eCoexist is a Pune based brand that promotes eco sensitive products and lifestyles through socially sensitive means, jointly helmed by Manisha Gutman, Lolita Gupta and Natalie Leek. Their founder, Manisha talks to us about building a non-profit brand that is non-polluting, champions environmental work and initiatives, while generating income for the underprivileged.
How did eCoexist come into being? Could you define the meaning behind eCoexist?
eCoexist was created in 2006 when I was still a member of the Kalpavriksh Environment Group and I felt the need to explore sustainable product design. I’d been leading a campaign at Kalpavriksh called the Safe Festivals Campaign that had partnered with a farmers group to create completely natural Holi colours for the festival of Holi. We were one of the first to do this in Western part of India. We thus created a brand called Rang Dulaar. The response to this was overwhelming and it became clear that it needed an enterprise of its own to continue.
The word eCoexist alludes to the fact that we share this planet with many other living beings and we need to be mindful and respectful of their needs and understand our debt to them. The ecosystem is the foundation of all life and to have a healthy ecosystem, humans need to co-exist with all other forms of life. Our existence needs to be ecologically sensitive and hence we need to eCoexist.
What sort of awareness does eCoexist aim to work toward? What’s the cause you work for?
Since 2006, the focus at eCoexist has been to look at materials and products and the way consumerism impacts our environment. We strive to replace toxic and polluting materials and products with eco friendly and eco sensitive products and processes. This also requires us to understand consumer psychology and create a market for such products where none existed before. We have done this extremely successfully both for Natural Holi colours as well as for the Eco Ganesh idols. We introduced the idea of Recycling and Upcycling in product design to Pune through a series called The Beauty of Recycling. We also addressed the disposable plastic issue through a campaign called USeMeAgain that promotes Reuse.
Tell us a little about the people who work with eCoexist. What kind of opportunities has the foundation created for your workforce?
All our products are made by groups that are socially underprivileged and we go out of our way to ensure that such groups benefit from the products that we promote. This means that the products are simple and labour intensive to ensure that it provides livelihood to as many people as we can. Over the years we’ve worked with women farmers, rag pickers, women prisoners, people with special needs and with women’s self help groups. Lately our work is focussed on the village of Ahwalwadi where we’re working closely with the village women – offering empowerment opportunities. We’ve done Covid relief work for them, started spoken English classes for their kids and also done financial literacy sessions – this is the kind of work we do for them beyond the income generation activities that we offer them through our products. Each woman has the freedom to do as much work as she can from the safety of her home while she balances her household duties and supplements the family income.
How did your journey with sustainability begin? In what ways are you sustainable?
My training in a sustainable lifestyle started very young when my parents, both social workers, inculcated an inherent respect for resources and labour in our home. We grew up reusing and recycling every bit of physical material in the home from plastic milk bags to old notebooks that were bound to make new ones. We were also taught about the value of manual labour and self sustenance. My training in architecture and design did not speak much about sustainability but it enhanced my creative design thinking. The years with Kalpavriksh and Ecological Society gave me a deeper training in the larger environmental issues and when I finally began eCoexist in 2006 all of this came together beautifully.
At eCoexist nothing is thrown away – we’ve carried forward the same respect for material and products to all the groups that work with us, nurturing their capacity to do more with less.
Finally we believe that a sustainable society can only be created through collaboration and not competition. During the pandemic we opened up our space to convert it into a co working space for other groups and individuals working in the sustainability market. This space is called eCollab. In these ways, we balance the need for profit and income generation with sharing and cooperation – a balance that we believe is crucial to sustainable thinking.
Could you elaborate on the kinds of brand initiatives you’ve undertaken till now.
Rang Dulaar – Natural Holi colours
Nisargaraya Eco Ganesh Idols and Accessories
UseMeAgain reusable cloth products
The Beauty of Recycling – upcycled products
These are the four brands we’ve developed over the past 16 years – the first two we’ve managed to mainstream into the market and we’re happy to now find other brands that have successfully replicated our models and followed our lead. The UseMeAgain brand of cloth bags is still very relevant, as single use plastic disposable made a comeback during the lockdown in spite of the ban on SUDs instituted in 2018. We are now developing cloth packaging to take this further into the online markets. Our work with recycling has been replaced by a focus on reuse rather, as we found the concept of recycling was becoming an excuse to continue using disposables.
eCoexist experiences are a unique way of letting people connect deeply with nature and our planet. Please tell us more about it.
During the pandemic, we realised that we now needed to move beyond materials and products into creating deeper and more impactful experiences for people, that would help them to make the shift into more sustainable choices. We started to organise events to take people out into the wilderness, to farms where they work with their hands, and to learn to ‘do it yourself ‘ through workshops like the Khadi workshop, etc. We also started a few new campaigns to help people go deeper – this includes the projects like Healing with Nature and Sarvodaya and Sustainability.
We love to see eco-friendly, conscious brands grow and make a positive change in the society. What’s next in store for you?
There are a few new directions we’re currently exploring that will allow people to go outside the city and work closer to the land with their own hands. We’ve tied up with several organic farms to start designing these experiences. Those who know us well know that we’re not just a consumer products firm – we’ve been closely associated with and supportive of several NGOs in the social and environmental space. Our work with them continues as well.
Fundamentally, eCoexist is a thought leader. Through the two years of lock down, we ran a vibrant forum called eCoexist Consciousness which brought together over 120 professionals from the design and environmental fields together – many of whom spoke on our forum called REVIVE, a series of talks on resilience through natural and man made disasters. I am personally exploring and writing about a term that I have coined – ECOLOGICAL STAMINA – that looks at the physical, mental, emotional and ecological skills that the next generations will need to survive the mess that our world is in!