability with our consumers’ lives, then we can continue to grow, but just in a way that is more mindful of the environment.
And that was the thought and I picked up plastic bags because it was just the most obvious thing out there. Even when I used to go to a shop, and if I bought three or four different things, they would put them in three or four different plastic bags and put them in one large plastic bag and give it to me. And I always had to say, No, no, wait, wait, stop!. It’s okay. And a lot of shopkeepers would then say, Nahi Sir, free hai..(No Sir, it is free).
The problem is not the money that I have to pay; the problem is the environmental impact. If we can create consumer products that consumers like you and I would like to carry, then sustainability is not something that you have to do – it’s something that fits in with your lifestyle. And that is what we’re trying to do.
Plastic is a transformational product but when it is about the environment, it is so detrimental. What are your thoughts?
One thing that I’d like to say is that not all plastic is bad. Your phone is made of plastic, my laptop is made of plastic. Your specs frame will have elements of plastic. But as long as it can be recycled and reused, it is something that we can still live with.
We should find alternatives but there is a bigger problem to solve. The easiest thing to solve, the lowest hanging fruit, is to get rid of single-use plastic – plastic bags, plastic bottles.
I just carry my metal water bottle everywhere and in most places like airports and all, you can get a refill of water. You just have to work a little harder. If you can let go of a bit of convenience and you enter a bit of mindfulness, I think it’s very easy to find a way to replace single-use plastic.
Can you tell us more about EcoRight, when did it happen, and how does the model work?
EcoRight happened close to the middle of 2017. When I started EcoRight, it was dual thought then – one was to create consumer products; and the other was to create awareness of the problem because a lot of people knew about the problem but how much of a problem it was was not known.
We were very lucky that most governments around the world started waking up in late 2017-2018 and banning plastic. Even in India, you would have heard that Delhi has banned plastic. I think Rajasthan has had a ban on plastic for the longest time. We started becoming aware of these things. Then it became easier for us to create consumer products and consumers knew why they needed to buy it.
So EcoRight started in 2017. We started in a purely online model because the target audience we have are millennials and a bit of Gen Z, which we knew are spending most of their time online. That’s where they are now discovering products and exploring new stuff as well. Lesser people are going to the shops to explore. Rather, they find things online through ads.
Hence, we started doing an online-first kind of model. And we started selling through our website and Amazon in India and the US. So that was how we started. We are selling on our website and are also present in about 14 countries worldwide on Amazon.
And through our website, we sell it globally. We get lots of consumers from the US, UK, India, but we also get people all the way from Greenland, Papua New Guinea, among others. Basically there are still consumers that find us and it’s great to see that globally people have the thought that plastic needs to go.
Awesome! Can we say EcoRight sustainable fashion brand or sustainable living? If you come under both areas?
I think we come under both. Sustainable fashion comes under the sustainable living, in general.
Sustainability has multiple facets. One is Say No to Plastic. The other thing is that a lot of products that are made right now are made from the point of view of fast fashion.
Rationally, it’s something which you wear a few times and loses its value like a T-shirt. It will start sagging, the color will run and then you throw it away. Now that also has a very large toll on the planet. That T-shirt has a lot of effort that has gone in, right from the farmer, to the manufacturer, to the dyeing, to the packing, to the transport of the goods. If a T-shirt is sold in the US, it’s a very high chance that the cotton used is either grown in Gujarat or maybe in Tamil Nadu. Then it’s made into a T-shirt. And then it gets shipped all the way from here to the US. So it’s a lot of energy, a lot of water, a lot of everything consumed for a very short period of time.
When we wanted to become a sustainable brand, we realized that our products need to last long. Our business model cannot be that your product will get spoiled in a few years and then you buy from us again. We want to have that one product with you for a lifetime. And every time you use the product, you remember us and then you say, Okay, I want something else. Let me check out this brand because they make great products.
That is one of the aspects of sustainability which is very important to make durable products. We started off with fabrics of jute and cotton because those fabrics are more natural and eco friendly.
Since then we have also introduced fabrics like recycled PET bottles. So, the fabric is made from discarded plastic which is, in my opinion, one of the most sustainable things because not only are you not using more plastic but you are also taking out plastic from the environment and making products out of it. It has a double sustainable impact.
One of the thoughts is that so many things get discarded, why do we need to grow it from scratch again to make a product? Can we not take products that already exist? Those that have been discarded and figure out a way to give them a second life? So we’ve been using recycled cotton from the time we have launched.
People who care about the environment understand the fact that so much lesser toll on the environment has gone to make this bag and it replaces plastic.
