Online marketplace Brown Living wants to make sustainable consumption the new normal.
Brown Living is an online marketplace that supports and sells sustainable products, like this pocket-sized handbook. (Photograph courtesy Chaitsi Ahuja)
If sustainable, cleaner alternatives to daily-use items, like your floor cleaner and hand soap, were made more accessible, would you make the swap?
Chaitsi Ahuja, founder and chief operating officer of Brown Living, wants to make sustainable consumption the new normal. Her start-up is an online portal that helps sustainable businesses showcase their products on one platform, scale their operations and earn profits.
Ahuja participated in the Fempreneurs Upskilling Program, a U.S. State Department-supported initiative to train women entrepreneurs how to run a business, find investors and develop networks.
Ahuja’s awareness about climate change started early when she saw her father’s textile business in Ahmedabad involved a lot of water wastage. “I grew up to really understand how production processes of textiles can impact the planet,” she says.
She also remembers how her father’s factory depended heavily on coal. “There was a lot of pollution from these manufacturing units. It was also a textile dyeing, printing, finishing and processing factory, so we used chemicals to dye the fabric so they would last. But, in that process, the chemicals were also being released into the waterways.”
She realized that even though there was a need and demand for cleaner products, they were not easily available or were expensive. Ahuja saw this as an opportunity. “Finding a sustainable product has to be easy; it has to be affordable and available,” she says. “That behavior [of sustainable consumption] will only continue if the product is consistently available in places around you.”
Brown Living, says Ahuja, helps consumers replace toxic everyday items with more environmentally-friendly choices at an affordable cost. According to the Brown Living standards, it is not just the product that is sustainable, but also the process.
The start-up has created a set of parameters, called the Brown Lens, to distinguish between truly sustainable businesses versus those that just look the part. It considers the product source, the method, the packaging, the product’s afterlife and the usability.
Helping brands scale up
Ahuja says smaller businesses usually reach a stage where they need help to scale up, and Brown Living helps them do that. “Typically, people who come to us have a product in place, though they may or may not have launched yet,” she explains. “These are typically small- and medium-sized businesses that don’t have massive ad budgets or a public relations team to do a launch. They have a great product, an operating procedure, and an understanding of the market, but need help with packaging or telling a brand story. And we get them on board. We evaluate the whole thing in terms of our sustainability lens, and list them on our platform.”
However, not all brands come prepared with the paperwork that Brown Living needs to endorse them as sustainable. “Our team does a lot of the legwork—we ask the brands for information and we have systems in place to capture all of that,” Ahuja explains. Brown Living also does the background work for brands that do not have the necessary documentation, sometimes even helping them get in touch with verified and certified suppliers.
Building a sustainable business
As someone who helps businesses earn the sustainability mark in a competitive environment, Ahuja believes brands need to shift attention to making their processes sustainable. “Right from the kind of materials you’re working with, ensure that you have either the right suppliers or there will be a lot of research and development that you’ll have to do.” Secondly, she says, pick a specific market for your product, keeping consumer demands and pressures in mind. “You have to find the right balance in terms of the category and the market size. For example, a lot of people are interested in food, fashion or skincare. These are all exciting categories,” she says.
Consumers looking for sustainable options research diligently and are picky about what they use, observes Ahuja. This is why getting the paperwork, certification and brand messaging correct is crucial to finding a footing in the market. “It is important to have the right words written on your packaging, the right words written about your brand, because it’s easy to get lost in the greenwashing battle.”
Ahuja’s vision for Brown Living goes beyond just an online presence. “We are starting a new foundation and plan to use that to build relationships and digitize [access to] grass-root level artisans.” She also plans to turn Brown Living into a combination of brand living and the foundation, which will work with think tanks and accelerators to make sustainable consumption a new normal.
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