Spotlight Series: Q&A with Jaineesha, Cruelty-free & Vegan Bridal Makeup Artist

We speak with Internationally renowned, award-winning, cruelty-free MUA Jaineesha about her transition to vegan makeup and sustainable living.

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I am a British born Hindu, Gujarati. I am a vegan make-up artist mainly working with Asian brides within the South Asian wedding industry. I’m also very passionate about creating awareness around taboo subjects such as periods, colourism, and gender equality. I’m passionate about talking about how to lead an eco-friendly lifestyle and sustainable living within beauty but also day-to-day practices. 

What are your main values as a make-up artist? 

So I initially started within the industry in 2011. I’ve always had a passion for makeup, but I never looked at the impact that the beauty industry had on the environment and also how the products were being made. In 2017, I came across the term cruelty-free beauty as I started researching on how the products are made and what the production line could look like. 

To put it in plain simple language I was absolutely shocked that our products are being tested on animals to be put onto the shelf so that we can apply them. I’ve always felt that beauty is a luxury and not a necessity, therefore it shouldn’t need to be at the expense of the environment or animals. I managed to change my personal care and my bridal kit which I would use on clients to 100% cruelty-free by 2018. It wasn’t an easy switch because at that point it was really difficult to find out which companies tested on animals, and which didn’t. I had to email companies because information wasn’t as easily accessible as it is nowadays. Usually you can go onto the website landing page and find a logo that will tell you about the company’s ethics. 

The cruelty-free change initially came because my little sister went vegan overnight and it made me think about the products that I was using on myself. So once I had a 100% cruelty-free kit I did start thinking ‘why should I be applying products that may have animal products within them especially because I am vegetarian.’ The whole process started over again and I managed to get 100% vegan kit by 2019. It’s been an investment and it’s not been easy as the quality of the products and the finish that I can create with the products is really important to me.

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

So my sister watched a documentary about the way the animals are treated within the dairy industry and she shared her experience with us and decided she would become vegan. We are already vegetarian in the family and instead of thinking about my diet, I thought about the products that I was applying on myself and also on my clients. I do feel we should be voting with our money and that’s why I think we should be researching how products are made and each company’s ethics. By the time I managed to have a completely vegan kit for myself and for my clients, it started filtering through the rest of my life. 

I started looking at the cleaning products, and what I use for my laundry, the types of clothes that I’m wearing, and the type of food we were eating. Now I pretty much eat a completely plant-based diet and have felt that it’s been better for me, but also I’m hoping that it has a positive effect on the environment. 

Being South Asian do you find any backlash about your career choice from family friends or society at large? How did you overcome it? 

Becoming a make-up artist definitely wasn’t something my parents thought I would pick. When I first mentioned it they were quite keen that I would attend university. I wanted to do makeup at university but they urged me to pick something else. So I went for Psychology which I did enjoy at the time, but once I finished university I think they saw that my heart wasn’t really in it and just let me pursue what I wanted. 

I think generally my parents are very happy with the path I chose. I do know that my friends and family are very proud of what I do, not only because of the business itself but also the awareness that I am able to create through it. 

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

It’s something that’s happened over the past four years – I don’t think it can happen overnight. I found making small switches has been easier rather than completely changing everything. I also believe that using what you already have first, is probably the most sustainable option. 

If we were to buy anything new, we look at eco-friendly options that are more sustainable, but also buy less and try to upcycle what we already have – it is definitely something that we enjoy doing. I found it has been kinder to our bank balance and also kinder to the environment. We have actively changed our diet and gardening has become quite a big part of our life now, which it wasn’t this time last year and we are thoroughly enjoying it. All of my beauty products have changed from what I used five years ago. 

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 these issues? 

I think the South Asian community as a whole is a very adaptable community. So many of us or our parents or grandparents have moved to different countries for a better life, or have been displaced and have done their absolute best to give a better future for the generations to come. 

I do also think they have done the best they can with what they have at the time. I do think the climate change topic overall, isn’t spoken about that much, but I know I like to speak to my friends, cousins and family about it and share our views about what we think, what new habits we’re trying to make. 

I think money is quite a large part that plays into switching over and also it may seem like a not so modern way of living. I remember when speaking to my mum initially about new things that I was doing at home or trying out her response was ‘oh that’s what I did when I was younger and that’s what I saw my grandparents doing.’ So I do think sustainability is actually deep rooted within our culture and has kind of gotten lost or forgotten along the way, due to displacement or moving to a different country or not living within extended families and also being influenced by western cultures to some extent. 

Conversation is key – it might seem like a big change, it might seem like an inconvenient change, it might seem like it’s more money savvy to stay living the way you are, but what I found is that 

even though you might invest a little bit more now, you’re actually saving money in the long run. 

We should just keep talking about it, sharing ideas of how we can be more sustainable and talk about how our grandparents lived in the habits that they had. 

What have been your greatest successes and learnings? 

I think my greatest learning probably has been understanding that my grandparents actually lived a very sustainable life. They grew their own veg, upcycled pretty much everything, they fixed everything that they could – there was no such thing as single use and sharing and caring was a big part of life. I’ve also really love the fact that we are actually so much in control of the effect that we have on the environment. We can adapt new habits such as gardening, growing your own veg, shopping at a refill store, buying cruelty-free and vegan beauty that will all help to have a positive impact on the climate. Many popular beauty brands still test on animals, use harsh chemicals and are packaged in unsustainable packaging. 

Many popular beauty brands still test on animals, use harsh, unnatural chemicals and come in unsustainable packaging. A lot of these brands are actively promoted by influencers. Do you think a more vegan and sustainable lifestyle, particularly when it comes to makeup and beauty, is going to gain momentum? 

Absolutely, I think over the past few months and especially during the pandemic, we have seen a big switch more companies are talking about it. I think sometimes it might just be to gain more sales, but I do think a lot of companies are trying to do their best to change and have the least impact on the environment. 

When I am contacted by companies or brands to work with them, I do try and check that they are as sustainable as they say they are. 

I think we do forget that change doesn’t happen overnight and we can’t expect beauty brands to change their habits overnight. However, I do look at companies such as Estee Lauder and L’Oreal to make large changes more quickly than small brands, as they have the funds and resources to be able to do so. I do also hope that more influencers pick brands that are doing their best to be more sustainable, however 

one thing that I’d love to say to people reading this is try and follow influencers that have the same ethics as you in mind when promoting. 

How can sustainability be made “sexier” in the beauty industry, whilst ensuring the process doesn’t become another prey to greenwashing?

I think it’s getting there. I feel like people who didn’t even know what vegan, cruelty-free meant last year are now buying products that are. 

When I first started letting people know that I had a cruelty-free makeup kit and had change my products from Mac and Bobbi Brown to brands that were cruelty free, I did have quite a few clients say that they didn’t want me to use those products on them because they didn’t trust the longevity even though I had done all the research and trials beforehand. 

Whereas now I have Brides who enquire with me and the first line is ‘I love that you use vegan products,’ so I think the awareness is definitely there. 

