Spotlight Series: Q&A with Co-Founder of Impactful, Rima Patel

We spoke to Rima about her journey from corporate consultancy to establishing impact strategy agency – Impactful.

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I’m second generation gujarati, hindu, born in London. I started my career at PwC, in a client facing audit role. Looking back, I walked blindly into that role in many ways, not thinking particularly hard about what I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to be in a more people focused role and moved internally to the Learning and Development team, designing leadership training for the firm’s staff.


I left the corporate world after 4.5yrs and moved into startups, working for Escape the City and then Remote Year in community management and operational roles, which I loved and found suited how I like to work. But, in 2018 I found myself looking for a more purposeful career and really wanting to learn how to create effective positive change, so I joined the social innovation and entrepreneurship fellowship Year Here which is where I met my co-founders and we developed the idea for Impactful.

What is Impactful and how did it come about? 

We’re an impact strategy agency. We support businesses to come up with sustainable ideas to increase their positive social and environmental impact, through a process of systemic design. 

On Year Here, me and my soon to be co-founders worked on a consulting brief to support a commercial business to think about how they could put their purpose as a business on par with their profit. 

We immediately saw the potential of supporting businesses and realised that the impact and innovation skills we’d developed on Year Here were really valuable in taking businesses on that journey in an inclusive and ambitious way. 

What are your main values and aims as an organisation?

Our approach is based on four key ideas:

Life-centered design – using systems design frameworks and processes to create ideas which are good for people, planet and the business.

Holistic impact – looking at both social and environmental impact, as the two are inextricably interconnected.

Commercial alignment – developing strategies that work with business priorities, so that they are truly sustainable and not tokenistic.Bespoke strategies – partnering with organisations to develop strategies that fit their organisation, as there is no one-size-fits-all way to have more positive impact.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable, ethical practice?

I love solving problems and trying to make things better. When I joined Year Here, I was looking for a way to channel that energy into a specific idea or venture and Impactful became such a brilliant vehicle for that. 

I really believe that business has huge potential to be a force for good in the world and to catalyse change – it feels like the potential is so huge. Both because many of our biggest challenges have been caused by business in the first place, but also because really ambitious, effective businesses are also great problem solving machines.

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 think in general my family aren’t too sure what I do. They are broadly supportive thankfully, but it’s really hard to engage and share the passion and excitement for what I’m working on as often, it takes a lot of careful explanation to help them understand. 

I also still get a lot of throwaway comments about going back into accounting and probing questions about how I’m doing financially, as I suppose in many ways they don’t consider what I’m doing to be sustainable and/or stable for my future. I think those kinds of comments can chip away at my confidence, making me doubt if what I’m doing is actually the right thing or actually pretty reckless! 

Overcoming that, I generally end up being conscious and careful around money, making sure I’m able to live independently, taking part time work, so that I don’t find myself in a tight spot. 

Mostly I just try to take the time to explain what I’m doing and why. I think my mum gets it now and is pretty excited for us, even proactively remembering and asking about projects we’re working on which feels like progress! 

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

I do what I can at home, recycling, composting, keeping meat down to a minimum. I don’t have a car and use public transport to get around. Though, I recognise that this is a privileged position to be in in many ways, as I can work from home and live in a big city with good infrastructure, which isn’t true for everyone. 

What I’d love to do more of and have started recently, is connect more with the local community. I’ve loved exploring my neighbourhood’s green spaces, I joined my local litter picking society and am currently doing a course in horticulture at my local council’s adult learning centre. It’s been a great way to reconnect with nature, meet people in my local community and get my hands dirty with the small actions that create change, quite literally with the horticulture course!

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 interesting because I find that South Asian communities in many ways have a natural tendency to green practices. My mum doesn’t throw anything away (to a fault! See cupboard stuff with tupperware…), we were always conscious of not wasting food and looking after our possessions, fixing and making do rather than buying new things. 

I think perhaps they don’t recognise the modern language and way of talking about environmental challenges. The conversation isn’t by them or for them and so that lack of inclusion creates a lack of awareness. 

I think finding those positive stories of people in the community who are already doing great work (in many ways what you’re creating here) and championing them is one way to encourage action.

Something we also talk a lot about with businesses is making it less about telling people off for what they are/aren’t doing and more about making it easier and even more enjoyable to do the right thing. How do we make it really easy for people to change habits and create incentives where by living more sustainably is better for the individual and community, rewarding positive behaviour. I think that’s how you can create change that really sticks.

