Spotlight Series: Q&A with Harnish & Smital, Founders of Bombay Trade Co.

We spoke to husband and wife, Harnish & Smital who are on a mission to reduce textile waste from one of the world’s largest populations.

What is your ethnic and professional background?

Harnish and Smital are both of Indian descent. Both of their families immigrated to the US in the 80s. Harnish is a Healthcare management consultant by day and Smital is a People and Organizational Management consultant.

What is Bombay Trade Co, how did it come about and what are your main values as a business?

Bombay Trade Co is a platform to allow users to buy and sell, new and pre-loved, South Asian fashion. The idea came to be in 2019 during our wedding shopping experience. We had tons of outfits sitting in our closet that had all been worn once or twice and were just collecting dust. Smital had gone to India to purchase her wedding outfits, while Harnish purchased his from LA, Chicago, and NJ. The process of buying was so difficult and the process to upcycle our current wardrobe was non-existent. We value making the process easy for the buyer and seller and ultimately help us on our mission to reduce textile waste from one of the world’s largest populations.

How does the platform work?

A seller who is interested in listing their outfit would fill out a quick form on our website. We’ll reply via email with shipping instructions, and once you send us the item, we handle the rest! Once we receive the item, we get it professionally cleaned, photographed, and measured to list it on the site for resale. Once the item sells, we’ll send a check to the seller for their portion of the price.

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

At first this started as a good way to sell clothes and purchase more in a simple and streamlined way, but as we dug deeper we learned more about textile waste.  We became so engulfed in the issue that the mission of our business changed from just offering a marketplace to buy and sell, to really trying to minimise the effects of textile waste and fast fashion. We added additional services to contribute to this mission such as responsible recycling clothing, donations, and small business solutions that partner with brick and mortar boutiques to expand their reach and sell more of their inventory to a wider audience.  

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for your sustainable business idea from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it?

We certainly did and still do. Circular fashion is becoming more and more normalised in the world, but there is still a stigma in the South Asian community.

We constantly reiterate our value proposition as well as the macro impact textile waste has on the environment.

This is definitely an uphill battle as this “trend” is just about becoming normalised in everyday wear, we have a ways to go to normalise it for ethnic or fancy wear – but we’re up for the challenge!

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

We had always been pretty conscious in our purchasing behavior, but we started to make some changes around the house to be better about wasting unneeded items, recycling, donations, etc.

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

I feel there is a stigma and lack of understanding in all communities around the climate crisis. We think the issue is two-fold: 1. it is not an immediate impact you see within minutes or hours so it’s much harder to believe through experience vs education; 2. The climate crisis is a byproduct of many other crises such as textile waste, air pollution, water pollution, light pollution, and others; because there is so much that feeds into it, it’s hard for the average consumer to connect all of those dots instantly to make an informed decision. 

We try to educate our consumers in the more micro sense; for example, close to 80 billion cubic meters of water was used by the textile industry in 2015 vs one of your t-shirts used enough drinking water for 1 person to drink for 2.5 years: the second fact is much more real, more micro, and more actionable and connects back to the same root.

Do you find such a lack of understanding makes having a sustainability-led business like yours more challenging? 

Yes, but the good thing about consumer behavior in 2021 is that people are willing to learn and make smart choices and not get tricked by sales lingo.

In your opinion, what’s the future of South Asian fashion? 

One of our brand partners said it best, “we come from a place that values its craftsmen and artisanship to the point where items are carefully produced over an extended period of time, then saved and shared for generations.” Fast fashion and this idea of “can’t wear the same thing twice” has completely thrown that value to the side.

South Asian fashion may never become majority secondhand, but what we hope to see is a larger emphasis on sustainable materials and more conscious production practices.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

They are giving US the advice! This younger generation is so smart in their purchasing decisions. They don’t only look for a cheap price tag and a familiar “swoosh” but dig deeper to learn about the company, the founders, the mission, and the impact. They are doing it in numbers and in every corner of their life – we all need to learn from them.

What have been your greatest successes and learnings? 

Greatest learnings are definitely centered around how much we didn’t know about textile waste and what goes into production of garments.

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

Stories are difficult since some of the most impactful ones are very personal, but just as a general rule of thumb, we like to live our lives in the pursuit of doing good for others. It makes others feel good, and it makes us feel good – what more can you ask for!?

Find more about Bombay Trade Co.:

Website: https://bombaytrade.co/ on Instagram and Facebook

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Nishita, Freelance Communications Consultant

We chat to Communications and Public Relations Consultant Nishita about her experiences moving between public, private and third-party sectors within international law, politics and infrastructure

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I am an Australian Indian, born in Delhi and raised in Sydney.

I hold a Bachelors of Social Science and a Masters of Human Rights, Law & Policy and have over six years’ consultancy experience from the public, private and third-party sectors, primarily working in politics, international law and infrastructure.  

Since moving to London in July 2019, I have been a freelance PR/Comms Consultant. At present, I work for an infrastructure consultancy, Schofield Lothian as an Engagement Consultant. 

Can you tell me about your career in public relations, particularly your projects on social impact and ethical trading? What inspired you to take on this work?

As a Business and Human Rights Consultant, I worked on lobbying pharmaceutical companies in China to re-consider the supply chains and ethical trade. In my current role, I work within a strong Social Values rhetoric when developing consultation and engagement strategies for my clients. 

I was inspired to take on this role after many years of managing public relations as a Special Adviser to senior cabinet ministers in the New South Wales Government in Australia. 

Community participation and inclusion is key to everything we do irrespective of the sector. 

After leaving politics and moving to London, I was determined to make it a career path and feel rather blessed to combine my love for PR/Comms with sustainability in the infrastructure space. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

I would have to say my gig in Delhi straight after my masters. I was a Human Rights Adviser to the Secretary of Women of Child Development. I was not entirely sure what I had signed up for, however, I knew it was something I was incredibly passionate about. Being a NRI and working for the government was not a walk in the park to say the least. Despite the challenges at the time, it has shaped my resilience in driving collaborative PPP strategies in all the projects I have worked on. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to pursue a ‘niche’ career path? Has it been challenging? 

I was fortunate not to have any backlash. I grew up in a very liberal family and I was always supported and encouraged to follow my own path. 

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

I have been playing my part by limiting the use of plastic, being a vegetarian for over 10 years and buying most of my produce from local farmers markets. 

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

It’s hard to answer this question, however I think perspective is key when thinking about what the community stands for. Education is always an effective method to decrease ‘the blockers’. 

