Features

STOP thinking like Sri Lankan consumers

This week we spoke to Savera Weerasinghe, founder of Ananta Sustainables and all round conscientious human, about zero-waste lifestyles, green washing, and voting with your wallet in the context of Sri Lanka. Savera also gave us the run down on “responsible consumerism” and her most recent contribution to the sphere of building awareness of ecofriendly practices, in collaboration with Dilmah Conservation’s “sustainable lifestyle series”.

You founded Ananta Sustainables just over two years ago; it is a dedicated space for providing affordable 100% compostable products while also facilitating multiple activities in raising awareness for the global waste crisis. What’s the work been like since the company was launched?

Ananta Sustainables is a compostable packaging source, supply, and consulting company. It was started in 2018 as a result of a community forum I ran in 2017 called Trash Talk, to better understand the waste situation in Sri Lanka. Ananta also runs community projects around Sri Lanka to create conversation around our consumption choices, especially regarding single-use plastic and reducing waste generation through our lifestyle.

Ananta Sustainables is also the co-creator of Waste Action LK (WALK) a joint venture partnership with R Parker Publishing. WALK is a coalition of sustainable businesses, citizen groups, and state institutions working toward sustainable waste management. We are currently producing a short documentary film on how Sri Lanka faces the global waste crisis.

What is responsible consumerism in the Sri Lankan context, and what is really being done in terms of “responsible” practices in the island?

Responsible consumerism is having an understanding of what you are consuming, where it comes from, and what impact it has on our environment. It is exercising that understanding and knowledge with responsibility; so our consumption does not affect our own health and wellbeing, as well as the health of our wildlife and natural resources.

In the absence of state infrastructure to responsibly and sustainably manage Sri Lanka’s garbage, you see many incredible citizens taking responsibility for their impact. There are many (mostly small) businesses taking action to reduce their single-use plastic footprint. These are not easy business decisions to make, but you see so many changemakers doing so, with our collective future, not just profit, but as a core priority. These are the citizens willing to assume custodianship of our beautiful island.

Do you think Sri Lankans as consumers, in our current economical context, are willing to listen to what it takes to be responsible and green-conscious? If so, what can we do, in general, to get started?

I think most Sri Lankans love this island. What we need to do is to assume the responsibility of protecting our land. If we all understood that our own negligent consumption could take this island’s beauty and value away from us, I think that WE would all try to do our part. But to do so, we need to stop thinking like Sri Lankan consumers and start thinking like Sri Lankan citizens.

The majority of Sri Lanka has not been educated about the impact of the waste we generate. We have not been taught to take responsibility for actions with an understanding of our impact. But by following the lead of our changemakers, by taking responsibility for our output, we can fix this garbage problem together.

There is a common opinion amongst the larger part of the general public in Sri Lanka that environmentally conscious behaviour and the consumption of such dedicated products are reserved for a certain class in society and that these products are boujee and expensive. How do we tackle this mindset?

Certainly today, making choices that are better for our planet and our health is expensive. But that is because we have accepted what we have been given as “consumers”. As we continue to demand mass market products at low prices, we accept products that have detrimental ingredients and packaging, because a large corporate chose to reduce costs and increase profit. Through our awareness and action, we need to make their brands accountable for better products. If large FMCG companies accept their responsibility and impact, then they can create huge demand for better, more sustainable products. Then, with economies of scale, sustainable packaging would be more accessible to businesses, large and small.

How do we do that?

Those who have access to this awareness and access to resources have a definitive role to play. It is the luxury to be able to make choices and use ones voice. Everyone has to be aware of the problem and certainly everyone has a role to play. But when you can have the wealth of knowledge and resources, then it is unacceptable not to do what is good for our collective future. If those that can make choices take collective responsibility for those choices, then that demand makes it more accessible to everybody and bridges the divide between those creating the problem and those having to face it.

Being a responsible consumer and zero-waste initiatives; while necessary, how practical is it in a country such as ours, especially when even in the west, it is still not the mainstream?

I think it is most practical in Sri Lanka because we have a wealth of resources and ancient practices. We should not look to the west as a benchmark. We only need to look a few decades back and our island has all the sustainable packaging and ethical and nutritious food options we could possible need. We have woven baskets and clay pots, and numerous leaves and stalks for utensils and packaging. We had all the compostable, natural solutions to waste reduction and management. We are sitting on a hotbed of sustainable, scalable solutions; we are just too busy emulating the ideals and mistakes of the west to remember that we had a sustainable and self-sufficient culture. And to progress, we have to borrow from our past, not someone else’s.

Voting with your wallet; what does this mean in the context of responsible consumerism?

It means understanding that business decisions are made based on data. What we choose to consume, what we choose off the shelf, become a data point. Every time we buy a sustainable product or every time we shy away from an “unhealthy for my body means unhealthy for the planet” product, we influence the performance of that product. We show what we like and what we dislike. Businesses make decisions based on the performance of their products. Every time we pay for something, we create demand for it. So we are essentially voting for what we want to see on the shelves. Like a responsible voter, we have to be informed before choosing the brands or people that represent our best interests.

Green washing has become a thing and companies are often peddling this sustainable, zero-waste, and ecofriendly ethos, but how can we truly know if they’re genuinely subscribed to such methods in our country?

Like anyone trying to peddle us misinformation, the more we are armed with knowledge, the less gullible we are. The more information we have, the easier it is to see how authentic an initiative is. The more we ask questions, the clearer it becomes as to who has the best interests of the country and its citizens and who has the best interest of their business at the cost of our future.

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

Photo by Tavish Gunasena