What have been your greatest successes and learnings? 

We published our Impactful Business Playbook earlier this year which I’m really proud of. It was a six month labour of love but we’re so happy with how it turned out and the feedback we’ve received has been really positive. 

That process taught us so much. In particular, it’s really hard but so, so important to make what we’re trying to do accessible and actionable. We felt strongly that the impact resources out there that we came across were super complex and a bit overwhelming, not giving people within businesses an easy way to start and to know what good looks like. So a big focus of our work is actually just education, demystifying and simplifying impact and what that looks like for a business.

What are the biggest challenges being faced in your industry when it comes to ESG? 

I think the biggest challenge is getting people to think of impact as essential/critical to success. We’re so used to traditional success metrics like revenue, growth, attention, that it’s so hard to remind ourselves that actually there are so many other equally important success metrics. 

People’s wellbeing and fulfillment and the sustainability and restoration of the natural environment are so fundamental to our survival and joy as people, but so often neglected. 

What’s exciting is that the business case is actually really clear. Investing in your impact is good for business. Just the other week I read from the CHRO of Unilever, Leena Nair (also a brilliant South Asian woman!): 

“Human capital is as important as financial capital. Our attrition rate in all the countries that we operate is half of that of the national average. And 76% of the graduates who apply to us say that they believe that Unilever is a force for good and stands for goodness in the world, and that has led to my recruitment costs in the last seven years falling by 90%. Putting human resources at the top table has real business benefits.”

Leena Nair

Has any one sector or company got it ‘right’ so far?

So many amazing businesses are making huge progress and not waiting for external pushes. Everyone from Bloom & Wild to Brewdog to the amazing ventures coming out of Year Here like Supply Change and Pivot

I do think that systemic/sector wide change is still yet to come. Momentum is building but we’ve not quite reached the tipping point, where it becomes mainstream and it makes more sense for a business to act now rather than get left behind.

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

Everything you do has an impact. Start where you are, with what you have. You can start at home or in your workplace or in your community. You don’t need permission to take action. 

We need people in every place and every industry, in every role advocating for more sustainable, regenerative practices. 

I’d also say find your people. If you care about the environment but people in your circles don’t as much, reach out to others and offer your support or ask for help. People in this space are generally super friendly and generous with their resources if they can be. 

We are the generation that has the power to reverse the most damaging effects of climate change.

In many ways we are creating the future that we ourselves will have to live in so there is both a personal and collective incentive to do your bit.

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

What’s recently had the most profound impact on me and how I think about what I do, is my little nephew being born. His arrival has renewed and refocused my energy and commitment to designing a better world for him. He is a living symbol of the future generations, reminding me to leave the world a better place than I found it. 

I imagine the world that I want him to grow up in. It gives me a long term perspective and a lens through which to prioritise what I do today. What am I doing now that will create a safe, regenerative, just, joyful world for him and all the people coming into this world today? 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Sometimes I find it hard to make the big concepts of sustainability practical and personal. My favourite quote that grounds me in what I can do is from Charles Eisenstein:

‘‘Don’t: “Save the planet”. Instead: “Find something you love, and take care of it.”

That to me sums up what, in my best moments, I strive to do. For myself, in my relationships and in my work. 

Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful community. I’d love to connect with anyone in this space and organisations looking for support with their impact, please reach out at hello@impactful.world

Find Rima on LinkedIn and Twitter, Website

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Sustainability Lead, Sara Kassam

We spoke with Sara about her role at Victoria and Albert Museum and experience across sectors within sustainability.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I guess I’m Indian but my parents were born in Tanzania and Zanzibar. I studied Geography at the University of Nottingham and then went on to a fast track scheme for local government. Since then I’ve worked on sustainability for local authorities, a university and an engineering institution. Whilst working I’ve gained a postgraduate diploma in Local Government management and a postgraduate certificate in Low Carbon Buildings. 

What does your role at the V&A entail? 

Everything! I have a multi-site remit to embed sustainability expertise and implement systemic change in museum operations and behaviours. In one day I can be incorporating sustainability requirements into exhibition tenders, organising sustainability-themed learning and development webinars for staff and tracking down travel data to calculate Scope 3 emissions. 

