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A candid conversation with Mansi Shah, founder of Keep It Sustainable Stupid, about sustainability, mindful consumption and the Indian mindset

About seven months ago, February 2020, in Mumbai, Mansi Shah left her corporate life behind and launched Keep It Sustainable Stupid (KISS), a media agency that strives to simplify sustainability and make it more mainstream. The agency, better known as a change agency, covers widespread topics on sustainability with the goal of making the information concise and easy to comprehend so that people are more inclined to adopt these changes into their everyday life.

Just like many start ups, this one too began out of a necessity. Mansi observed that although there were many players emerging within the sustainability space in India, there was a wide gap between the information that was being conveyed and people’s perception of it. In an effort to make sustainability more relatable to people and make them more receptive to it, she decided to portray it in a fun way.

Below, Mansi shares more insights about her agency, the sustainability space in India, mindful consumptions and more.

KISS is definitely a unique name. Is there a story behind it?

When I was thinking of names, I actually wanted it to be fun, catchy, easy to say and appealing to the younger crowd. The KISS principle, which essentially stands for Keep It Simple Stupid, is one I have abided by all my life.

KISS concept is not a new one. It was formed in the 1960s by the US Navy and Keep It Sustainable Stupid is a take on that. It’s saying life is not as complex as we make it out to be and sustainability is inherent in all of us. This connection is so inane to us that we don't need anyone to teach us what sustainability means, we just need to relearn it ourselves.

Ever since sustainability became a buzzword, everyone seems to have their own definition of it. How do you define sustainability?

Simply put, sustainability is about creating a win-win scenario between the planet, people and profits. The concept of keeping things in balance has essentially been the whole idea of sustainability from the very beginning.

What has been your strategy to make sustainability fun and relatable for Millennials and Gen Z’s?

My strategy to relate to Gen Z’s and Millennials was to hire them and get their take on sustainability. Varsha Mohan, an amazing and talented woman, was one of my first hires. She is actually one of India’s top sustainability bloggers working with Google and she has an in-depth knowledge of what consumers are looking for. The branding guide for KISS was compiled by a millennial. Since they helped create the brand voice, their thoughts are reflected in our posts and have helped our team of three working on our social right now.

What are your thoughts on the sustainability mindset of India? Do you think there has been a gradual shift towards it?

The sustainability mindset of India is still developing. There is a rising curiosity amongst people towards the movement. Even ones who aren’t consciously on-board, are subconsciously making mindful shifts in their lifestyle.

The sustainability mindset seems to be segregated depending on your geography, your demographics, your culture, your lifestyle, your environment and your sex. As the concept is so ingrained in our cultures, everyone in the country has a different way of tackling sustainability. Some people might be more inclined towards growing their own garden and composting while others may encourage making conscious choices in fashion such as recycling, repairing and upcycling. However, we definitely still have a long way to go. We still need more people on board to actually make the shift happen in a bigger way. With the younger generation asking the right questions, the shift towards a sustainable lifestyle is inevitable.

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According to you, what place does ‘mindful consumption’ occupy in India? How relevant is it here?

The entire concept of consumerism is a western concept and it has created an illusion of what wealth and success looks like. In India where there is an emerging middle class that is more connected with smartphones is seeing a western spillover of the concept. The entire glamorization of consumerism is something people are attracted to. As human beings, we are attracted to shiny things like newest gadgets and fashion and you can’t blame people for that. While the West is now moving towards mindful consumption, India is still catching up to the rest of the world.

In India, mindful consumption is still very limited to very specific areas of the country. It is slow but this shift can happen once there is more awareness and people start practicing it in their own clusters. These changes cannot happen if a government tells you to be more mindful. You have to start within your own circle because we trust and listen to our own peer groups rather than someone outside of our own space.

How different is the perception of sustainability and eco-consciousness in India when compared to the world? What are some of the major differences you’ve noticed?

India’s needs are very different from the rest of the world. We are a young population with a rising middle class and are driven by status and we want to show that we have wealth. More often than not, the sign of wealth is associated with what you wear and what kind of brands you buy. This is a result of consumerism, filtered into the country by the West.

The difference between India and the West is the way they approach a new concept. The West, when it comes to anything new, go deep into understanding what that concept means. This results in them taking a more holistic approach to it and then sticking with it. In India, I've noticed the understanding of a concept is more on the surface level because people don’t like to do in-depth research. People are merely following each other, listening to what others are saying and blindly following their lead without doing their own research. There will be a stronger shift towards sustainability if people were better informed.

mansi shah
What surprises and excites you most about the sustainability space in India?

The rising new generation of people in the country is one of the most exciting things in the sustainability space. This young audience is demanding better products and are becoming more socially aware. Asking the right questions is the way that change begins. Once you have more people demanding and talking about it— that’s what leads to change.

