Interview with Damandeep Singh, Director at CDP India

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Today’s blog post is an interview with Damandeep Singh, Director, CDP India. Daman has worked for over two decades writing and researching on environment and development issues in India. He worked as an independent consultant and journalist primarily on environment and climate change issues working with ERM UK, Worldwatch Institute, The Climate Group, Bureau of Energy Efficiency and Suzlon Energy. Prior to that, he was heading Research and Programme Missions Divisions of the National Geographic Channel for five years.

I’ve always been fascinated with National Geographic and what it does. As a 90s kid, I grew up watching the Nat Geo Channel. How was it working with them and what did you do as a Researcher?

Daman: Glad to hear it. I was part of the research team of the Channel and not the Society so there’s a slight difference. And in India, the channel is managed by the Star bouquet of channels. It’s actually now almost entirely owned by Fox/NewsCorp, I believe. Earlier the editorial and the research control was with the National Geographic Society. But the programming and the marketing was with Star in India or Sky in the UK. All in all, it was a great learning experience interacting with the research team in Washington. In India, the focus was mostly largely on marketing and distribution. I was responsible for maintaining the scientific rigour and the integrity because there were very strict standards, practices and processes for research for these programs.

Did you work on a particular subject?

Daman: No. When I joined National Geographic, I joined them to manage their website. This was the time of the dot-com boom everybody thought there was a lot of money to be made in websites but that didn’t go as per plans. Later I got more involved in research and other outreach and mission programs. We did research on whatever was required such as Ganga, so-called witches, tigers in Ranthambore, whatever the programs were about. We made sure that all the facts were in order. National Geographic programs conform to strict fact-checking and sources are all encyclopedic in the sense that whatever fact is quoted in a program it has to be verified and has to be authenticated by at least two high-value sources.

Are there external sources?

Daman: The internal National Geographic source is, of course, the first preference. The other sources ae Encyclopedia Britannica and others that are of academic value. I also ran a program for the mission division that these days would be classified under CSR: An educational program where took National Geographic films to government school children in rural and remote regions of Uttarakhand. This was in the pre-cable TV era and most schools had no electricity. So we actually also had to carry a smaller Genset and a projector. We showed NGC films to school children and even constructed activities around those films. We ran that for about three years 2003 to 2006, after which I moved out of National Geographic and it is now run by my former colleagues.

At the beginning of your career, what motivated you? For example, for me as a kid, as far as I can remember it was mainly these three things – waste, ozone layer depletion, and pollution. So, what triggered you?

Daman: When I left school in 1984 I wanted to study Psychology. Later that year there were anti-Sikh riots in Delhi which were quite traumatic. Being born in a Sikh family we had to shift our home and it was quite difficult at the time. I began reading a lot of newspapers and was attracted to journalism which was shaping how things are reported, how things are perceived. I decided to become a journalist and enrolled in a course with Times of India School of Journalism. I worked as a journalist for about two decades. I started in Times of India where I was on the desk and slowly began reporting on a little bit of politics. I soon got very disillusioned with political reporting because the politicians said one thing one day and within the next few weeks they had completely changed and moved on. At that time I came across a couple of NGOs like Kalpavriksha in Delhi who were working on conservation as well as supporting the tribals in their struggle against the Narmada dam. I met the tribals visiting from the valley in Delhi and then actually travelled in the Narmada valley with Medha Patkar for about a week which was eye-opening. I’d never done anything like that.d I have a great admiration for two women in India who have done phenomenal work to bring out the development issues in India – Medha Patkar and Aruna Roy. Aruna Roy was an IAS officer who gave up her job and started the Right to Information (RTI) moment. The whole RTI act actually came about by the actions of a group called MKSS. Arvind Kejriwal and others actually started out by being part of this movement and then they branched off into politics on. Social movements interested me and then environmental issues. I began writing about wildlife, forests and development issues. It also allowed me to travel and to do that it felt more real rather than report on politics. From the early 90s onward I started concentrating on environmental issues when I became an environmental journalist and that’s how my career progress started.

Did working as an environmental journalist scare you? According to the Guardian, environmental defenders are being killed at the rate of almost four a week across the world. What kept you going?

Daman: There was trouble then as well but it wasn’t as pronounced as now but it was clear that the government didn’t like it. Kamal Nath, the environment ministry, had me blacklisted from the ministry and their media briefings. The threat wasn’t as real and as big as it was. What kept me going was the belief that you report on underrepresented people and a belief that you would like to see a world better than what it is now. The strength of the people whose livelihoods are/were threatened and their struggles are what keeps you going.

A few years back when I was in college I used to get really angry at people. I would just get so angry at any stranger that I would tell them not to do it. But nowadays reading things like this scares me. Makes me think whether I should speak out or not.

Daman: It is scary and there are a lot of dangers. But you know the point is there are dangers in everything and you’ve got to do what you believe is right.

True. It is always good to hear from people who’ve been through it. It can inspire me and other people who are maybe are as scared as I am or even more.

Daman: No, it actually seems a lot scarier from the outside, not so much when you get in there and you’re in the middle of all it. I used to go as a reporter every year and report on the struggles of people who were affected by the Bhopal gas leak and there one saw a lot of young people who’d given up promising careers to come and work for the victims. Those are inspiring stories and that’s what keeps you going.

You have worked with some of the most prominent consultancies in the environmental field. How does it feel? What were your challenges as well as achievements?

Daman: I moved out of journalism to work in consultancies to try and understand this field a little better. It’s a contract job and you do it but it also tells you how the world is perceiving this and how they’re looking at it from a managerial perspective. You learn how to interact with governments, how to interact with companies, learn what they want to do and what are they looking at. It’s interesting to see how management and marketing concepts are being used to again manage and address environmental issues. I did that for a few years. and of course, there is always a pressure on consultancies like any businesses of revenue generation. But it was good a learning experience and see how these things are being managed here.

One of your internet profiles talks about how you find the shift towards green business immensely exciting and full of opportunities. How’s the Indian market doing in terms of that?

Daman: The Indian market is slowly moving and we’re trying to convince them that there are huge opportunities. Where they’ve seen opportunities like in solar and earlier in wind, the companies have picked up and they’ve moved as they’re now on energy efficiency as well. The government is promoting action through the PAT (Perform Achieve and Trade) scheme of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency which is like a cap and trade scheme on energy efficiency. However, there are actually great opportunities for innovators and this is the exciting field and my message to most companies is that this is a whole new world. This is an opportunity when if you move and you innovate you will find a lot of opportunities, estimates say its about $23 Trillion plus, but you have to manage the risk. If you wait for the government to lay the policies or handouts it will take its own sweet time and by that time you may have missed the opportunity. It’s time for risk takers and for people to step up, for instance, on electric vehicles. Here the government is actually coming out with policy, but there were some early movers like Reva car which the Mahindra group took over. They were struggling for a long time. There are other exciting opportunities in the sectors like green buildings, green products which consume low energy and fewer resources. The Government of India for its part has a fantastic program on – the LED lamps. Through a program, it is speeding up replacement of incandescent by providing LEDs through distribution companies. Using public procurement the government brought the cost down from about levels of 500/600 rupees so that now you can get it from your electric utility for about 60 rupees. That kind of program will lead to a lot of innovation. Bulk procurement can spur a demand and bring down prices. There are a lot of opportunities to be had for companies to take bold action actions so my endeavour is to inform them that these are the opportunities that exist and if they want to really benefit from it they need to move quickly. Sometimes there will be government policies, but not in all cases.

You’re right. Everybody should get started and do something and not wait for one stakeholder to take action. Everyone should be working together. Moving on to your work with CDP. How are companies and cities in India when it comes to disclosing their environmental impacts? Are they open to doing it or hesitant?

Daman: They are hesitant but we are making progress but it’s sort of slow. We get about 30% of the top 200 listed companies disclosing the CDP, that’s between 50 to 55 companies every year and then we have another 70 companies that are through the supply chain program. All in all, we have about 130 companies disclosing but that is nowhere near enough on the enormity of the scale that’s required. Increasingly a lot of investors are now demanding that companies show their green credentials. Our main purpose is to make companies aware of what the investors are looking at and to see how companies can meet those demands and to attract better investment because companies need investments. Now investors are also slowly incorporating green criterion in their investment decisions. The whole idea is to make sure that companies are aware that this is what investors are demanding and for investors to actually come out and say to companies that this is what they want. It has to be a two-way process so we try to encourage on both sides to see how we can better spur action on that.

Going by the CDP India Climate Change Report 2017, in 2017, 51 Indian companies responded to the CDP Climate Change questionnaire, of which 43 were among BSE Top 200 companies and three from other benchmark samples to whom CDP had sent information requests. That’s good, right?