I’m not sure if sexier is what it needs to be, I feel that the right education will help the penny drop for a lot of people like it did for me. Also something that is sexy now may not be sexy 20 years down the line and we want to make sure that sustainability, cruelty free beauty and vegan beauty is something that sticks. Hopefully in the next 20 years that is the only type of product that will be available. 

Are there any particular brands or sustainable businesses you encourage people to use? 

Generally a lot of small brands will be cruelty-free and maybe vegan. There’s such a huge list of them now and there’s more and more brands coming up every day. My favourite ones are Tarte which are cruelty free and have some vegan products, Nude by Nature, Lush cosmetics, Pixi beauty, & Illamasqua just to name a few. 

How do you check if a beauty brand is actually sustainable?

I think sustainability is different for everyone. For me, the main points are if they are cruelty-free and vegan. After that I will look at packaging however, for some people they may want to look at the actual ingredients and if they are organic and how they’ve been sourced. People could look at the carbon footprint of the product. 

I think the best place to start is to check the FAQ section and the information that is available on the website and if you are still unsure and you have certain questions, email the company and check if they have the information that you need. 

Another way to check if a brand is cruelty free is to check if it’s been sold in China. Many large brands like Tarte and CoverFx and Urban Decay don’t sell in China. However large brands like Mac and Bobbi Brown still do. 

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

I think this is difficult because we can get so easily sucked into what our friends are doing, what we see on the TV and social media. The main thing is to be true to yourself and do as much research as possible and don’t give into trends. I don’t feel like you need the new best thing around. Nowadays there are so many beauty brands that are cruelty-free and vegan at such a cheap and affordable price, so make sure you’re going with them rather than what you’ve seen on the last Instagram ad.

Find out more about Jaineesha here: https://linktr.ee/Jaineesha

Website: www.jaineesha.com

Instagram: @jaineesha_ & @jaineesha_mua

Image credits: MoonCup Ltd @emma_croman.

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 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 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

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Climate Change Activist, Ridhima Pandey

We caught up with 13-year old Climate Activist & TEDx Speaker, Ridhima, featured in BBC’s 100 most empowering and influencing women’s list 2020 and member of youth advisory council for COP26

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

The 2013 Kedarnath flash flood made me take action. In 2013 when I was 5 years old, a very devastating flash flood occurred in my home state Uttarakhand. Many houses and agricultural land were destroyed. Thousands of people died and many children lost their parents. I saw all this destruction on television and in the newspaper. My dad also went there to rescue animals. 

After asking my parents about how the flash flood occurred, thundering, cloudburst and flash floods became one of my biggest fears. I used to get nightmares that I died in a flash flood or I lost my parents due to a cloudburst so I was scared of rain – I was traumatized and terrified. That flash flood had a very bad impact on me mentally and after speaking to my parents about the reason behind this flash flood, I came to know about climate change. 

I was confused about how our human emissions change the temperature of such a big planet like Earth. I learnt that not only flash floods but many natural disasters are occurring because of it and as the global temperature is rising, natural disasters are getting more frequent and much more destructive. This made me take action for myself and for the coming generations. 

How do you balance activism and your studies?

It was a little difficult in the beginning as I used to travel a lot due to my activism and awareness program and had school at the same time so I had to take a lot of time off, my work used to be incomplete, my notebooks were empty, I didn’t understand any thing and as I didn’t do my work, my teachers consequently didn’t grade me. 

I used to study the whole night before my exams in order to learn everything. It was pretty hectic but with time I got used to it and now I manage my study pretty well compared to when I just started in my activism. 

Born in Haridwar and being South Asian, did you face any backlash about this choice of activism from family, friends or society at large? Particularly as you’re still in education – how did you overcome it?

I never faced any backlash from my family or my parents but did face trolls and unpleasant comments from society. People used to say that it’s a good thing that you are doing, but instead you should study and focus on your career. Some used to say that it’s useless and what you are doing is for fame and money. Many people used to comment on social media that we are anti-nationalist, we don’t want our country to develop, our parents are using us or someone else is using us for money and what not. 

I used to get a little angry and frustrated in the beginning, but

my mom used to tell me not to see how many people are discouraging you, instead see how many people want you to continue; how many people you inspire.

Now I don’t really care what other people say about me – it doesn’t bother me anymore!

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

I try to live a sustainable life – I save electricity, water and food. I do plantations, I try to reuse and recycle my things and most importantly I’ve reduced my consumption of fast food and things that come in single use plastic and instead I used biodegradable, eco-friendly products. I carry my own cloth bag when I go shopping. I try to reduce my carbon footprint as much as I can.

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 do you go about solving the issues?

Yes I do feel that people in South Asia do not take climate change seriously. Most of them don’t even know what climate change is and if they do know, they don’t know what to do about it.

I feel like everyone thinks that it doesn’t affect them or if it does then government money can resolve it. 

Most people in the front line are being affected by climate change the most, but they don’t really know what to do and they also aren’t aware that all these things are happening because of climate change. I try to educate my community and especially children about climate change: how it’s affecting them, why the global temperature is increasing, how bad it can be, what their rights are, how they can protect themselves and what steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprint or to contribute to this fight. I also run different campaigns on different issues in India such as on air pollution and saving the Ganga river.

What have been your greatest successes and learnings so far?

I guess everything that I have done to bring change is a success to me. But being a TEDx speaker, being on the COP26 youth advisory board and being mentioned in BBC’S 100 most influential and empowering women’s list are the best successes I have ever had.

I have learnt a lot throughout my journey so far, but a key learning is to never give up on your dreams and never think that you are alone.

You work constantly with younger people, facilitating workshops across the world – what key advice do you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Why is it important for them and their future?

When I create and run workshops, I try to be as open and interactive as possible, because I feel until and unless the kids are having fun they won’t learn and understand me. I try to give them real life examples rather than telling them some data as they can find that information anywhere, but they can’t find out about the reality on the ground, unless someone who has seen it tells them about it or they see it themselves. 

I try to make them realise the importance of the environment in our life and why it is important for them to work for environmental conservation. I try to make them understand that our future depends on the decisions that are taken today by policy makers and since money and development are the main focus areas for most policy makers; we have to make sure that they also consider the environment as a priority, because only then our future will become a priority too. 

You mentioned how some young people ‘jump onto the hype’ of being environmental activists. In your opinion, is this wrong or just the first step towards greater action?

It’s not wrong but it’s not justifiable because a lot of the youth here think that being an activist is a fun thing. They never realise the importance and responsibility that comes with being an activist; instead they think that being an activist will make them famous(!)

If you are an activist then you have to work and act like one!

Why is community, grass-root level activism and action so important?

I feel it’s very important because the indigenous communities, the local communities and the communities on the front line are the one most attracted to the cause. Since they are most affected, it’s very important for us to show everyone how their excessive luxuries, greed and emissions are affecting those people. 

Showing everyone what is happening at a grass root level is also very important, as most of the time we see our government reports and they say that they have done a lot, but in reality things are much worse and until and unless we show everyone what is actually happening, no one will know about it. 

