The problems of plastic waste, especially thin film shopping bags, proliferate the developing world. Delhi,for example,generates almost 8000 tonnes of waste everyday nearly 50% of which is not collected. A useful but a potentially dangerous material,plastic has become omnipresent,strewing itself everywhere; in parks, choking drains, garbage dumps and even bird nests, propagating endlessly almost like a virus. Like Plastic, poverty is endemic too, especially in urban slums where people are forced to resort to rakpicking to sustain themsleves. It is a life denied of all dignity that leaves these people vulnerable to extreme exploitation. These are the poorest of the poor and those who have run out of all options, except to rummage through waste to eke out a living. Conserve India helps address these issues by turning trash into products of high fashion.
Anita Ahuja and Shalabh Ahuja, the founders of Conserve HRP, started out on a social mission, focussing on two priorities:
- Planet – the challenge of waste management and, particularly, the mountains of plastic waste blighting Delhi
- People – the question of how the need for better waste management could benefit the marginalised rag-picker community
In 2002, former engineer Shalabh designed an innovative, now patented, process that “up-cycles” this dirty waste into beautiful HandmadeRecycled Plastic, known as HRP.
To further the mission, the couple followed an Eco-entrepreneurship model with two distinct and separate entities:
- The Not-for-Profit, Conserve (“Conserve NGO”), which created employment for the urban poor through the activities of polythene bag waste collection and conversion into HRP sheets; and
- The for-profit business, Conserve HRP (“Conserve”), which used these sheets to make handbags for the Export market.
Both models have progressed significantly since this stage. Conserve has diversified its product range to become a rounded supplier of quality fashion and lifestyle goods.
Conserve has 4 current product lines. Sales of bags and wallets continue to constitute the majority of revenue, but diversification into further lines has grown to make up 13% of total revenue and is expected to increase further this year.
Conserve’s portfolio of raw materials has expanded to cater to broader market requirements and provide more variety within the product range. The focus remains on using recycled materials, minimizing waste and maximising environmental impact.
Conserve continues to spearhead new forms of recyclable material. Whilst the revenue split for 2010 – 2011 can be seen below, since then Conserve has also developed products in recycled “flex” advertising banners, cut-off leather and artificial leather.
Export orders now constitute 99% of Conserve’s revenues. 88% of revenues derive from the top 5 markets: Netherlands, USA, France, Germany and Australia.
Conserve offers training to its workers so that they can do better jobs throughout the organisation – from manufacturing to working in the head office. Conserve also supports schools in the slums where many of its employees live – helping many children to get the better chance they so desperately need.
Beyond training and education, Conserve is also starting two new projects which will track the general welfare of its workers and provide health clinics for those with no other access to medical help.