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“The responsibility to create a thriving sustainability market is a collective one – stakeholders on both the demand and supply side have to be aligned to common goals.”
— Rhea Singhal, CEO and founder of Ecoware
On starting Ecoware, when the sustainability market was quite primitive
Today, it’s common knowledge that we ingest microplastics and suffer health consequences. There’s ample data in the public space and people are willing to act on the information. This was not the case when we started Ecoware in India 14 years ago. People were not well-informed and therefore had not begun to join the dots between plastic, environment and health.
I wanted to help address the situation. My family and I knew from personal experience that plastic could have very serious health consequences. We felt it was important for people to make informed life choices. Just pointing out the problem was not going to help, it was important to give them solutions which would enable them to both, eat safely and not harm the environment.
My father-in-law is a serial entrepreneur. He encouraged me to go down the entrepreneurial road and design a solution. In 2009, I set up Ecoware on three pillars – Safety, Impact and Authenticity. Ecoware’s reason to exist, is to be authentic, ensuring that its products make a real difference to the health of the consumer and the environment.
Setting up Ecoware in 2009 was undoubtedly challenging. Campaigns like Swachh Bharat or Clean India had not yet been initiated. Bans and regulation served as mere lip service because there was blatant disregard for them. But we firmly believed in our purpose and our product. So, we put our heads down and started to pave the way for change, one small step at a time. It has been a long journey, but a gratifying one..
On the challenges of marketing Ecoware in the early days
In the early days of Ecoware, sustainability was not a mainstream conversation. Stakeholders did not have a comprehensive understanding of the issue and were unable to empathize or engage. We had to exert significant effort to help people understand what biodegradables were and why it was important to switch.
We started working with groups such as RWAs, trade and schools to decode the plastic issue at different levels and set the ground for responsible consumption. We had to build context for people to make lifestyle changes, we had to encourage them to be first movers by showing them that moving from plastic to biodegradable packaging was both important and inevitable. It was especially important for us to build our own credibility along with a strong market case. There were no precedents in the space we were operating in, so it was important for us to set the right one. The three pillars of Ecoware – safety, impact and authenticity stood us in good stead during this phase.
The lack of industry standards was also a challenge. For example, when a consumer asked for an eco- friendly plate, there was nothing to certify that the product given to them was in fact indeed eco-friendly. Today, I feel extremely proud that Ecoware has become the go to brand name for biodegradable plates.
The market has evolved in the last decade. It is now looking for alternatives. People come to us for bespoke solutions. They are very well informed and want to know things like what material we would be using and what its carbon footprint would be.
But there are still a lot of miles to cover. Education and awareness are still huge gaps in the country. We need to come together to create consumers who can make informed choices because that is always the better one.
On the trust deficit faced by the industry rubbing off on the sustainable product market
I can speak for Ecoware. When we began operations there were no industry standards so we went about setting them. We went to global labs and got global certification. It was certainly not cheap for a SME like us, but we were always vocal about our intent and believed in walking our talk.
Integrity pays in different ways. The fact that we never wavered from what we wanted to achieve, helped strengthened us as a brand and opened markets for us. Today, we are innovating with big players such as Indian Railways in 2016 and have worked with organizations that have strong processes and audit systems and their partners have to meet there very strong due diligence processes.
Ultimately, everyone wants to make sure that they’ve collaborated with the right person. Besides, one can always tell who’s in it for the short term and which brand is authentic and create impact in it to make a change and it all links back to awareness and education. The more informed the consumer, the more accountable the business. The responsibility to create a thriving sustainability market is a collective one – stakeholders on both the demand and supply side have to be aligned to common goals.
On whether there are viable options to stubble burning
I’ve met other entrepreneurs who are using stubble as raw material for their products. The problem is that we’ve not been able to scale our innovation beyond a point. As a result, only a limited amount of stubble is being used up, the rest is still being burnt.
The landscape will not change until we dive deep into the challenges of the farmer and create innovative technology solutions that do away with the need to burn. There has to be more research and greater advancements of science and technology in this space.
Large private players should coordinate with educational institutions to create technology solutions that are of commercial value to everybody. Right now, everyone is working in silos. We need to replace this with a collaborative approach that aims for holistic solutions.
On the role of platforms like CII CEO Forum for Clean Air, of which she is a part, in fostering collaborative action between different stakeholders.
I think CII has done a great job in creating a platform like the CEO Forum for Clean Air. It has the who’s who of the industry on it. What I’ve always pushed as a member is the need for us to make realistic commitments and be held responsible for them. It does not have to be for the long term; we can make commitments for the six month and follow through on what we have pledged. The beauty of the CEO Clean Air Forum is that it has cross sector representation including from industries such as construction, transport and entrepreneurship to name a few that can play a pivotal role in shaping a solution. The platform is a real opportunity to pilot change with measurable impact.
“I believe that in the next 15 to 20 years the top three companies by market capitalization, in every single category, will be technology first companies.”
Technology and innovation alone cannot bring about change, ultimately the way we do business has to change. In a country as large as ours, the only sustainable solutions will be the ones that are worked out jointly. And that is where platforms such as the CEO Forum become so important.
On pitching the idea of a new India to the youth
I love the fact that the next generation is very focused about wanting to create change. I would like them to incorporating measurable impact as their business objective. I often tell them as long as the intent behind their action is right, they will have the power to bring about transformative change.
The presence of entrepreneurs is crucial in expanding these initiatives, and the significant benefit of CII lies in its capacity to facilitate the scaling up process through effective policy advocacy.