The planet we live on is burdened beyond measure. The number and intensity of heat waves, heavy downpours, hurricanes, flash floods has undergone a drastic increase. Human habits and consumption patterns play a disastrous role in damaging the planet.
While the leaders of countries throw numbers, voice promises, they continue to damage the planet in the name of development. We at an individual level, can take small but impactful steps to save Mother Earth. Every step counts. It truly does.
A closer look at the incredible journey of Chaitsi Ahuja, Founder of Brown Living, an online platform that aims to promote a sustainable way of living.
1. What gave birth to the idea of Brown Living?
In early 2018, I was going through a personal journey of switching to a more sustainable lifestyle. During the time, I started to re-evaluate my ways of consuming, eating habits, figuring out what I believe in, my ethos are and the kind of work I would like to be known for.
My personal struggles, clubbed with my eco anxiety* led me to change and start my journey of zero waste & plastic free living. I realised that this journey wasn’t easy, unless you put in many months of research on choosing the right products for your health and the planet’s too.
I began conducting research and spoke to numerous customers and businesses to understand why the green-products (or eco-friendly) industry hasn’t received the limelight it deserves both from a consumer preference and a business focus point of view. It was in November 2019 when I finally launched the platform WWW.BROWNLIVING.IN, to make a sustainable lifestyle accessible and affordable to all.
*Eco-anxiety refers to a fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster. This sense of anxiety is largely based on the current and predicted future state of the environment and human-induced climate change.
2. Building a business from scratch is a Herculean Task. Trace your journey for us.
I am deeply concerned with all the wrong we (humanity) have done to the health of this planet, which has affected our own health as well. A lot of lifestyle diseases today are caused by adulterated chemically-treated produce. Plastic is not just in our oceans but in our foods. Our previous generations may not have had the technology and aspiration we have today, but they definitely lead a good life (pre-industrialisation era).
How do we live like they did, and do no further harm than we already have? In March 2019, I started a challenge called the buy nothing project where I decided to not buy anything new except food. I also turned vegan that same year and started exploring sustainable ways to consume and nourish Earth in the process; I studied design thinking from a circular approach, ethical production methods and sustainable materials.
All this led me to ask another question, what if we could continue consuming conveniently, without waste? The first step for me to make a change was unlearning about consumerism and fast fashion and going back a few decades to when our planet’s health was better than it is today. I realised that the problem is not just management of human waste but in the consumption patterns itself.
I became obsessed with understanding ingredients, methods and packaging materials for products in my home and around me. I took multiple courses to study the impact of production, consumption, permaculture, and circular design for sustainability.
I started listing down all the things around me that I wanted to replace and not create more waste than we already had, right from from pens, pencils, toothbrushes, straws to skincare and even furniture that was made sustainably. Then, I evaluated them on parameters that were “earth-friendly”, for example measuring carbon footprint, plastic waste and footprint, energy and water consumed in the process, the cost of human capital involved. At the time it was a simple excel document where I would tick each product that worked according to this method, which later evolved into our product selection framework.
The Brown Lens, which evaluates each stage of the products lifecycle on parameters of lifecycle impact, carbon and plastic footprint, circular design, social impact, fair trade and ethical practices, zero waste production methods, biodegradability, compost-ability, plastic-free and reusable packaging and overall design functionality and aesthetic.
Why not just environmental footprint, you ask? Sustainability is a wholistic way of thinking and doesn’t only look at the environment. While the materials / ingredients you use are crucial to the sustainability of the product, it is also important that we are able to support a community that wants to make this planet a better place - In our case, artisans who are trying to preserve a craft or come from underprivileged or diverse backgrounds, and/or are MSME’s who have taken adequate measures to tick of all boxes for our sustainability parameters.
In just under two years, we have been able to positively impact over 3,000 artisans, 270+ MSME’s, 176 women entrepreneurs while planting 10,000 trees to negate our footprint as a business.
My ambition with all I do at Brown Living is to bring back some of the old practices of living (from pre-industrialisation and prior to invention of harmful chemicals and plastic) and make them relevant to our urban lifestyle.
3. Sustainable living is at the core of the conversation across platforms, conferences because of the urgency to avert further damage to the planet. You've spent over two years in this space. What are your findings, learnings.
Going plastic free is a journey, it doesn't happen overnight.
It definitely doesn’t happen overnight as you can’t just throw all of your plastic away. We also need to get used to the fact that Plastic is a relatively new material (just about 200 years old), but is not leaving our homes anytime soon (min 900 years for all the stuff we’d made in just 200 years).
Everyone must focus on Sustainability today, to build for a resilient future.
Competition is a great way to say that there is a definite market for sustainable products and is an upward trend for growth. This is exactly why we wanted to create a marketplace that promotes a healthy, fair and financially viable platform for sellers both small and big to showcase and sell their products.
