Tanushri is venture builder at Enviu in India and manages our partnership with GIZ and Concordia Textiles. She can be considered a heavy weight in the Indian textile industry, having been working in it for over 8 years now, from starting a venture of her own to working at Intellecap, she has done it all. Her insights and experience are unmissable to our dream team, because the dream is big: 40 million kgs of textile waste reused and 5,000 new jobs within three years. We asked her about her journey to this point, the practicalities of solving the unsolvable, and what drives her.
How did you end up in the textile industry?
8 years ago, I was working in digital publishing. I was working as a product manager in tech. I happened to visit a garment manufacturing unit in India, and I saw the issue of textile waste up close and firsthand, for the first time. It was just an idea: “Hey there’s so much waste coming out of this place, there’s something that can be done with it.”, right? That idea turned into a social enterprise that I ended up starting which was called Chindi. Chindi is the word in India for scrap textile, what the tailors called scraps. I also ran into a community of women living in a slum nearby who are all good at crochet and knitting as a craft form. And essentially what Chindi did is to bear these two things, look at this material in one hand and these skills that the women had, that was really underappreciated. I ran it for about 5 years.
Why did you close down Chindi?
I decided to close it about 3 years ago because I realized that for me at least, my interest was not in running a brand, but it was to solve the problem. I was only focussing on how many sales I was making and how many people were buying my products. In some way it was taking me further and further away from the issue that I was trying to solve which was textile waste and livelihood. I was going more into social media and branding and marketing and all of that.
Plus, no single organization or enterprise can solve this problem on its own. Chindi was never going to make such a big dent in the problem, this needs to be done at a much larger level where the entire textile waste value chain needs to be recreated. So I had to make a choice: Do I want to run my brand or do I want to solve the problem, and I decided I want to solve the problem.
Why did you join Enviu?
We’re tackling those problems that no one else wants to touch. Because it’s too complex, the industry isn’t giving you enough support because there’s no easy money to be made. Establishing the business case is really challenging. But we’re doing it. We figure out how to tackle them. Because the impact potential is worth it.
How do you tackle them? How do you create a business case out of something others don’t see an opportunity in?
The sorting center venture we’re building with GIZ and Concordia Textiles is a great example of how. We’re starting the business but we’re not putting our own capital or bringing on investors straight away, because investors will just look at how we could return their investments. We know that for the first year or two there is not going to be any return of the investments, we must figure this business case out. We need support doing that.
That’s when the ‘grounds’ come in, to kind of give us that patient capital and give us that support to build and validate the business case in the next few years.
And so, that’s when the ‘grounds’ come in, to kind of give us that patient capital and give us that support to build and validate the business case in the next few years. We found a business-focused programmatic approach to venture building which is very rare. Not many organizations are doing this.
What is unique about what we’re doing with GIZ and Concordia?
Ah, I cannot choose just one! I will give you a couple. With GIZ and Concordia we’ve really gone to the heart of the problem of textile waste which is sorting and segregation. That’s really the unique point.
Secondly, we’re not looking at it–in this we’re totally unique in the country right now–purely as business ventures, but as social enterprises. We are constantly looking at how we can balance environmental impact, economic impact, social impact. So, we’re not coming in and saying “Oh we build this big business which we can make a lot of money.” But we’re also saying “How many livelihoods will that create? How many women’s lives will that impact? How will it improve the local situation?”
The third one is that so far, the industry has been trying to tackle the issue of textile waste through pilots. So, we’ll try little pilots, we’ll do a little experiment, we’ll see how it works you know? Everyone’s being a little cautious. With GIZ and Concordia we’ve really gone for the long haul and we said, “We know what the problem is, we know the solution, it’s time to scale.” And so, we’re looking at commercial scale straight away. And we’re far ahead of where any other industry players are – because it is such a complicated problem, everyone is still kind of on a pilot level.
We know what the problem is, we know what the solution is, it’s time to scale.
And the last one, which is essential to make this big dream happen, is the partnership. So we’re doing this not only with GIZ, but we’re doing this under the GIZ funding program which is called DeveloPPP supported by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development. And it stands for Public Private Partnership. And the develoPPP model is great because it has to involve a private sector, in this case Concordia Textiles. The private sector must have skin in the game. This partnership of funding private sector and non-profit is super unique and very few programs manage to achieve this in this space of textile waste.
How has your experience working with Enviu so far has impacted you?
I immediately am thinking about the women who I met last week. You know we have our proposal, we have our big numbers and goals and strategy, methodology, and everything. But at the heart of all of that, there’s at least human beings whose lives are being affected. And I think for me that was the highlight of the last couple of months for me has been meeting these women, sitting down, talking with them to see who they are and how this work is impacting them positively. And that is what I ultimately want to see.
Textile waste is an issue that needs solving in a way that is socially inclusive, such as waste workers and craftsmen, millions of people who we need to work with. We cannot leave them out of the system. We need to work with them collaboratively and empower them to solve the problem. For me it’s critical and the strongest component of what I do. And we’re doing that, and that makes me happy.
How do you see yourself in the future with the things that you’ve learned so far?
Oh man, that’s a big question. I am in an existential crisis right here haha. I mean… Ok I thought about this a lot: One of the challenges of working in the space we’re working in, the development sector overall, is everyday you’re working on solving a problem that is never going to be completely solved within your lifetime. All you can do is to shape a way, and move things a millimeter, a centimeter, an inch forward. Hope that the next generation picks that up and takes it another inch forward. And someone else is going to take another inch and so on.
That is a goal I have set for myself: I have to accept that this problem is never gonna get solved. I’m not going to say, “Hey I have solved textile waste in India.” That’s not going to happen in my lifetime. Maybe it will happen like in the sixth lifetime down the line, but I’ve done something to contribute to that. I think that’s the win.