Some of the imageries that cross our minds thinking of 'fashion' and 'pollution' include dumping of used fabrics in landfills, detergent foams from washed clothes floating in rivers, micro-plastics accumulating in oceans, and whatnot. Precisely, we have always seen fashion to be a facilitator of pollution. But what if pollutants could be used to create fashion?
EcoKaari, a social enterprise, upcycles plastic waste into handcrafted fabrics using handloom and wooden spindle (Charkha). These fabrics are used to make daily utility items like fashion accessories, handbags, home decor, and office stationery products. Started in Pune in 2020, this enterprise aims to conserve the environment and also enables job opportunities for many rural artisans.
Process Of Transformation: Waste To Treasure
The process begins with the procurement of raw material, that is, non-biodegradable and difficult-to-recycle plastic waste. These come from discarded packaging materials, packets of chips, cookies, gift wrappers, and even old audio or video cassette tapes, which are then segregated based on their colours, size, and thickness.
It might seem that since waste plastic is always lying in some litter around, it might be easy to collect them. But it is not. For a long, consistent thread that makes weaving easy, particular kinds of discarded plastics can not be used. These include hard plastics like tetra packs, small plastics like straws, and packets that are ripped open or cut at the corners.
Considering this, EcoKaari sources plastics from three places only. Firstly, plastic is collected from conscious citizens who donate their household waste plastic. They either drop it off at the Pune workshop or courier it there. Apart from this, plastic is also collected from small companies that use plastic for the packaging of their food items. Lastly, plastic is bought from an NGO that works with waste-pickers, thus creating an alternative earning channel.
These plastics are then cleaned using minimal water and natural cleaner, sundried, cut into strips manually, rolled on a traditional Charkha, and woven into a handloom. From here, the design team takes over, and tailors stitch these fabrics into products.
These products are mainly sold through the organisation's website. They also retail the products from their office in Pune and directly sell them through exhibitions. Besides, they also have export partners in Australia, Dubai, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, UK, and the USA.
Management Of Waste
What's more, the organisation's belief in 'closing the loop' of resource usage does not end here. To reduce the product lifecycle, EcoKaari accepts products for repair. They also take back the products once the products are at the end of the lifecycle to repurpose them. For instance, the cotton fabrics used as the inside lining of the products are repurposed to create sustainable packaging for parcels.
If a product cannot be repurposed, it is taken back and donated to another that converts waste plastic products into fuel.
So, how many plastics have the organisation upcycled till now? Well, manufacturing an average-sized product (like a tote bag) consumes 35-40 plastic bags. Overall, in less than one year, the organisation has managed to upcycle more than 2 lakhs of waste plastic bags and wrappers, saving them from going into landfills and oceans, claimed EcoKaari Founder-Director Nandan Bhat.
However, conserving the environment by upcycling plastic was not the only purpose behind creating EcoKaari. The social enterprise has two more goals: generating livelihoods and creating awareness about plastic pollution among citizens.
Creating Job Opportunities
In a densely populated country like India, the debate on whether automation should replace manual labour has been there for quite some time. But over the years, corporations have exceedingly favoured the former, resulting in a gradual decline of the once-prevalent artisan culture of the country. However, EcoKaari has decided to take the road less travelled.
At EcoKaari, the entire weaving process has been made manual to generate livelihoods for people from humble backgrounds, especially women and youth. A proponent of the traditional culture of 'Kaarigari' (craftsmanship), Bhat noted that artisans are the backbone of EcoKaari. Every product that has been made has embodied their passion, thought processes, and creative skills.
"We do not want to merchandise our process for the simple reason – to generate as many livelihoods as possible. Imagine if individuals start to use machines (at) every step of a process, then the unemployment rate will increase exponentially. It gives our team great pleasure to create a product that conserves the environment as well," Bhat told The Logical Indian.
Since the entire process is manual, it involves no chemicals, electricity, or heat – thus making the process environment-friendly.
