Women and Sustainability

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Women-driven sustainability projects are bringing in the required change the world over. However, there are dynamic variables that define the path ahead.  FLO Chennai in association with MMA & KAS organised a Panel Discussion. The panellists were: Ms Deepa Sathiaram, Executive Director, En3 Series & Technology Pvt Ltd; Ms Meera Nair, Independent Director, DBS Bank India Ltd and  Ms Maithreyi Lakshmi Ratan, Founder, Wild Ideas Cooperative Trust. Ms Meenakshi Ramesh, Executive Director, United Way, Chennai, moderated the session.

Ms. Meenakshi: Tell us how sustainability became the flagpole of your career.

Ms. Deepa: I started off with a career in engineering. As a mechanical and electrical engineer, I worked in the building industry and energy efficiency was always an area of interest. Most mechanical and electrical equipment items are the biggest energy guzzlers in any building.  From there, I moved on to sustainable development in the US where I worked for the US Code Authority, the International Code Council. I was one of the engineers evaluating new products. In the US, new products have to be approved by the Code Authority before they can come into commercial use in buildings.   In the early 2000s, the US Green Building Council started the Green Movement in buildings globally. They were looking for representatives from the Code Council to be part of that committee. Usually, the newest person on the block gets shoved with all the work and I took it up. Thus, it was more by accident, rather than a planned entry into sustainability.  When I started working with the Green Building Council, a lot of sustainable development ideas and techniques came about. There was so much that could be done in the building industry, which we were not doing. So it became a natural interest for me to develop my knowledge and understanding.  We decided to move back to India in 2003, because we wanted to start our own company.

The 3Ds

Between 2004 and 2008, most of my time was spent in explaining to people what we do, why we do and why they need us. One of the biggest things when we started working with projects was offering an integrated design because we work in silos in India. The architect does his own design and the electrical guy does his own design. It’s not integrated and it’s all done with a whole bunch of assumptions. They load a lot of safety factors and this causes excess use of materials and resources. One of the first things in sustainable development is to use less resources. There are 3Ds that I tell people as three mantras and they are: Dematerialization; Deconstruction and Decarbonisation.

Every material comes with a certain carbon emission associated with it. Today in a building, we use on an average, 128 different types of building materials, when you can do it with about 20 to 22 of them. The second biggest thing is deconstruction. We’re now looking at prefabricated modular based systems. Today, it’s all brick and mortar. After 30 years, when the purpose of the building changes, we have to demolish and then rebuild it. But if you design buildings that are deconstructible, then they can be removed and replaced. It can become very simple. All of this leads to decarbonisation. As a global group, we are moving towards zero carbon.  

Ms. Meera: My professional experience is largely in the food, agriculture, rural development and financial services. I started my career as a product manager, dealing with branded agrochemicals wherein we designed rural marketing strategies for branded agro chemicals. The mantra at that time was right dosage, of the right pesticide, on the right crop. That’s what Cynamid India preached. Little did we know at that time that it was about sustainability. On the output side, I worked on E-trading of agricultural commodities and futures trading of agricultural commodities. I was a founding team member of the National Commodities and Derivatives Exchange. We came out with products and markets for agricultural commodity derivatives in India. The objective was to come up with efficient price risk management strategies for the entire agricultural value chain, starting from producers, traders, the organizations who dealt with agricultural produce and the end users. We set up e-trading platform for Tamil Nadu government. Both e-trading and the futures trading of agricultural commodities are inclusive business models, which help the farmer -the producer to manage price risk efficiently.

Another place that I worked with was EID Parry.  I was General Manager -Strategic Initiatives. There, I worked on several rural empowerment strategies. Our focus was largely to create rural employment in the sugar belt of Tamil Nadu. We created market linkages for farmers. We created rural business initiatives and created rural entrepreneurs in that process.  Today, I work as a strategy and management consultant. I focus on food and agri business. Apart from that, I’m also a business mentor at Stanford Seed and Crescent Incubation Council where I focus largely on the food and agri business startups.  

Sustainability is Life Force

Ms. Maithreyi: Sustainability, as I think about it, is a set of activities. Sustainable activities are things that can be maintained over time, without the erosion of vitality inside and outside. Sustainability is in your everyday life and it is our life force. It’s a spiritual one. It is economic, social, cultural and financial. It’s in all aspects of being human. Even though the prominence of this term came into being with agriculture and the environment, it is absolutely applicable to every aspect of life. To me, a life that is sustainable is one which does not undermine the basis upon which you live. That is what we practice in Thiruvannamalai through our Wild Ideas Cooperative Trust, to retain that vitality. 