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

Again, I think educating the community can go a long way. Sustainability and carbon conscious have become such buzz words these days that it has, in some ways, lost meaning. I strongly believe having a breakdown of what these terms mean in the context of day-to-day practices will help increase overall awareness and encourage the community to be active participants.  

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?

Speak to people who have the role that you would like to see yourself in the near future, understand your strengths and develop the skills you need to work towards that position. Ask questions, reach out and establish the support system you need to get into the broad sector. 

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

My Grandfather was my inspiration, motivation and influenced my life in many ways. He was an electrical engineer and worked on major infrastructure projects across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He did not go to university, however, he was a testament of hard work, resilience and determination.

Connect with Nishita on LinkedIn

Spotlight Series: Abhiir Bhalla, Youth Environmentalist & Sustainability Consultant

We caught up with Abhiir about his journey so far as a Youth Environmentalist. Named by the BBC as The Indian Teenager Fighting Global Air Pollution, he has a wealth of experience already in bringing about policy change and grass-root action.

Early beginnings 

I once thought the environment was boring. In primary school, we used to attend Environmental Awareness Classes on a biweekly basis, in which I would find absentmindedly scribbling or doodling, scarcely paying attention. 11 years later, today, I’ve completed 8 years as a youth environmentalist and have worked with prominent organisations both in India and internationally. 

So, what changed? Amusing as it may sound to hear a 19-year-old say this – it has not been an easy journey. If anything, my age is responsible for making the path traversed even more difficult. This is the story of my growth from being the stereotypical bored, ignorant, environmental-averse child, to being the founder and coordinator of an environmental campaign that’s been running successfully for the past 4 years.  

My journey began in middle school – thanks to my mother and grandmother, who coerced me into taking part in activities in school and to join a few clubs and societies. I became a member of the ‘Paryavaran Club’ (Environmental Initiatives Club) in my school and began attending weekly meetings. At the meetings however, I found myself bored and I began to think that the club was all talk and no work. But I was wrong; work used to happen, only that juniors weren’t involved in it – we were too scared to participate in an activity dominated by high school seniors. As a result of our lack of participation, we weren’t entrusted with work – it became rather cyclical. 

Medicines and nebulisers

Simultaneously, in Grade 7, I was diagnosed with a type of bronchitis. While it isn’t life threatening, every year since I can remember, I have had to use nebulisers between October and January. Unsurprisingly, this is also when Delhi’s air pollution peaks. As it happened, the next meeting of the club happened to be on air pollution – the rest is history. From then on, I rose through the ranks and became an active voice, participating in intra- and inter school activities and projects. In high school, I was elected to the Student Council to lead Environmental Initiatives in my school.  

These two years were crucial in my development – I learnt skills, expanded my network and began to train my juniors to ensure that the work didn’t stop even after I graduated. Working on audits with the Centre for Science and Environment India for 5 years, I learnt how I could make my school campus more environment friendly and sustainable. 

In my final year of high school, after 4 years of persuasion by students, the school decided to install solar panels – nearly the entire campus is now powered by renewable energy!

My experiences 

I’ve attended several conferences on climate change, and in some, I even participated as a panelist. In 2016, I underwent a 2-month long ‘Care for Air’ Student Ambassador training to spread awareness regarding air pollution and affect change. In 2018, World Environment Day was hosted by India and I participated in a 3-day long conference hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, where I also appeared on a panel with the then-UNEP Director, Erik Solheim. 

While air pollution was my personally driven area of work, I was equally interested in other aspects such as waste segregation, renewable energy and sustainability. Over the years, I have also worked with the World Wildlife Foundation, Kids for Tigers and Sanctuary Asia on wildlife conservation, and was awarded the prestigious Token of Appreciation by the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India.   

My biggest project, ‘Swachh Chetna’ – a collaboration between the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation and public, private and NGO schools – was focused around cleanliness, plantation and awareness drives. 

Leading over 300 volunteers in over 3 years, we cleaned areas around metro stations across the city and carried out awareness campaigns through street plays and flash mobs. We planted over 200 saplings at Metro officers’ residential colonies and outside metro stations in a bid towards mitigating air pollution. 

Not all fun and games 

None of this was as easy as it sounds. Age bias plays a crucial factor. Most people reading this, even now, would think “what does a young boy know about the challenges of the world?” Yet, to establish a multi-entity corporation between a State-Central shared Government organisation, like the Delhi Metro and to sign a Memorandum of Association with various schools is particularly challenging, especially for a 17-year-old. 

All of this was done whilst juggling school classes and assignments. In fact, I was so invested in my activism, there was a marked dip in my academic performance between 8th and 10th grade! I was able to overcome this with time – a lot of credit for which goes to my 10th Grade class teacher, who didn’t allow me to miss classes for environment work as my other teachers used to. He taught me how to manage my time and made me understand that no matter how passionate you may be about a cause; it can’t come at the cost of education. 

Environmental activities weren’t particularly helpful for my social life either. What’s more important to a teenager? Even some of my closest friends were very amused by this aspect of my life. 

My enthusiasm for environmental conservation was degraded and compared to that of a glorified school gardener, “there goes Bhalla to straighten every blade of grass in the football field”

For many years, I heard comments like this, but if anything, it only strengthened my resolve to make my mark in the world of environmental conservation. 

Looking Ahead 

Today, as I’m about to enter into my second year of university, a lot has changed, but there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. Year after year, I see and even participate in similar televised debates during October-January regarding air pollution. It’s the same political blame game, the same inaction and unfortunately, the same 2 million deaths every year due to the snail slow action (or perhaps even inaction) on air pollution in India. 

Motivated by international figures like Greta Thunberg, many more young people have begun to take up the cause. The sad part is, many of them are doing it only for their college resumes. For 2-3 years they’ll plant a tree here and there, speak a few words, take a picture and then disappear – a new way the environment is being exploited. Nevertheless, there’s also many people out there who are working day after day to bring about real change. 

My latest project is to carry the Swachh Chetna model forward, and I’ve proposed it to several corporate giants and multinational companies, all of which have expressed a keen interest in it. With new research proving that environmental degradation has played a large part in the emergence of the current COVID crisis, we must strengthen our determination to carry forward our work. 

My own plans for cleanliness and awareness drives have come to a screeching halt but I’m turning to the internet like many others – environment discussion related Zoom calls, webinars and outreach to maximise awareness and outreach.

