defining sustainability for India with shravan shankar

defining sustainability for India with shravan shankar

what are the big sustainability challenges that india needs to solve for?
what are the struggles of startups in this field?
would you care for some more plastic, sir? Reading defining sustainability for India with shravan shankar 30 minutes Next Recycled Paper

this episode is the first part in a two part series conversation with shravan shankar, a veteran in the field of sustainability in india.

learn about the following in this episode:
what are the big sustainability challenges that India needs to solve for?
what are the struggles of startups in this field?
learn also about how the impressario group is partnering with cima to make sustainable choices in their value chain

 reach out to us at and remember to tune into the second part when  it goes live

to know more about shravan and his work, use the links below: (linkedin profile)  (climate finance initiative) (circular impact market accelerator)  (ecosystem for early stage climate start ups)

to know more about the greenShoots team members in this podcast, use the links below:


you can check out and subscribe to greenshoots channel directly on spotifyapple or google podcast



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Kinshuk: Hi! Welcome to Green Shoots by Pehlay. I am Kinshuk and I have with me, my partner in crime, Atul. Through our podcast, we intend to demystify sustainability; evaluate through multiple dimensions and take expert opinion on the challenges and dichotomy the sector faces today. 


Atul: Personally I am also looking to get answers to the questions about sustainability which are in my head and the questions which you guys might have. By you guys, I mean the listeners of this podcast might have regarding sustainability. 


Kinshuk: May all your questions get answered today itself, Atul, so that we don’t have to continue this podcast. For our first episode today we will try to discuss some big issues which India and us Indians need to address regarding sustainability, and issues that the start-ups in this field are facing. And to discuss this, we have the co-founder of Atworks, founder of CIMA and Climake, sustainability veteran Shravan Shankar with us today. His brainchild CIMA helps sustainability start-ups find their feet and start running. 


In an awenest Chat with Mr. Shravan Shankar, we learn about how sustainability still has a long way to go to make an impact in India and why it is important that it does.


Host: Kinshuk and Atul


Team awenest : Hi Shravan, thanks for being here. We are really excited that you’re here. We have been in touch for the last few months and we always wanted to start the podcast with you. Thanks again for being on Green Shoots by Pehlay. 


Shravan: Thank you very much, Kinshuk and Atul. I really enjoyed the conversation we had. I’m very excited to be able to do this with you. Basically I’ve been working in the space of sustainable development since about 2009, working with corporates, policy makers, and various areas. The whole goal that I’ve been trying to do is how do you increase adoption of sustainability solutions, how do companies adopt it, how do consumers adopt it, and how do policymakers enact things to make it effective. My latest thing that I’ve been really focusing a lot more now is really around newer age innovation and start-ups, and how do you really not just develop and validate them, but pick them up and grow towards actually getting adopted. It’s absolutely fascinating that there are so many facets of what better adoption means. 


Team awenest : So Shravan, while we understand the word ‘sustainability’ broadly, how do you view sustainability in terms of what we can do? What is your definition of sustainability?


Shravan: That’s an interesting question; sustainability largely means the three pillars -  the environment, social and economic. Any initiative, any action taken by anyone; doesn’t have to be this kind of a sustainable profession, they must be able to ship and make positive environmental actions. For me what’s more important is that such actions can grow, they have the ability for an individual to do more, or they have the ability for other people, organisations to pick up the same idea and grow further. You have to think of it as an incremental improvement over time. It’s not a one-sided trial or a quick fix solution in place but it’s always good to see that you’re doing positive change continuously. So that’s how I tend to look at sustainability. 


Team awenest : So incremental improvements are the key then, right?


Shravan: There are times that we can get a bit sucked into thinking that the small change is enough but there’s a balancing you have to play. At one point we can’t just say that, oh it’s just a small initiative but look at the bigger picture, because you need small wins for people to improve and grow. After all, there’s a statistic that says that climate scientists are the most depressed scientists in the world because they only have one metric.


Team awenest : Temperature doesn’t go up by more than 2°. That’s a great way to put it, Shravan.


Shravan: But at the same time, we can’t rest our laurels and say that I’ve stopped using plastics, I’m not doing that; it’s good but you can do more. So the most important thing is how do you get people who are doing a single action to start doing more. I think that’s the key. 


Team awenest : So the initiatives can be incremental, but over time they have to occupy a larger canvas .


Shravan: Hundred percent.