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

At university I was elected as the Students’ Union Environmental & Social Justice Officer and one project I worked on was with the local authority and Local Agenda 21 Partnership. That inspired me to work in the public sector and help people to make positive changes.

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

Not really, although my parents had expected me to become a doctor! 

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

So many things over the years! Most recently, we’ve been using our local refill shop as much as possible. I buy honey from a local beekeeper, we bake our own bread, subscribe to an Oddbox for fruit and veg, purchase renewable electricity for our home and I try to only buy ethically made or second-hand clothes.

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’s more of a disconnect amongst our communities rather than stigma around the climate crisis.

For example, countries in South Asia are experiencing the impacts of climate change severely and people are suffering – we know this from relatives, stories of floods and droughts and visits ‘back home’. But this isn’t necessarily being connected with behaviours here e.g. car use, home energy efficiency etc. 

What have been your greatest successes and learnings? 

The power of networks can never be emphasised enough, sustainability is a very collaborative field and learning from/being inspired by others has been one of the biggest motivators for me. Learning to be patient has also been a major lesson, being able to persuade others and waiting for the stars (budget, circumstances etc) to align!

You’ve worked in a really diverse range of sectors within sustainability, what has been a highlight for you? 

It’s hard to pin down to one highlight! I loved organising a solar car challenge for primary schools in Richmond upon Thames, organising a ‘green move out’ for students in halls of residence at the University of East London, producing a much more diverse annual conference for CIBSE and have launched the V&A’s first public Sustainability Plan.  

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

If humans are to realign with nature and live in harmony, we need to be taking drastic action. It is everyone’s responsibility and time is limited so younger generations have no choice but to get involved if we want to have a habitable planet! 

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

I found the story of Daniel O’Connor, the founder of WarpIT inspiring. He saw a problem when he worked for a university (huge amounts of perfectly good items being thrown away) and created a solution to help people deal with it. His exchange platform now has over 1000 schools, 1000 charities and over half the University sector in the UK using the service, as well as Councils, the NHS and the private sector plus overseas users. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Everyone can make a change. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and those around you. And don’t aim too low, we need systemic change, not just fiddling around the edges.

Sara’s blog: https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/design-and-society/a-renewed-focus-for-sustainability-at-the-va 

Recent appointment: https://www.museumsassociation.org/new-trustees-october-2021/#

Find Sara on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram

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 Sustainable Goldsmith, Shivani Chorwadia

We spoke with Shivani about her shift to sustainable and accessible fine jewellery making.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

My family ethnicity is Gujarati Indian. My mum and her family were born and lived in Uganda until the early 1970’s when they were forced to flee to the UK under dictatorship. My dad and his family moved to the UK from Uganda shortly before. I graduated with a degree in Silversmithing, Jewellery and related objects and have been working as a Jewellery designer, maker and goldsmith for the last 13 years.

Can you tell me a bit about your jewellery business? How did it all start?

It started with my tutor during my year completing my Art foundation. I had always wanted to work within the fashion and textiles industry but my tutor could see where my skills lay and pointed me towards exploring jewellery. I immediately fell in love with working on and experimenting with small scale sculptural pieces.

I continued on to do a BA in Jewellery and Silversmithing, this is where I focussed on pushing myself creatively both in terms of design and making 3 dimensional forms in metal. I embraced the fact that as a student, there are no limitations on making pieces a certain way or a particular style – we were free to be as wildly creative as we wanted to be. The work I produced for my final show were more object than wearable jewellery; they were beautiful sculptural pieces in their own right and that idea has continued through the evolution of my work.

I started out working in silver, progressing into working exclusively in gold when I became a mother. My time to work was limited and making less but more involved pieces worked better, it also meant keeping a lean collection of one of a kind pieces and sourcing the best quality materials.

Seven years on and my business is opening into its next stage. With time, allowing myself the breathing space I have questioned and delved deep into aspects of heritage, culture (work, consumption, productivity), personal values, accessibility and identity. The results are in the work I am starting to build now after a recent relaunch.

What inspired you to become more sustainable and accessible? Is there a particular story you can share?

I think it started from a young age, seeing family, particularly the older generation share clothes, use and reuse everything, never being wasteful. The idea of excess, accumulated materials doesn’t sit well with me and never has. I remember even at the age of 10 or 11 having huge purges of ‘stuff’ in my bedroom and the sense of calm at seeing a clear space.  