Connect with Ridhima on Instagram

Find out more about Ridhima here and here

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Sustainable Tourism and Development Lead, Tejal Thakkar

We spoke with Tejal, about her experiences working in the sustainable development and tourism industry and transitioning from corporations to social enterprises

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I am a South Asian female and my background is in hospitality and tourism.

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

For me, it was about a couple of things. Firstly, I have always thought about how to make incremental improvements to our world. I really liked the tourism industry, but because I was so entrenched in it, I could also see its flaws. So I thought, why not pick an industry and see how I can make it better serve society. That’s kind of how my initial interest in social enterprise and sustainable development began. Secondly, I really hate waste.

Can you tell me about your work in Sustainable Tourism Development and how you got into it? 

My career started in hotels (literally from the age of 16). I studied hospitality for my undergrad and worked at a big travel tech company out of university. Whilst I was at Expedia, I started to learn more about tourism development and how it can be done well or not well.

That’s when I decided to go back to uni for my masters in Tourism, Environment, and Development at King’s College London. After that, I worked for an international development consultancy where I worked on a couple of sustainable development projects. My focus now is on social enterprises in the sector.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

I don’t know about the biggest successes, but there have been a lot of learnings. I think the most important thing is to really listen to that voice inside you if it’s telling you that something is not quite right or if you are looking for more. 

Corporate jobs are cushy – they pay well and have benefits which make it hard to leave, but that’s not all there is in life. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty when trying to figure out what your passions and goals are, and I am still going through that now, but I have a lot of peace in the fact that when I think back to my corporate job (which I really liked!), I have no desire to go back. It means I am slowly moving in the right direction for me.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about switching to more sustainability-led work from family, friends or society at large?

This one is interesting to me. I think there are societal pressures to be doing something that is traditionally ‘successful’, and I have experienced them as well, even though my family is super open. For example, when deciding between two job offers earlier this year, one thing that weighed on my mind was ‘which will be easier to tell people about?’ I, obviously, was so annoyed at myself for thinking that, but it does creep up. 

Interestingly, the other thing I really had to get over was accepting the fact that prioritizing money is okay. I think often, people who are interested in purpose-driven career paths are conditioned to feel ashamed of wanting to make a decent salary. When looking for jobs and considering salaries in comparison to the cost of living in London, salary was something that factored into my decision, and that’s okay! 

If we break it down further, it’s just capitalism telling us that the only thing that should be rewarded is an endless pursuit for profit and I question why. Why should we have to accept lower salaries just because we want to do something positive for society when the ‘Amazons’ of the world are destroying the planet and getting rewarded for it?

Have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

Yes of course! Like I said earlier, I hate waste, especially food waste! I have never really bought much and prefer to have fewer possessions, probably because I have moved around so much, but I am trying to take it one step further by exclusively buying from ethical and small businesses.

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 in immigrant and minority communities, there are often a lot of other worries and issues we have to overcome.

I don’t blame people who are trying to make ends meet for not worrying about the climate crisis, because let’s be honest, they are also probably the smallest contributors to climate change.

However, South Asian communities specifically do have a lot of social and political capital. I think our generation has a lot of untapped potential and I do get disappointed with the general lack of social and political engagement of the youth in the South Asian community.

Culturally, we are generally taught to not ruffle feathers and to keep our heads down and work hard. Frankly, change isn’t made by not ruffling feathers. We have a lot of skills, capital, and ideas in our community, it just needs to be harnessed in the right way.

You touched on feeling like your previous consultancy work didn’t give you the same amount of satisfaction or purpose – would you now say feeling purpose from your job is vital for you?

Purpose in my career is vital for me. I am not sure if it’s the workaholic American in me, but I really don’t subscribe to the ‘I work to live’ philosophy. We will, inevitably, spend a LOT of our life working, so why would I not search for something that fulfills me? 

I never want to live a life where I am watching the clock so I can leave at 5pm. I do want to be excited to get up on Monday morning. I can’t live a life where I spend 40+ hours a week just waiting for them to end – that sounds so miserable! I will say, it is important to remember that work is only part of life and whilst work is important, it’s integral that your work doesn’t come at the expense of your relationships and the rest of your life.

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?

I actually get really annoyed at the climate change rhetoric that places so much responsibility on the individual and especially on minority communities and communities in the global south. Really, we should be fighting the handful of companies who are responsible for the majority of global emissions. 

When it comes to reducing waste, I actually think that minority communities are models that the rest of the world should learn from. It’s about being resourceful rather than buying things to fit our convenience. This is actually something that South Asians are known for! 

Have you heard of ‘jugaad’ innovation? I’ll give an example. It feels like a lot of sustainability rhetoric in the west is actually commodified. For example, we see bloggers shaming people for not having the right reusable containers or the new ‘it’ ceramic non-stick pan? In comparison, immigrant families have been saving yogurt containers to transport chole (chickpea curry) and using durable stainless steel cookware for generations!

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?

Well, there are multiple parts of sustainability, right? I believe that the problem tourism helps to solve for our society is the social and economic aspects of sustainability.

Tourism, when done well, provides opportunities for people to learn about others, connects families, provides sustainable jobs for people in even the most remote parts of the world, for example. For a sustainable development practitioner, the goal is to figure out how to encourage all of those things happening whilst minimizing the environmental backlash. 

Also, it’s kind of a fallacy that air travel is one of the worst contributors to global carbon emissions. Human air travel contributes to around 2% of global emissions, whereas emissions from livestock alone accounts for 14.5%. (Gerber et al., 2013).

Recently, local tourism is becoming more and more popular. This form of tourism does involve fewer emissions and still creates the same benefits of international travel (i.e. creating community, exploration, job creation). I see this as a way forward for the tourism industry, especially with the pandemic.

Again, you’ll notice that the rhetoric around reducing emissions are very individual-focused. While there is room for improvement on the individual level, I have to ask the question as to why we aren’t going to our governments and the big oil companies and demanding incentives for greener technologies and taxes for carbon-emitting ones? That’s where I think our focus should be.

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

To me, being socially and environmentally conscious should just be inherent for our generation moving forward. When making decisions about your career, about your purchases, about anything, sustainability should be on our minds. This is how we make change, by voting with our wallets.

Given that we live in a capitalist society, we can make a difference by choosing to support small businesses, to buy less, and to choose more sustainable alternatives when possible. When picking a job, even a corporate job, see what opportunities there are to get involved in CSR, understand the company’s ethos. This should be important. 

Being in corporate consultancy before and switching to sustainability-led social enterprises now, would you say it’s just as viable and economically stable? Have you faced any challenges?

I work for a startup that is mission-driven now, but I used to work for an international development consultancy, where the company contracts with the government. Naturally, there is more stability in a job like that, especially during the uncertain times we are in right now. 

However, I think it is also harder to move up and learn more at a faster pace in those environments. I actually earn more now than I did in my old job, have more responsibility, and I am learning a ton. Sure, it’s less ‘stable’ than working for a government contractor, but I think you also have to bet on your own intuition as well as your skills and talents.

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

Ha! I am not sure if I can think of any one thing. I think learning about sustainability and social impact is a slow learning process. Unlearning mistruths that we learned as a kid and exploring more sustainable ways of living takes time and is a life-long process.