That’s the kind of product journey that we’ve had we’ve had. We have also expanded into other product categories through a lot of consumer feedback. One thing great about the sustainability space is that people who care about it really want to do more. They reach back – can you make this kind of bag? and I think it’d be great if I had a sustainable option! Through that, we launched lunch bags, laptop sleeves, laptop bags, a lot of grocery range for the kitchen if you want to put something in your fridge but don’t want to use plastic.
We have expanded it to about 30 product lines and we have about 300-400 SKUs that have different areas of sustainability now.
Considering it is a labor-intensive business. Do customers appreciate the effort that goes into making this and the cost aspects of it?
One thing that we realized is that just because something is sustainable, doesn’t mean it needs to be very expensive. That was also one of the thoughts that we had started that sustainment products are either very expensive.
There will be regular brands that will be selling sustainable products at 2x the price or they will be very boring like the old jute bags that we used to carry around in school as well as lunch bags. But as a grown-up mujhe nahi lena ye! (I don’t want to buy that).
We found that in your manufacturing if you are conscious about building the right product, then it does not need to cost that much extra than a regular product. Yes, it will be a little bit more because we put a lot of effort into sourcing the right raw materials, in getting eco-friendly, inks, and dyes for our bags. All of our inks and dyes are tested for human safety, environmental safety. All of that adds the cost but it’s not that much more.
If you’re able to tell the customer the story about the product then the customers seem to be okay. Yes, of course, some customers have come back saying it’s expensive and that is feedback which we have to take. How do we make sure that we can get a better product and not increase the price even to this level? Most of the customers in my experience have liked the product.
Because it’s a labor-intensive industry, it’s really important for us that while we are doing good for the environment we also have to take care of the labor as well because it is the most vulnerable part of society. We are very proud to say that all of our manufacturing facilities are ethically and socially audited. That means that there are correct safety norms, correct sanitation norms, correct wages as per the law, grievance committees. Some of the labor that has been working in our partner factories have been working there for the last 20 years.
It is not like kaam nahi hoga toh paisa nahi milega (If there is no work, they will not get income). They’re salaried employees of the company. Yes, it increases our prices. But when you’re able to put up such a great product, in return the consumers understand.
Where do you source the raw material from? You also spoke about colors and dyes, do you manufacture it or do you source it too?
There are some very large companies in India that make eco-friendly and human-friendly dyes and inks. We always ensure that we buy from them. There is always a local alternative available. We don’t know what the composition and quality will be. We make sure that we source only from these places.
It is very difficult for us to get every process in-house which is why the partners that we work with. It’s very important in this business to have partners who have the same point of view and understand the vision.
If someone is doing printing for us, you know, they know that agar cost upar ja raha hai (if costs are increasing), they can mention that to us but they will never cut corners and make something which is not correct. The first six months to a year went into a lot of education in explaining to them. But now we’re lucky that we have these partners that understand our vision and also work accordingly.
The raw material is sourced locally. Most of the cotton comes from Gujarat. Some of it comes from Tamil Nadu and the jute comes from Kolkata.
What is consumer feedback and growth?
Our consumer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. If you look at our product on Amazon globally, 90% of them are rated more than 4.5 out of 5 or higher. For us, that is the most important thing. Consumers give us feedback – every bad feedback is looked into in detail. By and large, the consumers are happy. And every time they are not happy, it gives us something to improve on. Because we have been growing well, we have launched a variety of different product lines on various different platforms.
What are future plans of taking your brand forward esp in the CoVID times?
COVID hit all of us very badly. We know businesses were shut for a few months. For a young startup, it is difficult for us to not be working. We put in a lot of effort during COVID to figure out how consumer behavior will change and one of the things that we were able to see is that the demand for reusable cotton masks has been increasing.
That’s something that we launched in June as soon as the lockdown eased in India. A lot of consumers are gonna be spending a lot more time at home. So we are looking at more eco-friendly alternatives for people at home, not just going out but what can we give them to use as part of their daily activities. We are going to be launching a bunch of products next month. A lot of products that are consumers would use to be eco-friendly at home as well.
Plastic usage has really picked up during the COVID time esp as people feel that it can be thrown away. What are your thoughts on that?
With everything that we are facing right now, it comes down to two things – education and communication. Had you told me in April to let people know not to use plastic bags, it would have been very difficult because the science behind the disease was still evolving. Even now people are trying to figure out how it works. It was not possible for us to say, don’t use plastic bags.
However, we found that during COVID the plastic that is getting re-entered into our life is definitely fastening the issue of plastic consumption and global warming. Later on, the pandemic that will be caused by plastic will be much higher than what we are facing right now.
