"Until I left home for college, I had never used shampoo from a bottle! It was all home-made," says founder Sunita Jaju #LiveGreen
Our planet is bankrupt. Humanity’s greed has consumed all that the earth had to offer and now, we stand at the precipice, staring at earth’s empty coffers lying visible for all to see. What we need now are ruthless decisions.
Decisions to flood our lives with sustainable practices and become more conscious of what we consume and how we consume it. These values should not be limited to our personal capacity, but also need to be propagated, especially among impressionable young minds.
Sunita Jaju, luckily, was nurtured under the care of sustainable values since she was a kid. “During my childhood, my mother really influenced how we grew up. We were made to believe that nature had all the solutions. She would make uptans, natural soaps and shampoos at home. Until I left home for college, I had never used shampoo from a bottle!” says the 52-year-old.
After Sunita got married and moved to her in-law’s place in Satara in 1990, she was happy to notice environmentally conscious ways being practiced in her new home too.
“When I started living with my in-laws, I saw that my mother-in-law would collect even the smallest bits of paper for recycling. I myself started vermi-composting at home during that time,” recalls Sunita.
Sunita devoted her life learning about the resourcefulness of nature and how we can aid its many systems by adopting sustainable ways of living. Such was the influence of this eco-loving way of life that Sunita went on to set up her own small business based on these values! And when she founded ‘Rustic Art’ in 2010, it seemed a natural progression of how she had lived her life so far.
Rustic Art is a social enterprise which makes natural personal care products like soaps, oils, shampoos and laundry soaps completely free from toxic chemicals which means they are good for you and the planet.
With its founding principles firmly entrenched in empowering farmers and women, ‘Rustic Art’ sources most of the raw materials from farmer networks and 85 per cent of the workforce at the Satara unit comprises women who handle all the packaging, labelling and production. Currently, Rustic Art has developed a range of 110 products while supporting the livelihoods of over 250 people!
To try Rustic Art’s natural products, click on this link.
A Conscious Ecopreneur at Heart
Brought up in Mysuru, Karnataka, Sunita pursued her Bsc. degree in Sericulture from Mysuru University. She then finished her MBA from the Government Polytechnic College in Kanpur in 1990 and got married soon after.
Since she had knowledge of sericulture, she started rearing silkworms on a small scale. Once the cocoons were formed, they were sent to a government grainage in Amboli. In 1997, Sunita also started managing a franchisee of a telecommunications company in Satara itself.
“But, after a few years, I felt like there was an absence of a genuine feeling of satisfaction and contentment in my life at that point,” she shares.
With a genuine passion for sustainability that only increased over the years, Sunita decided to pursue a distance learning Master’s degree in Sustainable Development from Sikkim Manipal University. While pursuing the degree, Sunita realised that there were many ways in which we are unknowingly polluting the environment in our everyday lives.
“I learnt that products we use so often like soaps and detergents contain toxic chemicals which are extremely harmful for the environment. These chemicals leave our homes in the form of effluents and pollute water bodies and soil,” states Sunita as a matter of fact.
Wanting to employ her knowledge to good use, Sunita started experimenting and making her own detergents at home. Needless to say, they were a hit. “I started out making these for personal use and would sometimes give it to my friends and relatives to use as well. Demands started pouring in and they wanted me to produce these items in bulk. This is the beginning of Rustic Art for me,” smiles Sunita.
Turning her Dream into a Reality
When Sunita founded Rustic Art in 2010, the items they were selling under their brand name were actually manufactured by an organic unit based out of Auroville.
“At the time, I did not have technical knowledge to come up with the right formulations. Also, setting up a large manufacturing unit in the absence of such skill would’ve been difficult. This is why we decided to very closely analyse third party manufacturers of organic products and zeroed finalised one,” recalls Sunita.
Around 2014, Sunita further wanted to improve the quality of her products and experiment with new ingredients. This, she realised, was only possible if they made their own formulations and completely took over the manufacturing process. “It was time for me to finally learn how to make these solutions myself which is why, in 2014, I enrolled in Formula Botanica, an online organic cosmetic science school,” says Sunita.
Once her course began, she started working on different formulations trying to perfect it with each attempt. “My family was very instrumental in this process. Every Time I made any soap or creams, they would give me honest feedback which helped me improve,” says the multitasking ecopreneur whose thirst for knowledge is never ending.
When she was finally ready to head the manufacturing of formulations, she set up her own unit in Satara which became fully functional in February last year.