We have helped form a lot of collaboration and synergies between sustainable and ethical brands as well as platforms, wherein they collaborate and co-create to promote this lifestyle; from categories that are complimentary (example, personal care and home care) as well as are completely unrelated (example, Eco-Tourism and Ethical Fashion), seen thrive, together.
However, our challenge remains to compete with large, funded companies with over- consumption and single bottom-line growth (read profit) as their main agenda. It’s about time we institutionalise the triple-bottom-line reporting (read people-planet-profit) to be able to truly make a change, quickly, we are already seeing the shift in equity markets with ESG Funds.
4. Consumers are bombarded with a cheaper alternative every minute. How does Brown Living tackle this roadblock?
This is purely due to the economics of the segment. Many years ago (say 20 years), Solar panels were neither easily accessible not affordable for masses. However, today it is possible to even get subsidies and affordable rates (whether you are an individual or an enterprise) for using renewable energy sources.
I call this the “Economics of Accessibility”, wherein the more something is made available, the cheaper it becomes over time (read affordability is a function of availability). In about five years from now, you will see the entire eco-friendly and sustainable products and services industry go through a massive structuring, quality scrutiny, price mapping and consumer regulations.
Some of this is already happening via external certifications and quality metrics such as Fair Trade, GOTS certification, PETA Certification for Vegan and Cruelty Free, Ayurvedic Certification by Ministry of Ayush. We are yet to see this segment reach 10% potential, we have a while till we reach the bell curve but don’t have time till 2050 to make false promises.
Your impact is as good as the number of people using your product or service.
We, at Brown Living, want to make products and services for sustainable living reach the larger masses in India (to support the Economics of Accessibility concept I mentioned earlier), make it convenient, easy, affordable and accessible to all. We have also noticed that our target customers are age, gender, and income bracket agnostic, that supports our vision to do so too.
5. An entrepreneurial journey is faced by a number of challenges. Share some prominent ones and how did you work around them to find a feasible solution?
Nearly three in four millennials suffer from Eco-anxiety without really knowing about it. Some of it stems from the fact that we are aware about the larger problem of the climate crisis, but we don’t know where to begin, what to do, or how to make a difference.
I am one of the 75% of these millennials and I can tell you with faith that it is because of this anxiety and fear that we are seeing even a slight change in consumption habits, brand communications, business models, and government policy changes at large.
Unfortunately, our generation doesn’t have a choice but to switch to a sustainable lifestyle as we are bringing in the future generations and raising them for a world that may not exist.
When you are at war, you worry about survival, we are at war against time left on this planet. Sure, it is an easy path if you have an intent to make a change and a super tough journey for those who want to make excuses or say it’s too hard.
Convenience being the key focus, at Brown Living our goal has always been to make low- waste and sustainable living super convenient and accessible to all. We do this by bringing over 200+ categories from 250+ brands under one roof (spanning over 6,000+ products).
It’s like any other lifestyle change you will make, like changing your diet; at first you will find the recipes difficult but once you try a few, you’ll be able to explore so much more.
6. You now have a business partner too. How does it help leverage the conversation around sustainability and growth for the business?
I like to think that I have attracted some very inspiring people to be part of my tribe and Pragya Kapoor is one such person. She has been a great addition to the Brown Living Family. When she decided to support our cause and become an investor (after being a customer with us for a while), helped me take my vision to the next level. I was very sure from the beginning that if I do partner or decide to share my business with someone, we must both agree on many levels, the most important ones being the values, mission and the cause. Pragya is super passionate about sustainability, is a conscious consumer herself and has been a strong pillar of support since she discovered our platform.
I have found not just an investor and partner but a sounding board, a great friend in her. I think getting her on the board for Brown Living has been a very crucial step in our journey.
7. What does the next one year look like for Brown Living?
We’d like to improve our footprint in India, become a household name in sustainable living, a discovery and shopping platform for people who want to make a change or an impact, a platform to show you the way to lead a sustainable life in so many different ways, remind you of the values we as Indians have practised of living zero waste for generations (before the decades where we got swayed away from supporting and consuming local and sustainable).
8. If there is one message you would like to give our readers, what would that be! How could each one of us do a little bit for the planet?
Owing to “convenience” and “urban-living”, the key marketing tactic for most FMCG brands has been to promoted “packaged goods”. From fruits and vegetables to steel containers, everything you buy comes wrapped in a plastic that is impossible to recycle it all. All we can do is delay the process of that piece of plastic going into a landfill – find a new role for it, upcycle it, recycle it responsibly, and ensure it doesn’t end up in a landfill or pollute our oceans.
Becoming Sustainable is a journey and we all need to be mindful of all the things we consume. So the next thing you buy, ask them for plastic-free packaging; carry your own bag to the grocery store, carry a spoon and straw when you street food; read the labels when you buy your produce; segregate your waste; understand the recycling symbols; and if you need to shop, SHOP ONLY SUSTAINABLE.