And also, we found that during the first few months people were wearing surgical masks. Now, they are meant for doctors and medical staff because they need that level of protection. And it is important for them because they deal directly with the patient from very close proximity. And that is why it should be reserved for them. But for others, when it is being used once and then is thrown away, it is adding so much trouble to the problem of plastic which will hit a few years from now.
We started doing education about that through our social media channels, through writing blogs. Also, from the fact that our sales also started increasing for masks, we see people coming back to normal. We cannot do anything, unfortunately, about those first few months. But if you ask the best doctors and scientists in the world, they also did not know if COVID will spread through plastic or cotton. People just took up a decision based on the limited information that they had. But now that they know a lot more, they are more educated, we tried to communicate it better.
Your designs are absolutely brilliant. We would love to know more about it!
When we started making these products, we realized that first, we wanted to give a product to the people which is unique and appealing, something that the youth will want to carry. Hence, it needs to be well designed. If it is a boring eco-friendly product, maybe you will use it once or twice but not something that you will remember to carry. It should be a memorable product in your life. That is what our designs are about.
Also, we looked at our designs like a notice board or a canvas that we can paint on and create a message of sustainability through those designs. Why can the design not talk about sustainability if the bag is sustainable? A lot of our designs are around nature, around the magnificence of nature. Or about the problems we are facing now due to plastic or global warming.
If you read about our designs on our website you will see why each design is made. You’ll see a design about a panda who is holding on to a stick of bamboo and underneath it says ‘bamboozled’. That is because global warming is reducing the growth of bamboo which is what Giant Pandas eat. If we continue on this path of global warming eventually we will run out of food for the pandas. When you see that design, yes it does look cute and appealing, but when they read about it they understand about global warming.
What is your strategy in this market knowing that there are many formidable players?
Honestly, we don’t feel that we are competing with anybody. We exist in a space that is unique in the sense that there is no way that we can compete with Gucci right now. The value proposition is very different. Those are bags that cost like thousands of dollars and people carry it as a status symbol.
Our entire point of view that whatever you use in your daily life, we want to slowly make that sustainable. Maybe, one day we will get to that stage that we compete with them but today it is more about entering different parts of your life and making sure that there is sustainability everywhere.
It is about creating that umbrella of sustainability around your home. If that exists, you will slowly find a sustainable alternative for everything. Honestly, a lot of brands are making a lot of effort to go sustainable. It is still priced at a premium but it will come down. We will call ourselves successful if we can make you think of sustainability. For example, I am not making sustainable glasses. But, the next time you go out and if you have enough sustainability in your life through EcoRight you might ask for an option at least. I think that is what we are doing. So, yes, we want to exist with all the brands in the world and make sure that we all up to our game for sustainability.
Is it a self-sustainable startup or you have been funded?
We have not picked up funding and it is a conscious decision. Thankfully the way we are growing and with the kind of customers that we have, we are approaching profitability.
That is why we are not looking at funding right now. We might want to look at it a little later in the future in case we want to do some experimentation but right now it is a self-sustained startup.
We would love to know the story behind the brand name – EcoRight!
Just right for the ecosystem.
That is it and also we did not want to make it very complicated. If it is very difficult to understand the name, it kind of loses the point. Being sustainable also means being minimalist and simplistic. Removing clutter from our lives, using lesser things. So, the name needed to reflect this. EcoRight is just right for the ecosystem.
What is your personal connection with the environment and nature?
It is just everywhere around me. Whenever I have been on a vacation it is around an environment centric place – a hill station, or a hike, or the sea. I always found the environment marvelous – there are just so many things that come together to make this earthwork.
Being a business person I need to work so much to bring the pieces together and to make it work properly but the environment just happens on its own; there is a balance that is established on its own. There is a reason why water is blue and it is beautiful. It all just happens because of this brilliant balance that we have. I have always been fascinated by the environment.
There is this really nice joke that says if trees gave wifi we would never really cut them, they only give oxygen that we breathe. Nobody is telling the trees to do that but it exists and keeps us alive. My personal connection is just the marvel that happens around us.
Any final thoughts for our readers and viewers?
When people think of sustainability, it is a little overwhelming. When you start reading about the things that are happening, it is something that is really sad to read about. It gives a feeling of helplessness that what can I as an individual do? My thoughts on this are, it is not about a big change in your life but can you change one thing.
One time you say no to a plastic bag, one time you carry your own bottle. It’s just these small things that really add up. Also, it is not something that we can solve in the next one or two years but we all make small changes we will get over this. Just be mindful of your everyday choice and if we do that we definitely have a chance in saving this planet.
Let us wish EcoRight to keep getting rid of the plastic bags and Udit Soon continues to take EcoRight – Sustainable Fashion to newer heights.
You can buy the product from Amazon.
Here is the complete video of the conversation.