Spotlight Series: Q&A with CEO & Founder of ChargeInc, Akshay Mukesh

We caught up with Akshay about his tech developments in all things Electric Vehicle charging in India, Middle East and North Africa

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I was born to a North-Indian family residing in South India so one could say that I was brought up in a very cosmopolitan-kind of environment. Essentially, I am a self-taught entrepreneur with minimal formal education and a handful of practical experience. 

I started working when I was 16 and I have diverse experiences in industries like publishing, realty, IT and a digital agency upholding senior executive positions. I love to dig into customer problems and solve them with modern tech and out-of-box solutions. I create, scale and optimise portfolios that matter.

What is Charge Inc and how did it come about?

When I founded ChargeInc back in 2018, the company was headed towards setting up smart charging infrastructure across India and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. In the process of developing the charger (EVSE), we realised that over 5000 companies with a similar product were going to deploy different solutions by 2026 making it difficult for the end user to charge the electric vehicle (EV) with different hardware/service providers. A user, at one time would not subscribe to more than 2 service providers, dividing the charging infrastructure and making adoption of EVs more difficult.

To curb this menace, we decided to focus on building a software platform that could manage and power hardware from any manufacturer or service provider. In simple terms, We would do what ‘Windows’ did for the computer industry and what ‘Android’ did for the cell phone industry. 

What are your main values and aims as an organisation?

We have one clear focus. A unified charging infrastructure irrespective of the type of vehicle, the service provider, the manufacturer of hardware or the geographical location of the charging station. The sooner we are able to achieve this, the faster we can see people choosing EVs over internal combustion engines. And, in this process, we as an organization, are imbibing the values of globality, collaborations, integrity and utmost commitment towards customers

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

The movie ‘2012’ caught my attention in 2010. Though the movie was overly dramatized, it depicted the imminent disaster that is in looming unless we reacted in time. This was just, as I realize now, paving my path forward.

Being an automotive enthusiast, I started to notice advancements in the industry. The kind of buzz Tesla and Lucid Motors were making at the time made me more interested in the EV industry. I transitioned to the IT sector in 2016 where as part of my job, I was fortunate to meet with prominent government figures from across the world and pitch for projects defining the future of the public transport system. 

Their valued opinions and feedback on national problems they face owing to transportation were intriguing for me. I was also witnessing how a few lines of code were able to reduce the efforts and drudgery of millions of people. This was the tipping point. It was here that I knew something bigger could be done.

I started researching what the EV industry was missing and every person I spoke to pointed towards 2 things. First being the range anxiety and second being the lack of charging infrastructure

The vehicle manufacturers were working on developing better battery technologies to fix the problem of range and a lot more charger manufacturers were working on setting up the infrastructure. But with such a diverse approach to the charging infrastructure a much bigger problem was awaiting to be addressed. Unlike refuelling a gasoline powered vehicle, an EV would require the user to reserve a charging point, before they get to a charging station or any business premises supporting it; but the user would be limited by the subscription from a service provider they opt in for. We were now clear on what we wanted to pursue, using our expertise to make a difference. 

I believe I am in the right place at the right time with the right kind of people. 

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

I would consider myself blessed to be surrounded by people who have always supported me in my endeavours. It surprises me sometimes yet gives a feeling of gratitude to have such an arrangement around. Almost everyone I reach out to for help, guidance or connections, they do the best they can. 

I make conscious efforts to ensure I pass on what I receive in a similar fashion.

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

With the kind of work I do, I land up travelling a lot. I currently drive to most destinations because of the pandemic which adds to the carbon footprint. Within the organisation, we often talk about ways to offset the carbon footprint we incur. We are tirelessly working towards deploying our solution at the earliest as it would enable faster adoption of EVs which in turn will offset quite a bit of carbon coming from vehicles on the road.

While this is a part of our primary objective of the organisation, as a personal commitment towards sustainability, I turned vegan back in 2019 and started to ride to most destinations within the city on a bicycle. We also try to limit Air/Long Road travel, use less paper, re-use most resources and reduce electronic waste by donating what is not in use or use electronics for a longer duration than intended. Soon we’ll work on policies where we will incentivise colleagues who eat locally (as that reduces the need to import products from distant locations), share rides to work and replace their ICE vehicles with EVs. While most of these are plans for the future, we intend to take them up gradually to ensure there is less resistance and we are able to sustain proposed changes in our lifestyle. 

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?

It is a harsh reality but most people today wish to switch to an EV for the financial incentives and not the environmental benefits. Environmental reasons and climate change often get side-lined.

I often hear a conversation about “Climate change being real” when people realise that summers are getting hotter or winters are colder or when we experience natural calamities. We need to ask ourselves, what are we doing to prevent this? 

Something as basic as waste segregation is not widely adopted in most places in India. It’s surprising to see that most developed nations in the MENA region also do not enforce segregation of waste in households. It’s of prime importance that we understand this and self-regulate our lifestyle or the Government will have to step in, incentivise or enforce people to change to be more sustainable in their lifestyle. 

Just running ads or campaigns for awareness are not going to be enough. Stricter regulations have to be put in place and environmentalists have to be taken more seriously before it’s too late. 

What have been your greatest successes and learnings?

I personally don’t think I have experienced success as yet. My contributions have been minimal and I would consider them negligible. The vision is to make an impact which reflects in the life of millions for a long period of time. Whilst I am not someone who runs a company which is valued at over a Billion USD, it is difficult to convince people and make them align with the vision. 

There is also a subtle difference between being persistent and being clingy. As an entrepreneur, it’s necessary to know the difference and to know who to have around you for the journey. Unless the person travelling with you matches your vision, they will only end up being a hindrance. 

There are 3 main things I have learnt on this journey and remind myself of these.

You are going to hear a lot of “NO”. You will meet a lot of people who will disregard your idea, do not let them de-motivate you. Self-motivation is one of the most expensive resources and it’s scarce. Use it wisely so you don’t run out of it.

Assuming you do find a person, they may not always be able to align to your vision, learn to let go of people and focus on those who do. If you do not have a person who aligns with your vision, don’t stop searching for them. If you are on the lookout for such a person for a long time, it’s probably the vision that needs to be adjusted. 

It is important to be persistent, but one must know where to stop. Sticking to something that may never work is putting yourself at massive risk. It is okay to fail at something and apply the learnings from that onto the next one. Knowing where and when to pull the plug is an art not many can master. 

What are the biggest challenges being faced in the EV industry? Has any one country got it ‘right’ so far?

The EV industry is MASSIVE. The challenges that lie ahead are bigger than one person, one company or one country. The problems will continue to remain as long as there is range anxiety, lack of charging infrastructure and long periods of time taken to charge the EV batteries.

Norway and China are leading the EV adoption race and other countries need to learn from the, but even in these countries, the charging infrastructure is defined by the companies that manufacture the vehicle. 

Imagine if brands like Mercedes or Volkswagen had to step in to sell fuel because no one else will do so. The vehicle manufacturers are currently charging service providers because they are forced to do so. They have invested massive amounts of money in developing these vehicles and it is in everyone’s best interest to get them on the road as soon as possible. 