At Care for Air, I lead a team of over 20 people with the aim of combating air pollution in India. We focus on the problems, the causes and the solutions. While we have multiple projects, our primary one currently is to conduct awareness sessions on air pollution with schools, colleges, Residents’ Associations and retirement homes. So far, we’ve positively influenced over 400 individuals and reached organisations spanning across India, emphasising and building awareness around the air pollution problem. 

It is time the world knew that the human race has turned our own planet against us. Having worked with national and international organisations, I’m looking to continue to work with like-minded individuals – professors, students, businesses – no matter the industry, provided they’re looking to work collectively to secure a better future for all of us.

Noteworthy Moments

I’ve been fortunate to have had my work covered by the media, and links for the same can be accessed via this link, which grants you access to all my print and TV media features, my articles and even my resume. 

Most recently, I was one among five international youth environmentalists from around the world, representing India on BBC World News in conversation with Mr. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. BBC further identified me as one of the foremost youth environmentalists, and their posts on their website identified me as ‘The Indian Teenager Fighting Global Air Pollution’. 

I’m currently producing a podcast on Climate Change for the Ramphal Institute, a UK-based think tank which is quite popular in academic and diplomatic circles amongst Commonwealth nations. As part of this partnership, I was invited by the UK Government and the Ramphal Institute to be a panelist on a conversation around ‘Air Pollution in the Commonwealth‘.

Find out more about Abhiir here: https://linktr.ee/abhiirbhalla

BBC World News: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-55193232

Air Pollution in the Commonwealth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VJBZ_oaKxw&t=1197s

Head – Operations and Community Engagement, Care for Air India

President – Executive Council at Youth Connect

Podcast Producer – The Ramphal Institute

Undergraduate Class of 2022 | Ashoka University | www.ashoka.edu.in

Connect with Abhiir on LinkedIn: https://in.linkedin.com/in/abhiir-bhalla-9809b4165 

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Navneet Bassan, Pensions, Risk & Compliance Manager

We caught up with Navneet, qualified solicitor currently working at Ernst & Young in the Pensions, Risk and Compliance team about the rise in importance of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance).

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I am Asian British born in the UK. I am a qualified solicitor.

Can you tell me about your career so far? What was the catalyst for you to take on ESG Pensions at EY?

I worked in a few City law firms in the early days, worked at PwC and also Thomson Reuters, I’ve been working at one of the Big 4 accountancy firms (EY) for the last five years. I no longer work in the capacity of a solicitor, since having children, I took a side step and now work in the Pensions HR Team at EY.

The UK has an investment market of roughly £8 trillion with UK pensions assets c.£3 trillion, so as a very rough estimate pensions assets are a third of investable assets. Given this proportion, switching pension investment to back the sustainability agenda is a strong lever to deliver real change and a mechanism to fund green growth. In line with the EY global commitment to tackling the climate change crisis, EY made recent changes to the investment strategy of its UK staff pension plan and as part of this introduced the EY Sustainable Fund. At present 10% of the default investment strategy is invested in the EY Sustainable Fund, a “green” fund that supports sustainable causes. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, this is only the beginning and EY is doing much more to ensure it invests its pension contributions into companies that are focused on reducing environmental impact and delivering sustainability. Watch this space!

What does your overall role at EY involve and how are you finding working on Sustainability compared to your other work?

I am the Risk & Compliance Manager for the EY in-house pensions team, so my day-to-day role involves ensuring EY remains compliant with all legal and regulatory requirements in relation to its pension arrangements within UK&I. However, I’ve recently become involved in a new cross-firm sustainability initiative created to focus on “getting our house in order” which is an aspect of EY’s Global Sustainability Strategy. So whilst EY is not only tackling sustainability in relation to services provided to external clients, it is also doing so with its own internal operations.

From a personal experience I did actually start to notice many small changes happening in our office pre-covid… Disposable cups within all EY offices were replaced with reusable cups, they ceased producing branded EY carrier bags and even dish sponges were removed from communal kitchen areas to reduce plastic microfibres in wastewater. It’s such an exciting area to be involved in at present and is a definite change from my usual day role!

Being South Asian, did you face any pressure from family, friends or society at large to choose the career path you did? Would you have done anything differently if given the opportunity again?

I didn’t feel direct pressure from my family, but I think it was the norm when I was growing up to either go for medicine, accountancy or law – so I just went for the last one given I loved English and History at School! If I had an opportunity to choose another career when growing up it would probably be around nutrition and diet but that wasn’t a well-publicised career path back in the day!

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

The biggest change I’ve made was a few years ago in changing from a petrol vehicle to a fully electric one. It’s been the best decision made in terms of being more “green” and definitely cost efficient, the only challenge has been in planning the charging points for longer journeys!

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

I don’t believe there is any form of stigma, I think it is more of a lack of understanding and knowledge of the climate crisis. For me, it really hit home when I attended a work-related conference where Lewis Pugh presented and spoke about his experiences of climate change, especially when he first swam in the waters of Antarctica compared to more recent times. He’s a very inspiring speaker and really hit the message home.

I believe more education and publicity is needed in this area and suggestions on what changes people can implement to make a difference.

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly. How can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

Everyone can take “baby steps” to make changes in their day to day lives. It doesn’t have to be costly, even just ensuring rubbish is sorted and recycled where possible or using reusable shopping bags even helps. In recent times vegan lifestyles and products have come more to the forefront, which has helped with promoting foods that have less impact on the environment, so I believe being carbon conscious is more accessible than previously. Even making a few changes can help the cause.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

Really start making a difference now by becoming more sustainable in your day-to-day lives. When I was growing up, this wasn’t a “thing”, but now it has been brought to the forefront through the likes of many individuals and climate “influencers” trending on social media platforms (i.e. the Greta Thunberg effect). Going back to pensions, which is typically an area where apathy is a challenge particularly amongst the younger generations, recent research has shown that

Millennials are most likely to believe that a measurable ESG impact can make a difference and for their investments to reflect climate change concerns. Hopefully this will mean the younger generation are more likely to engage with their pension if they can see if has a positive impact on climate change.

Coming from a background in law and working in a major financial company, would you say a career in the environmental sector would be just as financially and economically viable and stable?

Yes I believe in this day and age, a career in the environmental sector can be just as rewarding financially as well as from a job satisfaction perspective. Many companies are jumping on the “sustainability wagon” and if you do a quick google search for jobs in the sustainability field you will see many listed. I believe the only challenge may be a lack of awareness of what is involved in these types of roles.

