How bootstrapped startup Brown Living is building sustainable ecommerce for a green future
Chaitsi and Zashank
A nature lover since her childhood, Chaitsi Ahuja would spend her weekends doing beach cleanups or going on nature trail walks. However, as a marketing expert for a large Indian retail company, she had to create high-budget marketing campaigns to push low-priced processed foods and FMCG products that are created for mass consumption and are detrimental to the environment.
“This leads to more waste in our oceans. My value system didn’t agree with me. I started disagreeing a lot with people at work and realised that this wasn’t a job for me – I hated to create those pieces of communications that were misleading and harmful. That’s when I decided to take a plunge and build something truly good for the environment,” Chaitsi tells YourStory.
It led her to startin Mumbai in November 2019. It is an ecommerce marketplace aggregator for all things sustainable. The platform curates products that are sustainable, natural, up-cycled, handmade, recycled, thrifted, earth-friendly, and are an alternative to plastics. The website has 2.5 lakh visitors so far, and has 2,500 daily visitors.
Upon coming up with the idea, Chaitsi discussed it with her husband Zashank Bhatia and her brother Varun Ahuja. The trio decided to take the plunge and build the platform on a full-time basis, as they realised there was a need for a highly-vetted and curated marketplace for conscious products. While Chaitsi is the founder of Brown Living, Zashank and Varun are directors in the company.
The process starts with vendor selection and onboarding where the team requests each seller to send them product samples. “We personally test them, evaluate their packaging (for product and shipping), verify their licenses and certifications, and approve for listing. Products that don’t stand true to our framework are dropped and the others are listed,” says Chaitsi.
The products are listed on the website by the vendor through the backend system. Sellers manage inventory and order fulfilment from their end via the backend panel. Customer payments are routed via Razorpay/Paytm. All orders are currently prepaid (COD integration is under discussion).
“We follow a drop-ship model. Order fulfilment is directly done by the seller through the backend panel. Orders are picked up directly from sellers by our shipping partners and delivered to customers. The backend panel enables us to have a completely automated fulfilment process. After deducting our commission and taxes, we remit the rest of the amount to the seller (on a monthly/weekly basis),” she explains.
For the consumer, Brown Living provides easy access to sustainable products. It also serves as a platform for artists, craftsmen, artisans, and small businesses who make sustainable products of various types.
“We are a team of Earth advocates, aiming to promote a sustainable way of living. Through our consciously curated listed of highly-vetted makers and their products, we aim to build a community which then promotes a waste-free and plastic-free lifestyle to their peers and social circles,” Chaitsi summarises.
The startup, however, had its tasks laid out right from the beginning. From finding the right partners and sellers that are truly sustainable, to encouraging them to switch to plastic-free packaging was a challenge.
The team decided to build a proprietary framework – Brown Lens – that is the basis for product selection and curation. The curation team uses the framework to identify the right products for a conscious customer, asks the right questions to creators, and holistically evaluates the products.
The framework created is based on lifecycle impact, circular design principles, plastic footprint calculation, understanding source, materials used, packaging and its properties, and the overall aesthetics of the product.
It also was a challenge to get the consumer to opt for a product that is better for the environment.
Changing consumer behaviour
“Over time, through various on-ground and online interactions with our communities, we have found a cohort of consumers with a mindset to make a change. Our audience is age and gender agnostic. However, the common thread tying them all together is the idea of a better future (if they take action today),” says Chaitsi.
Using market insights through conversations with the community, the team identified a few profiles that are more prone to making a switch. They targeted their campaigns with tailor-made communications to each cohort:
- Embracing New: People who are making a shift in their lifestyle – moving to a new home or getting a new child in the family, and are looking for natural/organic/chemical-free alternatives which can last longer or are more efficient and can help them save money.
- Save the Planet: People who are aware of the larger problem of climate change and global warming, and want to make small changes in their lifestyle. They understand zero waste practices, home composting, and switch to reusables.
- Social Currency: People who have heard about conscious living and think it’s cool to switch. These users usually also have the money to spend on high-ticket items for social currency.
Varun, Chaitsi, and Zashank
Since November last year, the team claims to have crossed Rs 16 lakh in topline sales, receiving 1,500 orders within nine months of operations. The team claims to have an active user base of 4,000+ customers, with a return rate of 10 percent per month.
“We have grown our community to over 8,000 engaged users across social networks and a reach of two lakh unique visitors on our website,” says Chaitsi. The team claims to have added a base of 100 sellers.
Chaitsi says they have added another set of 200+ organisations and brands that are part of their ‘inner circle’ (the community of businesses that work in the sustainability space). These organisations operate in varied industries such as fashion, farming, waste management, packaging, renewable energy, and raw material manufacturers.
The team plans to further build a network of these sellers further to build their B2B revenues and consult companies who need assistance in sustainability practices and achieving zero waste environments.
Market and competition
According to IndianRetailer.com, the gifting and niche ecommerce market in India is pegged at $30 billion, of which $400 million could be attributed to the digital space. The sustainable marketplaces fall under the niche category.
Startups like Zwende, BlessedBuy, and Tjori fall under both niche and sustainable ecommerce category.
“Our marketplace has all things sustainable. All products are 100 percent plastic-free and chemical-free. We also have a plastic-free shipping policy. We don’t use any foam or bubble wrap in packing and have even removed the plastic tape (and replaced it with a plant-based glue paper tape) from the entire shipping experience,” adds Chaitsi.
She adds all products are made in India and made for India, by artisans and marginalised communities – as the team wants to promote a self-sustaining economy using indigenous technology and craft for low impact consumption.
Revenue and future plans
Currently bootstrapped, Brown Living has an average order value of Rs 1,200, with the lowest price being Rs 125, and highest at Rs 11,000. The team receives commissions from sellers in the range of 20 to 35 percent. The shipping costs vary from Rs 30 to Rs 150, depending on volumetric weight.
In the near future, the team is looking to widen the sales funnel, increase repeat sales from existing customers, and build subscriptions for repeat items/refill packs. The team is also exploring to introduce cash on delivery option, and is looking at B2B orders for gifting and consumption.
“We are looking at organising pop-ups, workshops, and events to create a foundation for social impact, provide credit facility and assistance for sellers, and heal the environment by planting one million trees. We also want to consult brands and corporates on sustainability and create awareness and education through online courses about sustainability and Zero Waste Services for consumers,” she adds.