PUNAH: a true story

Industrial waste: in Mumbai, one CSM alumnus takes the bull by the horns.

PUNAH Project in collaboration with 11.11

PUNAH Project in collaboration with 11.11


During London Design Festival, we grabbed our notebooks and cameras to join the crowds at the London Design Fair at the Old Truman Brewery. Quite predictably, we found ourselves soon lost in a maze of spoon-carvers, handmade wallpapers, laser-cut coffee tables, ‘scandi’-crafty delicate pottery, artisanal glassware, giant limited-edition marbles (one costing £2.5K), hand-woven scarves, moustaches and all things East London. No doubt many of the artefacts were inventive, beautifully made and presented. However, it appeared to resemble a market; sometimes the equation between 'somebody with good taste making pretty things' and 'designer' is too easily made. Humanity will forever benefit from higher levels of beauty in the world - yet, if it does not solve a problem, generate awareness or debate, improve processes or products, create new jobs or instigate innovation... what qualifies it as 'design'?
But we kept our cool, as the hunt for 'design' got tougher. 

Eventually, we found some light in a non-superficially glossy project called PUNAH. The project is re-writing the industrial waste stream of Godrej & Boyce, a major Indian manufacturing conglomerate. The plan? To make both business and environmental sense the legitimising of new raw materials as opposed to secondary waste or by-product. At the stand, prototypes and iterations were presented, including cotton gloves that had become a chair seat and varnish transformed into amber-like tiles. Also on display was the mapping of 600 materials across all Godrej & Boyce sites: a beautiful, bound inventory, containing both compelling photography and practical information. It turns out the project was self-initiated by a CSM Indian alumnus, soon joined by two more ex-classmates.

Rewind to January 2015.


Shubhi Sachan graduated in July 2014 from Material Futures (formerly Textile Futures), a Masters fully focussed on sustainability with a multi-layered outlook. She is now back in India and wants to pitch a project that has to do with industrial waste management. 
During her time at Central Saint Martins, her approach was often a problem-solving one, "That has to do with my ‘Indian-ness’, if you have enough problems in-hand why would you speculate one?" India is on the verge of a huge and ever exponential national growth - manufacturing will be the driving force behind it over the next few decades.
"I was always interested in sustainability and I struggled for years to find the right place in the industry. Now I have the possibility to do a job that is also something I completely believe in - that's the best no?" Indeed, passion in the design industry is often underrated, a plus that is "good for you" but not much of a difference for the business.

Founded in 1897, Godrej & Boyce is a Mumbai-based conglomerate currently covering 14 businesses with more than thirty-thousand employees. Navroze Godrej is the fourth generation of the family-run manufacturing company. He completed a Master of Design at IIT in Chicago – an institute founded by the Bauhaus movement which is still firmly focussed on systemic research and human-centered design. Upon his return to India, he set up an Innovation Center within Godrej and became the Executive Director of Innovation and Strategy for the group. He aims to gradually embed 'design thinking' into the corporation, encouraging a number of diverse initiatives - with a strong focus on internal staff. Employees are second or third generation too, they are brought on board so that Godrej evolves as a unit. 

Sachan pitched to three companies and eventually was hired at Godrej Innovation Center, "India’s growing manufacturing ambition is going to bring global issues of excessive waste with it. In response to this, Godrej & Boyce is moving towards a circular economy by considering their industrial waste as a valuable resource." This is how the PUNAH project came to life.

After LDF, we caught up with Sachan to find out more. 


Marta Santambrogio: How did you start?


Shubhi Sachan: For the first ten months I was alone and focused on building the project structure. Defining what needs to be done and in what order. As I was going through this planning process, I realised I had to quickly justify the funding with something tangible, to be able to show the potential immediately. So, secondly was building a team, to help me create the case studies scenarios - if we have this 'problem' of industrial waste, what does it actually look like? At this point I knew I had to hire designer-makers, capable of syncing to the ethos of the project but also produce actual pieces and start exploring the materials. I am now joined by Leah and Sophie from my class at CSM - in a way it was easier to use my London connections, as that's where I had the strongest network. To start with the materials, we had to narrow our focus. Godrej & Boyce industries generate approximately 18,505 tonnes of ‘waste materials’ every year. So we produced an inventory - the book presented at LDF. This 'bible' contains both images and essential info relating to the use of each of the 600 mapped materials.


