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How a top-down approach sustains impact for waste workers  

In a conversation with venture builders and waste workers, Namrata Iyer, Programs and Communications at Enviu India, explores if our Reweave program’s ideologies are converting into impact, including ensuring respect and professional growth for the waste workers. 

Education builds wealth, and puts healthcare, respect, and opportunities within reach. But accessing them demands money and fair opportunity. On the bright side, India is also seeing a boom in entrepreneurship that identifies opportunities to address and solve socioeconomic problems that affect people across all classes and castes, including the waste workers whom the Enviu Reweave program works closely with.  

We are talking about professionals who collect, sort and manage our household or industrial waste, mostly informally. Waste workers can be located at the bottom of our socio-economic pyramid and the rigid caste system in India. It plays a damning role in the kind of profession they get to choose. Traditionally, this has put them at a disadvantage in making a basic living, let alone climbing the income ladder.  The fact that such workers lack basic housing, water, and sanitation is not an individual problem but a systemic one and an intangible aspect of their lives. Targeting this loophole of such a system, Enviu’s Reweave program is building opportunities for women in lower-income groups.   
 


Enviu India, under its Reweave program, builds disruptive ventures that drive the textile sector towards a circular and fair value chain. We are known to build robust, scalable and profitable ventures within the textile waste space, now, with a two-fold aim to divert textile waste from landfills, and improve the lives of our waste workers.  

In a conversation with venture builders and waste workers, I explored if our ideologies are really converting into impact, which we diligently measure through certain metrics. However, the real impact can also be seen through intangible aspects – respect in the workplace, social perception, skill building, learning, and dignity. We pride ourselves in facilitating this marriage between business and impact, known as a top-down approach.   

I spoke to our venture builders, Partha Talukder and Shyam Sunder, and Enviu India’s Country Director, Gigi Mathews, to understand how they approach impact and businesses through this top-down approach. I also spoke to our waste workers — Sarla and Jency — to understand how these impact numbers impact their lives.

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Why a top-down approach is crucial for waste workers  

A top-down approach builds solutions that are scalable, profitable, and impactful. The first two aspects are essential to feeding impact.   

Each pilot is professionalised and validated, after which it becomes a venture to scale. This creates sustained profits and impact, which positively serves all our stakeholders. We attempt to bring value to waste and complement it with a bottom-up approach, which focuses on capacity building for our waste warriors, an equally important side of the coin.   

While the bottom-up approach acts as an enabler to build skills and create livelihoods, the top-down focuses on making it a part of the larger ecosystem in business, attempting to break our waste workers from the cycle of poverty. “Top-down comes from the angle of building sustainable demand,” said Shyam, while bottom-up empowers a system that can meet it. 
 

We collaborate and actively work with pioneers who bring strong business acumen, human-centered approaches, and multidisciplinary thinking to the table. Working on UPTEX, a venture focused on collecting and sorting waste, Partha stressed that business and impact do not have to be separate entities. The impact mission must be a clear part of the goal from the beginning, routinely checked with numbers for impact goals. This enables it to be ingrained in the business case and be the core identity of the business. UPTEX regularly tracks these numbers; be it waste entering their centre, being processed, or being sorted.   

Like any other business or entrepreneur, we use the same tools to make our goals come alive. To make sure our waste workers are a part of this ecosystem, we enable training sessions, technically qualify them, actively collaborate with partners to build their skills, and involve them in the larger picture of what they are doing and why. We make sure their efficiency is increased, which in turn increases the output of the facility, making a stronger business case. 

“Sustainability is no more a conversation you will hear in the corridors of CSR departments. Companies want to see this on their balance sheets when they talk sustainability.”

– Gigi Mathews  

Supporting waste workers move up the pyramid of needs  

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Speaking to Sarla and Jency was perhaps the most important part of this process. While Reweave builds businesses, we ensure they work for those building them with us, especially through intangible aspects we cannot measure through numbers.   

Most informal conversations I have had with Sarla and Jency, in my broken Tamil, were energetic. We exchanged notes about how their job at the sorting centre in India’s Chennai city is different from their previous jobs. Most of us look for values, work-life balance, and culture while choosing a new job. Blue-collar workers seek survival. Respect, professionalism, and light-heartedness at the workplace are not “normal” for them.  

Over a WhatsApp video call, Jency and Sarla described to me how their jobs at UPTEX are more educational and comfortable than their previous jobs. They hold conversations with each other, crack jokes, listen to music, and most importantly, enjoy hitting targets without the looming fear of their superiors. According to them, they are in an environment where they can learn and understand the larger business. Recently, for example, they travelled to Bangalore for work, a first for both. They effortlessly took me through the entire process of sorting, with details and agency. They mentioned how they understand their work, and its purpose. They are confident their skills are transferrable to other opportunities in the future. Most importantly, they seemed comfortable with the amount they are earning.   

“We didn’t know we could earn so much previously,” Jency said, comparing it to her previous job.  

Their income from sorting textile waste at UPTEX allows them to be independent and contribute at home. Jency shifted into a more comfortable house and is not stressed about money like she was earlier. Her previous house had a common toilet used by five families, but her new house has separate toilets and water supply. Her daughter studies in a government school, but they plan to move her to a private institution next year, so she can continue her education in English. Jency is able to pay the house rent and even save money for herself and her daughter. Sarla enjoys the feeling of being independent and contributing to the family too.  

Having these conversations enabled me to understand the depth of our impact. We are helping professionals build agency, confidence, transferrable skillsets, and financial security, which are critical in any workplace. Through an impact-focused business, we have enabled them to upgrade their lifestyles in the past couple of years, with the intention of continuing to do so, instead of a one-time investment.  

That is how a top-down approach can promise security for their workers, just like any other corporate would. In the smaller picture itself, we are bettering lives; but in the bigger picture, we are helping our waste workers move up the pyramid of needs.   

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