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

Yes of course – when on holiday in Mauritius a few years ago, I found it quite alarming when we came across so much dead coral on the beaches. We also went on a glass-bottom boat excursion, where we could see first-hand all the dead coral. When you compare this to living and healthy coral which you view when watching David Attenborough programmes, the difference is shockingly stark. While there was still some fish there, it was abundantly clear to see how much climate change had impacted a large proportion of the coral reef surrounding this beautiful island.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Climate change has been brought to the forefront in recent times, taking one example of the Australian bushfires, which I believe impacted many when you could see the devastation caused. The next step now is to take action and remember that as an individual you can make an impact by starting to make changes yourself and also educating others. The best way to do this is to “speak the language” of each generation e.g. the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (Gen Y) and the Centennials (Gen Z). Generally most people switch off when I start talking about my line of work(!), however,

I have noticed that if you can find the right hooks to discuss sustainability within the context of pensions, I have been able to engage both my parents’ generation as well as my nieces and nephews. 

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Zion Lights, Founder of Emergency Reactor

We caught up with Founder of Emergency Reactor, Author of ‘The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting’ and Science Communicator, Zion Lights about her journey from climate activism to action.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I’m British Indian. My parents migrated to the UK in the late 60s and 70s from the Punjab in India. I am an environmental journalist and science communicator with a long history of climate activism. I have an undergraduate degree and a Masters of Science.

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

I’ve been involved in many different environmental groups over the years and I think the general lack of scientifically-led thinking and decision-making of some of these groups is actually doing more harm than good to the planet. I had a wake up call in this regard when I was a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion – they want system change more than they want to tackle climate change, and the issues have now become muddled up. As well, many green groups don’t consider social justice issues to be part of environmentalism – in fact they see people as the problem. They therefore do not care about impacts of climate change on people, whereas to me

climate action for the planet is inseparable from action for helping people too.

What is Emergency Reactor, how did it come about and what are your values as an organisation? 

Traditional environmentalism has long excluded social justice issues. It is more about saving land and trees than about people. At ER we believe that people are good. We believe in leading young people away from the doom and gloom messaging of climate change, and toward positive, evidence-based solutions instead.

We believe that everybody should be able to have a high quality of life, and that this can be done in harmony with the planet we inhabit.

We can also see that the same old green groups have been throwing the same old arguments out there relating to climate change for decades, and things have not actually gotten better.

We need to do something different instead of expecting different outcomes through the same methods. We don’t have more time to waste – lives are being lost due to misguided attempts at climate action.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about this career choice from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it? 

I bucked a lot of trends from early on. I was the first in my family to go to university, which was all the more surprising because I’m female and come from a very traditional Indian family. I was told I couldn’t go, but I went anyway. I was also the first to obtain an MSc, and the first of a large extended family to get involved with environmental work. I come from a culture where the women keep their heads down and their voices low – and I chose to do the opposite. 

I have carved a voice for myself in a green movement that doesn’t have a lot of spokespeople who look like me. I have organised and spoken at rallies, written countless articles and a book, and been on television for my work multiple times – insisting on having a voice. It has certainly upset people along the way, but I’ve won a lot of people over too, and my family are proud of me and the work I do. In the back of my mind I’ve always hoped that by doing these things I have made it easier for younger generations to do the same. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth it.

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

I went vegan in 2002 before most people knew what being vegan meant. I never learned to drive and have never owned a car, for environmental reasons. I gave up flying in 2008, and have always been very conscious of my carbon footprint, to the extent that I authored a book on it in 2015 (called The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting). I have pretty much walked the walk on sustainability for most of my life – but in recent years have come to realise that it makes very little difference to the problems the world faces today.

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

I think there’s a misconception that SA communities don’t care about environmental issues. In my experience, many South Asians I speak to and my own family are highly concerned about poverty, and therefore social justice issues, usually stemming from their experiences in the countries they grew up in. For those of us who have never experienced poverty, it’s a difficult thing to translate. 

The wake up call came for me when I went to India with my parents and spent time in the village they grew up in and met other members of my family, who are mostly rice farmers. I came to understand the deep care my parents, aunts and uncles have for the people there and the land – and also their sadness about it all. It’s not that they don’t know or worry about the impacts of climate change, but they care first about the impacts on the people living in conditions of the poverty that they escaped. It’s a difficult burden to carry and difficult also to communicate to wealthy westerners.

In contrast, my experience of environmentalism in the west has been that it focuses mostly on endangered species and saving trees and land, rather than on people – in fact many of the groups I have been part of only mention people by way of blaming them for the state of the planet. Some environmental groups go further and imply that humans are *the* problem and should be reduced in number. 

I find this appalling and deeply saddening, as well as arrogant. After all, if you have a home, and access to reliable electricity, and material goods and so on, you already have a larger carbon footprint than most and in order to have those things, environmental damage was done to the land and accompanying species. The entire planet was once forested. We cut it back in order to build our homes on it. Can we now deny other people the right to do the same?

Humans are after all a part of nature and any environmental group that rejects this idea has a narrow, completely unjust point of view, which needs a reality check.

What have been your greatest successes and learnings? 

There are probably too many to list! I left home at 18 determined to carve my own path, and I did. It wasn’t easy and my life has been full of challenges. I’ve worked hard to support myself, and to be true to myself, while trying to do some good in the world. I have two beautiful daughters who never want for anything, but I am also a single parent juggling work and motherhood and managing a household and everything else. 

Life has taught me many things but above all it has taught me again and again to speak the truth, to call out injustice wherever I see it, to stay humble through it all, and to try to do some good during my short stint on this planet. I have learned to forgive, to let go, and to be grateful for every day I get to spend on this Earth with my loved ones. And I’m sure I still have much more to learn.

We noted you founded ‘The Hourglass’ for Extinction Rebellion and must have had some really interesting insights speaking at a TEDx event. What has been a highlight for you personally in your career so far? 

I founded a newspaper that we built from scratch, which was quite a challenge! and was also very fun. I did a TED talk on stargazing which really helped me to overcome anxiety about public speaking. But the highlight for me has been the many, many incredible souls I have met along the way on this journey. Truly, humans continue to astound me, and I can’t wait to see who I connect with next.

What pushed you to write your book about Green Parenting? 