MS: How did you select six out of 600?


SS: We had to proceed very methodically and set criteria:
1) Not in conflict with the secondary waste economy in India
2) Level of harm for the environment
3) Costs associated with down-cycling that Godrej has to cover
4) Potential for the material to cross-over as many as possible of the sub-businesses so that the related platform is really relevant and triggers the widest involvement.

Consequently, we picked varnish, magnet copper wire, metal turning boring, cotton gloves, synthetic graphite and crimping pieces and went on exploring each of them. At LDF we presented the results.


MS: Where are you now?


SS: We have the case studies, we are all on board and we see the potential in a tangible way. Next challenge is making business sense; translating these case studies into models, either new internal businesses or system-designs. And it will have to be extremely specific: this is a very grey area in any manufacturing company, but to make business sense out of waste stream management you need to build a bullet-proof platform, that is integrated in the company in its entirety - not patchy here and there. Godrej factory in itself is a township, it's easier said than done. Especially in our case, because we want to create closed loops, we also need to encourage an approach where the users look at it not as ‘components’ that need to be used again somehow, but as the stage zero: new raw materials in their full potential. One idea is to become a material supplier for internal and external manufacturing businesses.

We'll also bring in Indian team members, because there is a different and very peculiar approach to waste here. In India we do not see such a thing as 'waste' - everything has some value somewhere down the line. A secondary economy is thriving from it all over the country. We collect and segregate domestic waste to sell it to private small businesses, even old newspapers. So you need to have people with this in-built attitude to make PUNAH fully relevant.


MS: What are the highlights of your findings so far?


SS: The process has enabled us to shine a light on a gap in the public's mind-set. These materials exist and are everywhere right? But people are not used to visualising them as such. For example, we do motors. People know motors exist, of different capacities etc. But what goes into making a motor? And what does it leave behind? Or the finish of most furniture pieces, it will be acrylic-based. Something very ordinary - but the minute you put it in the context of 'industrial waste', you get a worried reaction - Is it safe? Is it toxic? Finished consumer goods are not questioned as their building materials are. A suspicious attitude prevails. To me this has been the most interesting finding of PUNAH so far - people see products not as materials but as objects, supposed to have a function. So we need to bridge this gap. In that sense, LDF was a great platform - the ingenuity of our prototypes helped those questioning the safety of 'industrial waste', facilitating that 'eureka moment' to immediately see things in a different way.

However, some of the reactions at LDF were funny. No one knows what polystyrene varnish is and that's ok. We transformed it into something quite beautiful that looks like amber and created a set of tiles. But people were going like, "Oh wow is this amber? Did you crush down amber? That's amazing! Are you selling this?" I find people at LDF have almost adapted to the process of selling things, it is expected. Which is strange if you think that we were presenting prototypes of material explorations, with the unique goal of demonstrating our research process - plus, why in hell would I crush down amber?


MS: What does 'sustainability' mean in India?


SS: There was an old notion that is changing into a new notion, but this new notion has several faces. We still dump our waste somewhere, like 35 years ago - it was primarily organic and would decompose leaving no trace. Today's industrial society deals with a much wider material palette, that old mind-set is still there and garbage keeps piling up. 'Until it piles up, it's sustainable' - that is the old notion.

An example of a brand projecting a new face of sustainability is 11.11 [pronounced eleven eleven]. It's a fashion brand with a very clear philosophy. They say: we love fashion, we want to do fashion, but we also know that fashion is the most polluting industry of all. So how do we go about it? For instance, they design around the seasonal roots available at that moment, so the colours of the collection are determined by the range of natural dyes available, not by a predetermined colour inspiration. Same with embellishment, it all comes from absolutely zero new materials. They start from discarded materials and again their creativity goes into how these are interpreted, with texture and patterns - like all fashion designers.

It's a philosophy not an aesthetic, garments do not ‘look green’ or ‘recycled’, that's very interesting. They also have a line dedicated to Khadi, the most precious organic cotton available in India, where they explore a full cycle. It is dyed in indigo or other natural dyes, then cut into garments. The resulting offcuts become something else, which will be higher in cost because it requires higher labour. So you could have a pair of trousers, which offcuts go into an interlaced jacket, which offcuts go into rug-making and the final stage of offcuts - because it is organic cotton - will go into paper making. Because it's naturally dyed it would bleed its colour and result in a packaging that is matching the colour of the product, sending out a message about the value of a closed-loop. That is why one of our materials is explored in collaboration with them, we share the same philosophy and - like other young designers - we aim at pushing out a new face of sustainability in India.


