Spotlight Series: Q&A with Co-founder of Sustainable Style Speak, Lavanya Garg

We spoke with Lavanya, Co-founder of Sustainable Style Speak, India’s first community on a mission to drive meaningful change in the fashion industry.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I grew up in India. To be more specific, in many parts of central India, including ones that would be considered rural and backward. This was due to the nature of my father’s job in government service. My formative years were spent in the capital city of Madhya Pradesh – Bhopal, and for my undergraduate degree in economics I was at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) in Delhi. Post that I pursued graduate studies at Yale University (in USA) and moved back shortly to work on development issues in India. Since then, in the last five years, I have spent most of my time in Bengaluru and Delhi, working on worker wellbeing issues in the garment industry at the Good Business Lab (GBL).

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice and social impact? Is there a particular story you can share?

The values of public service were ingrained in me pretty early on. One, of course, by witnessing first hand the career trajectory of my father. Two, even through small actions my mother took to inculcate this. For example, I remember a birthday where my mother took me to an orphanage, to not just make me grateful for my circumstances, but also share my birthday cheer with people I wouldn’t interact with on an everyday basis. 

At LSR, I co-founded a student run NGO called Asmat, through which we organized volunteer programs for college students in rural Rajasthan. I remember this moment, when 15 of us, tucked in a sweaty, dusty Rajasthan Rail Roads bus were making our way towards the village. One could crib, and we did, about the physical discomfort. But on an emotional level, it was inspiring – to be a part of a movement, to feel that if you try, you can make a difference, even if small.

Can you tell me a bit about SUSS and how it all started? How successful has it been?

SUSS (Sustainable Style Speak) is a rapidly-growing community of students, entrepreneurs, professionals and conscious consumers on a mission to drive meaningful change in the fashion industry. We create learning experiences, provide actionable resources and curate the most relevant content to empower each of our members to shape the future of fashion. 

SUSS started back in 2018 as a Facebook group; as my co-founder Gauri and my effort at personal networking with people in the sustainable fashion space. We realised there was no platform that brings people in this space together. Gauri and I met through work (Gauri works at Shahi Exports, India’s largest apparel export house, and Shahi is GBL’s industry partner), but that was serendipity! We wondered why there wasn’t a more structured way of meeting similarly like minded people? 

From a Facebook group we have now grown to a learning community, having organized 13+ events (panel discussions, masterclasses, factory tours, clothes swaps), engaging over 700+ unique attendees. Our family has also grown – we are now a four women team, striving both through our day jobs and SUSS to move the needle on sustainable fashion in India.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

Building two successful organizations from scratch (as co-founder at SUSS and Chief of Staff and first employee at Good Business Lab) has been my biggest success undoubtedly! It’s included – finding the right people to grow your team (GBL now has 47 full time employees), building the right culture, partnerships, and developing a deep understanding of gender issues on the ground through research projects in a sustained manner. It’s been a ride, with its challenges and learnings: 

At a personal level, finding the right mentors, support group at work is what can keep you going, nudge you in the right direction.

Expecting radical change to happen quickly is a grossly wrong expectation! Focusing on incremental change to keep yourself motivated and not burnout is more real. The systems that keep us away from gender equality or basic living standards for all are complex with many (vicious and virtuous) loops, and we all (whether we are in the system or outside) have a role to play. Choosing your role, sticking to it, while respecting other players in the system is also key.

At an organizational level, I cannot stress this enough but articulating your vision, mission, business model, even if it’s a side project is crucial for its long term survival. As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast; culture is something you need to focus on from the beginning and work on everyday!

Picking your battle; none of us can fight a war everyday or work on all issues that exist in the world. Choosing what we want to fight for and conserving energy is important to keep going and not feeling overwhelmed.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for working in a generally lower paid CSR role from family, friends or society at large?

No, I didn’t. But perhaps this is gendered; because there are generally more women (at least in India) working in development and sustainability and the pressure to earn a certain amount is more on men. Although, I would say that there are increasingly spaces in this industry as well that value your work and pay you competitively. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

– Reducing meat in my diet

– I went a year without buying any new clothes; now it’s become a habit and I only buy when I need; and try to buy better in terms of quality, sustainability ethos; or even borrow or swap. 

At an internal level I have worked relentlessly on my own emotional wellbeing and physical health by pursuing hobbies, doing therapy; something I firmly believe is required in our industry because how can you work for a better world if you don’t feel good about yourself, at peace? 

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate emergency among South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

I don’t feel well equipped to answer this one. At least among the folks I have interacted with there is decent awareness, but they don’t represent South Asians as a whole, tough to say.

Would you say feeling purpose from your job is vital for you?

YES! It is a non negotiable for me (among others) in terms of what I want out of paid work. I am also privileged enough to afford this. 

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference?

Being sustainable does not equal buying sustainable, in fact if anything buying our way out of this crisis is not the way to go. I feel it’s more of a mindset; it’s about everyday actions such as reducing meat or buying less, thinking about every purchase. Swapping with or borrowing from a friend instead of buying something new. Having a smaller wedding (as you are planning to do), traveling locally instead of internationally, carpooling. In fact, in many of these examples it’s about scaling back and that is affordable to all of us. It’s more about being comfortable with that, not drawing validation from materialistic objects or social desirability all the time.

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?

Most recently I read one of Ismat Chughtai (an Urdu novelist from South Asia)’s stories (Massoma), which got me looking at her life story. This may be recency bias kicking in, as there are many many stories that have inspired me. Chughtai was bold, unafraid to speak truth to power, at a time when society here was even more conservative. A fierce feminist, she talked openly about female sexuality and commodification at a time when, if anything, our society was more conservative. That takes courage!

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