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This Hero Has Turned 7 Lakh Kg Of Used Clothes Into Bags & Blankets For the Poor

Sajan Veerr Abrol founded the Clothes Box Foundation in Gurugram to help process and redistribute used clothes among underprivileged people in remote areas. They donate used clothes and repurpose old ones into school bags, blankets and dog beds. This winter help them spread warmth with The Better India. Find details below to donate now!

This Hero Has Turned 7 Lakh Kg Of Used Clothes Into Bags & Blankets For the Poor

Any passersby who frequents the Gwal Pahari village in Gurugram is met with the most unusual sight. A blur of colour at the village centre blocks out everything else.

Look closely, and you will see that the source of the hues is fabrics and clothes. If these could speak, they’d tell a compelling story of the long journey they’ve had, travelling from different parts of the country to get there.

At the centre, they will be sorted, recycled and directed to remote villages where their purpose is to bring smiles to countless faces. Behind this unique endeavour is the Gurugram-based ‘Clothes Box Foundation’ led by 32-year-old Sajan Veerr Abrol.

Share the warmth this winter. #DonateABlanket and begin this new year with the warmest of feelings.

It is said that the greatest of ideas often have the smallest beginnings, and the foundation is a testament to this. With its impact having created ripples across the country, helping more than eight million people along the way, the story of its beginning couldn’t be more humble.

Founder Sajan recalls an afternoon in 2013 when he decided to undertake the mammoth task of cleaning out his wardrobe. “It all started in that moment,” he says, pausing to remember the cleaning spree that resulted in bags overflowing with old items.

“I did not want them to be thrown away. So, I came up with the idea of distributing these clothes to people in the neighbourhood who needed them more.”

This “hobby” went on for a few weekends. Soon, Sajan was joined by friends and family who loved the concept. Clothes Box Foundation may be sorting through tonnes of clothes today. But at one point, their collections only resulted in a few handfuls.

Through Clothes Box Foundation, eight million children have received clothes,
Through Clothes Box Foundation, eight million children have received clothes, Picture source: Sajan

“We would mix and match the trousers, T-shirts, suits etc that we received, make pairs and then distribute these to labourers at construction sites,” explains Sajan. This too had a well-thought-out motive behind it, he notes. “Migrant labourers rarely get clothes. Your first preference would always be your house help.”

As benevolent as the deed was, it was operating on a small scale. Facebook and word of mouth were the only ways for the world to know about the Clothes Box Foundation. “We’d write on each other’s Facebook walls. I remember we’d tag our donors and then someone would see our work and also decide to donate. That’s how we operated,” Sajan laughs.

More seriously though, he adds, “Our main intention has always been for people to know where their clothes are going.”

The foundation conducts frequent campaigns and drives across India to ensure that the upcycled clothes reach people who do not have any
The foundation conducts frequent campaigns and drives across India to ensure that the upcycled clothes reach people who do not have any, Picture source: Sajan

A night that changed it all

From a local initiative to now a benchmark for upcycling, how did the Clothes Box Foundation manage this feat?

“It was a TV show that changed the game for us,” recalls Sajan. He is referring to the Star Plus series titled ‘Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi’ which told stories of people devoting their time to an altruistic cause. Sajan and his team were elated to be invited to one of the episodes in 2015. But they hadn’t fathomed that this would be the springboard for success.

In retrospect, the founder wishes they were better prepared for the outpouring of love they received.

“We did not even have a formal setup at the time. We’d given our phone numbers as contacts for people to reach out to should they wish to donate their old clothes. As soon as the show aired, we were bombarded with calls and messages.”

At the Gurugram centre the clothes are sorted and recycled and then redirected to remote villages
At the Gurugram centre, the clothes are sorted and recycled and then redirected to remote villages, Picture source: Sajan

While the requests reached a crescendo, and the team grappled with responding to everyone, one thing was certain. The response revealed the scope that this kind of social venture had. And Sajan was not ready to let it go.

In 2015, he quit his job as an analyst and turned his entire focus to the Clothes Box Foundation. A decade since this decision, the 32-year-old is proud of having created a service that is transforming the retail landscape every day.