If experts from the charging domain step in to fill in the gap, vehicle manufacturers can focus on the battery technology and develop better vehicles rather than focusing on providing charging services.

It needs to be a joint effort between domain experts from the charging infrastructure and vehicle manufacturers to enable faster adoption of EVs.

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? 

My advice to the younger generation would be to look around and analyse the situation for themselves. Refer to historical data and look at how things have changed over the years and try finding the reasons for those changes. 

They will soon come to realise that it’s us who are responsible for these changes and unless we do something right away to fix these issues, shortly there would be no room left for us to be able to step in and fix them. 

These shortcomings are not too far ahead in the future. Today when you read about the technical advancements, you would often read about companies trying to colonise Mars or space travel and alternative places on Earth for the existence of the human race. 

Looking at billions of $ being poured into making it happen must ring loud alarm bells within us so we wake up to reality and realise that we are already late. We either start to fix the problem right away or fixate over it for the reason of not doing so for the rest of our lives. This choice needs to be made by our youth.

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

I have had far too many ups and downs in my life. I have experienced a steep raise and fallen too quickly. These ups and downs made me value quite a few things that I took for granted. 

A few instances during the initial phase of my career made me realise how important it was to be financially secure. I started to pursue projects in the realty sector as they paid well. Every project I would take up would be of decent value and if something came across that did not pay well, I would not take it up. 

Shortly after I was left with no work and with depleting finances it would become increasingly difficult to live below means after experiencing a lavish lifestyle. The reality of life hits you hard when you are down and the first thing that goes out the window is faith. 

I consider myself extremely blessed to be surrounded by people who truly care for me and stand by me in every situation. Some helped me reinstate my faith while others helped me find work and some helped in stabilising the situation so I could focus on work.  

It’s often said that only a few get a second chance. I can, with gratitude say that I have received quite a few ‘second chances’ and this keeps me grounded.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

I may sound like a hypocrite when I say this as my previous answer reveals how I reacted, but I now believe faith is the driving force behind everything. Be it faith in The Almighty or the faith in yourself to do something. 

Be rest assured neither the good nor the bad is going to last for too long. Life will be a roller coaster, it will flip you upside down over and over again. I can scream but it’s my choice whether this is because I am scared or because it excites me.

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Spotlight Series: Q&A with PhD Climate Change Researcher, Zarina Ahmad

We spoke to Zarina about her climate-equality based community projects, creating pathways for diverse groups in Scotland to have an active voice in sustainable solutions

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I was born and brought up in Newcastle and moved to Scotland when I was 16. ​Both my parents were born in India and after the partition were displaced to Pakistan. I hold a BSc in Psychology from the University of Glasgow and worked briefly with the Education Department. However, for the last 10 years or more I have been working with diverse communities to help tackle climate change.

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

As a child I was always one with nature, a child that spoke to plants. I believed that trees had souls (still do), never ate meat however, growing up I wasn’t aware that my passion for the environment would lead to a career in this field.

Approximately 15 years ago I was at crossroads in my life and knew that I wanted a career change, one that would allow me to follow one of my passions; either care for the environment or Psychology and human behaviour. I had to weigh up my options in terms of retraining, looking at costs involved and the time it would take to get into a job. After some consideration, taking into account all the factors, the environment sector won and that’s how I ended up following a career in this sector.

Can you tell me about your recent role at CEMVO? What sparked the choice in career change? 

There was an incident at a Hustings where a candidate from a political party made a racist remark to me, the comment he made was “your kind don’t grow do they?”. This remark made me reflect on how white the environmental sector was.

At this time, I thought naively we lived in a society which was zero tolerant towards racism, we had moved away from a racist society and we were accepted and integrated into the wider society. Hence led me to working with a race equality organisation addressing both environmental justice and race justice.

My role developed into 4 main areas:
a) I support BME community groups to develop climate change projects, help access the climate challenge fund and ensure projects are implemented and delivered well.
b) I sit on a number of stakeholder and working groups which help influence policy change and decision making.
c) I help to diversify the environmental sector and environmental NGOs through collaborative work and representation.
d) I set up and run the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network across Scotland which provides peer to peer support, upskilling and training and opportunities for collaboration to individuals and organisations who are interested in environmental work.

Zarina speaking at community event. She's wearing a beige long cardigan and standing holding a mic.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/ unfamiliar path, particularly midway through your career? Has it been challenging?  

The biggest backlash I’ve received, and this goes back to my childhood, was my choice of following a vegetarian/vegan diet which didn’t sit right within a Muslim family. Regarding a career path I think the biggest issue was that it was not a recognised or valued career. It took my mum years before she was able to explain to her friends what I actually did. Even some of my friends still struggle to conceptualise my job as it doesn’t fit in with a traditional or known career path. 

Also being an environmentalist in the third sector isn’t a well-paid job, at least it’s clear that I do this job for passion and not money. Some people find this difficult to understand, as growing up we are taught that success is measured on a monetary level. 

I think taking a step out of this competitiveness has its challenges as I can’t afford the same lifestyle as others but at the same time, I’m aware that I don’t want that lifestyle as it has environmental consequences. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date? 

My biggest success and learnings are both linked as I have been fortunate to have been in a position to create space for many people across the country from various diverse backgrounds (age, ethnicity, gender, disability, sex, education and socioeconomic backgrounds) to have meaningful and relevant (to them) conversations on climate change. 

From these conversations I have learned so much about the global impacts of climate change, traditional, religious and cultural sustainable practices, which have been passed down many generations. I’ve also learned about community resilience and adaptation to climate impacts and how there is still a lot to be learned from grassroot movements.

Never underestimate someone’s knowledge and ability to influence change. 

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

There are a few things that I try to do. I only buy items that I need, I’m not a fan of shopping, and I try to mend and repair as much as I can. I’m a vegetarian and have been for all my life with only limited dairy in my diet, therefore I do try to source produce locally and cook from scratch. I try to source items that have less plastic packaging and look for non-plastic alternatives. There are more things that I would love to do but access and affordability are huge barriers. 

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? 

I don’t think there is a lack of understanding. In fact I think there is more understanding of what a climate crisis can actually look like within a South Asian context.

I think the issue is more to do with the narratives, discourse and jargon used by policy makers and campaigners which can come across unfamiliar, high level or irrelevant to South Asian communities. 

What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues? 

Some of the blockers are the climate language and jargon which is used, especially terms like carbon emissions and carbon footprint. This is too abstract a concept unless you are a climate scientist, or your work involves measuring carbon impacts. 

The other big blocker is embarrassment of and undervaluing of traditional sustainable behaviours, which have been passed down in South Asian communities. For example, reusing plastic ice cream or butter containers to store leftover food, growing your own herbs and vegetables in your front garden, no waste attitude – reusing and recycling wherever possible; however, these practices once in the west were looked down up i.e. perceived as behaviour of people who were unable to afford a better lifestyle. Unfortunately, a better lifestyle equated to overconsumption and a disposable society.  

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? 