Daman: Yeah it’s good but companies need to take action. As we see in the media that despite the U.S. government pulling out, there are over 2700 U.S. companies and cities and universities that have said that no they will align themselves and their targets to meet the Paris agreement. There are people that see value in doing that. Our main purpose is to work with companies so that they see the Paris Agreement and Climate Action will help them do business in a green manner so that they to gain from savings in energy costs, from better markets, from a cleaner image all the while attracting better talent. Those are our criteria.

Apart from not being aware of the benefits, what else is keeping them from doing this?

Daman: Companies need to make investments now which will accrue long-term benefits. They need to put in a little bit of money now to clean up their operations. Also the fact that they have been tied into the old system, for instance, some companies use polluting fuels like petcoke or they use a lot of coal. If they have to convert to cleaner fuels and systems, they need to change systems that cost money. So right now they’re current business-as-usual doesn’t account for that. They need to find a little bit of extra money to make that capital investment which will then they will recover very quickly sometimes even in the next one or two years. But the fact is that firstly they have to be aware of that and secondly they have to have access to that.

That’s where the CDP comes in, right?

Daman: Yes, and we try and fill that gap and try and educate and inform saying this is the action the best companies in the world are taking. You can learn from them.

Speaking of business-as-usual, currently, India is the third largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter accounting for 6.65% of the global emissions and is projected to witness an increase of over 85% by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario. Is India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, its climate plan working?

Daman: Yeah, yeah, it’s working! INDC was in 2015 and now that the Paris Agreement is signed its NDC – Nationally Determined Contribution. According to Carbon Tracker, India is one of the few countries that will meet its NDC target. So clearly Government action is working. There are great programs in promoting renewables such as the solar program and others like the LED program I mentioned. Things are moving, but there is need to go beyond as the cumulative impact of NDCs still goes to 2.8 degrees warming by the end of the century. Countries need to tighten their NDCs and take more action. India is well on the way to meeting those targets. But there’s clearly need to do more.

On that, I’m going to wrap up with this last question. A lot of the readers on my blog are not from a hardcore environmental background and some of them are students. What advice would you have for those who’d be interested to walk on a similar path as you have?

Daman: What I like about sustainability, especially as it relates to business, that it is an evolving field. There are few established experts and the field is changing so rapidly where one needs to constantly learn. That I believe, is good for students because it’s a process of continually learning and moving forward. For me, even after two decades I’m still learning and moving along these lines which is quite exciting. I’m sure this would be quite attractive to young people. Also, research shows that the younger lot and students are more concerned about the environment than ever before. They’re looking at sustainable companies and places to work in. Making money is not the sole criteria, and for most, they look at the complete picture. Many feel they might be happier companies that are seen to working to save the environment. It promotes work-life balance and that’s what I tell my colleagues. Often one ends up working on holidays which you don’t really mind as you believe in the higher purpose. Of course, people need to take time off and switch off and do other things. But if you feel that your work is also contributing to a green world, it is a source of tremendous energy and inspiration.

I thank Daman for such a great conversation I learnt so much from! I hope you do too. You can read more about Daman’s work with CDP. Follow him on Twitter: @damandeep.

Interview with the Green Comedian Vasu Primlani

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Today’s blog post is an interview with Vasu Primlani, a celebrated speaker, environmentalist, actor, professor, somatic therapist, triathlete, baker, and is one of India’s top comedians. She employs comedy to disseminate issues of social messaging, particularly around boundaries, civic sense, gender equity, and the concept of consent, per US civic society standards. She is one of the most prominent social entrepreneurs in the United States and India. For her innovation, she received over a dozen environmental and economic leadership awards globally. Here’s trying to get to know her and her contributions towards environmental protection.

It will take more than just to interview to boil down all that you are – speaker, environmentalist, actor, professor, somatic therapist, triathlete, baker, and a comedian! It’s amazing to see all kinds of things that you do. Where do you get your energy from?

Vasu: Well, there is a rule in the universe. The more you give, the more you get. If you give with the true idea of giving, as in it is not for others, it is for yourself, it is true giving, it doesn’t sap me. It doesn’t tire me. If I’m tired, I’m ‘good’ tired. We tend to conserve energy when there is no need to conserve energy. Also my mother said, “Whatever you do in your life, do it to the best of your ability. If you are very intelligent and you don’t try and you come first, we will be happy with it. If you are not that intelligent, and you try your best and come last, we will be happy with that. Everything you do, do it so well that even God can’t do better than you.” Basically saying that do the best you can. She has taught me to put in 100% effort.

I feel you. Mothers are always so inspiring, my mom always said something similar – “Do what you do well and do what makes you happy.”

Vasu: Yeah, you are right. In fact, the mothers who do not raise their children well try to inculcate in them the practices that they were taught which is do things for others, doesn’t matter whether it makes you happy or not, you MUST do these things.

For the purpose of this interview, I’m going to narrow my questions down to focus on our environment. Tell us about your journey as an environmentalist and how it came to be. What makes you an environmentalist? Did you mother inspire you to be one in any way?

Vasu: I knew when I was 5 years old that I was going to be an environmentalist. I had a favorite teacher and one day she said she loved trees. From that day on I loved trees. I grew up with comic books like Phantom and Tarzan, grew to love these animals and the forests. As I grew older, I realized that, you know we have a saying in Hindi that ‘you don’t make a hole in the plate that you eat from.’ You don’t destroy your own resources, it makes no sense. It doesn’t make sense ecologically or economically. The only difference between the environment and economics is that the environment equals economics plus time. If you say it is not economically viable today, try two or three years later. If you want a healthy happy life, we are all interconnected. If a polar bear in the Arctic is not happy, neither can we be. If we don’t see this interconnectedness between the smallest microorganisms and us, and how the entire fabric of life is intertwined much like mycelium is, much like the internet is, then we haven’t been educated properly and most of us haven’t. Most of us, I would say 99% of people, put the environment as low priority, and their family and health as top priority. Somehow there has been a bifurcation between family, health and the environment, when to me there are all the same thing. My father inspired me, he bought me these comics, he was on the Second World War, he would tell me stories of the jungle, he was also the Dean of Banaras Hindu University, Botany, in his time this was a prestigious post. He used to tell me that before that science has established it, that if you pass by a plant and think a positive thought, the plant is going to be affected positively, biochemically, like you had given it a hug. If you pass by a plant and think a negative thought, it’s going to be affected negatively. Somehow, our ancient culture in India knew that because there is also a saying that if the king of a land is cruel and unfair, the crops of that land will fail. That makes sense because if the king is unjust, the subjects are unhappy, they are going to be walking around in their fields being unhappy, the plants are going to be affected and they are going to die as well.

Environmental education is gaining more and more importance in India now. Not to say it wasn’t there before, in fact seeds for this were planted in my life at school too. Someone came to our class for a workshop about ozone depletion and I made my parents buy a CFC free refrigerator. After that I guess it just started for me. Regarding old knowledge and traditions, they somehow haven’t trickled down so well to the newer generation. I read this interesting article the other day that said “Under this blanket of faith, there is a distinct acknowledgement of the services that these forests provide.” Speaking of education, you have received a master’s degree from UCLA in Geography, Urban Planning and Law. Why this particular course? How did that help you in your work?

Vasu: I had a choice. I got very fond of the English language. I could have done a Masters in English or Geography. I decided that English I can pursue on my own, but I wanted to be a specialist in Geography and the environment, so that’s why I chose Geography. I took the college that was best in Geography in the country. Went to UCLA, I applied to their program because it was at the top 3 at the time. I moved to the US to be an environmentalist, because the US has the highest consumptive pattern in the world, so I figured if I could make a difference in the belly of the beast, I could change the world.

And then you continued to work in the US too, correct? Tell us about your work in the US. How does that have an effect on your work in India? Do you travel to and fro?