Team awenest : Shravan in your line of work, you must be meeting a lot of start-ups, many different points of views. Even the ideal sustainability itself; is it plastic, is it local sourcing, is it emissions. It’s kind of overwhelming. In your opinion, what are the big problems that India has to solve for today? 


Shravan: That is a fabulous question because the one thing we have to be aware of is that there is no zero intact solution. Like if you see a carbon footprint study of alternatives to packaging and certain types of packaging products. You’ll see that the process is agriculture-based and carbon footprints are scanned to be higher than, for example, some hard plastic that will be reused. It becomes a very difficult problem then because you’re like am I fighting the plastic battle or am I in the carbon impact blackhole? I have never been able to get a clear answer; it’s a very complex position to be in. What we are dealing with right now, plastic plays a big part in it because we are seeing that it has a direct impact that is detrimental for us. So we know we have a carbon footprint issue, so then we have to think about what initiatives we can take in respect of the carbon footprint perspective. So is it more renewable, is it more energy-efficient, if the activity is in place and slowly as you keep figuring out your whole system’s things like one action’s side effects and realise that yes, you tend to have individual focus on separate areas but you’ll also find these people who are trying to find a bridge in between? Like who is doing their work in making archives of carbon footprints of each year because they have some technology which can be adopted. What India needs to address is climate change, releasing carbon emissions and also, very important climate adaptation. Also in cities, they should build better infrastructure for flooding. Waste is a big part of it because the fact is a lot of waste is created from the demand to continue generating products. You then are faced with this thing, that okay, which is the thing that I ordered; I want to control and work on the demand and arrange but it hasn’t impacted well. So, it becomes a tricky thing because ultimately there is waste created right across the value chain, there is excess carbon impact across the value chain. One of the things that we have to look at ultimately is what is value demand? For me there are two things that I look at; one is we look at aspiration, what is the Indian person who wants to be aspirational. A lot of it is driven by a very consecutive lifestyle, and what can we do to shift this particular lifestyle. Because everything is driven by demand fundamentally.


Team awenest :A great point, Shravan, and this is something I associate with on a deeper level. Personally, my journey on sustainability started with the whole disillusionment with the consumption led lifestyle which we all lead, and closely related to this is a question of how at an individual level do we follow a sustainable lifestyle?


Shravan: Reducing the use of the resources, creating less wastage of the resources and you’re able to do across as many spheres of your life as you’re able to do. How you work, how you live, the place you live in, how you travel; a sustainable way is an aspirational way. When people say that climate change is the biggest thing we have to address, you have to go and see how much carbon emissions is happening is driven by demand. So for me, the biggest thing to address is the demand part. Another key thing is the whole idea of inequality, and I don’t think this gets enough focus. If you look at the number that is per capita GHE emissions in India, is about 1.8 tonnes. It’s like a third of the average global per capita emissions. We hide behind the number a lot. We make excuses saying that, oh to look at us, we’re below the average but as a country, we’re like about a third of America. We have to keep addressing the number, but we keep hiding behind the number. So we look at our inequality data, it is very unique. Last year, they looked at different income groups and their carbon emissions; so India's average is about 1.8 tonnes. So we went and measured what it was for the lowest part of the population. It was about 0.5 to 1, which is bex`low the average. So next low-income population is about 4.2, which is the global average we’re looking at and then there was another level in the middle, a middle-level income group’s was about 9.2. And the highest level income group something like about 40 tonnes of carbon emissions per year as a per capita emissions. And our global average is 4. 


Team awenest : Wow that’s an amazing data point, Shravan because that means that there can be unique solutions to each income segment.


Shravan: Hundred per cent. The problem is we’re not talking about it as an inequality problem because we’re hiding behind the number place. There is some fascinating data when you look at it from the inequality perspective because you’re like, what are the interventions done to target certain levels. Now if we cumulatively look at it at the highest level of the population, we’ll see they don’t have a large number but then everyone wants to shift towards that. How do you affect that by basically saying this is the sort of lifestyle they’re needing, they shouldn’t be having that lifestyle, how do you make a sustainable lifestyle? 


Team awenest : Shravan, one big question that we had when we were conducting group discussion to understand sustainability, does it impact a group, will the GDP of the country get impacted if you start looking for sustainable solutions to solve our problems? Are we denying the basic rights of wealth creation for the marginalised people today to address the sustainability issue?