Over the last 20 years we (as a global society) have seen the devastation to the environment and the human cost of excessive production and consumption – I continue to educate myself about the harm being caused and try to find solutions by actively pushing against these standards. I think we have to build new models from the ground up rather than amend existing ones, show that there is another way and that it can work with a shift in mindset and active resistance to the status quo.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

One of my biggest successes has been to follow my own path and intuition, coming from a South Asian immigrant background and choosing to work as a creative has not been easy.

We’re strongly encouraged from a young age, like most immigrant communities, to find work in a stable career that will provide a good income and command ‘respect’ from the wider family. Actively going against this has been both liberating and tough. 

Unlike many of my peers at university or those I have met through work, I didn’t grow up in a family that worked in the arts or had much interest in it outside of music. That privileged background just wasn’t there, on the flipside it meant that I had the freedom to make my own way. The striking learnings have been to avoid trying to fit into a box or anyone else’s expectation of what my work or I should be. Assimilating in this way can be more harmful than we realise, especially at a young age when we start our careers. 

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

At home we have gradually switched to buying natural products for our bodies and cleaning, soapnuts for all our laundry. We have consciously made decisions to support smaller local and more ethical companies whenever we can. One of the biggest changes for me has been learning how to make my own clothes. I understand now how much work goes into making our clothes, how materials and fabric production affect farmers and land on which they’re grown.

90% of my wardrobe is now made up of clothes that I have created myself.

My aim is for pieces to be loved and worn, mended, handed down, remade/upcycled if possible. We still have a way to go as a family but we’re mindful and making small changes as we move forward.

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 wouldn’t call it a stigma, more of a resistance to change/inconvenience. The lack of understanding I can see in older generations who may not engage with information about the environment in the same way that we or our parents might. I have noticed a shift as global awareness is raised, it’s impossible to ignore.  

An area that I think is a blocker and difficult to overcome within South Asian communities is a cultural one, that lies in proving your status through material wealth. This has increased rapidly with each new generation due to the influence of western capitalism and the growth of economic wealth amongst the ‘upper class’ both in South Asia and the diaspora.

As always the best way to move past these blockers particularly with our elders is to talk to them. They tend to be open and respect the knowledge that younger generations bring.

You mentioned accessibility being a large factor to open up your market to other buyers, can you tell us more about that?

It boils down to the fact that I want my work to be available to anyone that would like to own a piece. I have spent time over the last year looking at who I am making the work for and why. My current collection of one of a kind pieces made in gold are true luxury items, I am well aware that they are for a small and niche market.  

I am slowly building a collection of limited edition pieces that can be made to order. These pieces will be made in recycled gold to last a lifetime, they are designed to be repeatable and the price point will therefore be much more accessible. 

Accessibility will also come through how I show and talk about the work.

It’s important for me to represent our South Asian heritage and style within the images and words, something I never had growing up.

To be open about the experiences that we as a community live through while also holding space for and supporting other minorities.  

What processes are involved in being a more sustainable goldsmith? How do you cut down waste and reuse gold/silver?

I have slowly changed the way I run my business to be consciously sustainable both in the products I offer and how the studio is run. Every piece is now made using recycled silver/gold or Fairmined gold. Fairmined supports miners and their communities through providing safe working conditions, responsible use of chemicals, fair pay and social and educational development. 

I produce small amounts of stock as currently the majority of my work is made to commission. As I start to move towards limited edition lines, I will continue to make pieces to order so that I can avoid overproduction of stock and waste. All metal offcuts and dust from the workshop are collected and remelted. I offer a bespoke recycling service, clients may have pieces that they have at home and no longer wear. I extract the stones and rework the gold to create a new custom-made piece with their materials. 

In the workshop I minimise the use of harmful chemicals and water, I am making the transition to plastic free packaging and storage where possible.  

Buying materials from small businesses is a way to be more sustainable. I work with suppliers and manufacturers that I have known and built relationships with. Suppliers of specialist cut stones work directly with mines where they can be sure that they are avoiding harmful practices to extract raw materials.   

Can mining precious stones ever really be truly sustainable? Any thoughts on lab-grown stones?

The short answer is no. There is a finite amount of natural raw material on the planet and extracting these materials whether stones/mineral or metal has a human and environmental cost. I have done and continue to research the positives and negatives of natural vs. lab grown stones and it comes down to personal choice and the individual’s values.  