Vasu: Initially, I worked in the US for Patagonia in sales, the outdoor company. I got jobs to pay my way through college. I worked for the Environmental Defence (formerly Environmental Defence Fund) at the time, I was a Tech Consultant. I did GIS, web design and programming. I then started my own non-profit and I ran that for 13 years in greening restaurants. What I did was create a system, what I turned on its head were quite a few assumptions – 1. It costs money to be green. 2. Only people who are environmentalists only will be interested or can afford it. 3. There was a one hour segment on NPR about how people of color do not care for the environment. I turned that on its head. Because, 90% of my restaurants were ethnic and I brought them to the top of the class. Their problem was not that they didn’t care actually third world countries traditionally care more about their environment than first world countries do in their cultural practices. It’s just they didn’t know the systems of the US. They didn’t know there was something called stormwater management. If you say stormwater management to somebody who is even fluent in English, they don’t know what they are talking about. How do you expect from a Thai person who is coming from Thailand, English is their second language, they work 16 hours a day, to expect to know what stormwater management best practices are. So, I broke it all down, created a system of quantification. I’m not interested in the touchy feely kind of environmentalism, that you feel good that you are environmentalist and that is enough, no it is not. You have to quantify your change, how much change were you able to achieve. Because of my modes of operation, traditionally government agencies would reach out to their target population through phone calls or brochures, they would get a participation or recruitment rate of 3 to 12% and I would get 95%. The changes I was interested in was not like for instance diverting solid waste from landfills to recycling, I wasn’t interested and I never am to date I’m not. I’m a triathlete, I’m an iron-man level triathlete, I’m not interested in small change, I’m not interested in 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%. My restaurants diverted about 90% of their solid waste to recycling and composting. The restaurant that did the most did 99.5%. Those are the systems I created. In the beginning when I started greening restaurants, it would take me one full year to green a single restaurant. I was interested in systematizing it because doing good should be really easy. You shouldn’t have to create your own path and stand on your head, it shouldn’t be hard to do the right thing. By the time I got the process going really well, I know it is an exception, but still from the point of recruitment and to the point of certification, and the implementation of a minimum 60 environmental measures – in energy conservation, water conservation, pollution prevention, and solid waste minimization, and third-party verification by inspectors, the record I have of greening a restaurant from start to finish was 3 days. That process of 13 years taught me so much I can’t even tell you – 1.  The ability to make positive change in the real world. 2. When I went out to the investors, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have the system in place, I was trying it out myself. I walked up to strangers, restaurant owners, to participate in the program and God bless them I don’t know why they said yes. It told me what my parents in Alaska told me that most people are reasonable if you give them a reasonable argument and it is also ok to tell people that ‘I don’t know exactly how I am doing but this is where I am headed if you want to walk with me and see where it goes.’ People appreciate honesty. It also taught me that people can tell in 30 seconds if you are trustworthy or not. The San Francisco Foundation gave me a $20,000 grant. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know myself, I had no track record of proving anything in the real world. I just had a history as an environmental professional. It is amazing the leaps of faith that people took. It taught me the most essential thing about being an activist, is that your job as an activist is to make yourself transparent like a prism, white light comes in and it splits into 7 colors on the other side of you. You make yourself transparent, so that people don’t listen to you – the person, but they listen to the voice you represent, which in my case was the Earth. So I speak on behalf of the Earth, and whenever I speak they listen, not because they are listening to Vasu Primlani, but because they are listening to the voice of the earth, because I made myself transparent so that the voice can come through me.

I imagine your mom saying in the background ‘if you do something do it well’, when you say you reached for that 100% while greening the restaurants. It is empathetic of you to keep the culture and language in mind while certifying these minority restaurants. I think the goodness in you made those people have that leap of faith in you. This non-profit you mention, is it the Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education?

Vasu: Yes it was Thimmakka’s Resources. When I came back to India, it showed me exactly how much corruption there is in India. I used to respect Thimmakka, I used to think of her as a hero, now she is not even an average person. This person is a greedy person, they came after me because they assumed that the million dollars that I raised for the environment that I have kept for myself. They don’t know that according to the law of United States IRS that I cannot keep even a penny for my own use. They are so crooked, these people, they believe that there must be two sets of books, one that she shows and one that she has on the side. They came after me, the state of Karnataka put me in prison. They broke law after law after law in getting after me. They said “If you don’t give us money, we would put you in jail.” Which is exactly what they did. It wasn’t led by Thimmakka but she was definitely a part of it. She went publicly and said that I have cheated her and broke a huge amount of laws to prosecute me on a state level. The media in India and the state of Karnataka in India are all colluded to make this corruption, the threat and this prosecution happen.

That sounds so scary. Whatever you do, it seems, you are always going to face challenges and I commend you for standing your ground and not giving in to such things. Is it difficult to use comedy to raise awareness about environmental issues? After all, there’s some politics involved in that as well. I personally get so serious sometimes, I wish I could be funny too. I’ve seen George Carlin and Louis C K do that and it is amazing how comedy puts forth the harshest of truths without spreading negativity.

Vasu: Thank you. I lost 10 Kgs in 1 day, and wasn’t able to think for 3 months. Went through PTSD. Yes, it is difficult to do jokes about the environment because the rule of comedy is that you have to make jokes about things that are popular. That’s relatable, that’s what the best comedy is about. Talking about and do sets on the environment, about diversity, about gender equality, these are the things people don’t even talk about. These are negative subjects. You talk about people getting quiet, they get on their defences, they get offended easily. So, to make jokes about that and I do jokes about these and I get applauded to that level and I said I have to pick up my socks as an artist, pick myself up by my bootstraps to improve the artist I am. The first 6 times I did environmental jokes it went flat. By the third time, the comedian will say this joke is not working I need to stop using it but I said no I need to stick with it because this is the message I need to give and I need to be become a better artist to be able to deliver this level of message.

I’m sorry to hear about your PTSD. I can’t imagine.

Vasu: Yes. They made my mother cry. My father was 93 at the time. Imagine what they went through. And all because there is a veneer of democracy in India. Power runs the law. Not honesty, or justice. All you need to do is make associations with powerful people and even the most crooked people can bend the law to bully good people.

When did you became the green comedian? Did green come first and comedian later?

Vasu: Green first, comedian second.

One of your standups is about solid waste. (Video link here.) According to Jambeck, lead author of a 2015 study and a researcher at University of Georgia in the US, “The top 20 countries, including India, account for 83% of all the mismanaged waste available to enter the ocean”. What do you think about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

Vasu: I actually have seen absolutely no results in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan other than a host of marketing everywhere. I have no respect for where I don’t see results. So far, it seems to me and a lot of Indians to be a whole lot of hype.

You’ve formed a Facebook group Delhi Blue Skies to do something about Delhi’s air pollution. How’s that going?

Vasu: I’m just sitting with some slums people to do some passive solar for them. I’ve made one video on indoor air quality plants so I’m starting with me. Got 90 indoor air quality plants and getting them ready for my house. Got a solar audit done for my house and see how many houses I can get under the solar renewable purview. Also designing passive solar for slums because I was thinking of class and there is no reason why poor people can’t have solar systems as well. I’ll start with passive solar and then look for CSR funds to do active solar for slums. Then I’m going to make a video, I just did a brief survey in Delhi on efficient driving and found that 95% of the vehicles that I surveyed get mileage less than what the manufacturer claims. Mine is the highest in the group even though my car is a 2010. If everyone was to drive the way I do, they would save an average 53% on their fuel cost and emissions. Which is great if buses, trucks, Uber and Ola, they all do it, they are going to make a substantial difference on transport emissions in Delhi.

Could you please elaborate on how is it that you drive that would save an average 53% on the fuel cost and emissions.

Vasu: Think of this, imagine two cyclers and they are coming to a stop sign. One cycler pedals all the way and does a hard break at the end. The other guy has been going at the same speed as the first guy. The second guy pedals once and coasts to a stop. Which one arrives first and which one used less energy? This is smart driving right? You drive with the principle of a marble. When a marble rolls, when it’s a ball, when it is something circular, when it has to move, you don’t have to physically put it there to the end point, you can just give it a little tap and it will roll the rest of the way. So, using smart driving principles, such as that, using appropriate gears, little things that don’t cost you anything such as when you are stopped, when you are at a halt at a red light, for more than 10 seconds, you turn off your engine. These are the small things that I do that gives me 21% better mileage than what the manufacturer gives. I have a Nissan Micra and these days I have said I’m not going to drive at all or very little. I’m now taking the bus, I came for this meeting in the bus. Or metro, or bicycle. I’ll also look at buying an electric vehicle after I put in solar in my house so then all my fuel comes from a renewable source for my vehicle. I’ll make a video on that so that will show exactly what I do, so you’ll see then.

True. It’s the little things that help, for example, keeping your tyres inflated to the right pressure. I will be sharing this video exclusively on my blog when you are done creating it :)

Vasu: Exactly, that’s the first thing, the tyres is the first thing. So, I’m a triathlete, any olympic athlete will tell you that they are not necessarily stronger than the next guy but they are definitely the most efficient. They use the greatest amount of conversion of force towards forward propulsion. Any swimmer will you tell you that, any cyclers will tell you that, any runner will tell you that. The purpose of winning in a race is not the one who jumps the highest, the one who’s got the longest stride, the one who’s got the beefiest muscles. It’s the person who goes the greatest amount of distance with this smallest amount of power required. That’s what makes champions. That’s what makes smart driving.

I like how you give metaphors to explain something. You teach courses in business schools and IIT on sustainability. What’s your teaching philosophy? How do you make students understand sustainability? What are your methods?