I have always had a very low carbon footprint, and I didn’t want that to change too much when I had a baby. So, I started to research how to be a green parent, but none of the books on the market at the time appealed to me. I found them to be dogmatic, or inaccurate, or simply confusing in the advice they gave. So I decided to write a manual for low carbon living as a parent, as that was what I needed for myself at the time so it seemed like other parents might also be seeking evidence-based ways to live ethically. At the time it was the first book of its kind.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Why is it important for them and their future? 

We messed up. Don’t make the mistakes that we made, by falling for fear-based arguments.

Don’t fall for the doom and gloom. Don’t give up. A beautiful world is possible and it is around the corner if you want it. Don’t let anyone take that hope away from you. 

A world of information is at your fingertips – read the IPCC report and call for evidence-led solutions when you rally for climate action. And ensure that people are integral to your activism rather than on the outside of it. Two billion of our fellow humans already live in poverty akin to western visions of societal collapse. They suffer from energy injustice. Help to make it right. Take up the fight. Join my new nonprofit!

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

When I went to India with my parents in my late teens, we travelled from village to village visiting family members. When we’d arrive the young people would usually get ushered outside or into another room if there was one, so that the adults could talk. On one visit I got talking to a young woman who was a little younger than me, 15 or 16. She was full of life and struck me as extremely bright. She got excited about the fact that I was studying, and told me that she wished she could study and become a doctor. Although the village had no teacher or school, and none of her siblings could read or write, she had taught herself to do both through a stack of children’s books that my parents had brought to the village the last time they had visited. 

She was proud of this and insisted that she read to me, that I correct her pronunciation, and tell her everything I could about life in England in the few hours we had together. I felt a strong urge to help her to study somehow, so I asked her what it would cost to put her through medical school. A stupid question – the nearest school was hours away and even if I were to pay her fees (which would be very little translated from pounds to rupees), there was no way for her to get there and back to study, so she’d have to move which wasn’t an option for a girl her age. Besides, she also had family members to help care for, and she would be married in a matter of years. 

Her talk of becoming a doctor was only a dream. “It’s not real for me,” she told me, and I have never forgotten the look on her face when she said it. The acceptance of fate. The helplessness I felt at her sadness, and the real, fierce intelligence in her eyes. This girl was meant to achieve things.

She reminded me of myself, and I wondered what my life would have been like if I’d been raised as she was rather than in England. 

Frequently she comes to my mind, because hers is the fate of so many women around the world – and actually she has a family that treats her well, so she is one of the better off. But, she is not free to follow her dreams – never that. This memory underpins all of the work I do today. It’s how I weather the attacks from traditional environmentalists. It’s why I work so hard and am determined to do the right thing.

I couldn’t help to change her fate, but maybe in some small way I can help others in similar situations, by carving out a space for this new kind of people-centred environmentalism.

www.zionlights.co.uk

Founder of Emergency Reactor 

Author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting

Watch my TED talk

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Spotlight Series: Q&A with Farah Ahmad, Sustainable Design Architect

We spoke with Sustainable Design Architect, Farah about her job and what inspired her into sustainable innovation.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

Ethnic: Pakistani American born and raised in New York City

Academic:

  • Bachelor of Architecture from The Spitzer School of Architecture
  • Certificate in Sustainable Design, Construction, and Development from NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate

Professional Background:

  • LEED AP BD+C (LEED Accredited Professional in Building Design and Construction)
  • RA (Registered Architect)
  • City Government Worker in Architecture and Sustainability in the built environment

What does your current job in sustainable architecture entail?

I am a Sustainable Design Architect. Essentially, I review projects for compliance with green building standards and assist in the development of technical standards based on building code, local laws and green third party certifications that exist.

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

Competing in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon as a student gave me my first look inside the evolving technology of energy and water efficiency and my interest has only evolved as our design standards become more stringent and high building performance has become the forefront of design.

I loved the approach of interdisciplinary collaboration that design and construction entail – the number of specialty consultants/sub-consultants at any one project and working together to create a solution from the project onset is incredibly dynamic.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about this career choice from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it?

Quite the contrary! My father encouraged it because he is an Engineer who worked frequently with Architects- I came to appreciate the technical and creative side of this profession. Although, I will say that there are very few South Asians in Architecture. I do believe that diverse STEM fields aren’t as widely recognised in our culture, which is a shame because Architecture needs as many diverse points of view as it can get!

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

I’m the green police around family and friends sometimes- water conservation, turning off lights, minimising my heat/cooling usage, etc. are all basics that I preach regularly. I also believe in raising awareness and use my social media platforms and website to talk about building sustainability trends that everyone can practice in their own homes!

You can’t have liability without awareness.

I also lead a sustainable office group where I work, where we share sustainable office practices with our colleagues to drive down material (paper and plastic), food, water and energy waste.

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

I’m not sure if the climate crisis is a culturally-related issue, but I do have family and friends in the South Asian community who are totally unaware and unwilling to change their habits! We take our resources for granted here in the U.S. I think we need to create more social media groups and social clubs that evolve around this theme.

Congregations, events and celebrations are a huge part of our culture, so maybe we simply need to change the format of how we share our information and make it more interactive and engaging. 

What have been your greatest successes and learnings?

My greatest success has been obtaining my professional license three years ago! It gives my voice more credibility in all of my publication ventures – I frequently write about sustainability in the built environment.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Why is it important for them and their future?

Environmental Sustainability will trickle into every profession and provides such a sense of purpose to your work – it makes me feel very fulfilled since a lot of the information I pick up from my professional work can be applied to my daily life. 

Connect with Farah:

www.farahnazahmad.com

www.twitter.com/farah_arch

www.instagram.com/renewablefarah 

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Taruna Seth, Founder of Encompass Experiences

We caught up with Taruna about her expert insights into the future of travel and how she views sustainability in the slow travel industry.

Travel might just be part of Taruna’s DNA. Having spent the most formative years of her life studying, traveling and working abroad. Taruna has had a passion for travel ever since she can remember. She has lived in 3 continents and her travels have taken her across the world. Her passion to explore the world, along with her education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and University of Manchester in International Relations has led her to a 15-year career in marketing, public relations, alternative education, developmental work and a stint in television media. 

At her latest venture Encompass Experiences, she swifts through the melange making connections to conceptualise immersive experiences for their circle of explorers. Taruna’s life experiences and work have allowed her to define her skills and relationships in radically different ways. She thinks working within diverse setups allows us to celebrate our common drivers: curiosity, the need to give back, and an unabashed passion to learn something new. 

