While many entrepreneurs are content to continue with the status-quo, one millennial businesswoman knew she could to do more than just care about her bottom line.
Moving back to Sri Lanka when she was 24, Savera Weerasinghe started running a packaging factory as part of her family’s business. As a life-long environmentalist, she was shocked by the amount of single-use plastic that was used and sold as part of their operations.
“I realized that the people we were servicing don’t really care,” about the environment said Weerasinghe explaining that their packaging company mostly sold to industrial clients in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India.
Weerasignhe knew she could do better.She studied social entrepreneurship and environmental studies while at New York University, and felt that it was time to put her knowledge to use. For the passionate millennial, building a sustainable business had always been non-negotiable.
And so she started researching greener packaging solutions. It was 2017 and Weerasinghe recalls that there had been a huge landfill that collapsed outside of Colombo, killing 95 people.
Explaining that “it was horrifying that people were actually killed by trash,” Weerasinghe started a community forum to understand what was going on with the waste situation in Sri Lanka.
Being green in a price-sensitive market
As a packaging company, Weerasinghe realized she needed remove the barriers to access green solutions for their clients. At the time, there were no manufacturing packaging alternatives for single-use plastic in Sri Lanka. But the alternatives had to be inexpensive, otherwise her customers wouldn’t bite.
“Sri Lanka is very price-sensitive market,” said Weerasinghe.
Another issue that the millennial faced was that Sri Lanka doesn’t have the infrastructure for recycling, like wealthier nations might have. And so she knew that she’d have to take sustainability one step further and create goods that were all compostable, meaning that they wcould naturally degrade into the ground and become part of the soil.
In addition to offering green packing alternatives to existing clients, Weerasinghe decided to expand the business into specific sectors where the conscious consumer was. The 28-year-old targeted the food industry, hospitals, cafes and restaurants. She developed compostable cutlery, take-away boxes and more, selling them across Sri Lanka under the brand Ananta. The company also consults with companies to help them transition into compostable packaging.
Eschewing typical marketing tactics
While building Ananta, Weerasinghe took a tactical risk. Instead of spending money on marketing campaigns to build brand awareness she decided to put all of the company’s marketing budget into community outreach.
Across Sri Lanka, the group organizes clean ups and hosts trash talks or design thinking workshops. They even held the first-ever plogging event in Sri Lanka. Plogging, a Swedish custom, is a community event where you jog and pick up trash at the same time.
“The goal is to act as node or a hub so that we can connect people,” said Weerasinghe.
Although others might think eschewing a marketing budget in order to sponsor community cleanups is foolhardy, Weerasinghe’s bet paid off: to-date Ananta averages about 27% growth each quarter.
Building dolphins out of single-use plastic
One project that Weerasinghe is especially proud of was Ananta’s community outreach in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka. Located on the west coast, it’s a vulnerable ecosystem, and home to the Indo-Pacific Pink Dolphin. But as kite-surfing and whale watching tourism grew, the surrounding region was increasingly damaged with single-use plastics.
And so they built a dolphin. Made out of a collected beach trash.
“We don’t have a solution for plastic globally,” said Weerasinghe “While we are looking for better materials, there is also this existing plastic. It’s not going to go away.”
Creating a crowd-sourced campaign, WALK releases videos on social media, encouraging other green supporters to tag trash or dumping offenses. Their goal is to inspire people to act like citizens, rather than just consumers. Next month a documentary on their work will be released across the country.
“I can feel frustrated, I can feel angry but it doesn’t help me if I don’t have hope that more people [will] act like responsible citizens,” said Weerasinghe. “I think if people know that little old Sri Lanka is doing something, that is hopeful.”