Vasu: I use everything from economics to teach sustainability, to comedy, and somatic therapy also, in terms of realizing the reality of the body, what you feel good about. A lot of people are stuck in jobs that they hate, that are creating a lot of pollution, but they feel they have to do that for a livelihood. I ask why. Why can’t you create livelihoods doing the right thing? Why can’t you earn money by doing good, that makes you feel good, that’s good for the environment. Why do we have to be losers? Why can’t there be winners everywhere?

Reminds me of Bruce Lee when you talk about efficiency and energy conversion.

Vasu: These are universal principles. Anybody who has tried anything will know these principles.

‘Why can’t there be winners everywhere?’ Great coaching from you. Your tweets are also exceptionally positive. I understand that you want to also replace the punitive approach for enforcing environmental compliance used by state agencies with a more positive incentive-based strategy. You’ve applied this to your work with greening restaurants. Have you also applied this elsewhere.

Vasu: I was director of Ecotel hotels in India, where I was training hotels and saving them millions of dollars every year. One thing we applied at a major chain is I said that they need to make this one change to their lighting and my boss said you cannot put this in front of a 5 star hotel chain because it goes against their brand standards so they will not change that. I said it is not my job to decide for the client on their behalf as to whether they’ll yes to it or whether they’ll no to it, they can do whatever they want with this information. It is my job to present this information to them. They can say no to it for any reason including they don’t like my face. That’s their choice. But I’m not going to make that decision on their behalf. So I gave them that measure which would save 27 lakhs per property globally. I was told by an engineer later that they changed brand standards to incorporate this principle.

Are you at liberty to talk about the technological change in the lighting?

Vasu: Yeah, I specialize in low-cost and no cost measures that immediately save you money. So, this change was that in their lobby they have 1000 watt bulbs, that’s 1kW, you can run an AC on that. They would have these bulbs on during the day. It is really funny. When we were doing lumens measurement, it is a test where you measure how much light is hitting the floor in the lobby. So, the guy who is doing the test recorded the test with the lights on in the lobby and he said “Ok, go ahead and turn the lights off to see if there is a difference in the amount of light that’s hitting the floor during the day.” He said, “Turn off the lights.” “Turn off the lights.” “Turn off the lights!” He said that three times before one guy came running up to him and said, “Sir, the lights have been off.” He could not tell the difference, the instruments could not tell the difference between when the lights were on and when the lights were off! That means that the lights that were on were making absolutely no difference to the light that was hitting the floor. What’s the point of these lights being on? I said, “Just turn these off during the day and you turn them on happily when it gets dark, when it is overcast. It costs you nothing, you have these running for no reason whatsoever.” Another one is, a lot of hotels in India hold the default temperature of the room at 18 deg C. I did a little bit of research and found that the band of human body comfort is I think 24 to 26 deg C. So, you are actually putting them in freezer conditions and if the guy doesn’t know how to control a thermostat, which a lot of Indians don’t, they’ll just sit there, be uncomfortable, wear a lot of quilts, and maybe get sick in the room. Rather than setting it at the band of comfort that you are supposed to, which our bodies are built for. That you find in a lot of Indian hotels, which American, European or Australian hotels don’t do.

Centralized heating and cooling is such a waste, I agree! The technology for distributed heating and cooling exists too. My last question to you would be – What’s your take on the current state of the environment in India? What are your suggestions?

Vasu: When I started working in the US, the population of the US was 264 million and the estimate then was an average first world resident consumes as much as 50 times as many resources as the average third world resident. That would place its metric population at about a billion. India has 1.3 billion population now and it has got the biggest middle class in the world with consumptive patterns that are increasing on a daily basis to perhaps come close to the US consumptive levels. So you are really looking at a population that is not just 1 billion, but 2 billion or 3 billion, in terms of its to its consumptive pattern. So, you are looking at instant disaster. Everyone wants the American dream, everyone wants to have 2 cars or 4 cars. And it is not really about what the environment can afford, we are so removed from what the Earth can sustain, that’s not even in the rhetoric. I have approached Uber and Ola about doing smart driving, they are not even interested. We are going to be talking to the Delhi Transport Corporation. The Delhi Government is not particularly interested. Even though the air in Delhi is in critical conditions, I don’t see system wide solutions being implemented. Honestly, I see it heading for disaster. There’s studies done by leading climatologists that have said that if the Earth was to start all commerce entirely, to 0%, right now, it would be too late. We are nowhere close to reducing it to 0%, we are not even keeping it at 100%, we are increasing it day by day. It doesn’t look good unless there are drastic changes, major changes.

Thinking of the tipping point feels depressing. I guess we are then just buying more time on this planet. Humans seem to be motivated either by money or crisis.

Vasu: Yes and it’s foolish to do so.

However, people like you certainly help bring the positivity and the energy to this movement. And I thank you so much for doing this interview and appreciate the time you took from your busy schedule.

You can read more about how Vasu Primlani has a positive impact on people and also on our environment on her website: www.VasuPrimlani.com. You can also reach out to Vasu directly via Email: Vasu Primlani. Follow her on Facebook: Vasu Primlani Twitter: @GreenComedian Youtube: Vasu Primlani and Instagram: Vasu Primlani

Interview with Vritti from Vritti Designs on Sustainable Fashion

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Today’s blog post is an interview with a business woman who’s conscious about how the fashion industry operates in India and leads by example on sustainable fashion through her clothing line Vritti Designs with its roots in Aapli Mumbai. Vritti Designs endorses the Indian craft and craftsman,  showcasing the rustic tradition, skill, and culture of India. Vritti Designs uses only natural, organic & eco-friendly raw material which makes ‘Vritti’ the environment friendly organization. Here’s trying to get to know her and the business.

Can you tell us a little about who you are, what you do, and what Vritti Designs is?

Vritti: My Name is Vritti Pasricha. I am based in Mumbai, India. I am graduate in Textile Design and post graduate in Apparel Production and Merchandising Management. After working in corporate for brands like Levi, Triumph and Amante, I have realised there is a lot more that can be done to reduce carbon footprint. This is how I started doing research on textiles which are environment friendly which led to the birth of Vritti Designs 6 years back. Through Vritti Designs we want to represent work of rural weavers and artisans at the global level. We work with organic and eco-friendly raw materials like cotton, silk, linen, hemp, nettle, wool. We produce hand-woven textiles product through rural weavers.

Mumbai! A city close to my heart. Now that we know the inspiration behind Vritti Designs, who makes these textiles, and the materials used, I have some follow up questions. Are you an artist at heart? I ask because your company values artisans and what they create. How do you find these people? Tell us about the people who make your products. #whomademyclothes

Vritti: Yes, you can say that I am an artist at heart. Since childhood I have loved painting, I have tried making things with different old vintage fabrics so you can say that I feel very connected to these weavers and artisans at every level. I regularly visit rural areas to meet weavers and artisans. I understand what special skills they have which is different from other weavers as you know India has a very vast majority of skilled people in the texiles industry. I visit them, I stay with them, I learn about their culture and skills. 90% or our weavers and artisans are women as I support women empowerment.

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I feel the same way. I appreciate art over manufactured chaos. My mom once said to me that I can make gold from waste, when she saw me make a diary out of waste paper. I would say the same about you. I agree that India has a diverse set of textile artistry. You also mentioned that you visit rural areas to meet weavers and artisans. What’s the difference between a weaver and an artisan and what places has your work taken you and what have you learnt from them?

Weaving on handloomVritti: Weavers are those who weave the fabric and an artisan is someone who creates things manually with skill to make it beautiful as well as functional. I have been to northern, western, southern, and eastern parts of India to meet weavers and artisans. India is very diverse in textiles so each and every region in India has its own speciality of textile products. About learning, hmmm, I have learnt something very important from them. That is to be content with whatever you have and to be patient, whatever you create , create it with love, passion, and love without expecting anything in return. One of the very important lesson you can say for me from these visits is to create products with love and care and to be patient. If you see now a days everyone is in some kind of rush whether it buying, learning or creating. The best example is fast fashion.

It must be an amazing experience to actually be with the people who make your clothes, something a common man doesn’t get to experience. I’m glad companies like you exist that can bring that to us. I truly believe that companies have a far greater responsibility and influence in this world, and it is they who can make us consumers conscious about the issues faced in this industry and be a part of the positive impact that the companies have on the people they work with and the environment they work in. Vritti Designs is a socially conscious company and is unlike the fast fashion that we see around. India Textile Industry being the second largest employer after the Agriculture Industry, unfair labor practices and human trafficking are pervasive in the country. For example, Sumangali is one such form of child labor forbidden but practiced in Tamil Nadu. How do you think such issues are being handled?