If we consider small steps to sustainable lifestyles then this is accessible to all, however some of the bigger steps such as installing solar panels, driving an electric vehicle or even buying organic may exclude a lot of us, simply on the basis of affordability. The easy steps we can take are just trying to be conscious of what we buy, what we use and need and what we eat. Try and reduce our waste by buying less, recycling and reusing more. Sharing with others instead of competing with others. 

You touched on feeling a lack of representation and your work since has been about amplifying voices and engaging more diverse communities. Can you tell me more about this and why it’s particularly important for there to be greater representation in the sector? 

When I started out there was very little to no representation from any person of colour within the environmental sector.

A whole portion of society was being excluded from any discourse on climate change, mitigation, adaptation measures and looking at sustainable behaviours and lifestyle.

If we live in a democratic society, surely all people should be included and opportunities for all voices to be heard should be created. 

Firstly, it is important to recognise that one approach for certain communities will not be fit for another community. Secondly acknowledge that there is diversity within diversity; having one person from a BME background to represent the views of all the ethnically diverse communities of the country, is simply not good enough nor is it appropriate or fair. 

Then there is the issue of climate justice – those that are being most impacted by climate change are the ones least contributing, but also have the least power to influence change.

Climate justice is also a racial justice issue similar to what we have unfortunately seen over the recent months with the pandemic. If we want systemic and structural changes, we need to see and have different diverse voices around the table. 

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

Firstly, you need to understand how we are connected to nature and the environment in order to understand where our produce, clothing and other consumable items come from. Look at nature-based solutions not just techno fixes going forward. Secondly, become active citizens, realise that you have power and are able to influence change by using your voice and actions, become more politically involved, don’t shy away from being involved in campaigning and activism. Lastly don’t be passive consumers become conscious consumers and try not to be influenced by fast trends or buy into the disposable culture. 

You’ve had much exposure to government processes in place, working on policies and engaging with grass-root organisations. Based on your experience, what do you believe the most important and effective methods are to have the largest climate impact? 

For me being interconnected in terms of dialogue and action is important i.e. policy makers, communities, industries and academics should all be working side by side, sharing knowledge and experience.

We should work less in silos and work more collaboratively to find solutions that fit the needs of society. 

Communities should be adequately resourced if they are expected to take local action. Adding to this, I also think it is important to act locally but think globally, we are connected to other parts of the world and what we do here does have an impact somewhere, our carbon emissions contribute to global warming – the UK is not in a bubble. 

Your example of actively using ‘positive environmental change’ rather than ‘behaviour change’ is really striking. Why do you believe our choice of language is important? 

The language we use is important as this is our main means for communicating and bringing people together however, it can also lead to pushing people away. Simply put, language can be inclusive or exclusive.

In the UK and indeed in the West, the narrative on climate change and sustainable behaviours very much focusses on “behaviour change”. From my experience of working with communities this terminology isn’t helpful because people become very defensive when they hear behaviour change. 

With the narrative of change as the premise, you are telling someone that how they previously lived and behaved was wrong and now they are going to be told how to live and behave better. The agency over their choices is not taken into consideration. Therefore, simply using a term such as “positive action” is more likely to result in people embracing change and steps to a better world for all. 

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

Early in my career I was working with a Muslim woman’s group and engaging them with activities to build their understanding of climate change. One day I was taking this group out on a trip to see a demo house with a number of energy efficiency measures adapted into its construction. 

One of the elderly ladies (probably in her 70’s) thanked me. I thought it was for taking them out for the day on a trip, but she said it was for raising awareness about climate change. Her son is a frontline journalist who was posted out in Pakistan and covered stories about the floods caused by the ice melting on the Himalayas, which in turn caused huge devastation.

Many lives and homes were lost as a result of the vast amount of water and ice sheets hitting villages. She told me there were weeks, even months when she would not hear from her son and would worry that one day she would get the sad news of him passing away. She knew this was because of climate change and wanted others to be more aware and realise through our actions we can change these outcomes.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I also think it is important to be connected to nature, be aware of our ecosystem, and understand the role we play within this system. Unfortunately, colonisation and capitalism have removed us further and further away from our connection to the land.  Only when we fully appreciate this, will we stop exploiting resources and relearn how to live as one with the planet.

Zarina on a boat, touching the ripples of the lake. In the background mountain ranges can be seen. She's wearing a tan coloured jacket

Find out more about Zarina and connect with her on Instagram and LinkedIn

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Dr Poshendra Satyal PhD, AFHEA, MPhil, BSc (Hons) Ag

Read our deep dive into Dr Poshendra’s academic journey, with key interests in environmental development, agriculture and conservation in the Global South

What is your ethnic and academic background?

I identify as a Nepalese and South Asian living in the UK (for the last nineteen years). I was born and raised in the foothills of Nepal Himalayas (near Mount Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world). Our family later moved to Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal) where I completed my secondary schooling and A-level education. I also did my BSc there before going to Haryana in India to study for my 4-year BSc (Honours) Agriculture degree (1994-1996). After finishing my degree I went back to Nepal, taught for a year in a private agricultural college and got involved with a couple of environmental NGOs working in the issues of sustainability and natural resource management. 

I came to study for my MPhil in Environment and Development at the University of Cambridge in 2001. Since then, I have been based in the UK. I continued for my PhD in Environmental Policy at the Open University (2005-2009) and then worked at various universities, institutes and organisations, broadly on different areas of environmental development (including climate change, forest governance, conservation and natural resources management). 

I now work as Global Forest Policy Coordinator with the Policy Team of the BirdLife International (an environmental NGO), based in Cambridge. Prior to that, I worked for five years as a senior researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA)’s School of International Development (2014-2019). I also serve as a Trustee of the Mount Everest Foundation (Royal Geographical Society), an affiliate fellow with the UEA’s Global Environmental Justice Group and a visiting senior fellow of South Asia Institute of Advanced Studies (Nepal). I have also worked as a research fellow at the Warwick University’s Department of Politics and International Studies (2018-2019) and Crichton Carbon Centre and ClimateXChange – Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change (2012-2014). 

In the past, I worked as a researcher, lecturer and consultant with a number of institutions and organisations in the UK (The Open University, UNEP – World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Fern, and Forests Monitor) and Nepal (Himalayan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Forum for Sustainable Development Nepal, and Institute for Sustainable Agriculture Nepal). I was also an affiliate fellow of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (2014-2018), University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies (2012-2014) and Open Space – Centre for Geographical and Environmental Research of the Open University (2009-2012).

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

Having spent much of my early childhood in a tiny remote village of Hedangna in Sankhuwasabha, a district of Eastern Nepal, I had witnessed the local villagers’ very close relationship with nature. The place was very rich in biodiversity, forests and other natural resources (the area later became the Makalu Barun National Park).

While the local indigenous Rai communities had a very simple lifestyle, most of the villagers had very basic standards of living, with no electricity, no proper medical facilities and other services (which we take for granted in the West). I also witnessed (and experienced myself to some extent), poverty, underdevelopment and spatial inequity arising from the remoteness.