Clothes Box Foundation has reached out to children during natural disasters like the floods of Kashmir and earthquake of Nepal
Clothes Box Foundation has reached out to children during natural disasters like the floods in Kashmir and the earthquake in Nepal, Picture source: Sajan

Share the warmth this winter. #DonateABlanket and begin this new year with the warmest of feelings.

Weaving hope for millions 

Praise him for the change he is creating, and Sajan deflects. In his opinion, it is the helping nature of Indians because of which they have managed to keep the Clothes Box Foundation going strong.

Having been around for a decade, the team has witnessed the country’s willingness to help in the face of crisis — the floods in Jammu and Kashmir, the recent floods in Chennai, the Nepal earthquake, etc.

“The one thing we noted was that people are very giving. That emotional quotient is always there. I remember during the floods in Kashmir, we had people donate money to us saying ‘Please use it to buy blankets for those affected.’”

While adversity does spotlight people’s generosity, Sajan notes that it is vital to have a target audience at other times. Drives conducted to slum areas in Gurugram in the initial days would be rendered useless as their clothes did not find takers. After troubleshooting, the team realised the slums were popular spots for other distribution companies.

“Hence the choosiness,” he adds.

This compelled them to change gears and focus on lesser-known areas — construction sites, remote villages, etc which weren’t hotspots for donations. Today, not just Gurugram, the team has expanded their reach to Kashmir, Eastern India, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Hyderabad among other cities.

Each kg of fabric recycled saves up to 31 kg of CO2 equivalents, says Sajan, adding that until now the venture has saved “over 23,126 tonnes of CO2”. To date, the venture has repurposed 7,46,000 kg of clothes.

The women at the recycling centre turn scrap material into school bags, dog beds, accessories, and blankets
The women at the recycling centre turn scrap material into school bags, dog beds, accessories, and blankets, Picture source: Sajan

But there must be another reason for such tremendous success, I coax Sajan.

“Well, we listen to people. We take our beneficiaries’ feedback very seriously. We then fine-tune the donations according to the areas we are delivering them to. For instance, I would not send a suit to a rural village in India. I’d instead send a sari. I wouldn’t send oversized clothes to the Northeastern states. People there are on the lean side. Clothes need to fit the demographics of places.”

For anyone wishing to donate, the foundation arranges doorstep pickups across India. Once the clothes reach the site in Gurugram, they go through a meticulous process of segregation.

However, a key observation by Sajan was that 40 percent of the clothes were either too old or wouldn’t fit the people they were sending them to. Once again his ‘no-waste’ instinct kicked in and he decided to start a recycling centre on site.

Presently, over 30 items including school bags and blankets are made at the centre from the scrap. These are made by young girls and women from Gurugram. “Some of them have fathers who are alcoholics, and some are single mothers,” explains Sajan, adding that they are paid a daily wage of Rs 400.

The journey to this point has been phenomenal for Sajan whose voice is tinged with pride as he speaks of the foundation’s work. “Experience is the best teacher,” he emphasises when asked what it entails to run such a venture without any prior knowledge of upcycling.

He shares an anecdote to highlight how clueless he was in the initial days. “I went out to purchase sewing machine needles on the first day of opening the factory in Gurugram. I had to buy 100 needles. When I told the shopkeeper my order, he started asking me technical questions about what specifications I was looking for. That’s when it hit me: I knew nothing. I went back and learned these things.”

At the helm of a venture that creates alchemy between those with surplus and those with lack, he shares, “I’ve always learnt from my seniors that where there are problems there are also opportunities. I have taken that seriously.”

The episode of ‘Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi’ which helped Clothes Box Foundation to scale
The episode of ‘Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi’ which helped Clothes Box Foundation to scale, Picture source: Sajan
The foundation's drives focus on areas which do not usually get clothes distributed
The foundation drives usually focus on remote areas that are usually not reached through clothes distribution drives, Picture source: Sajan
Sajan with labourers from construction sites where they conducted a drive
Sajan with labourers from construction sites where they conducted a drive, Picture source: Sajan

Share the warmth this winter. #DonateABlanket and begin this new year with the warmest of feelings.

Edited by Pranita Bhat

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