Shravan: We don’t talk about a sustainable lifestyle to lower-income groups at all. Basic rights, basic access to rights is what we want to owe it to people who don’t have and that is stuff energy access and a lot of things which are the featured comforts we have today. And who are we to deprive them of it? Now energy is always taken up as a reason, especially our adoption of coal, which is always taken up as a reason why this thing of supporting growth and energy to people who don’t have it today. Because coal plants are already set up and I remember having conversations at the policy level with the Planning Commission right before it got shut down and this was a huge argument point which was in place saying that the reason we still need to look at coal is that today that’s what’s more affordable for us to set up all these plants. There is a simple argument against that today wherein renewables are our cheapest coal plants. We’re coming to this point where some solutions are de-sustainable, renewables are getting that. I think one kind of important thing to be aware of is that a lot of it is about balance; it’s like perfecting the balance that leads to long term growth. The problem with if you build capacity that’s only near term, you’re also eating into the capacity mediant. You’ll know that your adoption of solar is going to get you a larger economy of scale and so on. You have this ability where you can start prioritising a very concerted effort towards sustainable solutions in place. Unfortunately, a lot of it requires good policy, it’s not always the market that will be able to drive and influence these solutions. But I think this argument which comes up often and I’ve heard it a lot of times in, like over my period of working, is that the reason we need to lose the status quo is that today we need to give rights to people. Most complaints we hear are that it’s too hard, too expensive and they’re not affordable, all that stuff is in place. There are ways to work around this, I mean subsidies are not exactly liked because they create a dependency but there are things that can be done to make things supportive for adoption and then grow. The whole key is that you can build a mass scale of sustainable solutions where then it becomes comparable to an amenable solution in place. That’s what we have to look at. 


Team awenest : So what do you think is… we don’t have to stifle growth but we should start moving towards sustainable solutions; at least in the cases where a proven model exists. Otherwise we’ll be stuck at the status quo. 


Shravan: I think another key thing to look at is also the products that make the higher end of the population sustainable are very different from what makes the lower end of the population sustainable. It’s an interesting conversation point when 0 waste comes up, you go to the prices of organic stores that are like 10 to 20% more expensive than other spaces, but imagine if there were enough people who could afford to adopt that. What’s going to happen then? What are the supply chains going to build up to cater to these things? What that’s going to do is lose cost for what is a sustainable product across the board and it’s a long drawn cost.


Team awenest : The last few minutes have been really engaging, Shravan. In particular your point about inequality and how it impacts a problem and a solution. It just blew my mind.


Shravan: The last point I want to make is very important about the nature of a sustainable solution. A sustainable solution today is always an alternative to something which is already in the market, already in use which is not sustainable. If we’re talking about vehicles, it’s petrol and diesel vehicles. So when you’re selling your sustainable products, you first have to overcome the inertia of a person saying, ‘I already have something which does this. How do I replace that cost of me having to remove that plus also being able to pay for something which is more sustainable.’ So I have to look at two things in place.


Team awenest : And are there examples of anyone trying to break this cycle?


Shravan: I know someone doing this; they were asking people to trade in their petrol scooters to get a free electric scooter. So this is a way companies are trying to help. Look I need to start building out adoption in place because the other options people are letting the equipment break and then afterwards they’ll just take the car. That is not going to work necessarily because you would have to wait for people to break the equipment. So this inertia for change is one of the biggest problems that I can see. That first hump is something you don’t get to see anywhere in any other industry because you are saying that you are targeting an alternative that is already there in the market and there is a cost conversion or cost adoption.

Team awenest : So, Shravan this brings us to probably the biggest pillar in sustainability, at least in my head; the government. What do you think the government should play in the world sustainability mission?


Shravan: My personal view is that the government should just look at creating an environment; it should just incentivise people to come up, set up stalls and just say, ‘I’ll be giving you this platform to proceed with this mission. The government’s role should not be to actively find a solution. One of the biggest news was the ban on single-use plastic. It’s an interesting step because you’re putting this barrier to say,” This is what I can bring, I deem it as a polluting device. I want to remove this from the market.” Now you want the gap to be filled by an alternative that is in place. But you also need to have a policy in place that supports the alternative. A lot of plastic, like plastic packaging alternatives, are done by newer age companies. Now it becomes a question of how do you support startups? It becomes a case that, you know, a lot of our start-up policy is geared towards software-related solutions; we are not geared towards hardware and product-focused solutions in place so tackling this one thing about plastics, you have to have a policy that says, how we’re to support the alternatives that are going to come into place. It’s not just about giving money; it’s more about making it easier for people to base their set up, fasten their seats and build up further and then just, you know, give them more capability to get a solution to market and get people to adopt it as a solution. 