This made me hyper-aware of the circumstances that make people vulnerable, due to a range of social and environmental issues (e.g. socio-political marginalisation, climate change and natural hazards). This sparked my interest to explore the dynamics of social, environmental and climatic issues that can impact local livelihoods. More particularly, my concern about injustices in the context of natural resources. This was the beginning of my interest to study and research these issues in greater depth.

Having studied and worked previously in the field of agriculture and natural resource management in India and Nepal, my interests, concerns and desire to understand the underlying causes of injustices in the natural resources context; based on what I had witnessed in the field, had a bearing on the choice of my research in environment and development. 

In fact, I began to realise and question the limitations of my own technical knowledge in agriculture that I had gained through my BSc (Honours) Agriculture degree in India when I returned to Nepal. I started to question whether natural resources and farm management involve not only technical and scientific issues, but also a number of other socio-economic and political issues.

I had concluded that, in order to solve problems in agriculture, forest management and natural resource governance, issues of justice should come to the fore.

This led me to apply for the MPhil in Environment and Development degree at the University of Cambridge, which would equip me with social sciences approach to environmental analysis in my chosen career. 

Can you tell me about your research over the years in conservation and what has interested you the most? 

With a background in natural and social sciences, I have a long-standing interest in interdisciplinary and policy relevant research in environment and development issues, particularly conservation, forest governance, and climate change in the context of developing nations. 

My interest in engaging with the theoretical debate on social and environmental justice and in exploring the empirical understanding of environment and development problems is related to my academic, personal and professional background.

In that sense, my work has a biographical connection. The underpinning research interest on various environmental and development challenges faced by the developing world, is primarily rooted in my background as a Nepalese and South Asian. While this was a starting point for my interest, there are also further reasons for choosing a research topic in social and environmental justice. 

My interest in exploring North-South differences in tackling the twin challenges of environment and development, progressed more prominently during my MPhil degree in Cambridge, exposing me to a broad range of ideas and concerns regarding the debate on environment and sustainable development.

As a new researcher and practitioner from the “developing world,” but studying in the West, I was constantly confronted with new ideas, including those on justice, in my participation in academic discussions; which further pushed me to engage in research that could explore the real tensions and differences in priorities between the developing world and the developed world, in terms of social and environmental dimensions involved in sustainable development and sustainability. 

Reflecting upon these issues led me to conclude that a productive research avenue would be to use an environmental justice framework. My PhD project thus worked on and developed theories of social and environmental justice, drawing from in-depth field research on community forestry and natural resources management in the Terai of Nepal; looking into issues of social equity and forest ecology in the context of environmental and socio-political change in the region. 

Building on my PhD, I have further used the environmental justice framework in policy research and analysis in the context of climate change adaptation, forest governance and water security, with various organisations in the UK.

The most recent role that I have in BirdLife involves supporting our Policy Team and advising project partners on forest policy issues. Forests have received renewed attention in recent years (particularly in the debates around Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and climate change policies) due to their potential for a ‘triple win’ in terms of addressing biodiversity loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change and providing other local and global ecosystem services. 

Ending deforestation, advancing forest conservation and restoration and sustainable management, of all types of forests and trees are vital for the purpose. Hence I see that there is an important role for advocacy and policy work on forest, biodiversity and climate change issues, at global and national levels to help develop and operationalise effective environmental policies across different scales of governance. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

There have certainly been various milestones, but I do not consider that I have achieved any big successes as of yet. Also, it depends how we define and measure ‘success’. I believe that we need to continue doing our Karma with persistence, trust in ourselves, and success will appear in different guises and degrees. In my case, the progress has been gradual as I have built and continue to build on some of my achievements. 

To begin with, I consider two of my early achievements (before coming to the UK) as the ones that still guide my passion for learning and hardworking: (1) in 1991 I stood among the top three positions during the national School Leaving Certificate exam (GCSE equivalent) among more than 150,000 students taking up the exam in Nepal; (2) I was also a gold-medalist scoring highest marks among more than 400 students in the BSc (Honours) Agriculture programme in India. 

In retrospect, my turning point was when I was selected for my MPhil degree in Cambridge, which I consider a significant milestone that opened subsequent opportunities and shaped my future. Coming from a remote Nepali village, I felt quite lucky to be selected for Cambridge Overseas Trust Scholarships for my postgraduate study in Cambridge, among many competent candidates from around the world. My MPhil degree laid a foundation for my interest in further studying the environment and its development.

My selection for a fully funded PhD studentship was another milestone in my life. My PhD and post-doctoral research at various institutions further provided cumulative and progressive impacts, towards my personal and professional development. For example, building on my original doctoral research on social and environmental justice, I developed a climate justice framework for policy research and analysis in Scotland, which was very well received by the Scottish Government. 

I also consider my wide-ranging academic and professional experience, working on various projects and in different organisations useful experience. Through these works, I now have a good record of publications and my published items have ranged from peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, to policy reports, briefing papers and general articles. 

I have also widely presented in various forums and meetings involving a variety of audiences (e.g. international conferences, workshops, interaction programmes, and policy engagements).

I see my unique position as a South Asian researcher based in the UK as a strength. I’m placed in a prime position with exceptional potential for North-South collaboration and trust. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for choosing to work in environmental research from family, friends or society at large? You originally wanted to study medicine – what changed?

When I did quite well in my GCSE exam in Nepal, the expectation from my parents, family and wider network of relatives in Nepal was that I choose some high-demand career such as medicine and engineering for my further study. 

Everywhere you go, people would ask you what you want to become in life. Most children in Nepal are still taught that “they will become a doctor or engineer and serve the society”. With such societal ‘pressures’, I also naturally aspired to become a medical doctor. However, there were only a few medical colleges in the country at that time and the competition was very high.

I did not manage to get a place and was feeling very low, thinking that my dream was shattered. It was only after that, I began to consider other subject areas for further studies, and I decided to go for an agriculture degree with a scholarship from the Indian government. 

Even then, many of my friends and family would sometimes tell me that I could have done better choosing medicine or engineering. In their minds, medicine and engineering subjects would land you a secure job and high salary, while those preferring agriculture, forestry or environmental studies would not have comparable future prospects. 

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

While wider policies and plans are needed across different sectors and scales of environmental governance, these would not be successful if we do not feel responsible to operationalise, practice and monitor, in whatever way we can. In that sense, every individual has the responsibility to change their behaviours and actions and adopt a sustainable lifestyle, while also engaging in some form of citizen activism. 

The reason for this is because every day we make choices in our lives that can affect the environment, the climate and biodiversity. From what we buy and what we eat to how we travel to work, there are a lot of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint and environmental impact. 

On a personal level, I have been conscious of all aspects of my daily life (e.g. how my shopping behaviour can impact the environment, going plastic free, switching off the lights when not in use, reducing unnecessary water use etc.). While this may seem a very small effort, individual actions are important to collectively address the enormity of the challenge we are facing.

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 Asia as a region is vulnerable to climate change. While rising sea levels and flooding threaten the coastal states of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives, landlocked Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal face rising temperatures, drought, and glacial melting. 