Reverse Business Model
But how has the organisation balanced being labour-intensive and keeping the product prices affordable? According to Bhat, they have kept their margins low to make the products affordable for people. "However, we cannot compete with a market that makes machine-made goods of cheap materials. We work on a reverse business model where the more we sell, the more plastic we upcycle, and the more livelihoods we create," Bhat said while speaking with The Logical Indian.
The organisation currently supports 22 artisans and plan to increase the number to 50 by the end of 2022.
One of these 22 artisans is the 20-year-old college student Priyanka Patil, who has been working in the fabric weaving unit of EcoKaari for the past 6-7 months. In an interview with The Logical Indian, she noted how she had joined the organisation due to the lockdown but now has a newfound love for her job because of its impact on her life and the impact it lets her create in the environment. "I feel good (that) the environment is saved a bit (by our work). And the plastic that comes, be it a chocolate wrapper or a biscuit packet, we make nice fabrics out of it. And the salary that comes to me – that I use in my education (sic.)," she said.
Engaging With Citizens
Apart from accepting plastic donations from conscious citizens, EcoKaari also conducts sessions with educational institutions and corporates to raise awareness about plastic pollution.
One of these awareness sessions attendees was Cyrus Dastur, Founder of Shamiana –The Short Film Company. Commenting about his experience at these sessions, Dastur said, "It was absolutely fantastic. Thanks to people like him (Bhat), we will have at least somebody taking a step forward and doing something for the environment. Because what a lot of us do is we say we care for the environment, and I'm sure we do...But our love and care for the environment starts with activism and ends with activism."
"But people like Nandan are actually walking the mile. They are actually doing what needs to be done. So, I think it was fantastic to be a part of the session. I got to know so much more about EcoKaari," Dastur said while talking with The Logical Indian.
The belief in resourcefulness and commitment to conserve the environment is visibly reflected at every step the organisation takes. An obvious question comes to mind: what could have motivated a person to remain dedicated to a purpose? EcoKaari Founder-Director Nandan Bhat said that he believes his connection with nature had roots in his childhood.
In a conversation with The Logical Indian, Bhat reminisced how he spent his childhood in a quaint village in Jammu. But his happy days were cut short as insurgency uprooted him and his family, and they ended up in the migrant camps.
"Resources were scarce, and resourcefulness was the only key to survival there. We recycled and upcycled everything, from clothes, shoes, and books and more," the founder said.
Times improved, and Bhat moved with his family to Pune, eventually taking up a corporate job. His job allowed him to travel extensively in the mountains, where he noticed waste plastic littering the countryside. This disturbed the nature-lover in him and kindled his entrepreneurial spirit, compelling him to begin EcoKaari last year.
Challenges Faced In The Process
But choosing the road less travelled came with its own set of challenges. For example, the manual quality check to reduce flaws in the products has been increasing the production time, thus raising the final product's price.
Most importantly, employing artisans instead of mechanising the process have posed certain limitations. "The assumption (is) that the products are made from waste plastic so they will cost very low or be given to customers for free, without understanding the hard work it goes to create 1 product in 2-3 days," Bhat told The Logical Indian
Instead, the labour-intensive work has increased the prices, making it harder to compete with its mass-produced counterparts. Resultantly, the amount spent on investment has always been more than the amount of expenditure. One possible solution would have been obtaining funds, but funds in these kinds of initiatives are scarce compared to what is available in other causes like education or poverty.
Impact Of COVID
The founder also shared that COVID had severely hit the business. "Being a small social enterprise, we depend on the sale of the products to support the livelihoods of our artisans and their families. The only good thing to have happened is that since the pandemic has facilitated an exponential increase in plastic packaging usage, the organisation has received many donations from the citizens," Bhat said.
Commenting about the organisation's plans going ahead, Bhat noted that they wish to replicate their unit in other Indian cities and globally. But it requires funds that they currently lack. "However, if companies under their CSR would support us, then the replication can happen a lot sooner," Bhat said while speaking with The Logical Indian.
Soon, they want to replicate as many units as possible, especially in villages, so that more plastic is upcycled and more livelihoods are created. They are currently trying R&D with textile waste and other materials to see if more waste material can be brought under the purview of the upcycling process.