Natural stones can be mined in ways that minimise damage to the environment; though human exploitation and working conditions are of more concern to me. There are over 40 million small-scale artisanal miners around the world extracting stones and gold and the majority of them face extreme working conditions and lack of safety. If we moved to producing all of our gems in labs these communities face more instability and often fall into greater poverty. There are many reasons that this continues to happen but really, when it comes to stones, particularly diamonds companies stand to make huge profits with miners receiving little monetary gain. 

Lab-grown diamonds eliminate damage to the environment and human cost, so consumers can feel assured on this front. I looked into buying lab grown for my business, the more I researched I found that there is a huge amount of misleading information targeted towards the ‘ethical’ market. Lab grown diamonds use large amounts of energy to produce and where that energy is sourced is another factor to consider. You can read more here.

For now I choose to work with small suppliers that I trust who source directly from mines and know first-hand the conditions of extraction.

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

I would say get curious. Ask questions about where your products come from, how they are made, who is growing or making them. Hold companies accountable for their actions, write to your MP if you can. The best thing to do is choose one thing that matters to you and take action. It doesn’t matter how small the actions are, so many people feel overwhelmed, leading to inaction, but the small things do add up. Keep learning, keep challenging, and take care of yourself. Change starts with us!

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

I think that being so connected to a history of being uprooted, having grandparents and parents that moved to the UK with little in the way of possessions has subconsciously informed the way that I see materialism and excess. I try to be mindful about accumulating items by considering the intrinsic cost and value before I buy. This approach is crystallised in the way I think about production, it’s inevitably reflected within my work.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A few brilliant disruptors in the sustainability space and outside that I’m loving:

Find Shivani’s work: https://www.shivanichorwadia.com

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!

Find out more here: https://www.aboutsuss.com

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Saika Waheed, Founder of The Tejori

We spoke with marketing expert and founder of online blog The Tejori, Saika about her ambition to normalise secondhand fashion in South Asian communities.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I am a Pakistani marketer and hold an MSc in corporate communications and BA in marketing management.

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

Tejori is an online personal blog about all things related to South Asian fashion and sustainability. We intend to educate and encourage the Asian market on sustainable practices. Additionally, we intend to break down societal norms and boundaries around sustainable fashion, secondhand lifestyle and societal pressures we all face when it comes to fashion and moving trends. 

Behind the scenes we are also working on a project to introduce a platform where pre-owned items can be bought and sold in order to achieve our goal to normalise thrifting and wearing secondhand clothes among our communities, as well as promoting how easily everyone can take part in sustainable actions when it comes to ethnic fashion.

Originally, The Tejori was established in 2017 after I personally faced wardrobes and suitcases full of clothes only worn once, of which many I didn’t want to be seen in twice! It’s then the idea of thrifting, revamping or reselling came to me. 

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

Coming from a family who have a passion for fashion and clothes and keeping up with Asian fashion trends, between us we have rooms and rooms full of clothing and we need a solution! 

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? 

A lot of people think no one will want to wear secondhand clothes and it’s not normalised to do so in our communities. Also, people don’t want to be seen buying secondhand clothes, as well as selling their old clothes because of an issue around anonymity! 

To address this the blog intends to make sustainable actions ‘cool’, highlighting the latest articles from relevant brands and celebrities who have taken on more sustainable approaches. We also want to highlight those who have applied sustainability to their business models – it’s all about changing the mindset and that’s what the blog intends to achieve.

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

I try to make my clothing last longer by revamping them to change the style and only buying what I really need. If I do buy new, I always consider the quality so the outfits last longer.

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? 

Yes I do believe there is a lack of understanding as people don’t take it seriously. In the fashion market, consumers always want to be seen with the latest items and would do anything to make sure they are up to date with trends. 

Sustainable practices are at the end of their thinking and decision making process. Also a lot of people are unaware of the consequences to the environment and if they were educated on how easy it is to apply simple things to their daily lives to help the environment, I’m sure people would act! Educating our communities is key and someone needs to take responsibility for taking it forward.

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

Yes it is more challenging but not impossible. My outlook is, if every other industry is on the being more sustainable ‘bandwagon’, the South Asian fashion market is only going to get left behind if brands and designers aren’t aware to make changes. We need to continue to highlight the issues, which we try to do through our daily stories and news. 

