What does it take to be really sustainable in a rapidly-changing world?

That question is more crucial now than ever before, because we have seen what is possible when we don’t drive, don’t litter, don’t crowd markets and malls, don’t produce construction dust, etc. Basically, when we lay low during the pandemic-induced lockdown, nature was reclaiming its natural glory. But since we aren’t talking about utopia on earth, and need to get real, we have to strike a balance between the act of living and the safeguarding of nature.  

How about we think this way: that the Covid-19 pandemic was inevitable and now that it has happened—the worst of it is hopefully behind us—we can use the pause that it brought into our lives for doing different things, or doing things differently. That’s it – we can look at it as the opportunity we wouldn’t have given ourselves otherwise, caught up as we were in the push and pull of life, in the getting by and getting on, and so on and so forth.

The lockdown period and the many don’ts that we continued to follow subsequently have been an eye-opener, telling us that less is sufficient, and that we had merely got used to excess in most things. Imagine, we had even got used to air pollution! Faced with a stay-home-or-risk-your-life situation, many of us fell back on what we had all but forgotten – our creativity and our instinct to find joys in the little things. Sure, there was restlessness, worry and fear, but these happened alongside a different sort of unravelling of our minds which made us see things we had forgotten to notice. Rainbows for example, or rivers and blue skies. The music that happens in nature when the sound of traffic dies out. There were reports of sightings of animals in our otherwise urban jungles. 

Maybe these were signs that it wasn’t too late yet. Too late for what, some may be wondering. Well, too late to turn back the clock on an environmental disaster that has been in the making through the decades of decadence and will someday choke us human beings out of existence. Sure it’s not going to be you and me or even our children, but what about their children and their children’s children? Does the possibility of their existence in a cold world not disturb us, or does it sound dystopian, the stuff of science fiction? 

But do we need more proofs than the increasingly erratic weather events that have been occurring in various parts of the world? What more proofs though? Will the sinking of the major coastal cities be proof that’s good enough? Or will it have to be worse, like irreversible global warming? (Ever wondered why the Paris Agreement has kept the global temperature rise this century at well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels? Why is 2 degrees C the tipping point? Because beyond this point, as scientific studies suggest, we ‘lock the climate’ into a state of continuing loss of warm season Arctic Sea ice, sea-level rise, more intense wildfire activity, and many other anomalies in nature.)

Do you know this?

Humans have never inhabited the planet 2 °C warmer than pre-Industrial-Age temperatures.

Let’s talk about this new normal
The events of 2020 contain several lessons for us, if we will see them. One thing is clear – that we have to do more than what we have been doing. Less complacency, more actions, by more and more of us!

Whether or not we acknowledge the situation, fact is that the pandemic has shown that we can change our ways of working, living, travelling and thinking – and this may very well be a game changer so far as saving our planet is concerned.

It’s not as if disruptions have not happened earlier—one can think of any number of them, and of any scale, be it the World Wars and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Holocaust and other genocides, the Great Depression, and so on—but what makes the 2020 disruption unique is that as a human race we had never reached this stage of advancement and therefore the extent of disruption is unprecedented too. Having reached this stage of advancement, we have also been leaving behind a trail of telltale signs – in the form of increased emissions, increased pollution, increased waste (including humongous amounts of e-waste), and what have you. 

Basically, there is no denying that we have crossed the limits of allowable resource consumption and there is no alternative but to reduce consumption. Which brings us back to the recent lockdown experience. Those months of being shut in and not spending as much led to the realisation that so much of our impulses and behaviour as consumers is about instant gratification. Within the confines of our homes, we mostly ended up engaging in activities that did not end up putting more carbon into the atmosphere.

So, here we are, with the realisation that there are things about quarantine life that are worth preserving. In this new normal, we are buying less, going out less, travelling less, flying less, wasting less (because we are buying less), and so on. Hopefully, we will capitalise on this new normal and streamline it further, instead of trying to go back to the old normal. 

Today, more of us know what only a few among us espoused earlier: which is that individual choices matter and it all adds up. If a hundred days (so to speak) of restrained activities and restrained consumption could help the environment recuperate somewhat, imagine what difference we can make if we make this the only way to be! We all will be better off in the long run and our children will thank us.  

