She calls her entry into sustainable space some two years ago accidental and then wonders if her previous actions were a build up to what she is doing today. Lavanya Garg, the co-founder of Delhi's first sustainable community called SUSS, shares with us what it means to encourage people to lead clean lives and stay rooted to the ground. The core value of Sui, the brand.
Shaping up years
Due to the nature of her father’s job, Lavanya grew up in rural/remote parts of India. Often a birthday or ‘free time’ during holidays was spent volunteering and this naturally spurred an interest in the development sector in her. “My development economics classes were the ones I enjoyed the most during my time at Lady Shri Ram College. The time I spent living and working on various governance, gender, and education issues in village Soda in college, as part of a student-run NGO I co-founded – Asmat – shaped my world views. Studying development economics for my Masters seemed like a next natural step. While at Yale, the idea that there is so much scope for the work I am interested in back home gripped me. So, after graduating I found myself managing the research portfolio of a bunch of development economists,” she shares of her shaping years.
The focus of these economists was to explore how firms in the garment manufacturing space in developing countries can be a vehicle of socio-economic development. This was when Lavanya first learnt about the social sustainability side of the garment industry. “Clothes are often made by low-income, low-skill women in countries like India. There thus exists immense scope for businesses in this industry to drive female labour force participation and be at the forefront of gender issues. This is what I still work on as part of my day job,” she shares.
The same economists who she was working for started a not for profit called ‘The Good Business Lab’ and that is where she leads their partnerships, funding, and communications related efforts. “From where I stand, this space is a beautiful intersection of my interests in sustainability, business, women’s issues, and economics, and I have just begun to explore it,” she shares.
Showing way for sustainability
By her admission, ‘constant enquiry’ matters the most to Lavanya. “What I mean by that is constantly questioning practices, whether perceived to be sustainable and non-sustainable. This is what can lead to innovation in sustainability. This, I believe, is also crucial if we truly want business and sustainability to intersect, as opposed to being opposite world views (at least in the traditional sense),” she explains.
As an individual practice, she strongly propagates the idea of living simply, questioning each purchase, what you need and what you don’t. “This is something I’ve allowed myself to discover over the past few months. Further as an industry, we all need to think of innovative ways to make sustainable fashion mass, to take up that responsibility instead of putting the onus on the consumers only,” she says.
On founding SUSS with her partner Gauri
It was through their jobs that Lavanya and Gauri met each other. Gauri works in the Organizational Development team of the factory where Lavanya and the rest of the Good Business Lab team, do their research. As people with similar ideas, they instantly clicked.
“When Gauri started the SUSS Facebook group, I was mostly a curious bystander for the first one/two months. This curiosity led to conversations between us, and it seemed right to help her build this community. One thing followed another – we expanded to hosting offline events and today we run SUSS together,” Lavanya shares.
From being a community of a couple of their friends, the group is now a thriving space for dialogue with over 400 people curious about or working in sustainable fashion. “What’s beautiful is that all this growth, whether it’s in terms of the footfall we see at our events or engagement on social media, has all been organic. We are quite selective about who we let into the group. And if it were just a numbers game for us then we wouldn’t be seeing the thoughtful, nuanced conversations that we are today. This to me is crucial because we know the community and movement we are building is driven by honest, genuine people,” she says.
On building a strong community for making a strong impact
“One of the core beliefs at SUSS is that while all the manufacturing happens in countries like India, the conversation is being driven by the West, countries where consumption is higher. But with rising incomes, consumption in India is rising too, and given how important this industry is to our economic growth, we are in the exact right place to drive conversations,” she shares.
“There are also a bunch of people in India, who we like to call ‘Sustainability Hustlers’ making fashion a force for good. Given this context, our goal is to bring them together. At a personal level, just meeting these Sustainability Hustlers, sharing ideas with them makes me optimistic about the change we can drive. I think reaching out to more people must be a combination of everything – social media, events, films, pop ups, tech platforms, even individual conversations,” she avers.
These conversations, she elaborates, must talk about our unique position, and draw upon our culture of reuse and repair to ultimately drive innovation for this industry from the ground up, from the place where clothes are made.
And none of this would be possible if we go about preaching people around us, she says. “When we build a community the core tenet of that is acceptance of different viewpoints, and driving a bottom up movement. This, in my view, has the potential to lead to more sustainable, long term change because people will own these conversations, and consider themselves a part of the change,” she explains, indicating that a lot of ground still remains to get covered. A start in that context is a great move. Sui stands strongly for such crusaders.
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