Taruna was bestowed with the award of ‘Exceptional Women of Excellence creating a better world for all’ by the Women’s Economic Forum in 2017 and the ‘Women Super Achiever Award’ at 7th Edition of World Women Leadership Congress in 2020.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I was born and raised in New Delhi. After completing high school I went to University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA for my higher studies in Political Science and Organizational Studies. After graduation, I travelled around Europe and after returning home, I joined an international PR firm. After getting some work experience, I attended University of Manchester to attain a MA in International Relations. 

Since then I’ve had a short stint in Germany in a corporate set up but soon realised it was not for me. After returning back to New Delhi, I joined Youthreach, an NGO that works as a bridge between grassroots organizations, corporates and international organizations to facilitate funding and projects in the development sector. Post that I joined NDTV a leading television media company as a journalist and anchor. Since travelling and experiencing new cultures was something I was always passionate about, I started Pearl Luxe, an experiential travel consultancy which has now evolved into Encompass Experiences.

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

I visited Soneva Fushi, an island resort in the Maldives back in 2012 and I was really impressed with their sustainable practices, whether it was growing their own organic vegetables, recycling all their waste on the island, giving back to the local communities or encouraging biodiversity on the island – I was deeply influenced by all their practices. It formed a blueprint for sustainability for me as far as the tourism and hospitality industry was concerned and what we as a travel company can encourage our clients to experience over other mainstream tourism offerings in the market.

It’s still a niche in our business but we take pride in creating awareness about conscious and sustainable tourism and how travellers can demand experience providers to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious if they indeed want their business.

It’s still a long road ahead but we are at a solid start. 

Can you tell me about your career so far and work for Encompass? What inspired you to take on and promote sustainable travel?

I’ve been into the luxury experiential travel space for over a decade now. Sustainable travel is the only way forward for us on this planet. Educating our audience and raising awareness about sustainable travel is our way to make an impact in a space where we feel we can make a difference. I believe in the positive influence travel can have. Not just for individuals and their experiences but for the destinations that receive them and the world as a whole. Travel has always helped fund local economies and in recent years, in particular, become increasingly adept at preserving the culture and supporting conservation of lands and protection of ecosystems.

Travel creates empathy and understanding, can inspire and educate. It creates the human to human and human to nature connection that the world needs right now.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date? 

2020 has been a great learning experience and the whole sustainability movement has become more mainstream than ever before. This year has taught us to slow down and be in the moment. Even when it comes to travel the trend of immersive travel experiences has gained momentum and is here to stay. People will travel to fewer places and stay longer at each destination, really engaging with the locals and experiencing a destination in depth. The coming years will see a growth in travellers establishing repeat connections to people and places that have captivated them before, ditching “bucket list” tourism in favour of putting down roots and creating a home away from home. “Slow travel” is here to stay. Travellers now realise it’s the best way to discover a destination’s nuances and, over time, to feel like a local. 

Being South Asian, did you face any pressure from family, friends or society at large to choose the career path you did? Would you have done anything differently if given the opportunity again? 

Not really… I was always encouraged by my family and friends. (I guess my experience would be different from how South Asians migrated to Europe, for eg.)

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

We have our own organic kitchen garden at home and we create compost from vegetable waste that is used as manure for our organic garden. Now I buy much less fast fashion and invest in fewer classic outfits that are evergreen. I’m also trying to buy almost no plastic toys for my daughter.

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

Vibs, I think this will be different for Indians and South Asians in the UK or the developed world… Because each country is at a point on the trajectory of awareness and taking action. In India traditionally, we have been a country with sustainable practices, but lately due to the recent economic boom, liberalisation and development – pre-covid –we have become consumption oriented. 

We have major issues we need to tackle – managing pollution levels is the top of the list right now. There is part of the population that understands the climate crisis but there is a lack of a solid game plan to tackle it. Having said that, India’s contribution to carbon emissions is still lower in comparison to some developed economies. 

We need to tackle these issues sooner than later. 

I guess there is a lack of political will at the moment due to other more pressing issues that take precedence over the climate crisis here in India. 

Being carbon conscious on a practical day-to-day basis but also for travel and life experiences can be quite costly (e.g. vegan/organic food supplies, electric powered transport, resorts/culinary experiences more expensive overall). How can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

It is easier than I thought – especially here in India. Since it has been a way of life for most south Asians for centuries. It’s just about going back to the basics and trying to adopt practices that our forefathers used. In 2020 many people here, in urban centres have started growing organic vegetables in flower pots, for instance. But each country is at a different developmental trajectory. Consumption and economics go hand in hand. A vast Indian middle class just saw an economic boom in the last two decades so mass consumption has been on an upsurge – which as we know is not always sustainable. 

Why should everyone start to consider more sustainable travel? What is there to gain? Are you seeing any growing trends in the travel industry? 

In an ideal world, yes. In the high end travel space it is slowly becoming a reality with raising awareness but in the low end / mass tourism sustainable travel is definitely not a priority, yet.

With transport and particularly air travel being a huge contributor of carbon emissions on a global scale, do you believe tourism and travel truly can be sustainable or even net-zero? 

One could argue that tourism cannot be sustainable, that sustainability is impossible. Negative effects on the environment are inherent to the industry, such as the emission of greenhouse gases and waste generation, that are currently difficult, if not impossible, to avoid.

Slow travel might be the answer.

It should never be about ticking off the boxes, but staying at one place for longer and immersing. Take fewer flights. It’s a long road ahead. We hope there will be a day when we can power airplanes with zero emissions. Battery operated cars are already becoming reality… So we are treading along on the right path. 

Broadly speaking, however, the tourism sector’s commitment to sustainable development is rather weak. It’s understandable when considering tourism, which is, like most other industries, growth-oriented and profit-driven with a relatively short-sighted approach to planning and development. The primary focus is generating a return on investment to increase shareholder value as quickly as possible which is similar to many politicians, to appease constituents to foster the probability of re-election.

You mentioned ‘sustainability’ being a buzz-word used by all businesses now, both in a good and bad way. Good as it shows there is some level of engagement, progress and education even if small, but bad because some companies brand themselves as sustainable without knowing what it even means. How are you ensuring Encompass truly is sustainable and spreading awareness of climate change effectively?

The term sustainable tourism means different things to different people in the industry. But like ecotourism, sustainable tourism has become virtually meaningless as it is often tied to cursory efforts, which are very limited, rather than organization-wide commitments, strategies, and actions.