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

It’s not hard to apply small changes to your daily life, everyone has to do their part to bring positive change. In terms of thrifting, it’s very cost effective – we believe being able to purchase quality-designer items second hand, will attract the younger, student market. 

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

Once I was able to sell some of my lightly worn wedding wear to a friend who had a last minute wardrobe malfunction. This really highlighted that rather than just getting rid of my expensive clothes or storing them away in suitcases (which many South Asians do!) we can become more circular in practice by just selling them on. This is the foundation of what initiated the idea of Tejori in the first place!

Follow The Tejori on Instagram

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: Q&A with Isha Kaur, Founder of Made Sincere

We chatted to Isha, Outreach Support Worker for victims of modern slavery and Founder of ethical fashion brand, Made Sincere.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

My ethnic background is half Indian Sikh and Pakistani. I was born in Yorkshire, England and I still live here.

I have a BSc in Psychology, and I work full time as an Outreach Support Worker for Victims of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery. I’m the owner of the sustainably ethical fashion and home decoration brand, Made Sincere. I showcase bespoke products that are sourced and inspired by the world and nature. 

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

Made Sincere is a bespoke fashion and home decor brand, where items are designed and handcrafted by me using sustainable, ethical and eco-friendly measures and materials.  

The development of Made Sincere has been years in the making. Initially, it started from my enjoyment of creating things and a way to make an extra bit of money. For years I have been talked out of pursuing creative and design based careers by many people, for a multitude of reasons. However, I’m just naturally a very creative person and the majority of society’s jobs today don’t cater well to artistic creative traits, even more so after COVID-19. Amidst all of these variables, I felt that this would be a great way to release my inner creativity and showcase my work for all to purchase and enjoy. The main values of Made Sincere are environmental, animal and human welfare. 

With the fashion industry being infamous for environmental damage, animal cruelty and slavery, I wanted to create a brand which actually enforces and acts upon these grotesque issues from the very start. 

This is achieved by many ways at Made Sincere, such as upcycling old materials and sourcing products from independent businesses and farmers.

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

Many reasons have led me down this path of sustainability. In England, people throw trash everywhere; there are not many places where you will not see trash and fly-tipped objects. Personally, I think it’s unappealing, lazy and it’s harmful to so many ecosystems. I wanted to make a change within myself and to inspire and educate others to combat pollution and fight for rights. 

A particular story which shifted up my gears in the world of sustainability was a couple of years back, when a dead whale washed up onto a shore literally filled with plastic waste. As disturbing as the image was, it will forever be engraved into my memory and it was at that point I truly understood the magnitude of plastic pollution, let alone the other types of pollution, which I was yet to discover as the years passed.

https://traveltourism.news/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/tourism-plastic-pollution.jpg

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?

Luckily my mother has been very supportive of my business, she knows that I’m an activist and I impose recycling measures within the household, so I don’t think she was too surprised that I built my business upon sustainability. 

As for other family members, they are impressed that I have opened a small business, but they don’t think anything much of the sustainability aspect of my business. In efforts to make conversations about climate change with my family, some don’t believe that it is real and have other theories as to why the planet is changing. My friends have been amazingly supportive throughout my business ventures and what my business stands for, as they have similar outlooks on the situation as me.

For the larger society, especially in England, sustainability is still a bit niche, as many believe that climate change and pollution is not real. I overcome this by staying positive, to continue raising awareness on the matter, making the changes I can and appreciating the small sustainable changes made politically within society. 

A combination of these aspects regains small but driving faith that the world is heading in the right direction to become sustainable. I can understand the many reasons why people may not agree or change their ways, but with political acts being carried out such as plastic straw bans and carrier bag charges, we are slowly but surely making progress. 

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

I try to recycle all my recyclable waste and inspire the members of my household to do the same. Similar to energy and water conservation – I turn off all electrical items and lights which are left on, ensuring that I don’t let the water run as I wash my face, brush my teeth and do the dishes. Clothing wise, when I buy new garments, I ask myself ‘will I wear this item 30 times’ based off the #30wears and are the materials used sustainable. 

Having an ‘upcycling-eye’ has definitely become a part of my daily practice. This is because I can create new products to sell from old items from my house, but also experimenting with random objects when I am bored – which is more than ever due to COVID-19 lockdowns! If items cannot be upcycled into anything, I will ask myself ‘will someone benefit from this?’ If so, I donate the old item to charity. 

