Green is the new gold this festive season

Festive gift pack comprising exotic organic seeds, plants and organic tea - Picture Courtesy - Shweta Thakur Nanda

Festive gift pack comprising exotic organic seeds, plants and organic tea - Picture Courtesy - Shweta Thakur Nanda

  • As people are getting more environmentally conscious, this festival season is seeing ethical gifting and sustainable celebrations, as consumers realise that their health and environmental health are interconnected.
  • Six Indian metros produce over 36,000 tonnes of solid waste per day and experts believe that the festive season contributes significantly to this waste.
  • Sustainable chocolates, designer jewelry made of clay, gardening hampers, upcycled home decor items, and plantable stationaries and many such green gifts are in people’s festive shopping list.
  • The pandemic, the growing Indian-China border strife, and government push for traditional local products is also catalyzing the shift

Everyone calls Sujata Adhikari “the activist” at Diwali parties. She gets strange looks and sighs from friends and family when she articulates why she wouldn’t accept unsustainable gifts — wouldn’t be buying or gifting any either. Plastic decorative items, non-biodegradable gifts, crackers, shiny wrapping papers are all banned by her.

“I abhor ending the festivities with a guilt. And would encourage all not to create heaps of waste that harms our environment,” said Adhikari, a Delhi-based entrepreneur.

Like Adhikari, Mumbai-based Tulika Bhojwani is equally gung-ho about earth-friendly merrymaking. Her ‘sow and grow’ Ganesh-Lakshmi statues (plantable statues with seed inside them) will arrive a day before Diwali, and instead of gold or silver shopping she is indulging in designer jewellery made of clay. Her house will be adorned with handmade lamps and decorations, and sustainable gifts will be carefully wrapped in brown papers or fabric with environment-conscious messages engraved on them.

“Earlier everyone thought that I am eccentric because of my zero waste, low impact gifting ideology. But now they realise the implications of green gifts and sustainable celebrations,” said Bhojwani, a technology content editor with a multi-national firm.

“If as a fellow citizen, we cannot recycle or upcycle the solid waste generated by others, let’s not add to the environmental hazard by splurging unconsciously or indulging dangerously,” added Partha S. Mishra, a private sector executive in Delhi.

What Mishra was talking is backed by hard facts. India’s six metros – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad – together produce 36,400 tonnes of solid waste every day as per official data from the Central Pollution Control Board. And this number, experts and environmentalists argue, doubles during the festive season encompassing many celebrations like Diwali, Christmas and New Year. Add to that the vehicular pollution, stubble burning, the construction dust and crackers, one gets to see littered residential suburbs, hazy skies and unbreathable air invoking national debates during this season.

A growing number of conscious Indians are opting for environmentally sustainable celebrations and gifts. Plants are the new ‘flowers’ and green is the new gold as consumers realise that their health and environmental health are interconnected.

Sustainable chocolates, designer jewelry made of clay, plants, gardening hampers, organic seeds and nuts, upcycled home decor items, bamboo speakers, exotic and sleek earthen utensils, plantable stationary are some of the gifts making way into people’s festive buying list.

“Now, consumers are taking a pause to think about the impact their purchases can make on the planet, and buy responsible gifts. From business point of view it means more demand,” said Neha Saharan, founder of Sow and Grow, a company that sells plantable Ganesha-Lakshmi mud statues with seeds inside them, stationary and gardening kits.

Plantable stationary festival pack with seeds - Picture courtesy - Sow and Grow
Plantable stationary festival pack with seeds. Photo courtesy Sow and Grow.

Saharan claims that this festive season she has received 50% more plantable gift orders as against a year ago period. With escalating air pollution and inadequate waste management, which intensifies during the festival season, people are becoming more conscious and are investing in green gifts. “Small, little ways go a long way,” she said adding that how challenges of the idol immersion and the related pollution stirred her conscience to come up with a solution.

Agrees Nitika Ghosh, founder of green start up ‘Khoj’. “Indians love to spend on jewellery during festive season. However, the traditional precious metals like silver and gold are known to have a negative side to them from environment point of view. Gradually the young and upwardly mobile population is gravitating to adopt their eco-friendly counterparts,” said Ghosh, who sells clay and recycled cloth jewellery.