Let’s not be discouraged by the thought that individual contributions to climate change matter little in the face of the damage caused by fossil fuel companies and heavy industry. We can create positive feedback loops and turn ourselves into a force that will bring about a bigger systemic change.

As we recover from the pandemic, we have a tremendous opportunity to remould/reset our lifestyle patterns. Let’s make the best use of it, because there’s no knowing if we will have another opportunity like this anytime soon. In any case, none of us could be hoping for another pandemic or lockdown to drive home the point again.

What leaders at India Inc./social organisations are doing towards making a sustainable world a reality

Here’s what CauseBecause asked them: what can you do to make sustainable living a way of life and how do you see your role as individuals as well as leaders in organisations?

As individuals, it can be about using less plastic, using our private vehicles less, consuming less, wasting less, contributing towards a charity or cause we believe in, persuading others to do the same, and so on. Most of us know all this, so what really can we do to make these actions a part of our lives?

As leaders/decision makers, it can be about ‘sustainability-focused’ decisions – for example, more locally sourced inputs/raw material/services, less single-use plastic, less packaging, more recycling, etc. – and/or initiating social programmes addressing local social and environmental issues. 

Let’s hear out leaders across organisations in detail as they hold forth on this most timely of topics. We present them in this ongoing series in alphabetical order arranged as per their first names.

Anirban Ghosh
Chief Sustainability Officer, Mahindra Group

–As individuals

While there is increasing awareness among consumers today about climate change, which has led them to reconsider their lifestyle, their behaviour may not always reflect this concern.

Last year, at Mahindra we did a small study called ‘alternativism’ to understand the explanation for this paradox. The research confirmed that today’s generation is more environmentally conscious than at any time in our long history. It showed that four out of five (80%) respondents are aware of the impact of plastic and waste management. As many as 89% of the respondents said that they would act on climate change if companies offered alternative solutions. However, 88% believe that eco-friendly alternatives are either too expensive or not effective, thus preventing them from being more environmentally considerate. 

The reason behind the inconsistency in thought and action is clear: the absence of suitable environment-friendly products and services at an affordable price. Clearly there are two aspects to this: consumers’ willingness to be sustainable, and business’ responsibility to give back to the environment and the society.

Here are some of the things people can practise easily in their daily life to reduce their environmental footprint and make a difference (this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  1. LED-fy your home
  2. Shift from conventional fans to energy-efficient BLDC fans
  3. Change air conditioners that are more than 5 years old to energy-efficient versions
  4. Put aerators on all taps to control flow and pressure of water during each use
  5. Convert all flushes to dual-flush systems
  6. Stop ignoring leaky taps – fix them immediately
  7. Stop using plastic bags
  8. Give up single-use plastic water bottles
  9. Use planet-friendly toiletry
  10. Use biodegradable disposable cutlery when disposable cutlery is required
  11. Donate or upcycle old clothes/shoes/bags/other items to increase their lifecycle and avoid wastage
  12. Switch off engine of bike/scooter/car at traffic signals
  13. Use natural sunlight to dry your clothes
  14. Buy local – support local businesses
  15. Compost organic waste
  16. Spread awareness in your network about sustainable ways of living
  17. Volunteer at local shelters/soup kitchens/environment action groups, etc.
  18. Donate to organisations working on social/environmental causes

At Mahindra Group, we have an ongoing programme called Making Sustainability Personal, through which we actively engage with our colleagues to inculcate values of sustainability in their lives. The above-mentioned activities are among the many we have encouraged our colleagues to adopt through this outreach programme. We also periodically organise quiz competitions to increase awareness on environmental issues, drive activities that encourage employees to reduce their electricity consumption at home, have designed energy-efficient mobile wallpapers (which were downloaded by over 30,000 people internally and externally), and put up green product stalls at our office campus where green entrepreneurs and NGOs working with disadvantaged communities get to sell their environment-friendly products to our colleagues. This year on the occasion of Green Consumer Day, we organised a green product sale where we managed to curate a range of green product vendors to supply affordable and good-quality environment-friendly alternatives to our employees, such as BLDC fans, LED lights, chemical-free and organic home and self-care products, sustainable menstrual products, and biodegradable cutlery and toothbrushes, among other things.

