This is the story of Anita Ahuja, former author from New Delhi, India. Ahuja started Conserve, an upcycling NGO in her living room in 1998. Now she employs several Delhi rag pickers to collect the polyurethane bags, clean them, process them and make them into fashion accessories. She sells the items to Parisian boutiques and health food store chains in the U.S.
A dozen men and women are hunched over sewing machines in a workshop in an industrial area in New Delhi. They are making totes from a blue fabric that is neither cloth nor leather. It’s polyethylene. The source: plastic bags that once contained garbage. Now the totes are adorned with labels of designers from Germany, France and Russia, along with that of the creator: Conserve, a Delhi nonprofit organization.
Conserve is the work of Anita Ahuja, an author-turned-do-gooder and a native of Delhi. Recycling plastic bags into fashion accessories, her group helps clean up the streets of the Indian capital while bringing more pay and dignity to the downtrodden garbage pickers. She sells accessories, including handbags, jewelry and shoes, to wholesalers for $5 to $15 apiece.
The products show up in stores in Britain, France and the U.S. (including chains like Whole Foods) at anywhere from $16 to $50. So far she’s sold 174,000 pieces. Last year Conserve brought in $317,000, keeping $150,000 in its for-profit arm. That money was put back into the business and used to run a school for the children of the ragpickers–200 enrolled and counting. Along the way, she’s taking on Delhi’s recycling mafia and the Indian bureaucracy, and getting a toehold in Parisian fashion.
Ahuja, 47, started Conserve in 1998 in the living room of some friends who were taking up issues like sewage and garbage. One project was to recycle the kitchen waste of an entire neighborhood in south Delhi to make compost. That project didn’t quite work but led her to the idea of doing something about plastic bags. In Delhi plastic bags filled with garbage are often strewn around overflowing bins on nearly every corner. “They have no resale value, so no one picks them up,” she says.
Over the next two years Ahuja experimented with recycling the bags. She tried weaving them together to create a tarpaulin-like covering for the shacks of slum dwellers. Another time she tried pasting pieces of the polyethylene onto canvas and cardboard. She saw that a thicker fabric could be used to make bric-a-brac like pen holders and file folders, and realized she’d finally found a successful recipe when her homemade products were popular at a fair at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. She decided to venture into accessories.
Obtaining a regular supply of plastic bags wasn’t as easy as it appeared. In India recycling is in the hands of contractors who control giant garbage bins in each neighborhood. Only ragpickers with permission from the contractor get to scavenge through piles of trash for anything with a resale value, using bare hands and mostly without any masks or other equipment.
“It is very difficult for any outsider to get in,” says Ahuja, a petite lady with a sing-song voice and a constant smile on her face even as she details her toughest moments.
Using contacts in the Delhi government, she got Conserve IDs for her ragpickers so they wouldn’t be harassed by the contractors or even the cops. She also got certificates of endorsement from Delhi’s chief minister and prominently displayed her own clout at the different units.
Ahuja has put together a group of 50 garbage collectors who, acting as middlemen, buy the plastic bags from 150 pickers in different pockets of the city. They haul in 100 pounds of plastic a day. The bags, sliced open, are washed in detergent, dipped in basil-scented water and hung out in the sun to dry, before being layered and compressed by heat in an ovenlike contraption. It takes 80 to 100 plastic bags and 30 minutes to create a sheet of plastic a yard on a side. Staff and professional tailors around the city then cut and sew the sheets into Conserve’s belts, bags and wallets.
Conserve pays the 50 collectors $100 a month each (Ahuja gets $380). The pickers are still at the mercy of the contractors, who pay them maybe 25 cents a day.
For Asha Devi, a 32-year-old widow, who was doing a quality check on a newly made batch of blue totes one recent afternoon, the salary means she can send her four children to school and run her house, she says.
Ahuja has trained her trash pickers on the nuances of the different plastic bags and their colors. That in itself was a challenge, she says, because they came from different parts of the country and spoke different dialects. They didn’t have shared words meaning “pink” or “light green.” The only thing common among the pickers was popular culture, so Ahuja assigned names of Indian film stars, songs and movies to different colors and shades.
Buyers include Global Girlfriend, a Littleton, Colorado online retailer that has also been selling Conserve totes wholesale to Whole Foods stores for the past two years. Alter Mundi, a chain of Parisian boutiques, retails Conserve’s handbags for the equivalent of $40 and recently invited Ahuja to give a talk to customers.
Blending profit and nonprofit structures in order to get access to capital, Ahuja has set up a for-profit unit, Conserve-hrp, which will buy the fabric from the nonprofit side and handle the exporting. HRP (which stands for Handmade Recycled Plastic) landed $5 million of capital via a joint venture with Bestseller, a large Danish apparel retailer.
The money will help pay the rent on a new 15,000-square-foot factory the business will be moving into in November. It will also help Ahuja with bigger retailers like Zara and Target, which have scoped out her products but are not ready to place an order until her factory gets the required international approvals.
She has turned down suggestions that she hand over the fabric so retailers can get the products made in existing, approved factories in China. “Making the fabric [alone] is not that profitable,” she complains. “Why should the profitable part of the business go to someone else?”
Bharti Sharma, a mother of one daughter, does quality control in the workshop and represents the organization at trade fairs–a long way from her ragpicking days. “I’ve worked here seven years, and my life is so good [that] I have no plans of leaving this place,” she says.
Check out the NGO’s website: http://www.conserveindia.org/main.php
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