“I realised that while the planet was going to hell, I was working on making ties and cufflinks,” states Savitha Rao, the founder of Clean Planet, a Mumbai-based small business that manufactures 100 per cent biodegradable bags using India’s rich textiles.
The journey for Savitha began when she heard change knocking at her door, loud and clear, and had the courage to embrace it. All after she read an article on the melting North Pole in 2010.
At the time, Savitha ran Soul Quest, an independent brand functioning mostly in the apparel space and catering to an international market. It was at the same time when she was on her way to launch a men’s wear and accessories brand. However, after having spent money and resources on designing the collections, and registering for trademarks, she decided to shelve the entire project.
She realised that she wanted to have a more sustainable business and what better way than to make conscious products that can last longer. She also wanted to highlight the country’s rich textile heritage through her work while supporting local artisans from across the length and breadth of the country.
Thus, Savitha officially founded ‘Clean Planet’ in 2013. Under Clean Planet, the entrepreneur launched a line of biodegradable products like tote and sling bags. She gradually added products like laptop bags, laptop sleeves and grocery bags, among others made from cloth in a bid to prevent environmental degradation.
Through their operations, Clean Planet now supports over 500 livelihoods. They have also developed about 150 different products and sell over 10,000 units in a month!
To own Clean Planet’s beautiful and environement friendly products, click here.
Journey Toward Eco-Entrepreneurship
Savitha studied her Bachelor’s in Chemistry, and Master’s in Management Studies (MMS) from the Bombay University.
After finishing her studies in 1995, she joined the textile industry and started working with an Indian joint venture company. During this time, she worked a lot with the Japanese market.
“Their approach towards quality and attention to detail is something that truly inspired me. These values have helped me a lot in my work,” says Savitha. She quit the company after working for 10 years to start something on her own.
“At this point, I realised that India had a lot to offer to the international market. Be it in terms of embroidery or the fabrics. These indegenous crafts were actually India’s strength. I also saw that India was either catering to very high-end segments like red carpet looks or something completely unconventional, when it came to international markets. There was nothing in-between these two extremes,” she states.
She then started her fashion brand – ‘Soul Quest’ in 2005. Through Soul Quest, Savitha wanted to promote the concept of handcrafted products. She worked with artisans from Lucknow, West Bengal, and Hyderabad, promoting textiles and embroideries like Khadi, Ikkat, Kantha, and Chikankari among others.
Her brand was well-received by many and Savitha steadily built her client base.
Aspiring for a ‘Clean Planet’
Happy with the success of her brand Soul Quest, Savitha started planning for other avenues she could explore.
It was here that providence intervened.
Savitha chanced upon an article on the melting North Pole which left a lasting impression on her. She knew clearly then that sustainability would have to be the peg on which all her business plans would hinge from then on. She started thinking of creating an eco-conscious brand that wouldn’t compromise on the needs of the planet.
And that is how the idea of her brand, ‘Clean Planet’ came about.
She soon started looking and researching on the kind of products she could develop and manufacture under ‘Clean Planet’.
“I decided we could start out by making tote bags but I wanted to ensure that the product is made to last. These bags were also designed in a way that they could be mixed and matched with different outfits and used over a period of time,” explains Savitha. They also introduced pouches and sling bags.
The fabrics are sourced from artisans across Lucknow, West Bengal, and Gujarat. Other than working with freelance designers for different projects, Savitha has herself been very involved in the design process. Products that require a good finish like the laptop bags are stitched at professional tailoring units. While others are stitched by women’s groups within Mumbai and some based out of Raigad.
The laptop bags and sleeves that they make is 100 percent biodegradable and use fabric scraps as padding instead of foam.
To bring sustainability into everyday lives, Savitha also introduced cloth grocery bags that one can use to buy and store their vegetables in the refrigerator.
To check if her products were completely biodegradable, Savita even conducted a simple experiment.
She put a few of these samples in an earthen pot and buried it under the ground. Next to it, she planted a sapling to see if it would sustain and grow. Not only was the sapling growing well, Savitha found that six months later, only one strip of the fabric was left, while everything had decomposed.
Furthermore, in keeping with their goal to reduce waste, Clean planet started providing ‘upcycling services’, where they give your old clothes a new lease with their creativity. So, if you own a precious item made from fabric, handed down to you over years, you can simply take it to Clean Planet and they will breathe new life into it.
Consciousness is Contagious
Clean Planet’s values and concept quickly caught on with customers. Madhu Sagar, 63-year-old retired Chief General Manager of Bharat Petroleum discovered Clean Planet’s when they launched their tote bags back in 2013.
Formerly based out of Mumbai, she entered Clean Planet’s shop near VT station in South Bombay and immediately fell in love with their products.
“The design of the tote bags were so unique and I ended up buying one for myself,” says Madhu who now buys these bags in bulk not just for herself but also for her close friends and relatives.
Clean Planet also does its bit when it comes to reducing waste by reusing the fabric scraps in novel ways. They use these and make patchwork bags and wall hangings with beautiful embroidery. An old sari of Madhu’s has also been upcycled and transformed into beautiful bags by them.
“They reduce waste and promote values like recycling. I feel like their products will last 10 more years and I can continue using them,” she says.
Overcoming hurdles for a ‘green’ goal
Savitha faced a lot of operational challenges when she embraced sustainable products.
The first was to do with environmental consciousness among the consumers and their unwillingness to make small lifestyle changes.
“I feel like there needs to be better collaboration between different stakeholders like the government, the education system and media to make people aware about the sustainable choices available,” she says.
Savitha mentions that since they heavily focus on the quality of products, the skill-sets available often don’t meet their set standards. But to overcome this, Savitha’s team visits the tailoring units, teaching the workers how to improve the finishing of each product.
After dealing with her own set of challenges, Savitha has a few pointers for other budding entrepreneurs.
“There are always going to be challenges but there are a lot more solutions. Always be authentic and stay true to your values. Don’t focus on peripheral goals because they only last a short while. And most importantly, be environmentally mindful of what you do because no one can do business on a dead planet,” she says.
So, what is Clean Planet working on now?
Savitha informs that they plan on launching a fushion collection of products using natural fabrics. “The collection will combine sustainability with the best of India’s rich textile heritage,” she says.
This collection, which is slated to be launched towards the end of this year, will also cater to international markets.
“We must remember that environmental change cannot be brought about by civic or government bodies alone. For a macro level change, it must begin at home. We hope to catalyze a more sustainable, joyous and equitable world through our brand. We want to become India’s most loved eco-brand one day,” she says signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: I think the internet will have a greater role to play in the future.
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
Ans: Authenticity and blending purpose with passion
*Your favourite book
Ans: Business As Unusual by Anita Roddick
*In my free time I ____…
Ans: medidate and work on writing a book.
* Before this interview I was ____…
Ans: Speaking to customers
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: Critical life skills like environmental literacy and meditation.
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: What was a challenge they faced at work and how they handled it.
*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: Follow my own passion and persevere.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)