Vritti: I totally agree with you that as an individual I get to experience such wonderful things when it comes to know about who are making your clothes but for consumers it is very difficult to visit these places, so thats how organisations like Vritti Designs can be a medium to make our customer aware of how the clothes are made and who makes them. In today’s world where customer want new stuff every month as a result of which fast fashion started. To meet customers’ expectations, brands are making things on a very fast pace and in doing that they forget about a few facts which need to be considered while making these clothes such as no child labour, fair trade practices, clean working environment etc. To stop this madness of fast fashion our customers needs to be educated or aware about the effect of this has on our environment and the people. An issue like child labour in Tamil Nadu can be also solved once our customers demands to know where there clothes are made and who made them. It has to start from the very end of this chain.

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You mentioned the materials used to manufacture your products, but what about dyes and water? How ecofriendly are the dyes used and what does Vritti Designs do to conserve water? Also, from your years of experience, how do you think is the Indian Textile Industry doing with regards to recycle and reuse of process water? Are outdated washing systems still used in the industry?

Vritti: We dye products with natural dyes like onion peels, pomegranate skin, turmeric, flowers etc. We follow processes which does not require any chemical use. In fact we use organic cotton to make our fabrics. In India, scenario is now changing, a lot of organisations and factories have started recycling water and harvesting it. It is changing.

You talked about how fast fashion should be dealt with from the very end of this chain. Can you tell us about Vritti Designs’ supply chain and how you keep it traceable and transparent?

Vritti: A lot of new fibers like banana, modal, hemp, nettle are being used so that there is less use of water and less chemicals involved in textile processing. Vritti Designs business model allows us to work with designers who want to make their collection in India. Our clients i.e. designers or concept stores owners, are allowed to visit our weavers, artisans if they wish to know about the processes we follow. By doing this we are very transparent when it comes to showing them about the whole chain who works in making the products.

I once went to a sari shop in Mumbai for my wedding. I asked them where the saris came from and they had no answer. In fact, they got quiet defensive!

Vritti: We need to understand that practices which have been followed since decades will take a lot of time to change. We can’t expect changes to happen overnight. With the time and patience things will change. People are getting more and more aware about these facts. We need to make consumers aware about how fast fashion is affecting our environment and ultimately human beings so they can start questioning the brands on the how their products are made.

How do you label your products? Labeling products can help raise consumer awareness and help consumers choose greener products. Are there any certifications or labels that Indian Textile Industry has embraced? What will be your advice to the consumers?

Vritti: We do have labels and tags in all our products. We tag our product with the specifications such as raw material used, whether fabric is hand-woven or power-loom, natural dyed or chemical dyed, and how to wash. These labels also recognizes that the product is organic or ecofriendly made by rural weavers and artisans.

Are your products and practices certified by a third party?

Vritti: There are different certifications for organic or handmade products. For example, for organic is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification and for hand-made fabric is the Handloom Mark. We work with rural artisans in different regions and through different processes so it is very difficult and not affordable to get our products certified at the moment. In the future, we definitely would like to develop a system for it. However, for raw materials and yarn like organic cotton we get certified organic cotton. The designers we work with we get lab test done for fabrics if they wish to confirm this.

What do you think about zero waste and how do you incorporate the concept in your work?

Vritti: Zero waste is very good concept and we are already using it in some of our projects. We do not throw the fabric which is leftover after cutting of garments as we use that left over fabric in making scarves, fusions, and bags.

Zero waste scarf

It is very tempting to buy something cheap. Before starting this company, did you face the dilemma of wanting to buy a sustainable product but also wanting it cheap? How does the market look like in India for sustainable fashion? Why are your products expensive as compared to fast fashion and why is it worth it?

Vritti: To be frank I have always been a person who prefers quality over quantity. So I have never given importance to something which is cheap but is of poor quality. For me quality is always an important factor. I believe that less is more. In India, people are getting more aware about sustainable products such as for example, Khadi. Sale of Khadi products have been on an increase in India since our Prime Minister started promoting it. Our products are expensive because they are made from handmade and natural dyed fabrics. The process is time and labour intensive. More over, we follow fair trade practices and we do not negotiate with our weavers and artisans.

I love Khadi myself. Sometimes I would go to Khadi Bhandar in South Bombay to get material for my dresses. I often shop from Fab India. It’s good to know I have another shop to go to – Vritti Designs. Does Vritti Designs have physical shops or is it just online?

Vritti: We do not have physical shop. We sell online only.

For our student readers out there, could you tell us a bit about your career choices and how they led you here? We know you are a graduate in Textile Design and post graduate in Apparel Production and Merchandising Management. Could you tell us a bit more about this and what your advice would be for the young people out there seeking direction? I also noticed that you were seeking interns.

Vritti: Yes, we are looking for interns. I have worked with corporates for 5 years but after seeing the effect of the chemicals used in textiles and fast fashion, I wanted to do something as an individual to contribute a bit from my side to save the environment. Being a nature lover and textile lover, I was curious to find out new ways of making textiles products which led me to here today. I would say only one thing to the youth of today is what ever you do, do it with love, care and passion.

Well put. Where do you see Vritti Designs in the future?

Vritti: It’s not about Vritti designs, it’s about the people we work with, especially women. We want to see them grow along with their skills and art. We want them to be in a position where they don’t have to worry about their future.

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I thank Vritti for her time. You can read here more about how Vritti Designs has a positive impact on the people who make their textile products and also on our environment. You can also reach out to Vritti directly at contact@vrittidesigns.com for questions about products or internships. Follow her on Twitter @vrittidesigns. Shop Organic and eco-friendly products from Vritti Designs: https://vrittidesigns.com/product-category/apparels/dresses/

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Interview with Sumit Tated, a Green Technologist, SoFood Pvt. Ltd.

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Today’s blog post is an interview with Sumit Tated, a friend, and alumnus of Institute of Chemical Technology Mumbai, who runs SoFood Private Limited. He is an Entrepreneur at heart and a Green Technologist by qualification. Loves to travel and explore. He thinks he can contribute his 2 cents to make this world a better place. He is a chilled out person, with wit & sarcasm. As a pastime, he teaches kids. SoFood Pvt. Ltd., a students’ social start-up venture initiated by three young and enterprising entrepreneurs, Amita Shah, Rishabh Chaudhary, and Sumit Tated. It aims to work with farmers to provide sustainable solutions to India’s agricultural & food industry. It attempts to bridge the gap between technological shortfalls in the rural areas associated with on-field production and the busy lives in cities. Their Solar Conduction Dryers dehydrate fruits & vegetables thereby imparting longer shelf life and ease of consumability. 2016 is the International Year of Pulses and this interview comes in at the right time. The technology they use has been featured in Fast Co-ExistEco-businessRadical NewsEco-IdeazInnovate Development, and Times of India.

This is my first time interviewing a friend as well as an alumnus of the institute I studied at. This is very exciting for me and we share this moment of pride. Tell us about your journey at SoFood and how it came to be.

Sumit: Well, we always wanted to do something different. We were hunting for an opportunity and we came across this fruits & vegetables dehydration business. The idea was brought to reality and we started working with farmers. The journey has been nothing less than a roller coaster ride. Working with farmers in India is very challenging as the sector is highly unorganized. Presently, we are working with around 100 farmers across 4 different locations. Two years from the start and we already feel the thrill. This is just a start and a lot has to be achieved.

What’s your role in your company and who’s on your team?

Sumit: We are a team of three people. Rishabh, a friend, is into strategies and the technical side of it. Amita Shah, an entrepreneur & exporter handles finances & export operations. I take care of the back-end productions. Apart from this, the team of Science for Society, the innovation company helps us from time to time.

SoFood uses solar drying technology developed by Science for Society. What is solar drying, why do we need it and how do Solar Conduction Dryers exactly work?

Sumit: Solar drying is an ancient science that uses solar thermal energy for dehydration of different products in order to increase its shelf life. Although, the concept of sun-dried food items is known in India since centuries, such products have not realized their true potential especially in the organised sector. There exist many different drying technologies such as electrical drying. However, considering India where there is yet a lack of electricity supply in rural areas and considering the cost associated, solar energy is promising. In the case of solar conduction dryers, for the first time in solar drying, all 3 modes of heating have been used including conduction. This increases the efficiency.

Speaking of ancient science, I remember my neighbour laying out chillies and papads out in the sun on a sheet for drying. What can solar conduction dryers dry? How big these dryers are and what is an ideal place for them?

