Small Steps: How A Local & "Socially-Sustainable" Plastic-Bag Alternative Begins in India


It seems that everywhere you look now, everyone is coming up with alternatives to typical plastic bags — running the gamut from the overhyped to the low-key local initiatives. India is certainly no stranger to this growing anti-plastic awareness and in a country where plastic now proliferates like crazy, another no-plastic contender from a sustainable community in South India has jumped into the fray.

Enter the Small Steps bag from the Auroville-based Upasana Design Studio — another stylish, creative and "socially-sustainable" solution to the world-wide problem of plastic pollution. The bag is made of cotton and is designed to be stuffed into an attached smaller bag, hooked with a handy key-ring, so that you can always carry it with you. The project is run on an innovative model of a "gift economy" method of distribution and promotion. The goal of Small Steps: to make 10 million bags by hand (yes, by hand), creating 1000 jobs for 1000 people for 1000 days. (Of course, donations will help the project along.)

To find out more, we spoke with Uma Prajapati and Vimal, two designers from Upasana.
Treehugger: What was the inspiration for the Small Steps bag?

Uma Prajapati: We were travelling in North India as part of a tour. The problem of plastic became part of the discussion when we saw piles of plastic bags flying everywhere and we were asking ourselves, who is responsible and what can be done?

We started asking ordinary vendors using plastic bags whether they would change the problem if they could. They all responded that they would, yet we were encountering this impression that big change can only come from big works. So in the spirit of Lao Tzu's saying that "a journey of a thousand miles starts with one small step," we wanted to challenge this impression, starting with the idea that one small step is to carry a reusable bag so that you can easily say "no" to plastic.

TH: Small Steps is described as "socially sustainable." Can you explain what this means and how this is achieved (especially in the light of other recent plastic-alternative initiatives which were revealed to be not "fair trade")?

UP: Socially sustainable means we are genuinely working with communities to transform poverty into skills and economic self-sufficiency on a local scale. At the moment, we have trained women from three local villages in making the bag in their free time at home, not in factory conditions. The extra money from making these bags by hand, paid at fair trade levels, empowers these women as income-earners in their households.

TH: Could you explain this concept of "gift economy"?

Vimal: It is something that we were already working with in our tsunami-relief project Tsunamika. With Small Steps, the idea is not to sell the product, but to sell the idea of saying "no" to plastic. In a gift economy, it's not about business but about the social cause. If you like the idea behind the project, you not just buying the bag, you are also spreading the idea. For example, you can buy one bag and then you could also pay for another bag for the next person to whom you would like to "gift" this idea or awareness to. This is the idea behind a "gift economy" — to be generous with our awareness and not to necessarily expect something in return.

TH: How is the response so far, locally and beyond?

UP: It has been an overwhelming response. During the launch of Small Steps during Earth Day in Auroville, we gave out hundreds of bags. For July's Live Earth event in Washington D.C., we were able to enlist volunteers to march around with posters, brochures and samples.

TH: What are some of the ways you are trying to expand the Small Steps project in the future?

V: Right now, we are looking to Pondicherry (the nearest sizable town) as our next area to push the no-plastic idea, especially in the local supermarkets. We've also been working with business management students to explore the possibility of promoting the bags as corporate gifts in companies. Here in Auroville, there have already been units here that give their interns a Small Steps bag as a farewell souvenir. We are hoping to take it to the rest of India and hopefully even further.

Upasana Design Studio was founded by Uma Prajapati in 1997 who is a graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi. Currently, it has a team of seven to eight designers and is located in Auroville, a small sustainable community in South India.

For more of their projects, please see their website here.
::Small Steps
See also ::Upasana Design Studio

Image: Upasana

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