Resources are aplenty – platforms such as Goodmarkets and Qtrove offer a treasure trove of sustainable daily-use products that are good both for the environment and for our well-being.

The expectations of Indians from the business community are very clear. This is the perfect opportunity for businesses to deliver on the sustainability demand and facilitate the transition into sustainable living. There are two major ways to achieve this, and Mahindra Group has been actively working on both these fronts. One, embed sustainable best practices in your design to the best of your ability. Two, diversify your portfolio and offer consumers innovative, affordable and competitive substitutes for conventional products.

Mahindra’s green product portfolio includes mobility and energy solutions, green buildings, micro-irrigation and solar power. Mahindra CERO is India’s maiden organized auto shredding venture and vehicle recycling unit, while Mahindra Waste to Energy Solutions Limited converts organic waste into bio-CNG and organic fertiliser and is currently powering the local bus transit network in the city of Indore.

A future boom in planet-friendly alternatives is inevitable. As people become more aware of the impact of their actions, they will expect businesses to do so too. The business community will be increasingly accountable not merely for the products they develop, but also for how they behave.

–As leaders/decision makers

What will become less going forward? Among other things, business travel will (and can) be curtailed to a great extent.

A few things that we can focus on as we transition into the ‘new normal’ are using recyclable paper in offices, eliminating single-use plastic completely (something which Mahindra Group has been successful in achieving in many of its locations), and conducting online virtual meetings as opposed to personal meetings.

Cutting down on some of the common ways of working and operating will benefit the business as much as it will benefit the environment and people at large. These measures are cost-effective and enable efficiency because they save time and maximise output. Over a period of five years, Mahindra Group implemented about 1,900 energy-efficiency projects – with savings of 730 million Indian rupees ($9.9 million) on an investment of 550 million Indian rupees ($7.4 million).

As far as their environmental impact is concerned, carbon footprint for a person taking a flight, say, from Mumbai to Delhi would be approximately 300 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). It takes 70% less water to recycle paper compared to what you would consume to create new paper from scratch. According to a report by NRDC, just 10 rivers carry 93% of the world’s total amount of plastic that enters the oceans via rivers each year – thus making the impetus to avoid plastic quite evident.

Has the company recently made any ‘sustainability-focused’ decisions?

Mahindra Group has announced its commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2040, a full 10 years ahead of the climate goals set by the Paris Agreement. Mahindra will focus on energy efficiency and the use of renewable power to achieve this target. Residual emissions will be addressed through carbon sinks.

As of today, 20 of our locations have been certified as Zero Waste to Landfill (ZWL) by reputed agencies like Intertek, TUV Nord and UL Limited. Getting more locations within this fold is our ongoing goal.

Here are some of the many initiatives that have been undertaken by the Group companies in pursuit of our carbon-neutrality commitment:

  • Mahindra Holidays & Resorts India Ltd (MHRIL) is committed to reducing Scope 1, 2 and 3 GHG emissions by 88.3% per room night booked, by the 2031. They have signed on RE100 with the Climate Group, have solar power streaming in at 7 of their resorts, and Club Mahindra Kanha is India’s first 100% solar-powered resort. MHRIL also signed on EP100 with a commitment to improve energy productivity by halving the energy consumption at their resorts by 2030. In addition, the business has taken up the EP100 cooling challenge, monitoring the efficiencies of the current air-conditioning systems and implementing energy-efficient solutions. The Virajpet resort in Coorg, Karnataka, became India’s first ZWL resort in FY19 (99.32% diversion of waste into reusing and recycling). Six of MHRIL’s resorts are self-reliant on water.
  • Mahindra Lifespace Developers Ltd is the only real estate company in India to have had their Science-Based Targets (SBT) approved; the business has a 100% green-certified portfolio. 100% of the projects have rainwater-harvesting structures and groundwater-recharge mechanisms. The IAmGreenArmy is a collective of individuals mobilised by the business to actively engage in environmental awareness, sustainable best practices and planting trees periodically.
  • Having suppliers and dealers who depend on you for distribution and any other form of customer engagement gives you the opportunity to create a greater impact and drive leadership in your industry. We have leveraged the opportunity to steer the supply side of our business in the direction of sustainability by articulating the following policies:

Supplier Code of Conduct

Sustainable Green Supply Chain Management and Procurement Policy