”If you’re in a sustainable business, you better be ready to serve the Greta Thunbergs of the world,” says Rhea Mazumdar Singhal, founder and CEO of Ecoware, India’s first sustainable packaging brand.
If you’ve ever ordered from Subway, Cinnabon, Chaayos, Haldiram’s and FabCafe in India and wondered about their cool, eco-friendly food packaging, Ecoware is the name you need to know. Ecoware, founded in 2009, offers 100 percent natural, biodegradable, and compostable tableware and packaging. Their greener business model works on the circular economy, intending to mitigate the use of single-use plastics that ends up in landfills. Ecoware products can withstand temperatures ranging from -20 to 140°C, and biodegrade in the soil in 90 days without requiring the involvement of any commercial facility for composting.
As part of our #TheGreenLifeWithLSA campaign for this World Environment Day, we sat down with Rhea Mazumdar Singhal to discuss how she built India’s largest sustainable packaging brand, the challenges she faced, what she hopes to achieve, and more.
The unconventional journey
Mumbai-born Rhea Mazumdar Singhal lived most of her life in Dubai and London before marrying a Delhiite and moving to Delhi. Back in London, she worked as a pharmacologist at Pfizer. Of course, she was used to a different way of life that was much greener, cleaner, and organised, so naturally moving back to India came with its own culture shock. ”It was alarming to see the amount of plastic and waste strewn around, especially during festivals like Diwali and Navratri. And the zero segregation of waste (biodegradable and non-biodegradable) was unnatural to me,” recounts Singhal.
It was then that Singhal found her next task. She started her research on different types of biomass, figuring sugarcane bagasse (a by-product of the sugar industry) would get cleaned under hygienic conditions. After zeroing in on this, she kickstarted her market research in Delhi and landed up in Chandni Chowk to understand what types of shapes and sizes work well with the people in India.
Starting with a team of five and two machines, Ecoware commissioned its first production unit with the Common Wealth Games in 2010. ”It was a great launchpad for us, and we’ve never looked back since.” And in the next two years, their team grew from 20 to 120, owing to a surge in demand for eco-friendly packaging. Their next big client was IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation), and recently in April, they did an eco-flight with Etihad airways in the UAE. Besides being available on Amazon, Modern Bazaar and D Mart, Ecoware caters to hotels (Taj, Leela, The Lalit, Novotel, Oberoi) and large-scale office canteens (JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bain).
Building the brand
A great value addition to the brand’s ideology is that Ecoware products shouldn’t compromise the nutritional value of the food and overall brand quality. Singhal explains, ”For us, it’s always three guiding principles that drive the brand. Safety, authenticity, and purpose (employment, women empowerment, and other initiatives). I’m very passionate about the role of women in manufacturing.”
Even the process is green. ”Keeping our carbon footprint low is important. Our factory in Uttar Pradesh is sitting on one of the largest sugar beds in India. We try and plan our procurement of raw materials via minimal transport. From the manufacturing perspective, it’s a zero-waste process. We use sugarcane pulp and send it to factories; if anything is rejected based on quality, we recycle it.”
Till now, the brand has displaced over 250 million single-use plastic. And while they started with the F&B industry, Ecoware is looking to expand into other sectors as well.
Change in consumer behaviour
We have seen a substantial change in the last few years around sustainable living. The new generations are more aware and conscious of their investments. In the new climate, Ecoware’s clients and consumers evolved. ”Whether you are a Nestle or a Chaayos, you need to be ready to serve the Greta Thunbergs of the world. It is no longer for boomers but perceptive people. My advice to sustainable companies is, ”if you want to be around in the future, be ready to sell to these guys,’ says Singhal.
Sure, it is a big shift from when Ecoware started out. ”Back then people didn’t understand the terminology or jargon. Just because we say eco-friendly doesn’t mean it is eco-friendly. Even today, not everyone is fully aware; it’s still a niche group. And that’s why people need to be discerning of their choices and avoid getting greenwashed.” Underlining the loopholes in the system, Singhal tells us, ”There’s nothing in India that governs what we do.” Ecoware is the only USDA Bio-based certified manufacturer in India, is PFAS free, and has been audited on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) parameters.
Living sustainably on an individual level isn’t that difficult now. Singhal believes in implementing doable tasks into her daily life. ”We started with minimal practices such as not microwaving in plastics, investing smartly, not hoarding, and freecycling. We carry our own bags for shopping and our cups to coffee shops. And we promote zero-waste food ideology at home.”
For Singhal, sustainability is an inter-generational thing; it’s taking care of our needs without compromising the needs of future generations.
All images: Courtesy Ecoware and Rhea Mazumdar Singhal