Team awenest : Coming specifically toward you, Shravan, what are big problems that you are trying to solve?


Shravan: It goes back to a couple of things we’ve been speaking about. It is really about the adoption of new solutions, what I want to focus on, and working in my last company and in a government job, absolutely interesting work. And also I try to see if there is some personal impact being made, but there’s always the important question of whether alternative solutions are being brought to these places. If we look at the nature of sustainable solutions around 2021-2013, a lot of them are productive efficiency-based solutions. We’re not looking at canvas products being viewed differently, can they be viewed in a way where they don’t have much of an impact. It is mainly that I want to make this product with 50% less water, 20% energy. It is nice but that’s an increment of growth and it is not going to create anything for them. So in 2014, I got interested in what start-ups are doing and I realised that I need to understand what it means to be an entrepreneur because it’s not nice for me to go and lecture people that, oh you should do this when I didn't even know what it takes for people who are entrepreneurs. So we ended up setting up an entrepreneur support platform which helped me learn how to make entrepreneurs grow and scale. It was around 2016 with some good understanding of what was happening there already; I wanted to see how it would work from the sustainability lens. This area I've been telling you about hardware-based and even nation market adoption is a nightmare, support systems are very ineffective, financing is very sparse, there’s rarely money in the initial stage, there’s competition for grants which are like 5-7 lakhs and there’s a huge gap until its about maybe 7 million if we can raise a 7 million dollars, so who is going to find the middle stage. One of the biggest things I didn’t learn was who exactly is trying to do what in this space, what people are trying to support other ventures and I realised that one of the main things that people missing out a lot and there are good programs in place and support them but they’re trying to just validate a solution, like technology validation, like, can we show that this in an engine that will reduce efficiency, I can validate that. But then there’s a huge gap wherein you have an innovator who has good solutions and they have no clue how to get into the market. I have spent a lot of time on this and I have faced this with maybe 100-200 start-ups from the sustainability space for the last three-four years. One of the biggest things you come across is innovators involved in startups are amazing people; they understand how a problem works, how to address a problem, they’re very proficient from a technological and product standpoint. But they struggle in terms of selling a product; they do not understand who should they sell to in this industry, how to create an adoption space, and on top of that you have all these barriers and inertia of shifting in place. So along with an answer to what you asked for, but with a bit of background, there are a lot of interesting solutions on how we get them to market. So for that, we look at two areas; how do you get companies or large customers on board because right now we have a greater focus on B to B, rather than B to C because it's a lot closer to the target. If you’re in the B to B solution, how can we create an expectation platform where you have a company that is invested enough to support a potential solution, to figure out a way to grow and scale. It comes to a time when they are eliminated from a commercial standpoint. So it may sound simple because you’re just telling a company to come on board, be supportive of trying to work with a start-up but there is a lot of expectation management in between. The company doesn’t know how to make a bet on whether that start-up is the correct one to work with, their demands are more important so they can’t devote most of their resources to them. That’s an area where I can help.


Team awenest : Wow, Shravan, that sounds like some really interesting work. So do you have some hot project you are currently working on?


Shravan: So we have been piloting this out with Impresario, the amazing social restaurants that they do. We couldn’t have asked for a better partner to work with. So basically what we’re doing is this platform called CIMA, which is the Circular Impact Market Accelerator. We started with a basic conversation; they launched their restaurant in Chennai, I got invited and had a nice conversation with the CEO. He asked me, ‘How do I make my organisation more stable and sustainable, and we came to this idea that we can look at, for example, plastics as a focus area and the thing we did in Impresario is that we didn’t understand how plastic was utilised across the organisation, the entire life cycle, the entire approach to work and we were trying to find alternatives which can be employed into the system. We first started putting barriers on what start-ups should be but it ended up being 60% of solutions we ended up shortlisting to be implemented were less than three years old, which tells a lot about the world. A lot of these guys have been able to take small orders here and then, Impresario would have been the largest customer for that. Impresario would have also been that customer that would have opened up a gateway towards further markets.


 Team awenest : Are there any selection criteria to select such a partner?