Currently, what we associate with ‘sustainable fashion’ in India is a niche involving few designers and customers. Indian fashion industry is also very different and mainly gravitates around weddings and occasion-wear. First generation designers such as Sabyasachi or Tarun Tahiliani have been reference points for decades for female elegance. A new breed of young designers is emerging though, most of them returning from overseas fashion schools or from the one design university in India - the National Institute of Design in Amhedabad, funded in 1961, further to an invitation from the Indian Government to Charles and Ray Eames to recommend a programme of design to serve as an aid to small industries.
Pèro by Aneeth Arora is one of them. Her collections focus on handcrafted products only, with the mission to empower local communities of craftswomen around Indian villages. Textile craftsmanship is everywhere in India, but there is no network to connect the rural areas. Her collections aim to celebrate and preserve these skills in fashion products and are sold at luxury retail prices worldwide. 

In Europe, where 'sustainability' is a popular buzzword in design industry, press and education, we often stumble onto a quite flat and one-directional approach - one that leads to believe that ‘wood is sustainable!' or ‘handmade is sustainable!’. The complexity of sustainability as an ecosystem is not always addressed. To tackle it from that angle is an ambitious goal, one that boils down to accurate analysis of all elements and creation of detailed scenarios to inform decision-making. It is not about 'using natural materials' but about putting things in context with the right tools - to look at the 'overall cost'. What cost is the most sustainable? Sustainable for who? Does it make sense if it does not make business sense? What is the real cost of the alternative 'sustainable' process? How does it impact on employment? etc. etc.

PUNAH is an example of how sustainability is a multi-layered subject and exciting design challenge. "For me, it is a problem of exposure and communication. The minute you start looking at more granular level, things start to make sense immediately. But you have to encourage that approach, because it is not the prominent one today."

India is in a magic moment. Almost overnight, society has moved from 'no phone to smartphone', with no intermediate steps. The crave for consumer goods can be compared to the one occurred in western economies in the 1960s, but the pace and size are completely different. Secondly, Western consumer society - and the related development of the design industry - constituted a brand-new and gradual process, taking its time over decades for improvement and mistake. Not in India. On the brink of change - with a bag of knowledge available to borrow from the Western past - how should India look at that experience? "Nothing in India can ever be generalised. We must learn from the mistakes of the West because we have no time to afford them. Part of the Planet's resources are gone forever - we have the responsibility not to repeat that crime. We need to understand the consequences of consumerism and fast fashion now, before it's irreversible. But you see, it would be also extremely unfair to prevent an entire society coming out of rural poverty to enjoy their share of goods and welfare. So I believe that my job is to put all the options on the shelf - and encourage others to do so."


MS: You are a CSM alumnus, what of that are you bringing into the PUNAH project?


SS: I realised my ability to facilitate conversations, to stitch things together. I don't have any technical background - and I work for a totally engineering-oriented corporation. The Masters’ pushed me hard to get things done, to collaborate, to achieve beyond myself and not to be limited by my personal specific skills. Imagine going into aerospace factories, I don't even understand the different types of welding they do! But I can analyse, put a thought in place, talk to people there and validate it or not immediately. These are my resources and they are helping me in achieving PUNAH’s goals. 


In conclusion, PUNAH is a two-sided approach to industrial waste. On the one hand they build a viable business platform able to generate a relevant impact on Godrej. On the other, they encourage a cultural-shift amongst end consumers, exposing them to the material streamline that goes into everyday products - this would make consumers aware and demand more from the ecosystem surrounding those products. 

"Exactly. It really has to go hand-in-hand, otherwise the shift will not occur in that structural way. Now, how long will it take? We don't know. That's why we join platforms like LDF, to reach out to a wider audience and hopefully speed up the process."

Next stop: Milan Design Week.

This story shows design as a methodology, a 'way of seeing things' - beyond technical skills. The designer acts as an orchestra director, building the music script, key after key, collectively. When the process is consequential and put in context for the relevant stakeholders, that is where things often start to happen and are likely to trigger structural change. We hope to come across more and more stories like PUNAH. The time is now - for design to boldly reach far out, beyond seductive 'objects of good taste' and to play its role as a key strategic asset for business intelligence.