Tamanna Sharma is the founder and director of Earthling First. Earthling First is an organization working towards creating clean, green, and sustainable events through its pan-India service. With the mission to send ‘zero waste’ to landfills, her venture helps companies reduce waste generation through sustainable planning and waste management, and facilitates strategic waste disposal.
What inspired you to start ‘Earthling First’?
I have been in the environment sector for about a decade now. I was a journalism student, but doing campaigns about an issue made more sense to me than reporting about it. Thus, began my journey as an environmentalist. I was a campaigner for some time, post which I became a project manager for a private waste management company. I wanted to learn more about the different aspects of environmental issues that are there. In 2014-15, I realized I wanted to be part of the solution because I was tired of just talking about the problems. It took some time and a lot of courage to become an entrepreneur because I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs. In 2016, I finally started the company; however, it was at the beginning of 2017 that we were able to find clients. That is how Earthling First started.
What was the vision at the outset?
The broader vision was always to work on bringing sustainability to the center stage. Becoming a part of the linear economy and making it circular was the idea initially. However, I found there is no market for sustainability, but there was a market for ‘come and get my garbage.’ Once I figured the market out, I created services accordingly for the company. It took me six months, but I finally found a client who was willing to pay somebody to come and do waste management for them. With us, we brought the quality of service. We started with one city. In the same year, we grew to 8 cities. I purposely went with temporary bulk generators of waste because I wanted to test out how segregation works. It was all an experiment, but it was successful because we grew from 8 cities to 20 cities the next year. By 2017, people had started selling biodegradable material, but cities were not equipped to handle them. These were the learnings that helped us to understand the gaps in the market, supply chain, and logistics.
Segregating and managing waste started with the realization that the waste workers and housekeeping staff in a lot of places do not have access to gloves or masks. The first thing that we did was make sure that our clients knew that the workers that we bring in are wearing these to uphold their dignity and safety. Another peculiar thing was 90% of the workforce were men. We asked the agencies to employ 50% of women in the task force. We also found the wage gap and tried to ensure that the agency wasn’t taking most of the money that we were giving them.
We identified the economic slowdown before anybody could tell. We knew because waste management takes a back seat. In 2020 all our work has been halted. I took this opportunity to ask my team to experiment with other things and see what else we can bring to the market in a time where the money is an issue.
What are some of the greatest achievements of your organization?
We are a team of 5 people in the core who took this initiative from 1 city to 20 cities. We were also able to recognize the gaps, get people to give equal opportunity to women, and ensure waste segregation. In the second year itself, our clients from the first year became our sustainability consultant client. The way we grew was very organic. We had not received any external investment and were putting back whatever we were earning. Initially, we did not even take salaries. We wanted to take our time to experiment and understand the market that has been running for decades now, but we did not have funds to get into research. Concerning providing an opportunity to women, sometimes they refuse as well because of safety concerns. I remember this project where we had to get 25 members with us into the forests of Lonavala. I was the only woman in the team, so I slept inside the car. There were occasions where we couldn’t include women but ensured that every other chance I got, women were involved, and their safety was a priority. There have been times when a female worker has brought her child to work. We put her in the segregation team, created a pen for the kid to be in, and we gave him food and water. The mother did her job very well. Now everybody knows what to do in such a scenario, and nobody gets perplexed.
What is the one challenge that you always face with clients at the beginning?
Everybody has an idea of what eco-friendly means, so they come with that perception. For example, once a client told me that they wanted everything to be green. When I asked them what it meant to be green, they said that they wanted everything to be non-plastic. But the options that they gave me for it to be non-plastic were worse: tetra packaging, flimsy material, or polyester. That is not how it works. Are you telling me that Patna will have a place to compost it? Or will Guwahati have someplace where we can send this multi-layered packaging? These things are much worse than plastic. Plastic has a huge industrial base in India. You can go to even the remotest villages in India and find a scrap dealer who is ready to take the plastic off your hands.
While it was very frustrating, it was also a great learning experience for people to unlearn, which I believe is the foundation of innovation.
How difficult has it been to implement the circular economy system, and how is it better than the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model?
Simply put, the last 30 years or so have seen a massive increase in a linear economy. Before that, on some level, we used to have a circular economy. If your bag had a hole in it, you would sew it shut instead of throwing it away. This pandemic has probably taught people the importance of resources. On the one hand, we have the Paris Agreement and many international organizations protesting the usage of virgin resources, urging us to go into a circular economy. On the other hand, so many forest clearances and environmental clearances to work/mine in forests have been issued. The campaigning and environment sectors are trying to remind them that your house is on fire, let’s get into the circular economy now. I remember I did my first march against the use of fossil fuels in 2013 because we realized that there were limited fossil fuels left. The person who was supporting us back then is the same person who is running the ministry now and issuing these clearances.
What significant changes do you wish to see brought about soon, and why are they necessary?
Coronavirus has been a teacher. We were destined for something like this because we were not learning. Whenever I talk about any issue, I automatically think about what COVID-19 is telling us and how we cannot afford to repeat our past mistakes. COVID-19 teaches us not to exploit wildlife and green bodies and to make do with what we have.
I also take an issue with the way the lockdown was declared. They should have declared it a week prior so that people could have stocked up without overcrowding places. At the same time, you will see a trend where people are over-stocking.
The decision-makers maintain a privileged point of view and did not face the brunt of the pandemic. If there is an electrical issue during the lockdown, your neighbors are the people who help you out. The capitalist world might come and go, but the socialist system has been sustaining us in these dire times.
Given the kind of platform you have earned and the reach you have, do you feel responsible for empowering budding women entrepreneurs?
I remember this panel event where the chairperson was a minister, and he spoke on how women are multi-taskers and do all the household chores as well. When it was our turn to speak, I told these girls about my life, of all the unapologetic ways I lived my life. This girl asks us, the panelists, a question about how her team was trying to create job opportunities for people living in a particular slum but was not getting a response. One of the panelists asked her to double down on her efforts. I understand that talking to women and telling them that they are not doing enough has always been a thing. If a girl is doing a project, she is already empowered. Another panelist and I, we understood the issue and gave her an example of another enterprise, where they were trying to provide menstrual pads to women. They realized that the women in the area were getting the products, but were not using them. Upon taking a step back, and asking around, they found out that the women were so poor that they did not have underwear. The people who were trying to empower them did not have this information, and they could not think of the fact that someone would not have underwear. I gave this example to the girl and asked her to stop and take a step back, and ask people what they want.
What qualities should a person have to become an entrepreneur?
I feel that I should say things like look into your financial situation and ensure that you have someone to back you up in case things go downhill. But I feel that entrepreneurs should dive in, start somewhere, get a client, and experiment. Start small and grow from there. Your enterprise won’t blow up overnight, plus, you are not accountable to anyone.
If you have a project which is trying to defy norms, take your time with it and build a foundation before you get investment in so that you know what you are bringing to the market. Every enterprise is a social enterprise because every enterprise creates jobs. If you have an idea, put it into work, see how it works, and then build on it, build, build, build. Unlearn, learn, unlearn, learn, and then when the foundation is ready, bring in investors.