Precious metal and stone jewellery manufacturing process is energy and water intensive and puts strain on the ecosystem. For instance, during the metal mining process several toxic chemicals are used and disposed as waste, which pollute water, soil and atmosphere that harm biodiversity and disrupt the ecosystem. “Now, common people are looking up to conscious jewellery buyers with respect, and consider them modern and more evolved. Green is the new gold,” added Ghosh who claimed that while last festive season her startup sold 160 units per month, this year she is selling double that figure.

While tangible ethical gifts are gaining ground, some others consider experiential gifting is the greenest that one can get. “When you gift an experience you create a shared memory and in the process do not generate any waste or harm the environment. Off late, I am gifting microgreen gardening workshops to close friends. You get a green experience, learn and start multiplying by influencing others,” said Rishita Sharma, a Bhopal-based electronic engineer.

Rishita Sharma with her microgreens - Picture Courtesy - Rishita Sharma
Rishita Sharma with her microgreens. Photo courtesy Rishita Sharma.

‘Green’ takes time and effort

While green and planet-friendly gift items and celebrations are in vogue, enterprises argue that it’s tedious, time taking and a lot of effort goes into production and market expansion.

Zero-waste and sustainable chocolate manufacturer L. Nitin Chordia first buys cocoa pods from organic farms, cocoa beans are then extracted, sun-dried and with the help of energy-efficient cracking and winnowing process de-husked. These beans are then stone-ground, mixed with non-refined Khandsari (muscovado) sugar and converted into chocolate. The chocolate bars are packed using handmade paper – made from cocoa husk and residual garment trims procured from factories. To ensure community inclusiveness, the wrappers are then sent to be printed by a foundation for people with special needs. The inside of these wrappers carry mandala art so buyers can upcycle them as greeting cards or bookmarks.

“It takes three days to manufacture just 2.5 kgs of chocolate,” explains Chordia, a bean to bar chocolate manufacturer based in Tamil Nadu. “We believe in the circular economy model, and measure our success by efforts made to save the planet. Like so far we have saved 100 kgs of single-use plastic from reaching the landfills. And our buyers appreciate the same,” said Nitin adding that his company Kocoatrait Chocolates has clocked five-fold growth in sales this festive season against last year and claimed that corporates are showing a lot of interest in his products for its quality and ethical value.

Anand Rajendran, HR director of Rage Communication, a digital marketing agency in Chennai concurred with Nitin. The IT sector is known for its big carbon footprint and e-wastes he said adding that opting for sustainable gifts, plants etc. gives them an opportunity to reduce that guilt. “Eco-friendly gifts tug at people’s heart – they help us forge an emotional bond with clients as well as pass the message of environment conservation,” Rajendran said.

“People are getting conscious, but there is a long way ahead,” added Nitin.

Demographic advantage

So, who exactly are these buyers? “Young, educated and well aware people are driving the change. It’s good to see our youth becoming eco-friendly and spreading the message through green gifts and sustainable celebrations,” said Vishnu Lamba, a Rajasthan-based environment actvist.

“It is this segment of people that are exposed to the impacts of climate change early in their lives, and are most likely going to live through it. They also realise that they have to be the ones to initiate change, and try to reverse the phenomenon. So, they care, self-educate and make ethical gifting choices,” said Nitin.

Agreed Ghosh that her clients are in the 25-40 age group – they are urban, educated, exposed, and vocal about climate issues, have high-disposable income and don’t mind shelling out a bit extra to support the cause.

Designer handmade fabric jewellery - Picture Courtesy - Khoj
Designer handmade fabric jewellery. Photo courtesy Khoj.

Mishra of Delhi claimed that a significant portion of the older generation in India believes in entitlement and that it’s the government or local authorities who should do everything and their responsibility is to enjoy the fruit, the freedom – in practice, speech and lifestyle. “There are elders who are very conscious and inspiring, but their number is far less than the youngsters who are aware about the environment,” Mishra added.

Nitin argued that a lot of people above 45 or 50 years of age largely stay out of the fold because of their complacency. “A large portion of the older counterparts are less-travelled, and often can’t compare India’s environmental challenges with places which are better off. But it is also a fact that some climate conscious parents are drilling sustainability into their children’s mind, and we need more of them.”