Ms. Meenakshi: Deepa, how has your 20 year journey been? Do you think people have come some way and are doing it the right way?  

Ms. Deepa: Well, it has changed for the better. There’s a lot more awareness at every level. But the biggest challenge for sustainability in our industry is sustaining sustainability. People will do it once or twice because there’s a lot of PR and branding around it. One person maybe passionate about it but when that guy moves off, you see that the interest drops over time. Doing things slightly better is definitely progress. But it reaches a point where you have to be more disruptive about how you want to do it. We’re not seeing that yet.  

Sustainability in Food & Agro Sector 

Ms. Meenakshi:  Meera, tell us how sustainability as a term is now more important than ever before in the food sector.

Ms. Meera: There are three main important reasons why the food and agricultural space needs sustainability. One is the growing population. By 2050, the global population will be around 9.8 billion. We need to feed this growing population. According to a World Food Programme report, we have about 828 million people going hungry every day. We have to take care of the hunger levels. This is the first problem. Secondly, there’s a lot of food wastage happening. One third of the total food that is produced across the globe goes waste. That can feed 1.3 billion people. In India, about 40% of the food that is produced goes waste and that’s a huge number. Thirdly, if you look at the household food wastage, it’s about 50 kilograms per person annually. That is 68 million tons. The fourth and a very important thing is that food production increases greenhouse gases in the environment. Greenhouse gases deteriorate the amount of food that is produced. It’s a paradox. How will you be able to overcome this paradox and produce food that is sufficient for 9.8 billion people sustainably? This means the current resources should be effectively used, so that it can be either enhanced or it can remain the same for future generations too. These are the four aspects that have to be looked at when you think about food and sustainability.

Peace is what they want

Ms. Maithreyi: I’m an organic farmer. The first thing we do around sustainability is to provide livelihoods for women and men locally. In agriculture, once we bring in machines, people lose work. The inputs they put in the soil are so harmful that within one generation, they can’t grow and they don’t have seasonal work. To address these issues of employability or sustenance of feeding their families, we started rural enterprises in Thiruvannamalai for local people with very simple things to address sustainability. The products have to be consciously made with local materials and with complete traceability from farm and forest. In terms of a business, we have to be sustainable. We have to be regulated and there are compliances.  When we asked the women we’re giving work, “What is it that you aim for, apart from predictable income?” they all said, “Peace.” Contentment is something they aspire for. It’s easier for us to work in the areas of sustainability when greed doesn’t come in.  The moment you’ve crossed a certain barrier, then there are resource compromises. The person is no longer considered a human being but a unit of productivity. In Thiruvannamalai, we help people get work that they love doing for eight hours a day. We set up rural enterprises in the organic farming. We have started rural livelihood programs in the construction industry to stem urban migration. It’s called workflow.  

Need for Ecosystem & Policies

Ms. Meenakshi: Deepa, you talked about 3Ds. Is it happening in the large building industry?

Ms. Deepa: The attitudes are changing, but the infrastructure hasn’t yet caught up with that. We lack the R&D and the ecosystem for making traditional building materials in India. Almost 50 to 60% of the materials that go into a building are imported. A good portion comes from China. For example, before the pandemic, a small scale industry person came down to our office and said he makes wooden looking flooring from paddy rice husk waste. The sample was fabulous. It was entirely handmade. I said, “Great. Can you supply 10,000 square feet for a project?” He said it would take him six months. We don’t lack talent, ideas or people. What we lack is an ecosystem to guide people both financially and also to create a commercial product.  In the West, most of the great products or innovations happen in the universities. Companies have connections in colleges and that’s how the Stanfords and the Harvards became famous. We don’t have that ecosystem, unfortunately. IIT is trying to do that with some success. But for a country like India, one institute trying to do that is going to take a long time. We don’t have the financial infrastructure and incentives to do that. A lot of those things are yet to fall in place. There are a lot of knowledgeable people in my industry. It is just that you have to tap knowledge and convert that into products, technologies, ideas and designs, which will then help us move forward in the low carbon journey. 

Ms. Meenakshi: What would it take to put something like this on the Make-in-India list? We are going to make our own chips. We make our own trains. 

