Finding a discarded chocolate wrapper on the road usually wouldn’t make one think—unless production of that particular brand of chocolate had been discontinued almost two decades earlier. And that’s what happened to Aditya Ruia in 2018. It stopped him in his tracks and got him thinking about how long it takes for plastic to degrade.
“The wrapper looked so new and shiny. When I realized that it was no longer in production, I was shocked. We use so much plastic. Everything we consume and use is wrapped in plastic today. And this wrapper had survived for so many years, and looked as new as it would have 20 years ago. If one wrapper takes years to degrade, just imagine the amount of plastic and pollution future generations would have to live with," says Ruia, 24, co-founder of Beco, a Mumbai-based eco-friendly and organic products brand.
Ruia, along with friend Akshay Varma, also 24, started researching on how to make products which were 100% plant-based and used almost zero toxic chemicals. The duo, along with Ruia’s brother Anuj, 25, set up Beco in 2018.
It helped that Varma had majored in material sciences at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and could use that knowledge while doing the research they needed. They also took turns to travel to villages as well as to foreign countries with similar environmental challenges or those that were already working towards curbing plastic use and pollution, including Indonesia.
“We realized that sustainability in India is nowhere on the list of priorities. Compared to all the countries we visited, India’s work on going green is probably only at Day Zero. Things as simple as waste segregation are so much more organized in other countries. But here, we don’t follow this basic practice. Keeping this in mind, we decided that our target couldn’t be to make profitable products. We shifted our focus to creating awareness, and making affordable products that people would use instead of plastic or paper," says Anuj.
Working with family and friends can be a tough combination. But for this bunch of young engineers, it was a well thought-out decision. Each has his own area of expertize and interests. Aditya takes care of online sales and marketing, Anuj, offline sales, and Varma looks at manufacturing and dispatches. Though the three have their own areas of responsibility, they do have in-depth discussions before making any big decision.
Spreading the word
Beco, which offers tissues, kitchen towels and garbage bags made from bamboo, started with exhibitions and pop-ups. From there, the growth was organic. “It isn’t just about what we can do. The push has to also come from the industry and the government. The biggest cost for us right now is the raw material. If that can be provided at a lower cost, a number of people who are on the fence will make the switch to a better way of living. The idea is not to become a profitable company, but to make sure the industry grows," says Aditya.
Getting visibility on a larger scale is certainly challenging. “Stores are full of the leaders, the HULs and P&Gs. They get the visibility. For us, trying to convince supermarket owners can be tough. That said, I have also noticed a lot more awareness now. The next shop which opens in your neighbourhood is probably not going to be just a kirana store. It will be some niche, organic, eco-friendly grocery store," says Aditya. The startup is not retailing its products in seven cities. The run rate (projected sales) for the year, according to Aditya, is ₹1 crore.
Awareness would not come in a single day. Therefore, the team introduced small changes that makes it easier for a customer to make the switch. “A normal person buys microfibre cloth for cleaning in the kitchen. This contains 30-40% plastic. We researched a lot and created our reusable kitchen towels. This way, even if the cost is slightly higher right now, you get more utility out of it," explains Varma. The Green Brigade follows entrepreneurs who are working on eco-friendly alternatives to plastic.