Homes and gardens

In good company

Our business models must have a social component, says Miniya Chatterji, founder of Sustain Labs Paris, an incubator for corporates

Every year, chess prodigy Aryan Chopra’s mother received a cheque from Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL), to further his growth in the sport. It was a philanthropic act, and not part of any established system. However, what happens during cost-cutting exercises? What incentives do business heads get out of CSR activities? These were questions that writer, public speaker and businesswoman, Miniya Chatterji, always asked.

After a stint abroad — where she worked with Goldman Sachs and the World Economic Forum — Chatterji returned to India in 2014 and later joined JSPL as Chief Sustainability Officer.

In good company

When she came across Chopra’s case, she realised the donation would have to become a part of the system for him to reap its benefits. “I got a contract made for JSPL to sponsor him, and got him a jersey and track pants in his favourite colour, with the company logo. It was a win-win situation, since we had been hand-holding him almost since he began,” she says, explaining the sponsorship continued even during a cost-cutting exercise, thanks to the contract. Chopra went on to become a Grandmaster at the age of 14.

Similarly, Shrimant Jha, paralympic arm wrestling champion, is supported by JSPL, and employed at its Raipur plant. “We not only support him with the costs of his sport, but also ensure he gets a regular source of livelihood,” she explains. With these experiences backing her, Chatterji recently launched Sustain Labs Paris, a ‘sustainability incubator’ that will handhold companies and work towards creating a sustainable business eco-system.

Excerpts from an interview:

How can CSR be made sustainable?

I’ll speak from my experience at Jindal, which has invested heavily in education in backward regions in the country. When the budgets of plant locations are squeezed, how long can the owner lead his philanthropic vision through a company made up of 15,000 employees? Essentially, instead of CSR, I emphasised on ‘social commitment’, which is incentive driven.

In good company

Another example is our work in making female contraceptives available. A problem area was flimsy machines. JSPL partnered with Hindustan Latex Family Planning and Parenthood, the largest condom distributor in India, to make sturdy steel vending machines.

It was a commercial transaction at cost price, not CSR. This will ensure the project will never fall off the grid.

Describe your India experience.

While I have been working in areas linked to India for a long time, the last three-and-a-half years with Jindal have been amazing. I also interacted with chambers of industry. The biggest issue we face today is compliance. Companies in other countries take compliance very seriously, but here, despite progressive laws, implementation is not very strong.

But the private sector is a great platform to create large scale social impact if you can convince big businesses to be social entrepreneurs. At 29, I took a call to switch from a successful career in managing hedge funds in Paris to do everything I love doing. I started writing again. I started an NGO, Stargazers, in India. The following year, I joined the World Economic Forum in Geneva to manage West Asia and South Asia regions for Young Global Leaders. Eventually, I wanted a huge platform to be able to make an impact, and the private sector provided me that.

How has this stint helped in Sustain Labs Paris?

I bring my experiences from across the world to a country I feel strongly about. Though I will look at other countries, the focus will be on India. The need of the hour is exchange of solutions across geographies, and we will enable that. It helps that Indians are feeling the effect of being non-sustainable and want to make the switch.

You are against sustainability being limited to CSR alone.

That’s right. It should grow organically and become part of the company ethos. It should come into play when you’re planning production, a new plant, anything… Usually, there’s a constant tussle between the production and environment teams.

Once they become part of the process, the environment angle will become part of budgeting.

In good company

What does sustainability truly mean?

It means a holistic field that takes care of everything, from human capital to natural resources. It might mean different things to different people; a start-up might look at financial sustainability; another company might look at a new area. We truly achieve sustainability when everyone feels he/she has a stake in what’s happening. Ask for suggestions. Implement them. Make people feel they are part of the change. The idea is to see where companies are, analyse where they can go and help them get there through conversations, town hall meetings. I speak of interim hand holding, but being independent in the longterm. So, we gradually identify what’s needed and put in place the capacity to get there.

You began work on the incubator a few months ago. How has it turned out?

It’s been up since March 2017, and will take on board four ‘incubatee’ organisations a year. So far, two large infrastructure companies and one academic institution have come on board for 2018. There’s also an academic angle to it; I’ve founded and teach a Masters course on ‘Creating Sustainable Businesses and Policies’ at Sciences-po Paris, a university in France. Its researchers and students will be attached to the incubator as well.

The third part of the initiative will see an online platform for resources, in association with Institut Français India, the French government’s wing for scientific and academic exchange in India. It will throw light on best practices, compliance, etc.

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Printable version | Jul 7, 2020 7:55:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/homes-and-gardens/sustain-labs-paris/article20507631.ece

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