Ms. Deepa: Make-in-India is yet to gain traction in the construction industry. I worked a lot in the US. I sit in a lot of committees for the Green Building Councils. The first thing I tell is that today we’re learning sustainability from a society that doesn’t know how to be sustainable. Traditionally India and to some extent, China have probably been the most sustainable and evolved societies. We lost our way when we sort of aped the West in many things. There are some pluses and minuses. But it’s time to start rethinking. You have to take some of your old science and ideas but wrap them in new products and designs, because nobody wants that old look or feel anymore. Every building that we design is the same fundamental science that was used 100,000 years ago. For example, one of the biggest techniques that works to cut out heat in a building is thermal masking. Our ancient forts and temples have two feet or three feet stone walls. Stone was available locally, so they used stone. Now nobody wants to build a two feet wall. If I tell that to a builder, he’ll say, ‘My FSI is gone.’ One of the things that we have put up to CMDA is not to count the thick walls in the FSI calculations. These are things that regulations can help. I don’t think anybody is against cutting down heat. If I spend 100 rupees more for the wall, I can save 1000 rupees in my AC cost.   

Ms. Meenakshi: Meera, are things changing in agriculture, because there is a lot of awareness or at least publicity about how, for example, Punjab should never have grown rice, because it’s such a water intensive crop and there is no groundwater in so many parts of the country. What do you think are sustainability trends?  

Embrace the 3 Rs

Ms. Meera: All of us here are consumers. So we need to adopt sustainability in our everyday life, something that our grandmothers were doing every day- reduce, reuse and recycle, whether it is clothes, food or anything else. The leftover idlis would be converted to idli uppuma. Food was served on plantain leaves. Those leaves were put outside as waste and they were eaten by the cattle. In general, the level of awareness about sustainability is increasing. There’s a lot of hype. We have UN SDGs. Years ago, India was a land of deficiency. We did not have enough food grains to feed our own people and we were importing food grains. So in the 50s and 60s, we had green revolution and white revolution and produced more rice and wheat. We started using more fertilizers and water resources. The water table went down. Because of cultivating water intensive crops like paddy, the greenhouse gas emissions have also increased.   We need policy initiatives. We need to move from crops like rice and wheat to high value horticultural crops. This is the year of millets. We are propagating cultivation of millets. As consumers, we also need to take a step forward and start moving from what is available near us and start consuming it. We need to make changes in our dietary patterns.  

Ms. Meenakshi: My husband and I went to a session of well-known dietitian Rujuta Diwekar, and she said, “Eat what your grandmother ate and you will be healthy.” 

4 Areas of Work

Ms. Maithreyi: The work we do can broadly be categorized into four areas. One is around livelihood creation. That is to get people work close to home so they can feed their families and they don’t have to go far away to do so. We do that by creating rural enterprises. Just because we sit in rural India, it doesn’t mean we can’t create world class enterprises. That was my fundamental philosophy. Within these nine years, our challenges have been many in the areas of infrastructure, compliances, policies, loans and subsidies. The second vertical that we explore is around social and cultural sustainability. This involves having families not getting fragmented. Everyone is tied to where they’re from. We’d like to retain that which gives them happiness. So education is a big part of what we focus on- not just in terms of attending a school, but offering holistic education. Our work takes us to every village where we run educational programs for children up to their college level and up to employability.   The third piece is health. I come from an urban setup. So I don’t understood many things. The best way to learn is to sit with rural women and men in a circle and ask them what keeps them up at night. They came up with a list and the list had livelihood creation, education and debt because of health related issues. Because of the food we eat and the lifestyles we have now, people go into severe debt. They can’t go to hospitals and come out without an atrocious bill. We organise health check-ups. It’s always important to think about how you can stop the problem in the first place and with preventive medicines. Simplicity is never respected but complexity is liked. We’re trying to go simple. We’re trying to get 94 herbs. We take these herbs to dispensaries where we get older people who are disenfranchised socially. No one wants to talk to them. They’d rather talk to Google and the TV. We want to run a social experiment to get respect back to our elderly. In the next three to four years, we’ll start growing forests. That’s a big part of what we want to do.  

Ms. Deepa:  One of the biggest challenges going forward is the rapid urbanization issue. More and more people migrate from villages and small towns because of lack of livelihoods and our cities are in no position to take that. Urbanization will lead to carbon emissions, which will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn will affect agricultural industry and which in turn is going to impact livelihoods. It’s a vicious circle. When you disturb the balance, this is what happens.

Ms. Meenakshi: What do you think are the unique contributions that women can make in the field of sustainability?  

Ms. Meera: You should start from your house. Not only women, but the men also need to be involved. Reduce, reuse and recycle. You must start this from your home.

Ms. Deepa: Sustainability is a very cultural thing, because it’s something that you have to imbibe. The source of this culture will only come from the women in any institution, any household or anywhere. Education and culture are again women driven. Globally, women, I would say, are three times more involved with sustainability than men, probably because we resonate to it and connect with it better.  

Ms. Meenakshi:  How does gender inequality intersect with environmental issues?