Who do you think has been an active voice in India advocating for sustainability? Are there any particular Insta handles you follow that you would like to recommend to our readers?

There are many old belles that have been active for a long time in India that we don’t speak about. Jaya Jaitly is an ex-politician and she has advocated for our artisan community for over 30 years. She has extensive knowledge about Indian textiles, handlooms and has been a great voice to advocate for it. She is the founder of Dastakari Haat Samiti, which also organises Delhi Haat in Delhi.

Vani Murthy is in her late 60s and is a force to be reckoned with. She has almost 30 thousand followers and she goes by the Instagram handle “worm rani”. She is a big voice in Bangalore, an urban farmer and a sustainability activist.

The other Instagram handles I recommend is that of Varsha Mohan, who is a sustainability blogger. Anya Gupta has an up and coming voice when it comes to a low-waste lifestyle and mindful consumption. Another interesting one to follow is Sahar Mansoor, the founder of Bare Necessities. She is doing great things in the sustainability space with her brand.

A lot of people are intimidated by the word sustainability because they think it involves big lifestyle shifts. What would be your advice to people on slowly integrating sustainability into their lives?

Sustainability and our connection to nature is ingrained in all of us. Sustainability is our interaction with our ecosystem and living in balance with nature. When we were born, we were born on Earth and we were surrounded by nature. Cement and concrete came later, in the lifetime of human beings. So our direct relationship is with earth, it's not with buildings, not with gadgets and not with things you see around yourself. They are actually just illusions. We have created them to serve a purpose for us to make our lives easier but in reality we actually don’t need most of it. So, in a way, leading a more sustainable lifestyle is just going back to the basics.

The way I began my journey was simply to get closer to nature— taking walks, observing and forming a connection to it. Once you start doing that, you respect what nature is and what it has to offer. On top of that, some small lifestyle shifts that people can take in their daily lives is turning off electricity when not in use- because electricity is powered by the coal industry which is dependent on fossil fuels which is one of the largest emitters of carbon emissions in the world. Just turning off electricity not just reduces your bill but also conserves it.

Similarly, turning off the water tap and being mindful of the water you use in your day to day is quite important. Water is something we take for granted because people think that it is free and would last forever. But the biggest war that there is going to happen is going to be over water scarcity. It’s not going to be about oil, not about weapons, it's going to be about water. Turn off the tap when it is not in use, don’t keep the tap running when you’re washing your hands— use one hand to turn it off and then it on again. It’s as simple as that.

Refuse plastic when you go outside, literally just say no. If you don’t happen to have a bag when you’re out shopping—maybe don’t even shop. When I was staying in Bandra, I would speak with some of these vendors who were still selling plastic bags and enquire as to why they continued to use it despite the plastic ban. They claimed that it was because people don’t didn’t their own bags and complained when we didn’t have plastic ones on hand. So, it is a vicious cycle. Unless someone puts a stop to it, it's not going to stop.

As consumers, we have the power to say no to a purchase because if that purchase doesn’t fall through the vendor or the business will have to change its method. There is power in purchase.

What kind of change would you like to see happen in India?

People need to become more considerate human beings in general. Especially in India, I want people to become considerate of each other, of their surroundings and what they choose to spend their money on. They need to become more educated about what they are doing.

How do you think the current global crisis is going to affect the way we view and value sustainability?

There is a division in the way this crisis has affected people. Some have really woken up to the impact that our actions have had on earth and they are doing their homework to better understand how they can improve their lifestyle to better the environment and contribute more to society. While others have become more restless and are thrown over by this crisis unable to deal with it. They kind of want things to do back to normal, they want to go out and shop and just run away from the situation. There is a group that is moving forward while the other is staying in their comfort zone. You can choose what side to be in.

What are your top 5 hacks to move towards a more sustainable closet?
  • Invest in a really good pair of denims

Having a quality pair of jeans would last you for years. Jeans can take a lot of wear and tear, they are meant to be worn for years and almost never go out of style.

  • Wear hand-me-downs

I have seen my friends' closets filled with clothes that they aren’t wearing. If they look good on me, I borrow or exchange them with some of mine. Swapping clothes can spruce up your wardrobe without harming the environment.

  • Buy quality products

While it may take some time to figure out which brands to trust and whether or not you are getting your money’s worth, try and pay for quality. The mindset developed by fast fashion companies of the throw-away culture in fashion needs to change. Buying quality products will make sure they last a lifetime and you will love them all the more.

  • Opt for natural materials

Synthetics are the worst things on the planet. Unfortunately, we don’t have alternatives yet for natural-fibre based activewear, but we can opt for natural materials such as linens, organic cotton, hemp and others to fill up our closets. Avoid blended synthetic fabrics whenever possible, because they are harder to recycle.

  • Use really good detergent

The key to your wardrobe’s life is a good detergent. It significantly improves the lifespan of your clothes, thereby allowing you to use them for longer.

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