Sumit: Yes, this is similar, but is a more hygienic and efficient way of drying. It can dry almost all fruits, vegetables, spices, flowers, meat, etc. Our farmers are very innovative and have tried products like “pan masala, kuldai cha chik, dal etc.” The product range also extends widely: Naturally flavoured Amla candies, apple, jackfruit, jamun, musk melon, pineapple and banana are some of the fruits which are promising. Among vegetables, capsicum, onions, lady finger, green peas, tomatoes, cabbage and many others have produced good results. Even spices like coriander, curry leaves, mint powder and kokam form a range of high-value products which show high flavour retention. Different forms of sprouts, corn and cassava have also been successfully dried to retain their market acceptability. Being dry, these are also protected from microbial spoilage and occupy less space. With lower cooking time and pre-cut nature, these products seem to be just the need of the hour with increasing number of working women and singles. For office going people and travellers, the ready to drink fruit milkshakes is a wonderful product. We have launched Chikoo Milkshake Powder which one needs to just mix in a glass of cold water and your milkshake is ready to drink. What is more promising is that it is free from any sort of artificial flavour or chemical preservative. Sooner, we will be launching other milkshakes as well. The ready puran-poli’s puran mix was another innovative product which many ladies liked due the simplicity and comfort of using.

One dryer is 4X4 sq. ft. It has to be placed in an open place under the sun. The surrounding area should be free from dust. Therefore, terrace, farms with minimal prep (in order to prevent dust, either putting plastic carpet or cementing is done), and grounds are an ideal location.

How efficient are we talking about here? Can you give us some numbers?

Sumit: We can dry leafy vegetables in 2-3 hours. Onion in 7-8 hours and tomato in around 10-12 hours roughly depending on climate. Any Indian householder would know that the sprouts, an indispensable part of the routine and healthy diet, take about two days to soak and become a consumable. The sprouts from SoFood, on the other hand, require only 15mins to get soaked.

Since this runs on the sun, it cannot work during monsoon and cloudy days. This will affect the consistency of the project. What will the farmers do then?

Sumit: Yes, in monsoon, there are limitations. For centralized processes, we provide a backup electricity dryer. Also, efforts are going on to make a dual system which can work on biomass-based fuel as well. Till then, we train farmer on how to cope up with the limitation by matching the production cycle. For example, while calculating economic feasibility, we consider only 250 working days a year.

Speaking of feasibility, how feasible and scalable is this project? Do you intend to expand?

Sumit: The economic feasibility increases with the scale as there is huge B2B demand for dehydrated products which require large quantities. The critical factor of raw material sourcing if dealt properly, this business shows very good economic feasibility. We have are working with around 100 farmers. It has been challenging to understand their perspective and match technology with it. Initially, it was very difficult and we saw many ups and downs. But our efforts have started yielding fruits and it’s great. We are in talks with more farmer groups to expand.

You said you are currently working in 4 different locations. Where is this? Any reason for the choice of places?

Sumit: 4 places in Maharashtra where we are working with different groups of farmers and ladies are Ozar near Nasik, a village near Lonar, Akola in Vidarbha and one near Pune at Uralikanchan. The places were chosen demographically to study feasibility, considering the different economic background of farmers and locations.

You mention ‘ladies’ differently, why?

Sumit: Because at one place, the dryers are entirely operated by them.

Are you saying there are no lady farmers and that the drying operations are totally carried out by women?

Sumit: They are farmers. But the male counterparts look for their personal work and these women do this additional business.

Oh, so these women put in additional hours of work to support their families?

Sumit: Yes. It gives them extra income source. We focus on three things: post-harvest loss prevention, sustainability and women/farmer’s empowerment.

SoFood is helping a great deal to avoid food going to waste. But, do dehydrated products lose nutrition in the process?

Sumit: No, the dehydrated products do not lose nutrition. In fact, nutrients are concentrated. For instance, in the dehydrated sprouts, we have performed the nutritional analysis and observed that 99% of the nutrients are retained. So, we can safely assume that more than 95% nutrients will be available.

Food wastage is a huge concern in India. From what I know, almost half of what India produces is rotted away. A lot is wasted due to lack of proper storage, isn’t it?

Sumit: Yes, very true. Storage is the biggest issue.

What do you think about climate controlled warehouses?

Sumit: Climate controlled warehouses like cold-storage facilities are good ways. In fact, initially, GOI (Government of India) started giving subsidies to put these houses in order to promote them. However, the necessity of electricity and operating costs are high there. In dehydration, the volume also gets reduced.

What do you think about other methods of food conservation?

Sumit: Regarding other methods of food preservation, cold storage is a major thing. Blanching and few other technologies also exist. Each of these has few merits and demerits of its own such as operating cost, weather dependency, the addition of chemicals & preservatives, etc. At the same time, they are able to retain the original shape of the product which dehydration fails to do.

Speaking of the shape of food stuff, a lot of people throw away ‘ugly’ food stuff for e.g. a crooked carrot. What do you say about that?

Sumit: Spoiled food and ugly appearance are two different things. We train farmers to select appropriate food for drying. However, crooked vegetables are perfectly fine for drying. As they are cut into pieces first, physical appearance does not matter.

Where do farmers come in this picture? How does food waste affect them?

Sumit: Farmers are the centre of our business. It’s the farmers who are our producers. The food wastage leads to economic burden on them. The thing with agricultural business is that it’s periodic. During specific seasons, there will be huge production surplus, leading to wastage.

Speaking of causation and what affects what, have you conducted a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) for your project?

Sumit: No. We haven’t yet.

Do you have any plans to do an LCA? Do you find a need to do that?

Sumit: As of now we have no plans to do so.

Sumit, you are also conducting research at ICT right now. Tell us more about it.

Sumit: I am working on Biobased materials for packaging.

Do you plan to use your research in SoFood?

Sumit:  I will try to use bioplastic engineered products in SoFood in the future.

This year is the International Year of Pulses. What do you think this year should see?

Sumit: While the world is celebrating International Year of Pulses, I hope people and farmers get the benefits of all sort of technologies, which will help them reduce the post harvest losses and prosper their life.

I thank Sumit for taking some time out for the interview in spite of having met with a road accident. Fortunately, he is doing well now. You can read more about SoFood here and contact Sumit directly at sumit.tated@gmail.com. You can also find him on Twitter

Interview with Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau

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Today’s blog post is an interview with Anne-Marie Bonneau from San Francisco Bay Area who is a zero-waste chef, editor and a mother to two kids. Concerned with the planet’s plastic pollution problem, she went plastic-free in 2011, which led her to go zero-waste as a next logical step. In this interview I take you through her zero-waste adventures where she tells you how going zero-waste is not that difficult and how you can do it too!

My first question to you is – What do you mean by a zero-waste chef?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I run my kitchen without producing waste. So I don’t buy anything in packaging. That means I don’t eat any processed food. (All the processed stuff comes packaged in plastic.) And I don’t waste any food. Another thing, I’m not actually a trained chef. I like to point out to people that anyone can do what I do. You don’t need special training to cook your dinner.

I see. The way you define zero-waste chef, that’s a pretty high standard to live by given the busy and rapid lives we live, don’t you think? Someone like me who’s just beginning to understand something like this must feel awe.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I always tell people I’m not perfect. If you aim for perfection, you might give up. You can start out small. My older daughter and I started all of this when we decided to go plastic-free. That took several months as we adopted new habits like shopping at the farmer’s market with reusable cloth produce bags and making more things from scratch. And actually, I think zero-waste is easier than people think. Unless you’re a huge consumer, you probably produce most of your waste in the kitchen—packaging and food. So I cook food from scratch but I don’t cook anything very difficult. I buy staples at the bulk bins and produce from the farmer’s market. My intention when I started all of this was to cut the plastic but I inadvertently cleaned up my diet as well. I’m much healthier now as a result. All the bad food is processed. If you cut the processed food, you cut a big part of your waste.

When you put this idea in small digestible bites like this, it starts to seem possible.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well you start off small. If you try to do it all at once, you may feel overwhelmed. It takes a little while to adjust to the new routine, but it’s all very doable, you just have to get used to it. So I have some suggestions for starting small. First, cut the bottled water if you drink it! While you’re at it, cut all beverages that come in plastic containers. Make water your drink of choice and get a reusable water bottle. You can also try to do one zero-waste meal a day. I started with breakfast. After I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan I vowed I wouldn’t eat cereal anymore. So I started making granola. I love steel cut oats (I had them for breakfast this morning) topped with fruit, seeds, nuts and some plain yogurt. I make them the night before, so that’s super easy. I also make sourdough pancakes a few mornings a week. Or I’ll eat eggs. There are so many choices. Fruit and yogurt…I can get yogurt in glass jars that I can return to the vendor at the farmer’s market I buy it from. Yogurt is also pretty easy to make. I think most of us are used to taking our reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. You can make or buy reusable cloth produce bags. I sewed some and they are very simple, just a rectangular bag the same size as the plastic ones. So, get some of those and tuck them into your shopping bags. That’s an easy thing to do and you’ll eliminate probably hundreds of plastic produce bags every year from going into landfill. So those are easy steps you can take. To take it to the next level, take containers and jars to the grocery store. Depending on the store, customer service will weigh them before you fill them up at the bulk bins. That way, when the cashier rings you up, you pay only for the weight of the food in the jars and not the weight of the jar. This is very important when you buy tea at $40 a pound and you use a heavy jar!!! You can also take containers to the butcher counter. So the first time I did this (in 2011), I confused all the butchers and they thought I was crazy but now they actually thank me! They may still think I’m crazy though ;)

I’ve never taken a heavy jar to a grocery store. I would get the same reactions I guess and somewhere those reactions are scary. There are some things that are becoming increasingly common with changing lifestyles, irrespective of where you come from – such as drinking bottled water. We can definitely carry a reusable water bottle. The organization I worked with had organized a waste management conference for capacity building. A colleague had requested the participants to not take the bottled water given to them and instead use the refillable jar placed in one corner of the conference room. It was a great idea!