Ms. Deepa:  Women are probably the most affected because of climate change issues globally. A lot of livelihoods and women based activities are the most affected because of climate change. ESG—Environmental, Social, and Governance—is now a corporate mantra. When we talk of sustainability, still a lot goes under the environmental bucket. Social includes gender equality, gender balance, diversity and inclusivity. Governance includes both corporate governance as well as regulatory frameworks. There is a lot of push and thrust now in the environmental aspect of ESG and at least some progress has happened. In the social side, there’s very little impact that’s seen. It’s not just about gender equality.  

Ms. Meera: We must move away from mono cropping to diversified multiple cropping systems. Think about aforestation rather than deforestation. Look at drip irrigation facilities rather than using fertilizers across the board. Create livelihood opportunities, social networks and rural entrepreneurs. These rural entrepreneurs, in turn, can take the lead in developing various things around the farmland and the agricultural sector.   There must be policy initiatives to promote multiple cropping systems and to reduce food waste. We can give subsidized money and sops for building agricultural infrastructure that includes storage facilities. We must support those coming out with sustainable solutions in building cold storage facilities and transporting fruits and vegetables.  

Ms. Maithreyi:  It’s very important to stay local. The local can be a radius of 200 kilometres. It doesn’t matter. But it doesn’t have to be apples from New Zealand. 

Meenaksi: How supportive is your family in this pursuit of sustainability? 

Ms. Maithreyi: We live our life. We’re a family that’s living a conscious life. That’s all. We have cattle. We have five cows. We grow our own food. My son is 15. He grows his own rice. We have a farm where we grow our stuff including millets and vegetables. My husband does a lot of work with Chettinad egg-lime plaster (which is a zero carbon material). 

Ms. Meenakshi: I read an article about microplastics. Apparently, your facewash has microplastics. They just get washed down the drain. It flows into the ocean because the vast majority of our sewage is not treated. Then they get ingested into marine life. So let’s all become more conscious and I think that is the first step. Perhaps real change will happen over a couple of generations. I am an eternal optimist. I truly believe that the next gen smart kids will pull us back. Can you all take us through a women-driven sustainability project that you were involved with?   

Ms. Deepa: We worked with a project in Indonesia. A group of women from the fishing community went out into the ocean to take all the fishing nets that get left behind in the ocean. Through a community initiative, they removed the fiber out of all of these fishing nets, which was then given to a company that made carpets. It was like using a local community, which was entirely women driven. They made money out of it, though it was not big. One of the biggest challenges for any rural initiative is scalability and repeatability. A lot of good things get done in pockets but we’re not able to create a scalable model.

Ms. Meera: Let me talk about what happened in our housing society. Till two years back, we were not segregating waste. But Chennai Corporation came up with a rule saying we have to segregate waste. In our complex, we have 350 apartments. So they said that collecting waste from your apartment will not be done unless you segregate waste. The women in our complex came forward and I was not one among them. I just saw what was happening from backstage. They came up and found out how it was done elsewhere. They clearly decided the rules. They just copied it from other societies where it was happening and told us how to segregate the food waste, the plastic waste, etc. If this initiative had been taken by the men, women in the household would not have agreed.  

The Pride on Her Face

Ms. Maithreyi:  ‘Wild Ideas’ was my first baby. I told Ranjitha, a woman who was not formally educated that we’re going to make products. Capacity building with a Stanford grad is very different from capacity building with my Ranjita who asked me, “Why are you asking me to do this?” But the ability for women to learn and adapt, especially when it comes to taking care of their families is just amazing. All our products are designed based on colour codes, because our women can’t read. The first time we set up a bank account for Ranjita, she asked, “Okay, now what do I do?” I said, “You have to put your money and you can withdraw this money.” She said, “Why do they need my money? I can keep it under my pillow.” “No, no. Every month, we’re going to give you money,” I told her and she agreed. We trained her to go to the bank. She went straight to the bank manager and said, “You have my money. Give it to me right now.” I was sitting there laughing. That is not the way to talk to a manager, but she doesn’t know. Then there is the other story of a woman who had never been to a school. She’s an orphan. She works with us. She said she wants to be the person taking the phone call for the orders. I trained her to pick up the phone and when she said with ease, “Welcome to Wild Ideas” with a pride on her face that she’s running the enterprise, sitting in rural Thiruvannamalai, I was in tears.  

Ms. Meera: We talked about support by the family. Sometimes you may have a supportive family. Many times you may not have a supportive family. But how will the family support you, unless you stand up and ask for it? As women, we need to stand up and talk for ourselves. Only then, we’ll have a supportive family who will understand us.