“I started making all the formulations myself and I have also taught a woman in the unit to make these. So, she takes over when I am busy with other aspects of the operations,” says Sunita. All of Rustic Art’s products are natural and have been FDA approved.
Empowering Communities while Protecting the Planet
The value system on which Rustic Art thrives has been very well thought out by the founder. Empowering women and farming communities, while also incorporating environment-friendly practices had always been a clear focus for Sunita.
Thus, all the raw-material like coconut, flaxseed, sesame, hemp, castor and other oils are cold pressed and sourced locally from a mill. While herbal extracts of shikakai, amla, brahmi and other herbs are also sourced from local farmers.
“We try and source all the ingredients from in and around Satara to reduce our carbon footprints from transportation,” states Sunita.
Another focus during the inception of her brand was how to cut costs and save resources. The startup’s Satara unit is completely solar powered and employs close to 20+women working in its premises who manage all the packaging.
As a social and ecopreneur’s mind is always abuzz with finding solutions for the issues they observe around them, Sunita also became concerned about the menstrual hygiene of the women working with her and in the rural society at large. She understood that sanitary napkins can be expensive for these women and also pollute the environment. This strain of thought propelled Sunita to manufacture menstrual cups in her unit in May 2019.
Now, she is working with local NGOs and volunteers in the region who are making these available to women in the rural areas at the lowest prices and also educating them on it’s use.
Sunita informs us that while making the products, Rustic Art ensures that there is minimal use of water in the manufacturing process. Additionally, the formulation of a product is such that a consumer need not use too much water to wash off the soap-based products.
“Now, as an example, if you look at the laundry detergent that you get in the market, once you soak your laundry in it, you would need a lot of water to wash it off your clothes. But, our laundry powder is made from eco-friendly and natural components. So, you can rinse it off with less water that doesn’t pollute the environment,” says Sunita.
All the ingredients and products, starting from the oil used to manufacture soaps, detergents and the menstrual cups, have been tested by employees with a background in pharmaceuticals and microbiology.
Suffice it to say, that Rustic Art’s regular and happy customers are a testimony to a job well done.
Bean Jacob D’Souza, a 50-year-old entrepreneur based out of Mumbai’s Santa Cruz area discovered Rustic Art’s tea tree oil soap and detergent when she was shopping at an organic store in 2015.
“In our home, we try to use products which are organic and safe. I discovered them at a store and was amazed at the quality. My husband who experiences skin allergy due to the humidity, stopped experiencing any kind of itching the very next day,” she exclaims!
Even the laundry detergent she bought from them doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals so she happily uses them to water the vertical garden on her balcony.
“It’s been close to five years since I started using their products. My 17-year-old daughter, who is a professional tennis player, uses their moisturing lotion. I have even suggested them to my extended family who also started using these products and equally love them,” smiles D’Souza.
Overcoming Roadblocks and Cruising Ahead
Every morning, Sunita wakes up at 5 am in the morning and goes about finishing her household chores. Once she is done making breakfast, she leaves for her unit located 15 mins away where she works on her formulations.
Naturally, the road to a successful business has not been an easy one for the busy mum.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for me was to learn how to make my own formulation which I have improved upon with persistence. The other challenge is to ensure the ingredients we use are completely pure. We do not want to compromise on that and deliver on her promise. Often times, we have had to discontinue sourcing from vendors due to quality issues,” states the mum.
Sunita also has advice for entrepreneurs like her who might face challenges.
“Always try to look for opportunities and create something that is not already available. Focus on the concept and it’s execution. Have a value system in place that reflects in your products and services. Most importantly, always have faith in yourself and the work you’re doing,” she says.
So, what does Rustic Art have to offer in the future?
“We are working on a range of products for the hospitality industry that we plan on launching in about six to eight months. These products will obviously be natural but we are also experimenting with sustainable packaging to reduce plastic waste,” she says.
She adds that these products would be produced with less water and would come in the form of tablets or powders, making it easy to carry during travels.
“In the end, I want to be an example and a pioneer of sustainable brands in the country. I hope to inspire others to make an environmentally friendly choice. If a mum like me can have a belief and do something about it, I believe anyone can,” she says signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Ratan Tata
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Resource efficient technology
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
*Your favourite book
Ans: The Earth is Flat by Thomas Friedman
Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra
*In my free time I ____…
Ans: Read books and articles on sustainability
* Before this interview I was ____…
Ans: Finishing my cooking
*A message for your past self about small businesses
Ans: Believe in your idea/concept
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: Their vision for joining us.
*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: “Simple living, high thinking” is something my papa always told me.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)