We at Encompass promote sustainable travel experiences as part of our portfolio and do our bit to raise awareness. We can’t claim to be 100% sustainable, but we take conscious steps in this direction on a daily basis. We do this by being transparent in our communication and educating our audience about the best practices in sustainable travel and promote conscious tourism. 

If we feel one of our partners are in gross violation of sustainability protocols we red flag them. However, in the high end travel space most hotels and experience providers are already on the conscious tourism bandwagon – so it’s a good place to be in. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

Keep educating yourselves. Demand sustainable practices from experience providers. We are nothing but the sum total of our experiences so invest in them. Seek out destinations and hotels that leave minimum carbon footprint. It’s a long road ahead and every little action will have a long standing impact.

Email: taruna@goencompass.in

Instagram: www.instagram.com/taruna_seth

Website: www.goencompass.in

Encompass offers unique, authentic and sustainable experiences for the mind, body and spirit.

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Geena Rait, Founder of Garmi

We spoke to Geena who saves South Asian fabric cutoffs from going to landfill, transforming scraps into culturally rich and environmentally friendly handcrafted products.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

My ethnic background is Punjabi and my academic background is in materials science and also mechanical engineering. 

What is Garmi? How did it come about and what are your main values as a business?

Garmi creates quality handcrafted products made from 100% recycled South Asian fabrics. The fabric is saved from landfill and something beautiful is made at the same time. 

My idea for this business came about after realising just how much fabric waste is generated when sewing traditional South Asian clothing. This waste comes in the form of fabric offcuts which are often too small to turn into other garments and as such are usually thrown away. 

In the first national lockdown I started experimenting with these beautiful fabric offcuts to see what I could make and garmi was born. 

The core values behind my business are sustainability and culture. I am committed to only using waste or recycled fabrics to make products and I endeavour to have a completely zero waste business. 

In terms of culture, I wanted to create a brand that incorporated South Asian culture, through its vibrant fabrics into Western fashion. In this way, these fabrics and South Asian culture are easily integrated into everyday life. Additionally, these fabrics are able to reach and be appreciated by a much wider audience.

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

Since I was a teenager I have been interested in the environment, climate change and sustainability. Over the years this has manifested in changing aspects of the way I live and the products I buy. However, I always knew that I wanted to create a business one day that would actively solve an environmental or sustainability issue.  

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for your sustainable business idea from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it?

I didn’t face any backlash for creating this sustainable business but I am used to family and friends not thinking much of this idea and dismissing it as a hobby. I have overcome this rhetoric by continuing to follow my passion and build my business. Hopefully one day all the naysayers will see that this idea has tackled a real problem – but I’m also content if they don’t! 

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

I have consistently made small changes in the way I live over the years to be more sustainable. For example, using soaps and shampoo bars instead of packaged toiletries, and reusable cotton pads to remove makeup instead of single use wipes. I became a vegetarian 10 years ago, partly for environmental reasons. I also avoid single use plastic unless absolutely necessary and try to be conscious of the amount of water I use every day.

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

I think generally there is some resistance from older generations to adopt sustainable practices and take climate change seriously. I think this stems from a belief that one person’s actions won’t make that much of a difference in comparison to large corporations. I also think that there is more resistance to sustainability if it involves practices that are more costly or time consuming than the norm.

I think these issues can be tackled by firstly educating the younger generation and empowering them. This will act as a catalyst for older people to change their routines and adopt new and more sustainable practices.

Additionally, as sustainable products and practices become cheaper and more commonplace, it won’t seem like such a drastic and unfamiliar change for those who have been reluctant to change their habits.  

Do you find such lack of understanding makes having a sustainability-led business like yours more challenging? 

I think a lack of understanding has impacted my business slightly, for example, I’ve often been told to go and buy fabric that I need, even though that goes against what this business and I stand for.

Thankfully, I think more and more people are starting to appreciate and actively seek out sustainable businesses to buy from.  

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

I would tell younger generations to incorporate sustainability into their life wherever they can. Large companies only change their habits and the products they sell when there is consumer demand. The more we all spend our money consciously in places that are sustainable, environmentally friendly and don’t use cheap labour the more we will see positive changes in the world.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

This year I hope to launch my website and expand my business so that I can receive fabric donations from all over the country and make a tangible impact on this fabric waste issue! If you would like to follow the journey and support please follow garmi on Instagram.

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Srini Sundaram

We caught up with Srini, CEO and Founder of Agvesto, a platform to mobilise parametric insurance and climate investments worldwide. 

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I was born in India and have lived in the UK since the early 2000s. I hold a doctorate in Electrical Engineering. 

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

I am passionate about natural resources and how we as a community are using them. With climate change posing challenges to the communities worldwide, sustainability is a topic that dominates every country’s policy, objectives and implementation programmes. 

For me personally, an ability to transform a community using a business idea is fascinating and most of my startup businesses have had strong focus in micro-finance, poverty alleviation and sustainability.  

When I grew up, I noticed how monsoon season cyclones can destroy communities who have very little protection for their livelihood. As a result, the children especially face huge disruption in their education and it is something that struck me about the need to create resilience for everyone.

Can you tell me a bit about your work in the agricultural/ insurance industry via Agvesto? 

Agvesto started with a mission to transform the way capital markets and insurance markets interact with Agriculture as a sector. We have mobilised alternative insurance protection products to farmers worldwide, to protect their crops and build resilience against climate related threats.

The biggest learning till date has been the ability for our business to be able to differentiate different parts of the agricultural value chain and crops, to create bespoke parametric insurance offerings.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about your career choice from family, friends or society at large?

Agvesto was born by blending the skills I have learnt with engineering, science, finance and technology towards sustainability and environment.

South Asians are known for their affinity towards food. So we had nothing but positive feedback from the family, friends and society to ensure that businesses enable farmers and food producers to achieve sustainability and longevity.

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

Sustainability starts with the general recognition that the consumption of resources needs to be optimal and should come at a win-win basis. The resources we consume from the planet do have natural support systems and when they are under distress, our lives will change for the worse. 

In order to ensure that we promote sustainability, we have not only adopted good business practice, but on a personal level I’ve made changes by:

  • Sourcing renewable energy supplies for my home
  • Practice recycling
  • Purchasing sustainable focussed food products and clothing.

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

South Asian communities very much appreciate the need for climate resilience especially with recent floods in 2015 and 2017 in southern India and increased heatwaves and droughts. The priorities at a micro level still focus heavily on social sustainability i.e. communities.

With climate change at the forefront in recent years, the interlink between environmental and social sustainability has become stronger. At the consumer level, this awareness needs to be increased with policies that are SDG (sustainable development goal) focussed and also in long term resilience building.