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well it depends on the store. I’m in Northern California, so it’s hard to be weird here ;) And people are pretty green here too.

Speaking of weird reactions, what challenges did you face when you decided you want to cut waste from your kitchen?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I think the biggest challenge right now is people giving me stuff. They are trying to do something nice, but I wish they wouldn’t. Also let’s just say my younger daughter hasn’t fully embraced the zero-waste lifestyle. Her sister is the one that got us started and the younger often says to the older, “Why did you do this???!!!” She thinks her sister created a monster :P So that’s my biggest challenge, trying to control what comes into my home. But most people are really excited. My neighbours and friends have changed some of their habits. My one friend started making bread and kombucha and using less plastic. My boss started buying milk in returnable glass bottles. And a colleague threw her son a plastic-free birthday party. I try not to preach, people hate that and it doesn’t work, but I find when people see what I’m doing they get excited and want to adopt some of my habits. Just yesterday when I was filling up my jars at the bulk bins, a woman asked me about it and said “I’m going to do that!” after I explained how to do it.

Ha-ha, that’s adorable. To clarify has your daughter taken up after you or did you follow her? She’s found her own niche in the zero-waste chef adventure. It is interesting to see how we pass the concept of sustainability on to the next generation. Jamie Oliver is transforming the way we feed ourselves, and our children too. He wants us to teach every child about food. And by every child I mean girls as well as boys, a non-biased way of teaching, because hey some things make you independent, irrespective of your gender. Tell us more about your daughter and her adventures.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well my older daughter was tired of hearing me complain about plastic. This was back in 2011. I had banned bottled water from our home and had used reusable shopping bags for years. I felt bad about buying stuff in plastic but really didn’t know how to stop. She found Beth Terry’s blog http://www.myplasticfreelife.com and we started to do what Beth does. So then MKat (my daughter) started her own blog when she was 16, The Plastic-Free Chef. I LOVED her blog. But then she went away to university in Canada (we’re Canadian) and she couldn’t keep it up. I asked her if I could take it over and she said no way, start your own, so I did.

It’s amazing what leading by example does to our society. Does the concept of zero-waste extend to the other parts of your life outside kitchen? I wish I was your neighbour, it’d be easier to learn from you.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oh yeah, I’m plastic-free and have been since 2011. I don’t buy stuff in plastic. I make my own deodorant. I ran out of homemade toothpaste and so need to make some more tonight before bed :)  I am not a huge consumer, so the kitchen was the biggest generator of waste. If all you buy is food (and maybe books…), you don’t produce much waste outside of the kitchen. Well I’d be happy to teach you if you were my neighbour.

I see. What about stationary?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well that can be recycled. So I should clarify, I do recycle paper. That’s not so bad. It’s the plastic I avoid. Recycling plastic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I understand your concern about plastic.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Yeah it’s pretty bad. The oceans are a mess. It breaks my heart that so many animals are dying from eating the stuff. Like albatrosses. They feed it to their young, thinking its food :( The baby birds feel full but starve to death. It’s a huge problem. Mind boggling, it’s so huge. Oh and I compost too. That helps a lot too. I love my compost piles. The one is ready. It smells so good.

It is good to know that you compost too. Reminds me of a greenhouse a family built around their house. Do you plan anything like that as an environmental conscious person?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I live in an intentional community so I can’t really build anything here. I would love to have a greenhouse. We have a hoop house on the property that extend the growing season. It gets very warm in there.

There was this blog I read the other day. It said ‘technology is making us greener’. I wish the companies could make it easier for us. Is it too much to ask for?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Corporations play a huge role. Every November, we celebrate America Recycles Day in the US. Corporations dreamt that up. They want us to keep consuming their products and by making us feel that recycling solves the problem of clean up, we continue to buy. It’s a sham. They make a big mess and leave it to us to clean it up. They should have to.

Although in a nascent stage, there are technologies coming up that can convert any kinds of plastic to oil again. What are your thoughts about it?

Anne-Marie Bonneau:  Well I am not an expert but I’m not too thrilled about plastic-to-oil conversion. I would rather cut the plastic. Most food (and other products) packaged in single-use plastic are things that not only do we not need, but are bad for us. I think that at the bottom of it all, we need to change how we live. We can’t keep consuming the way we are. We keep trying to change the product design but not the consumption pattern. Electric cars are better than cars powered by fossil fuels but we need mass transit and decent bike lanes.

What do you think about bioplastics?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well again, I’m not an expert. Do they really break down? I doubt it. I’m always a bit leery of claims like “biodegradable plastic.” So instead of ordering a drink in a bioplastic cup, why not just bring your own? It’s not hard to do. I don’t like single-use items. They are a waste even if some are made of less harmful materials. And isn’t it much more pleasant to drink a cup of tea from a real, ceramic mug, than from a paper one? And those paper ones are lined with plastic, plus they have the plastic lid on top. So that’s one thing I would like to point out to people. This isn’t about denying myself. I eat better food. I’m healthier and I’m happier. I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not consuming so much stuff.

I think bioplastics can be a softer transition for many people who are a lot dependent on plastic. Not all bioplastics are degradable though. They can either be degradable; biodegradable; or compostable.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I think environmentalists have to point that out more. That all this over consumption isn’t making us happy. Going outside and enjoying nature does make us happy, however!

Sustainable consumption and production (SCP) as some have coined it, is a topic for another day. :) Mankind has always circumvented. To the plastic mess that it has created, I think it is more creative than ever. Take for instance WikiFoods. Its technology wraps a vast range of foods and beverages in edible packages made of natural ingredients = less packaging waste.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I guess. But a corporation like Coca-Cola will use something like bioplastics to try to convince us that it has no impact. I have heard of edible packaging but not WikiFoods. I will look that up. Ice cream cones are basically edible packaging :) Thanks for the SCP acronym. I will look that up too.

As opposed to green disposable items, there are of course ones that stay for long – such as BuyMeOnce. It finds and promotes products that don’t break the bank, don’t break the planet… that don’t break at all!

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oh yeah, I have seen her website. I LOVE my Le Creuset pots. They are basically indestructible. That site sells those.

Listening to you reminds me of how different our cuisines are. I wonder how Indian food can be made from scratch. That’s a thought I’ll take with me to ponder upon.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oooh I love Indian food! Are you vegetarian? I make dal and channa masala often. So good! My daughter has made paneer from scratch too. Vegetarian and vegan food make zero-waste easier. Meat and cheese are the most difficult things to get zero-waste, I find. But lentils, spices and vegetable, rice…those are easy to get unpackaged and the food is so delicious, that is doesn’t go to waste ;)

I’m Indian and I haven’t made paneer from scratch yet! Wow! I was a vegetarian for a few years but I now eat eggs mostly on a daily basis, and chicken once a week, no other meat.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well it’s actually pretty easy. You heat the milk and then add some vinegar. It curdles and you strain it and get paneer. I may have the recipe wrong. I will have to look it up. But I think it’s milk and vinegar. Maybe one other thing… I think most people just don’t think about the impact of these small choices.

I agree! There’s a conscious consumerism movement that we are all now a part of and should actively promote. Thank you for the recipe, Anne-Marie. I definitely want to try. Coming to shopping bags. After moving to US, I often visit Wegmans for grocery. All Wegmans stores have collection facilities for used bags which are then sent to a recycling facility and eventually are made into more bags. What do you think about that?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I don’t recycle. I don’t buy stuff that needs to be recycled.

Why do you not recycle?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well, recycling isn’t the answer. We can’t keep consuming at the rate we are and think that throwing all that plastic in the recycling bin will make up for it. We have to cut the stuff off at its source and not buy it in the first place. Plastic eventually ends up in landfill. It gets recycled once or twice but each time, the material degrades until it’s garbage. So I just avoid it.

