Buying bamboo comb or continue using plastic one?While using eco-friendly products is a great way to be more climate-conscious, one also needs to adopt daily sustainable practices.
Weeks ago, as my old plastic comb started collecting dust, I planned to buy a bamboo comb priced at Rs 450. When I told my mother about it, she gasped.
As I browsed the bamboo company’s website to find the reason behind the product’s high cost, I found out that their products are imported from Vietnam. This led me to think of the carbon footprint of an imported bamboo comb.
A quick Google search assures me that locally sourcing or manufacturing is not always the best for the environment. Local production may reduce the carbon miles of transport, but there are still many things that factor in—from sourcing raw materials, selecting suppliers to the production process—when it comes to determining how environment-friendly the products are. In the context of developing countries, things get even trickier.
Research shows that the average energy needed to import shoes to a retailer in Morocco is less than the average energy required to distribute a pair of locally produced shoes in the country. Such findings from developing countries highlight the need to assess the actual total energy effects of nearby sourcing versus long-distance sourcing. The outcomes of such assessments can be the stark opposite of what appears at first glance. Importing products to a landlocked country can lead to additional challenges and costs and yield different results.
I am not sure if importers of ‘eco-friendly’ products track their product’s carbon footprint. “Usually in Nepal, trading of such products has flourished as people see demand for sustainable products. So, they import what is already in demand and supply,” shares Nitesh Sharma, founder of Dhaasoo Deals, which sells upcycled products.
But is practising sustainability as easy as buying expensive sustainable eco-products off the counter? And is that all businesses can think of?
Principally, sustainability requires considering and reacting to one’s behaviour's impact on the larger community and environment. For businesses, such behaviour is not limited to the final product but every step along the way. A sustainable business model looks at how raw materials are acquired, how production is done, how the final product is packaged, shipped, and how it is disposed of. For example, a menstrual cup minimises sanitary pad waste but it also has to be disposed of in the end. But as such cups are mostly made of medical-grade silicone, they can simply be burned to ashes and not cause significant harm to the environment.
The idea of sustainability begins from the conception of the business idea itself. Of course, a business can make eco-friendly products. But there is a need to differentiate whether a product is needed or wanted. There is a great irony in selling and buying zero waste products like bamboo straws and metallic bottles without realising how a simple change in consumption habits like drinking from cups may prevent their use entirely.
Haushala Gurung Thapa, educator and founder of Haushala Creatives, says, “It is important to understand the term itself. Instead of using the word ‘sustainability’, which is a noun, I prefer, to use ‘sustaining’, which is a verb.”
The main point is not to manufacture more sustainable products but to find sustaining practices for the environment.
Some pioneers have been working to establish a closed-loop production system or cradle to cradle approach that recovers waste and turns it into new production resources. Today, if a company operates linearly without looking at its effects in a transversal way, then it is selling just a half-baked narrative. It doesn’t make sense when a company uses single-use plastic packaging but at the same time boasts about its sustainable corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
While we are talking about sustainable production, mobility is one of the priority areas. Recently there was a lot of talk about reducing electric vehicle import taxes. But upgrading to newer technologies also has problems of its own.
Nitesh Sharma, who has been upcycling for the last six years, laments the lack of focus on what to do with dead EV batteries. “As more and more electric cars start plying on the roads, the world needs to seriously think about environmentally friendly ways to deal with millions of EV batteries that are no longer of use,” he says.
In Europe, experts are already worried about how the EV industry is booming because 10-15 years down the line, there will be a huge accumulation of dead batteries.
He further questions, “If electric vehicles are really the future, why are big companies still investing in petroleum products? Here in Nepal, the government may have reduced taxes on EVs, but one also needs to be aware that the country still imports a lot of petroleum products.”
This further reaffirms the importance of imagining more sustainable business practices.
If a brand or a company really believes in sustainability, then they can easily imagine new and innovative ways to be more sustainable. Sharma confides, “A few years ago, wooden pallets could be gotten for free because they were discarded materials. But as businesses started using wooden pallets as raw materials, prices of wooden pallets started going up. What people need to understand is scrap is not limited to used bottles or wooden pallets. There are plenty of other scraps to take care of.” It is pretty evident that there are enough scraps for everyone from recent garbage pictures all around Kathmandu.
One such innovation that comes to mind is Haushala Creatives, which upcycles old clothes by repairing them. Initially, the company organised clothing swap events. But as clothes accumulated, they shifted their focus on repairing clothes. Thapa also questions the thrifting culture in Nepal. “If you are thrifting by buying or importing more, then again, you are missing the whole point.”
The devastating effect of the overwhelming import of second-hand clothes in Africa is a case in example. According to Oxfam, more than 70 percent of the clothes donated globally end up in Africa. While second-hand clothes provide a cheaper alternative, the import is so overwhelming that it is impossible to sell everything. With not enough resources for textile recycling programmes, the clothing waste from Global North ultimately ends up in the landfills of Africa.
Thrifting is, of course, a good sustaining option. But it doesn’t make sense if I am thrifting to wear more and cheaper clothes. What am I doing with my own wardrobe full of old clothes? Recently, a thrift store I follow encouraged other people to send in pictures of old clothes and sell them through their platform. Such practice can help the actual exchange of clothes rather than just foster second-hand selling and buying culture.
The thing is what consumers consume ultimately falls on what is being produced or what alternatives are being given. We can continue to carry our own straw or drink directly from the cup, but the difference we make does not multiply. On the other hand, as Sharma aptly said, businesses can help create and multiply demand for sustaining practices.
Thapa puts the onus on both producers and consumers, saying, “Every production decision manufacturers make should be done keeping the environment and people in mind.”
Instead of framing the sustainable lifestyle message through the lens of elitism, brands can promote eco philosophies of innovation, anti-consumerism, self-sufficiency, purchasing quality, and environmental stewardship.
While for consumers, Thapa encourages them to question. “In our culture, we don’t question much. But it’s important that we do it,” she says. “As a customer, we need to ask producers about how a certain product is made, or where it is from. Producers need to be held accountable for what they produce or provide.”
A recent article in The Guardian warns how individual acts of thrifting and abstinence doesn’t really do much in helping the environment. Instead, we need collective action in every sector to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels significantly. We should be motivated to rethink how we do almost everything. Businesses need to start from today itself.
As for me, I clean my old comb and continue using it.