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?

Yes I do feel as there is a lack of understanding on the climate crisis, but not much stigma. Personally I have not heard anything negative from any South Asians to suggest any stigma. I believe the blockers to be lack of knowledge, no willingness to investigate or change and demographics.

With regards to lack of knowledge, I don’t feel that there are many accessible resources and enough meaningful media coverage out there to stress the urgency of the matter; this is not just for South Asians but for everyone. 

As for willingness, it is a matter of ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink it.’ If somebody does not have the interest to care or learn, you can’t force them to change. However, if you can stay true to yourself and your beliefs on the climate crisis, you could influence others around you. People often observe behaviour to learn, so if you stick to your sustainability-led routines, others may slowly but surely copy your behaviour. If this is the case, I would suggest praising others when you notice this behaviour change towards sustainability. Similarly, if others see how much the climate crisis means to you, your loved ones will soon follow your lead especially if you live in one household with your family members. 

Demographics come with large variability, such as age, location and gender. I feel that any combination of demographics can lead to different perspectives on climate change. This fundamentally boils down to what they have been educated to learn about climate change, if they’ve even been taught anything at all. 

Having open discussions, educating yourself, remaining understanding and respectful of others’ opinions, fighting for sustainability and staying calm, could be ways to solve these blockers I have mentioned. By following this combination, you will present yourself as educated, confident and graceful, which is important to gain others’ trust when fighting for a worthy cause such as climate change.     

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

Yes, this does make it challenging. However, I do enjoy a challenge. From my perspective, sustainable and ethical produce is often pricier than non-sustainable or non-ethical produce. This is for the obvious reason that sustainable and ethical products are more expensive and time consuming to create. I think that this initially puts people off, especially when money is tight, which is also understandable, as privileges play a large part in consumer behaviour. 

Nonetheless, the world is shifting into a more eco-friendlier place, and with time, I know that the message will inspire and spread, which will eventually change behaviour. Using COVID-19 as an example, we are all aware of the safety measures to carry out to protect ourselves and loved ones from the virus, and how we have changed our behaviours to reduce the spread of the virus. We have all been provided with this knowledge through the media mainly. The media has the power to inform everyone about the adverse effects of our unsustainable habits and the repercussions of this behaviour, which can educate and change behaviours. This can facilitate sustainable businesses thriving in the future.

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

My advice to younger generations on sustainability is to do your own research and find a way to be sustainable that speaks to you. There is no one way of being sustainable. See your sustainability as your form of expression, through your fashion, eating and waste. Don’t let the stigma of others on how you live your life sustainably affect you. At the end of the day, if you know you have made any active changes, it is probably a lot more than what somebody else is doing and that alone should fill you with pride for yourself. 

There is no planet B. This world does not belong to you; it belongs to every single living thing and you need to protect this planet for you, your future families and future generations.

Animals are becoming extinct, millions of people die from pollution poisoning and climate change yearly. 

The World Health Organisation states ‘air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year’, microplastics are now being found in unborn babies, and this is all a result of how neglectful we have been towards our planet. It’s within our hands to change it and if you’re inspired yourself, you will inspire others.

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

One life story which deeply impacted me was the picture in the news of the 3-year old boy that died after falling off a boat filled with refugees washing up on the shores of Turkey in 2015. Even still bringing tears in my eyes almost 6 years on, that poor toddler should be 9-years old boy today. This truly showed me the extent of the Syrian conflict and the way the politics dice with peoples’ lives mercilessly.

In 2015, I had to decide on a degree to study; I knew I wanted to pursue a career in helping people, either through psychology or humanity-led. Not long after graduating university, my current job role was advertised, (Outreach Support Worker for Victims of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery), which I was hired for. My full-time job consists of supporting clients that are refugees and asylum seekers, who have babies and small children. I do love my job. I believe that this job opportunity was presented for me to support people that are in dire need of humanitarian support.

That child has inspired me to take a humanitarian career path. Although I know it’s not the most money-making career, I know that it is the most worthwhile career. This is far more valuable to me than money could ever buy. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Despite all the negativity in the world today, I just want to let you know that you can make the positive changes that you want to see in the world, no matter who you are or where you come from, change is only within you. In order to make your changes successful, you must remain persistent and consistent, which will eventually pay off.  

References

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

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