The climate crisis can further exacerbate environmental degradation, natural disasters, extreme weather events, food and water insecurity and economic disruption. As high temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and climatic variability and change have already started to impact people’s daily lives and livelihoods in the region, I think South Asian communities living in the region (and also South Asians living in the UK, to some extent) are aware of the climate crisis. 

However, when it comes to individual actions to mitigate climate change and environmental issues, there certainly seem some cultural barriers. For example, while simple measures like using public transportation more often, reducing energy consumption, becoming more eco-friendly can help reduce our environmental impact and make this planet a clean and safe place, our society seems to have a tendency to ‘respect and value’ those who drive fancy cars, wear ‘big brands’, own big houses and earn and spend more. 

I also think that there is very low uptake of a ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ culture among us, as many of us feel hesitant to go to a charity shop and buy second-hand clothes. This is generally true for both South Asians living in urban or peri-urban areas in the region, as well as British Asians living in the UK. Having said that, I think it will be unfair to point a finger and put a blame just on South Asian communities, because the behaviour is common across all of us.

We all as human beings are responsible for this crisis and we need to work collectively to address the challenge. 

While our South Asian culture is generally considered to be based on the ethos of sharing and caring for each other and a common respect for the Mother Nature (e.g. there are references to this philosophy in most of the major religions in the region, including Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism), our modern lifestyle has made us more greedy and needy, as we are attracted to materialistic culture and consumerism. 

South Asian culture is also considered to take a more collectivist and holistic approach on social relationships and, supposedly, by extension on environmental issues. However, we have now become more selfish and individualistic and such dichotomy of culture does not seem to be valid anymore, both for urban and peri-urban South Asians and British Asians.

You mentioned your experiences in Africa and how you were misunderstood for working in a different profession. Why do you think South Asians are underrepresented in the environmental sector? Has it been challenging for you over the years?

I’ve had an interesting mix of experiences in the sector. My work experience has been both intellectually challenging and enthralling. In a good way, this experience has also changed my way of life and thinking as it has taught me to think critically and out-of-the box, at times. 

Of course, there have been a lot of challenges too. As an immigrant exposed to new culture, getting used to the new way of life in the UK was one of my initial challenges. I also found initially that there was a lot of competition in the job market and I had to get myself prepared to compete amongst the best in the subject area. 

Once in the sector, I realised that there are only a few South Asians with whom you could relate to or look up to for a ‘role model’.

The reasons for under-representation of South Asians in the environmental sector may be, as I highlighted earlier, due to the cultural preference over high-demand and well-paid STEM subjects (such as medicine and engineering) and more importantly, due to lack of diversity in the sector in the UK. 

Many of the organisations and institutes have not yet embraced diversity and inclusivity in policy and practice, hindering access and participation of BAME (Black, Asian and and Minority Ethnic) communities. 

In my personal case, there has also been a funny side to it. As part of international development research projects, I had to travel to new places, often in remote areas and countries. At times, I have been misunderstood for coming to set up a business or work as a medical doctor (in Uganda and Kenya, as many Indians go there for the purpose) or as a field support or research assistant to our research team (which mostly consisted of UK British White colleagues and local country partners). 

In some cases, I have been interrogated extra in immigration (e.g. Mexico – a country where many South Asians are trafficked for illegally entering into the USA) or sometimes being let go easily: in Liberia, when an immigration officer checked my passport and I said I am a ‘Nepalese’ but he heard ‘Lebanese’ (as Lebanese and Indians go there to set up businesses, the officer was quite relaxed on further checking). 

Similarly, I was once on a 16-hour road trip to a research site in Southern Ethiopia from Addis Ababa and we had to stop at a few places for meals. As the area was quite remote, local people were not accustomed to seeing ‘brown’ people traveling to their area for research or tourism. A waiter in a small motel came to me and said: “I think I have seen you before…probably in Bollywood movies” – I took that as a compliment!

Leaving aside the funny part, the upshot of my experience is that the area of international development and environmental sector is still massively underrepresented for South Asians and BAME communities in general. 

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?

I agree – there are some barriers to practice sustainable living at an individual level. For example, public transport is not timely and sometimes it can be costly too (e.g. train travel is sometimes costlier than driving or even flying in the UK). Similarly, organic products are more expensive than other products on the shelf. Theoretically, sustainable farming, shortening supply chain, cutting down water and energy consumption, reducing packaging etc, should also lower the cost in the long run. 

In order to change attitudes and behaviours into positive actions, we need some incentives and penalties (e.g. financial contribution to switch to renewable energy). Also, we need increased awareness and a socio-cultural shift towards sustainability, which will make consumers conscious about the climate emergency and damaged ecosystems; so they understand and are willing to pay a little bit more to help the planet (e.g. carbon tax added to our airfares). We also need to recognize, embrace, and reward sustainable values and actions of environmentally conscious consumers in ways that increase the uptake of sustainable consumption more widely.

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

For younger generations, I would like to encourage them to reflect on the urgency of saving the planet and embrace sustainability, making it more ‘mainstream.’ Sustainability, in essence, is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. In that sense, it is an intergenerational issue.

The younger generations have both the responsibility and power to change the world for the better so that we can bequeath the planet to our future generations safely, respecting their right to a healthy planet. More specifically, I would like the younger generations to see sustainability as a justice issue in our relationship to the nature: intragenerational justice (poverty alleviation and social justice); intergenerational justice (justice to future generations); and inter-species justice (justice to non-human nature, including other species and biodiversity). 

As younger generations also have the power to change the status quo and make the world a better place to live, I encourage them to actively engage in some form of environmental activism. We have already seen a number of youth role models in recent years (e.g. Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Licypriya Kangujam from Manipur, India) and their activism has started to bring some positive results in terms of increasing awareness on the issues and bringing some policy change. 

Networking and partnership with like-minded individuals and organisations would help maximise the impact of advocacy, hence I would like to advise everyone to work together in this collective goal. With a right mix of inspiration, aspiration and networking, I am sure we can make some real impact. 

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

I guess my roots and early childhood experience have impacted me deeply to continue working on areas of justice and sustainability.

As I elaborated earlier, my growing up in a small remote village of Nepal, witnessing local communities’ proximity, dependence and respect for nature, their sufferings and simple lifestyle had an empowering impression on me. 

Additionally, as I see similar circumstances that a majority of people in the developing world experience (pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Ethiopia and Kenya, indigenous Batwa peoples in Uganda, ethnic minorities in Vietnam, community forest users in Nepal), I am even more determined to continue working to understand and bring to the fore their specific needs, concerns and priorities; so that their roles and rights are recognised and respected in global and national policies. 

There have also been some unique insights and experiences gained through specific incidents. For example, in my trip to Southern Ethiopia, I saw how long and harrowing a journey (sometimes up to 6 hours) that agro-pastoralist girls have to make to fetch one to two gallons of water for their household. This made me more conscious of my own use of water for daily use. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I do not have more to add but would like to thank you for providing this platform and opportunity to share my experience to fellow South Asians. I hope this was interesting and useful. I want to engage with young South Asians in the region as well as British Asians living in the UK on efforts to raise public awareness and activism in areas of sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity conservation in the coming days. I wish you all the best for your campaign and efforts. I look forward to working together.

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