Sirohi an organisation based in Muzaffarnagar was started in 2012 by forming the Skilled Samaritan foundation works closely with local communities in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Started with one woman in 2018 and at present they have more than hundred women working with them. Creating hand-woven and sustainable furniture made from natural material like jute and cotton or up-cycled waste materials from industrial trimming like multi-layer packaging plastic waste and textile waste.
In conversation with Nidhi Choudhary of The EarthView, Gauri Gopal Agarwal Founder and Director of Sirohi talks about their journey of empowering women and using natural and textile waste materials inheriting sustainable living in our day to day life through their products.
Q.) When did Sirohi start? What was the basic idea while starting this venture? Tell us about the journey with SSF (Skilled Samaritan Foundation).
Gauri: It was Buddha who said, "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." History demonstrates effectively that individuals who took their own path, who listened to their inner callings despite the current norms of society, were empowered with the ability to affect real change around them. These were the people who did not take no for an answer, who were compelled to find new answers to old questions. We might not all be able to go down in history and become prolific game-changers, but we can all certainly learn the value of listening to our own, inner voices. After finishing my Master's in 2008 and experiencing the internship I worked in the corporate world and then I quit to move to a more disciplinary field. The birth of Skilled Samaritan was my personal "Aha" moment and from conception to launch, my passion for its intent has never wavered. Skilled Samaritan's initial projects focused on lighting villages using solar power, where we lit almost 3 villages and 10 schools in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. During my time in these villages, I noticed that the charpoy they were sitting on was made from candy and chocolate wrappers and soon realised there was an opportunity there. Our focus in 2018 moved to work with women from the same communities to use existing skill-sets to provide employment using their existing skill-sets of charpoy weaving.
Q.) How did you think of bringing the concept of sustainability and eco-friendly nature into furniture?
Gauri: Through our products, we want to reflect that we can make something out of waste. We use this hashtag, of waste to wow to show that you can make an entire daybed by weaving up-cycled plastic waste and it's amazing because people are so shocked when they hear that we've made this box from Dairy milk wrappers or this bag from Parachute oil plastic waste. I think it just makes people believe in sustainability because every day they're being exposed to something new that can be done with this so-called waste. We also enforce this notion of sustainability in our products is by calculating sustainability metrics for each of our products. Be it a bag or a bench we mention how much waste was used to weave this and how that translated into reduced carbon emissions. We derive these numbers from the WHO Global Challenges report which states that for every 1 kg of recycled plastic you're saving 1.5 kg of co2. So, to give you an example, our golden pheasant bench reuses 9 kgs of plastic waste which roughly equals 13.5 kg of reduced carbon emissions.
Q.) Tell us about the process involved to reach the final product and its sustainability feature?
Gauri: Our products' sustainability is derived from the materials used to make them- we either use natural & sustainable materials like jute & cotton or up-cycle waste materials from industrial trimmings like multi-layer packaging plastic waste & textile waste. Trimmings from these materials are then woven into ropes for making the end product.
Q) You are empowering women through your platform, how do you think working with you changed their perception of work and life?
Gauri: We aim to showcase the incredible talents of these women artisans. Through this platform, they express themselves through their craft- while allowing them to achieve financial freedom. While on the bigger level this sounds great, it means so much more for them individually as they can now imagine a future for themselves beyond their household & families. What's more, is that they now envision a brighter future for themselves and their kids by availing them education & other necessary means to get that future. One of the most heartwarming stories that keep me going in my day to day work is when this young woman artisan came up to me and said "I bought my husband a phone today from my hard-earned money. I never thought such a day would come and I'm so grateful to you & your company that gave me this opportunity."
Q) Tell us about the sustainable gifting section? How do you think it is making a difference in gifting?
Gauri: The sustainable gifting section in our store includes personalised boxes made out of up-cycled plastic waste, light boxes, bags & more. While these products by themselves are beautiful & functional, the fact that they have a story to tell makes them that much more appealing. It's been so great to see how much people are liking our products & willing to buy them not just for themselves but also to give it to others whom they love & care about.
Q) What are some of the major challenges you have faced while coming through the journey and where do you see yourself in the future?
Gauri: Our biggest challenge was tackling social barriers in the villages where we started our work. In those communities, women are discouraged to work. Therefore, we had to start our work with only one woman, Gauhar Fatma because the rest of them refused. It was challenging to make them understand things from a different perspective since such traditions and norms run deep in Indian societies. However, once they realised that this was a legitimate source of income, more and more women joined. Today, we have a stronghold of over 150 women artisans working with us from 3 different villages in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh. We always aim to grow bigger & better every day. Currently, we aim to expand our operation to empower thousands of artisans across India. I think with regards to sustainability, we're focusing on developing new initiatives that help us help others in disposing of their textile or plastic waste.
Q) What is people's response? Did they adapt to the changes? How is the response so far?
Gauri: The response so far has been great for us. Not just consumer wise but also looking at others just celebrating our work daily- the kind of support & encouragement we receive is crazy and honestly, that's what keeps us going every day. I feel that people are, though slowly, starting to change many aspects of their lifestyle as they've become more conscious through media & literature about the downsides of their current fast consumption habits & the presence of sustainable brands like ours is giving them the perfect means of acting on such knowledge.
Q) Where do you see yourself in the future and what is that one message as a brand you would like to give to people on sustainability and the importance of an eco-friendly lifestyle?
Gauri: We always aim to grow bigger & better every day. Currently, we aim to expand our operation to empower thousands of artisans across India. I think with regards to sustainability, we're focusing on developing new initiatives that help us help others in disposing of their textile or plastic waste. As a brand, we believe and emphasise that an eco-friendly lifestyle not only have a tremendous impact on the environment and greater society. But it also deeply impacts our psyche and life because it's something that's part of our day to day living. There are numerous benefits of switching to a sustainable lifestyle that you simply have to engage in experience- it's satisfying to know that your one lifestyle decision can create such huge change for your planet & its communities.