You touched on change needing to be inclusive and relevant to each group of the population. How would you practically implement this?

I’d implement this by reaching lower socio-economic groups for example and empowering their lives by bringing capital and insurance to them, providing the protection everyone deserves. This is what drives Agvesto and my journey as an entrepreneur. 

Implementation of ideas targeted towards rural and marginal group empowerment requires patience and business ability, to create simple minded innovations that work for them and are truly effective.

We spoke about your thoughts about the carbon-intensive nature of the Bollywood/Tollywood film industry – what are the solutions? Who needs to be engaged?

The movie and entertainment industry has been laggard in embracing sustainable practices compared to the other industries. 

However, they have the potential to transform millions of lives with their messaging and appeal. There are opportunities to assist the entertainment industry with sustainable instruments, so that their overall contribution to the green economy in India can be increased. For this change to happen, active engagement needs to happen at an industry level.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

The younger generations have the advantage of learning various new trends and technological developments via the internet, faster than previous generations. 

Their ability to appreciate the needs towards a sustainable planet for everyone will continue to be the most important theme in the coming years. If they are able to inspire the community around them with their talent, we as a nation will undoubtedly achieve our sustainable development goals.

Connect with Srini on LinkedIn

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Co-Founder of Sustainable Water Use, Pavan Bains

We spoke with Pavan, Environmental Science Undergraduate and Co-Founder of Sustainable Water Use, Birmingham

What is your ethnic and academic background?

I am Punjabi and before starting university I spent a year working as an Agriculture Relationship Management Apprentice at Barclays. I am now in my second year of a BSc (Hons) Environmental Science at the University of Birmingham and am co-founder of Sustainable Water Use Birmingham – an environmental action campaign that began on an environmental leadership programme with an organisation called Uprising.

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

I grew up watching documentaries by David Attenborough which made me interested in the natural world and climate change.

Growing up around my grandparents meant they would share their experience of farming in the Punjab. It seemed like another world from the city life I was used to. This also drew my attention to environmental issues within Punjab such as water security.

These experiences guided me to studying environmental science which explores environmental pollution, climate change and effective environmental management.

Can you tell me about any specific interests you have within your degree?

I have a specific interest in UK water security issues. Not many people know that by 2050 the UK won’t have enough water to meet its demands. It’s such an important issue that will affect the population, yet it’s often forgotten about.

I am also interested in ways of measuring sustainability. Carbon footprints are commonly used as a measure of sustainability which provides companies with a single number to work with. This is a risk as it may mean other important issues regarding sustainability aren’t considered such as ecosystem services. Hopefully, over the next few years measuring and modelling these services will become more advanced.

Can you tell us a bit more about water pollution and the campaign you’ve launched?

Our campaign aims to spread awareness of how important water sustainability is and share simple tips to help people use water more carefully. We’ve got Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts as well as a website where we post blogs, share resources and highlight ways people and businesses can reduce their water consumption. On our website there is an e-toolkit focused on ways businesses can incorporate water saving features into their offices.

Recently, we held a webinar event with the UNESCO chair of water science, David Hannah, about the UK water crisis, patterns of drought within the UK and how we can reduce demand on water supplies through some simple measures. We hope to collaborate with more universities, by collaborating with their respective student union and professors within hydrology to spread awareness of the water crisis.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

Starting the environmental action campaign called Sustainable Water Use Birmingham. Particularly, having to start and run the campaign over lockdown. This campaign has brought my team and I closer to those working within the water industry and it is inspiring to see the work that is already being done within the sector to address the issue. 

The campaign has also taught me the power of social media. We have had interest in the campaign from professors and those working within the water industry through the power of social media. It’s made working with people across the country feasible and we hope to engage with an even wider audience over the coming year. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for stepping into this relatively unfamiliar academic path from family, friends or society at large?

None of my family work in the industry so there was some confusion regarding what my degree involved and the career prospects following it. To this date my grandmothers don’t know what I do which makes talking about what I do difficult! However, with the increasing public and political interest in environmental issues, it’s an area more people are able to understand and career prospects are increasing so it’s easier to justify to family.

Before starting the degree I had been working at Barclays and when I decided to leave to pursue my passion there wasn’t anything people could say to stop me!

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

I think there is a language barrier to explain the concepts surrounding climate change and sustainability especially amongst the older generation. However, from my experience the older generation already live quite sustainably opting for public transport and generally being vegetarians.

You touched on finding a barrier with your grandma when it came to her understanding your degree. What’s the best way to change this?

I have shown her some of the work I have done whilst on my course.

The images of environmental degradation transcend the language barrier and are such a clear way of representing the issues I am studying and working to address.

I think this approach is a good way of raising awareness of environmental issues as it can clearly show the impact of human activities.

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

My course mates are vegetarian, and they have inspired me to change my diet. I became a vegetarian 3 months ago and believe it’s something I will continue. 

Running the water campaign has meant I am more conscious of the water I use in the household, so I ordered water saving fittings from my water supplier South Staffs water. This includes a low flow shower head, shower timers and cistern displacement devices. Everyone can order their own by going to their water supplier’s website and signing up for a free box of fittings.

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

One way of reducing your carbon and water footprint is by using water saving fittings. These can be ordered for free and only take a few minutes to fix.

Becoming vegetarian is another way of reducing your carbon and water footprint. The carbon footprint of a vegetarian diet is about half that of a meat-eaters.  

Both these methods are inexpensive and are accessible to all who wish to lead more sustainable lives.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?

The environment is a growing industry with different areas to suit peoples varying interests. Looking forward, we will need inventive ways of measuring and tracking the sustainability of companies, transport, diets and fashion which makes it an exciting time to get involved.

What’s it like studying and looking for job opportunities in the environmental industry?

There is so much happening within the industry it can be difficult to keep up with it all. I like to attend webinars and read journal articles that the professional bodies I have signed up to produce. This is important, especially when it comes to job applications as you need to have a strong understanding of sustainability, climate resilience and UK net zero for all jobs within the industry. 

In terms of job opportunities, I find that there is a lot of volunteering within the industry but not as many paid internships. Recently I have been applying for summer internships and I have found a few in environmental consultancy roles which is great to see. The industry is competitive, but I am hoping that more companies start to offer sustainability roles over the next few years.

Website for Pavan’s campaign:  https://www.sustainablewateruse.co.uk/

Connect with her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/pavankaurbains