A sneak peak into the zero-plastic and zero-waste life of Chaitsi Ahuja— the woman behind Brown Living

Chaitsi Ahuja’s love and respect for the planet led to her creating one of India’s first e-commerce platforms that promotes a sustainable lifestyle— Brown Living. With over 7 years of experience as a digital marketing & strategy expert under her belt, she took the plunge last year and launched Brown Living in November 2019. Since then, the online marketplace has been a leading promoter for a plastic-free and waste-free lifestyle through its curated list of everyday products.

Recently, we had a chance to catch up with Chaitsi and discuss Brown Living, her zero-waste and zero-plastic philosophy, the mindset of the Indian consumer and get some great tips to start our own waste-free lifestyle.

Tell us about your journey to live plastic-free with a zero-waste philosophy. What gave rise to it?

My personal journey to switch to a zero-waste & plastic-free life has been an extensive process, not just for myself but for my entire family. At first, I started with simple steps which could help reduce the things I would discard (send for recycling or compost at home). Little by little I realised that there is so much more to this than just switching to a plastic-free version or switching off the light when I leave the room.

Going zero waste requires constant evaluation, in literally all aspects of life, and so I started doing audits (one room at a time), evaluating our lifestyle choices – how many times a month should we dine out or order takeout, do we take a flight or train to go see my parents, critically assess our electricity consumption, how we can conserve our food and water consumption.

I also turned vegan recently to support everything I was trying to achieve (after being vegetarian all through my life). We have over time been able to reduce our plastic consumption to a bare minimum (an occasional treat, or a cheat day, so to speak). It sounds like a daunting task, but to be honest, it is a journey in the true sense and takes a while to get used to. It is extremely rewarding to see the results – not just from an environment perspective but from a cost-efficiency perspective as well.

What was the idea behind Brown Living?

We wanted to make sustainable living accessible and affordable by sourcing products from truly sustainable brands – who consider circularity of consumption as their core value.

With a focus on urban India (since the largest cities consume the most), I wanted to find a way for everyone to live a zero-waste minimal life that was kind to the community, all species and the planet overall. My personal search led me to believe that there is definitely a way to lead a lifestyle that reduces human waste created by ethical consumption of products that are truly sustainable. I also realized that I could help sustainable businesses grow by creating a platform suited just for their needs by bringing them all together on one platform.

What is the Brown Lens and how did you develop it?

After years of research combined with the first-hand experience, going through tonnes of scientific documents, online courses & documentaries (about production processes, material studies, sustainability, design thinking, best practices in zero-waste living, carbon impact calculation, circular design and business frameworks for financial, environmental & social sustainability) - I created my own secret sauce The Brown Lens is a proprietary product selection framework we designed to define:

  • Differentiate sustainable products from the not-so-sustainable products
  • Weed out the "green-washed" ones from the true eco-warrior products and brands
  • Empower brands who truly believe that there is a better tomorrow, for a holistic planet
  • Support local businesses that empower a community, internally
  • Promote Slow, Conscious & Zero-Waste Living

In effect, help our customers transition into an Earth-friendly and Zero-Waste lifestyle. This framework works on the principles of circular design, life cycle assessment and carbon impact measurement.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in your journey to making Brown Living plastic-free?

Finding the right partners/sellers (which are truly sustainable) and helping them make a switch to plastic-free packaging (including daily operations for packaging for courier). It’s not every day that you get asked to remove the plastic tape from your product just for one small business who is trying to make a change.

We also had to find the right packaging solutions, for the products as well as for order shipments to the customers. We continually work with many packaging companies to innovate and find solutions for our partner brands that are affordable and sustainable at the same time.

The awareness for sustainability is still very limited in India and Brown Living is still one of the only spaces for eco-friendly products. How do you manage to survive and thrive within it while raising awareness simultaneously?

Changing consumer behaviour in order to help them opt for a product that is better for the environment, one which also reduces their waste, carbon footprint and plastic footprint is definitely a challenge for us. However, over time, through various in-person and online interactions with people from various walks of life, we have found our own cohorts of consumers: who have a mindset to make a change. Our audience is age and gender agnostic. However, the common thread tying them all together is the idea of a better future (if they take action today).

The intention for all these groups is different (some want to consume products that are good for their health and wellbeing, some choose it for a social currency, some of them are truly inspired and want to make more conscious lifestyle choices). We have also been extremely conscious in the way we do business, not just environmentally but also in financial decisions.

What is the best part of your job?

I’m an eternally curious person. For me, I find joy in providing value to people who have the mindset to bring change – whether it is finding new materials and sellers who have a mindset to bring innovation to the forefront and make environmental sustainability mainstream or it is someone who wants to learn more about sustainability to implement it in their lives. I love that we have the power of words and the tools to enable that change.

Give us some insights into working with brands that share your philosophy. Has it always been smooth sailing or have problems arisen as well?

If it is smooth, you never really feel like you have added any considerable value to the business. But, what I find the most amazing about my work is that I get to work directly with the makers and learn so much about their craft and the way they function. Transparency is key to sustainability, and it has been a bit of a challenge to find partners who are open to the idea, to share information about sourcing, pricing and margin structures, in order to help them optimize the value we can bring to the table.

How do you think the Indian consumer’s mindset will shift after this pandemic? Do you think they will opt for a more plastic-free and sustainable lifestyle?

To be honest, we, Indians, have always lived an eco-friendly and zero waste lifestyle as a culture. Ayurvedic practices, home remedies, composting have all been part of our culture for decades. We just need to reinvent old ways to make them relevant to our current lifestyles. And that awareness is already there and the shift is happening very quickly (since the past 2-3 years).

The pandemic has also made us realise the value of being self-sufficient and self-sustainable. Buying just what we need, propagating at home to have our own urban farms is on a rise and that must definitely mean something positive.

What are some of the changes you would like to see happen in the plastic-free space in India?

I truly hope that we as a country are able to properly execute the single-use plastic bans enforced by the government. This also means that we must have a water-tight system for recycling waste, managing our landfills better and enabling current plastic manufacturers with the right tools and subsidies to be able to make the shift. We need government policies in place for all consumer-led industries to ensure responsibility both for businesses as well as consumers.

For people who are trying to cut down plastic from their life, what advice would you give them?

Carefully evaluate all that you have first. Don’t simply “throw-away” what you think is plastic. Plastic is a very durable material and you must use it till it serves you a considerable amount of time, and when you are done, please sort it and send it to a nearby recycling facility. Also replace the products that you “use often” – with a plastic-free alternative – it will act as a constant reminder (or trigger point) to keep you on your journey to go plastic-free. Examples; reusable food wraps, shampoo bars, bamboo toothbrushes, straws, etc.

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