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Conserve India was established in 1998 as an NGO, and it emerged as a social entrepreneurship company in 2004. Conserve has developed a proprietary handmade process for transforming everyday plastics like bags, chips packets, and biscuit wrappers into "Handmade Recycled Plastic," a novel fabric that may be used as a form of vegan leather, for fashion accessories, home furnishings, and even to make low-cost housing tiles.
“We started collecting plastic waste that has no resale value and so nobody else was collecting it, from the Yamuna River and other diversified waste streams which otherwise would have ended up in the ocean or landfills. Landfills are disease's breeding grounds, and they are wreaking havoc on the unorganized sector of the ragpicker population who live right next to landfills” says Ms Kanika Ahuja, Director of Conserve India .
While most plastic recyclers burn the plastic, Conserve compresses plastics to manufacture vegan leather sheets, lowering carbon emissions to a greater level. The innovation of Conserve is not just in the process but in the business model itself. Due to various restrictions, women from the ragpicker community were not permitted to leave the neighbourhood. As a result, Conserve shifted its operations near the neighbourhood. It engages rag pickers to collect, clean and segregate the plastics, which Conserve then collects and turns into vegan leather with its proprietary process. Finally, the vegan leather is delivered to the artisan's home, where it is transformed into lovely fashion accessories. Conserve conducts capacity building and training workshops for these women which improve their efficiency and enable them to generate revenue independently as micro-entrepreneurs.
Ahuja’s team is constantly working on innovations to promote the circular economy as a viable economic model in India. “Innovation in Conserve is not just a one-time process. We work to innovate continuously. We started with upcycling lower micron plastics and now upscaled innovations like upcycling higher micron plastics, textile recycling and hydroponics. Conserve’s vision is to build a complete circular economy model that delays wastes from ending up in rivers, oceans, and landfills for over a hundred years and we will continue with our innovation in process and product to achieve this'' says Ms Ahuja.
Kanika Ahuja's parents started Conserve India as a non-profit organization, and Kanika has worked for Conserve since she was a child. She was involved in several of Conserve India’s initiatives to clean up plastic garbage from slums, land fields, and water bodies, which posed a severe threat to the environment and society. While working for these initiatives, she was exposed to the issues of plastic waste and the deplorable living conditions of people and waste workers in urban slums such as disease dangers, discrimination, lack of educational opportunities, unemployment, and poverty.
Kanika Ahuja, along with her mother Anita Ahuja, and other Conserve India members developed a patented technology to upcycle plastics and use them to manufacture a variety of home decor products, construction materials, furniture, and fashion accessories by employing women from the grassroots communities. Upcycling plastic garbage into products involves many stages, and the value-added on the products should be substantial to offer a fair wage for all employees throughout the supply chain. This was one of the driving forces for Conserve India to become a social enterprise with a for-profit arm. Kanika quit her lucrative corporate job and joined Conserve India full-time in 2016. She launched a for-profit brand LIFAFFA for marketing and selling Conserve products made of upcycled plastic with a global reach. Conserve India believes in looking at the world through the lens of potential and growth rather than poverty and financial disparities.
“I was exposed to the problems caused by waste, especially plastic waste, and the poverty of the people in the urban slums from a young age when I was working with Conserve India, an NGO started by my parents. After my MBA, I joined a corporate job but it seemed very vague to me because it was always in me to do something about these issues and not be distant from them” says Ms Kanika Ahuja.
Conserve’s primary motivation is to conserve the environment and strengthen the circular economy while empowering women and uplifting the livelihood of underprivileged grass-root communities.
The plastic upcycling process innovated by Conserve has lower carbon emission compared to other recyclers. The designers have been able to create stunning designs without using any artificial dyes as the plastics come in such a wide range of hues which further reduces the environmental hazards. Conserve strives towards zero waste in their manufacturing process and utilizes even the little scrap fabrics as fillers for home furnishings.
Conserve empowers waste workers and artisans to become self-reliant. The company has an impact on the artisans' and waste workers' financial security, physical health, and education, and works hard to improve their living standards. Conserve conducts workshops and training to develop the artisans as micro-entrepreneurs and provides continuous support to market and sell the products through their brand LIFAFFA which ensures fair price to the artisans.
LIFAFFA, the marketing arm of Conserve India is responsible for designing and marketing the products. LIFAFFA sells its products through online platforms. The company is a part of the World Fair Trade Organization based in the Netherlands which helps them to sell its products to many fair-trade buyers around the globe. The company mainly concentrates on the bulk volume exports to Europe and USA because with huge volume the company can have a greater impact on both the plastic waste and the people who are involved in the value chain of the company. The quality and aesthetics of the products helped the company to attain a fiscal year revenue of 100,000 USD in 2021 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The company was profitable and had faster growth, with a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 30% before the pandemic.
“About scaling the business, I definitely think that now is the time. When we started upcycling plastic, we faced many questions from the people like why are we doing it? Is this a reliable sustainable business model? But we were confident in what we were doing and now I think it has a huge market since everybody is more aware of the plastic pollution crisis and climate change. We are even open to licensing our technology to other businesses and interested entrepreneurs.” says Ms Ahuja
Conserve has upcycled 360 tones of plastic saving 53000 kg of CO2, and also trained over 2800 people in the upcycling process, and their business strategy has raised the income of grassroots people by 150%.
Conserve has created a strong capacity-building strategy to maximize social impact over the years. They offer counselling support, a community integration program, and training on safe production and business skills to artisans, grassroots people, and refugees. Conserve also leverages its marketing and business resources to help them flourish.
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Kanika Ahuja, Director
Conserve India manufactures fashion accessories by upcycling single-use plastics with no resale value and employs women from the grassroots community in its value chain. People in the grassroots community have numerous obstacles to lead a decent economic life. Conserve has not only enabled business travel to them but has also provided them with workshops and trainings and turned them into independent micro-entrepreneurs.