To wrap it up, here’s my last question to you. What is that one tip you’d like to give us layman on kick-starting our own zero-waste kitchens?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I think if you do only one thing, cut out the processed food. You will reduce your garbage, eat better food and improve your health.

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Anne-Marie on the cover of the @mvvoice Weekend section

I thank Anne-Marie for taking some time out for the interview and I appreciate the candidness. You can read her blogs on The Zero-Waste Chef. You can also find her on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. Have you tried anything like Anne-Marie, please tell us about your experience; tips; challenges; anything that can help our readers gain more insights into a zero-waste journey.

Interview with Leda Marritz, Creative Director at DeepRoot, on Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Solutions

DSC_9234.jpgToday’s blog post is an interview with Leda Marritz, Creative Director at DeepRoot, on how their urban tree infrastructure solutions are helping cities be healthier and happier, what is it about planting trees that we miss and what we should be doing instead. Leda joined in 2006 and is responsible for all of DeepRoot’s online and print materials, advertising, writing, design, events, and other creative projects. Some of Leda’s major initiatives have included significant updates to DeepRoot’s online presence, including website enhancements and a strong social media presence. In 2009 she started a company blog called “Green Infrastructure for Your Community,” where she posts three times a week on topics related to trees, soil, stormwater, and company news. In 2011 she became a certified arborist and, in addition to the writing she does for DeepRoot, contributes articles for Next City and Earth In Transition. Leda holds a B.A. from Brown University in Comparative Literature.

1 . Leda, how did you get involved with DeepRoot?

Answer: I started my career in publishing (I studied comparative literature in college), which was a lot of fun but ultimately not for me. I wanted to try something new. When I moved to San Francisco in 2006, I had to decide what that was! I started by searching my alumni network for anyone in the Bay Area doing work I was interested in, which led me to Graham Ray, the CEO of DeepRoot. The timing was really fortuitous, because my background was in marketing and the company had a need for someone to tackle that. I started a week or two later and have been here ever since.

2. How can one become a certified arborist like you?

Answer: You have to pass an exam administered by the International Society of Arboriculture and then maintain the accreditation by getting 10 continuing education units every year. While my day job doesn’t get me out in the field among trees much, I really enjoyed studying for the accreditation and recommend it.

3. How do you define sustainability?

Answer: I’d define sustainability, and sustainable thinking, as being driven by a vision for how something will function, look, and feel 20, 50, 100 years from today.

4. What are the many environmental and social benefits of urban landscaping? What are some of the most overlooked benefits?

Answer: There are so many benefits to urban trees! They help reduce urban heat-island effect and crime rates, and help slow, cool, and clean the rain that falls on paving and then runs into our sewer system. Trees reduce vacancy rates and air pollution, creating a cleaner and more pleasant environment. They’re calming and psychologically restorative; people instinctively want to be where trees are.

Having so many benefits can, in certain ways, be a liability. In a recent interview with Russell Horsey (Development Director of Institute of Chartered Foresters in England) that we published on the DeepRoot blog, he said “If you imagined us as a business trying to market “trees,” we have a product that in some ways does too many good things! As a sector we try to explain all of the things that trees do rather than honing our message and keeping our messages simple. We still use too much technical wording which does not work with the public, politicians and some higher managers, who may manage more than just trees and may not have an arboricultural background.” I tend to agree.

5. What problems is DeepRoot trying to solve through its solutions? What are the major drivers?

Answer:  The U.S. is losing millions of urban canopy cover every year. We’re trying to help stem that loss while also incorporating the incredible ability of trees and soil to clean and absorb water and return it to the atmosphere. In cities, so much rainfall hits the ground and rushes right into the sewer rather than being used to irrigate plants or being saved for other uses. And so many trees are planted in tiny areas, with little or no thought given to what it needs to survive and mature. Green infrastructure (trees, soil, and water) is the backbone of a city’s ecological health.

6. What do you mean when you say ‘Rethink trees’?

Answer: When we say “rethink trees,” we’re trying to draw attention to trees as underutilized, and undervalued, elements of our urban fabric. Most people don’t think about trees much at all – and if they do, they tend to think of them as ornamental. We don’t think trees are ornamental at all – we think they’re fundamental to health and resilient urban design. We want to prompt people to think about trees as essential to smart, economically viable, and successful development. That’s what we mean.

7. The planting of the one millionth tree of the MillionTreesNYC initiative was celebrated. Speaking of quantity over quality, how would you describe the quality of this process? Were they planted the right way? Does simply planting trees, any kind, help? Is there a right or a wrong way?

Answer: I have no firsthand knowledge of how the MillionTreesNYC planting program was run; I’m quite sure they have great folks working for them who truly believe in the cause. And a million trees is a very, very large number! We congratulate them on their efforts and we’re so glad there are people who care so much about trees.

Having said that, it’s true that we can’t just plant our way into a bigger urban tree canopy. To really move the needle on the health of the urban forest, we also need to address how trees are planted. A tree’s size and health are in direct proportion to the amount of soil it has access to. Until we start considering the needs of the tree roots in our development planning – and incorporating room for soil underneath sidewalks, parking lots, plazas, etc. – the trees in those areas will struggle to thrive and survive.

8. How does pollution affect soil health? We’ve heard of phytoremediation. Can it be achieved in urban areas? Have you tried it?

Answer: Pollution can accumulate in soil to levels that are unsafe for humans; I’m not aware of any direct impact to the health of the soil itself. I’ve not heard of any phytoremediation projects being done in urban areas, but there are some great people studying stuff like this – it’s possible I’m just not aware of the work being done in this area.

9. How do you weigh preventive measures against adaptive measures such as seed banks and their gene study?

Answer: First I should say that I’m not an expert in either of these issues, but based on what I’ve seen from my time in the industry, both are important. To protect the future of our communities, we absolutely need to employ preventive measures. But there’s room for all kinds of creative solutions and ideas, and things like seed banks may be one of those.

10. Is mulching the panacea for urban soil health? If not, what is?

Answer: Mulching does a lot of wonderful things for soil health and function; we’re big fans. But it’s not a panacea – nothing is. Instead, we need to take more care of trees and soils at every stage of the planning and planting process. Soil that is healthy should be reused, and soil that is marginal should be salvaged wherever possible. And, above all, we need to give trees enough of it.

11. What do you think Matthew McConaughey meant when he said ‘”It’s not about huggin’ trees…,” he argues. “It’s not about being wasteful, either…,” in an ad for the Lincoln MKZ hybrid sedan? What’s the philosophy here? What’s Deep Root’s philosophy?

Answer: I would never purport to speak for Matthew McConaughey (you’re aware of his naked conga-drum playing episode, right?) on Lincoln Motors! DeepRoot’s philosophy is that trees and soils are elemental to truly sustainable design. We think that trees are essential for the physical, mental, and emotional health of humans (and other living things) and that they should be considered as important as other traditional forms of infrastructure. We’re excited to be a part of making cities more livable.

12. What question do people fail to ask and what would that be?

Answer: People fail to ask, or consider, what they want the site they’re working on to look like in 20, 40, 80 years. Do you envision a beautiful mature tree canopy? If so, you have to play the long game and plan for that tree today.

13. What’s your favorite tree pun? Mine is this – ‘Tree puns are getting old.. We should branch out! *leaves*’

Answer: I don’t know any tree puns, but here’s a non-tree joke: What did the zero say to the eight? “Nice belt.”

I thank Leda for her time and insights. Loved her candidness! I’ve been a fan of DeepRoot since I stumbled upon it on the internet. DeepRoot Green Infrastructure develops solutions to enhance urban forests and surrounding watersheds in city streets, parking lots, campuses, and other heavily-paved areas. I subscribed to its blogs and it started growing on me. And if you’ve read my blog posts in the past, you’d know how I love gardening. Every time I talked about DeepRoot, my colleagues would think I’m selling their products to them. Well, how awesome it is to finally have an interview with them! I’m having a superb weekend! You can read more about DeepRoot on their website, and get in touch with them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

Following are some of my takeaways from the interview.

  • Sustainability when defined with numbers excludes vagueness. It made an impact on my mind, made me think. Tweet: Sustainability when defined with numbers excludes vagueness. It made an impact on my mind, made me think.
  • Everything works in unison, the trees, soil, water and air, to make this planet livable. Urban infrastructure should be based on this. Tweet: Everything works in unison, the trees, soil, water and air, to make this planet livable. Urban infrastructure should be based on this.
  • It’s not just about planting trees, it is about what you plant and how you plant it. Tweet: It's not just about planting trees, it is about what you plant and how you plant it.

My question to you all is, what has made you ‘Rethink Trees’? Please comment below.