Shravan: The way we designed it was very strategic. So we don’t look at any random company to come on board. Very keep together, what we call, anchor company because it goes back to this thing about an aspirational lifestyle but let's look at it from the lens of a business. Now I want to create an aspirational approach to water sustainable businesses for a company. So I want a company that has a large sizable presence in place to influence others to say, “This big guy can do it, anyone else can do this.” So we went to them and said that we are going to identify areas of interventions, we’re going to find solutions in place and most importantly, we’re going to be this expectation layer so we know how to support you and give the hands of support to both you and the start-ups so that over some time if we keep certain key metrics in place, you can think for a long term engagement. And that part is key. It’s easy to do pilots because pilots are not cost-effective and they’re affordable. What we managed to do with Impresario, and I give most of the credit to Impresario for this, they were willing to say that if we manage to keep these solutions in place, we’ll adopt these as long term solutions. Now at that point, you’re done with market validation for very key customers and for that company to go and say that I want to go and work with the next company in place, it’s that simple and easy. This is like one aspect of what we’re trying to do and another thing that came about is the idea of financing and the sort of funding in place. So it’s kind of a long-winded answer but the nature of the basis is just like that. 


Team awenest : The missing little concept that you spoke about Shravan was very insightful. You also talked about how you were helping companies get financing? Is it to solve the missing middle or there is more to the whole puzzle? 


Shravan: A lot of the financing and funding conditions again has to do a lot with tech and software. People think they have to raise from Angel fund and there is a very fundamental difference between the two. The expenses and software cost is feeble; maybe a laptop and Cloud cost, largely, and maybe marketing cost. The cost that you have for software has a significant product demo. So you can’t do a comparison and what we started seeing was a lot of people who that way have been coming to the space, what we are getting is a pouring of sustainability solutions which is amazing. There is also a need to ensure that our expectations are different from what you expect in sustainability. One of the main things in sustainable solutions is the nature of products are very hardware-based, and very often it's like you book an order, and then you have to supply and demand that order. A lot of it is like you need tailored capital for very specific stipends, supplied invoices, working capital, loans, things that do not rock science but when you look at it from a sustainable lens it’s not thought of as you don’t have many options in place and it’s very complex actually to filter solutions. So today there is a thing that we’re looking at a lot which is how to make financing more tailored and appropriate. Largely, these are like big things that we’re looking at and how to club them together. Whereas in market adoption and opportunities, we can support organisations who need help with financing so that their scale is greater and build them further and that way target both together. The key point is that it's very hard to say that I’m going to focus on just one thing because you’re going to figure out that there are a lot of parts in the system that is missing and that is a critical piece also. So we need to go holistic. That’s what we are doing now.

Team awenest : Going back to the anchor partner conversation, the question which as a business guy is more pertinent to me is won’t the profitability of Impresario group impacted by the changes?


Shravan: Yeah, that’s a factual point but that's also a part of the nature of how we’re trying to set it up like we’re trying to identify what’s… because we have the ability for doing a long term engagement. Interestingly, we’d be able to find a situation that works for both the customer and also the supplying organisation. That’s kind of important because if I’m unable to provide greater volumes, and unable to build up my supply chain, unable to scale large economies, and unable to, in the long term, get the cost reduced. I think that’s the important thing about working with an anchor company and also as a long term engagement. It gives a lot of work to figure out. The word win-win argument given to a situation is a bit abused but that's what we are trying to do here, and we have the flexibility to do that. It is something which we have to see and figure out because worker-worker solutions which are in a sense are at par with, what we can call, alternatives but in other situations, there are about 1-1.5x also maybe more. Then it becomes a case of how do we figure this out. Now the reason why we took plastic as the focus is that there's legislation coming out of the back. Sooner or later companies are going to have to shift. There’s also a question of who is going to take the bandwagon in person and decide to say, “I'm going to initially set up and grow.” If you look at another area, for example, which didn’t have as much legislation in place, then It’s going to be a lot harder to implement. It’s a pretty interesting conversation that you have to figure out because again it can’t be seen in isolation. Ultimately, we have to see who’s going to come and buy and then have an increase in your impact, influence your supplies, so it’s a very confusing game so it comes to finding an equilibrium across both. 


Team awenest : That concludes the first part of our conversation with Shravan. Shravan, thanks so much. We learnt today about the problems that India needs to prioritise and solve. How sustainability and growth can go hand-in-hand and aspects which are unique to the centre, product substitution versus a new product, the missing middle in financing, and the unique financing requirements that start-ups in this sector have. We also learnt what CIMA is doing to solve these problems for sustainability start-ups.

- Tea awenest

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