Buying local

The coronavirus pandemic, the border dispute with China, and the growing government push for adopting indigenous and traditional products too have a role in a visible shift in people’s preference, note consumers and businesses.

While the border skirmishes with China leading to people’s disapproval of Chinese gifting items have pushed people to rethink their consumption, the global pandemic has compelled many to adopt sustainability. “For last several years, India’s Diwali gifting and decorative items market is driven by inexpensive Chinese products, which mainly encompass cheap plastics and non-biodegradables. We can easily replace these products for our age-old traditional counterparts – like earthen lamps, quality spices from south Indian states, plants and new age green hampers,” said Archana Chaurasia, a Pune based HR executive.

What Chaurasia said was echoed by Praveen Khandelwal, general secretary of Confederation of All India Traders, a national traders association. Khandelwal estimates that the Chinese border issues and the Prime Minister’s call for citizens to go ‘vocal for local’ are helping this transition.

“Plants are the fastest-growing segment this festive season. Plants are the new age flowers,” said Vikaas Gutgutia, founder and managing director of floral solution provider Ferns N Petals. Plants like sansevieria, ficus, bamboo, palms and money-plants are in high demand, he said, further elaborating how his company has witnessed a 100% jump in corporate gifting orders for plants this season.

Sustainability is fashionable and everybody wants to associate with it, Gutgutia said. And the trend is here to stay as it is the outcome of a mindset change. “Now, in urban India, one sees balcony gardens flourishing, notwithstanding the size of the flat, which was earlier uncommon in residential apartments.”

Every drop counts

While encouraging people to opt for eco-friendly gifting, does it give a boost to unnecessary consumerism? Is buying more, but ‘green’, a better alternative? “Consumerism has its pros and cons, like let’s say, the organic food business. Similarly, the sustainable gifting sector has its positives and negatives. Some businesses are genuinely making efforts to preserve the planet, while some others are greenwashing. But instead of focusing on the bad, it is more important to value the good,” said Ramon Magsaysay award winner Anshu Gupta, also the founder of Goonj, a social enterprise that treats clothes as a sustainable development resource for the poor.

“While planting a tree is always the best option, you cannot take away the goodness of gifting a plant. Environmental issues need attention and all efforts should be welcomed. At least, some conversations are happening and some efforts are being made. For instance, my daughter never uses the plastic straw… instead she carries her own eco-friendly one everywhere. Are few straws going to change the scenario? No, for an individual, but look at how it influences peers. What if hundreds of thousands of others like her start doing the same. This is how movements are built. How small an effort may look to the onlooker, each step counts,” he said.

A collection of plants for festive gifting - Money plant, Jade and Aralia - Picture Courtesy - Shweta Thakur Nanda
A collection of plants for festive gifting. Photo by Shweta Thakur Nanda.

However, he advised that while buying the green gifts, one must be very careful about the packaging — if you are “buying earthen diyas and they arrive packed in Styrofoam or plastic packs, then the purpose gets defeated. Here the role of recycle and upcycle comes in,” said Gupta.

Planetary health equals human health

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on how humans are vulnerable in front of nature, not just in a small geographical location but across the globe. It has given people a blunt reminder that planetary and human health are interconnected, which is pushing environment agnostics to embrace change.

“I have never done gardening in my life. But the pandemic and subsequent lockdown made me realise that we cannot lead healthy lives if the planet is unhealthy. And the situation will only worsen unless we mend our ways. I have started planting trees and buying plants to give to my clients as corporate gifts,” said Ankit Nagpal, promoter of a personality development and grooming academy in Delhi. He said even in training classes, they have started talking about environment, air pollution and value of green cover.

According to a recent survey on the state of air worldwide, by U.S. based think tank Health Effects Institute, some 1.67 million deaths in India were linked to air pollution in 2019. Of this 116,000 infants died in their first month of life due to high PM 2.5 concentration.

Ethical gifts and sustainable festivities may sound like a small part in the bigger environmental debate, but the ‘every step counts’ approach has many trying to do their little bit.

Read more: Onam is a day to remember the environment and economics connect in Kerala


Banner image: Festive gift pack comprising organic seeds, plants and organic tea. Photo by Shweta Thakur Nanda

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