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Going sustainable requires passion, pursuance & performance: Dr Naresh Tyagi, Chief Sustainability Officer, ABFRL

Aditya Birla Group has defined a sustainable business as one that can continue to operate within the tightening constraints of a future world. To understand and leverage on the nuances that shall exist in the ecosystem, the Group – and its subsidiary Aditya Birla Fashion & Retail Limited (ABFRL) – has adopted a sustainable business framework with an objective to improving business management systems across value chains and deliver long-term sustainable value to stakeholders.

From product design and development, to supply chain and customer-centricity, through use and end-use, the Group works towards integrating sustainability into everyday norms of the company, which ultimately centers around achieving overall product sustainability and at the helm of this strategy is Dr Naresh Tyagi, Chief Sustainability Officer, ABFRL.

In a freewheeling chat with Ganesh Subramanian, Founder & CEO, Stylumia, Dr Tyagi outlines the thought process behind his company’s pioneering sustainability ideas. The session was held at IMAGES Group’s Fashion Sustainability Conclave held in Bengaluru on October 4, 2023.

Excerpts from the chat…

Ganesh Subramanian: You come from a large corporation and corporations have structures, but a lot of retail organizations don’t think of structure. So, why do some companies think long-term? Does it add immediate value? How does it impact a company’s output?

Dr Naresh Tyagi: I think irrespective of size and scale, there are two things which are very important to all organizations. One is the purpose of the role that I have in my organization because nature and eco-friendliness and sustainability are buzzwords today in fashion retail and must be addresses by all brands and retailers, big or small.

The second is a green intent. All companies – fast fashion, slow fashion or responsible fashion – must have intent. That is absolutely critical.

When I took over the role, many contemporaries said that I had been sidelined, that I had pushed into unknown and uncharted territory, but that was not correct. I took on this role intentionally because I wanted to do something which would make a difference. I was keen to make a change and at my level choosing this and making that change is something which I want to do and will enjoy doing. It’s a new challenge for me. For example 15 years ago, I had thought of an idea called PLM (Product Lifecycle Management). It was unheard of at that time because a seasoned CEO had challenged me. Even then I knew that PLM was a way to collaborate, to be transparent and to eliminate inefficiency in the system.

For example, we eliminated 15 of 22 packaging items, bringing the number down to 7, which saved resources and almost Rs 5,00,00,000. We called this system BSVA – Big Scale Value Analysis. BSVA involved a thorough analysis of things which the consumer did not require and then eliminating them from the product. Today, all these systems are used to reduce and eliminate waste – whether it is resources, money, manpower or time – while making a neat profit.

So, sustainability is not just putting a green poster on a wall. It’s walking the talk and doing what is right for an organization, what is right for a supplier, what is right for the end consumer. Today, all those who used to challenge me agree that these ideas were some of the best in terms of reducing wastage.

Ganesh Subramanian: Sustainability is also about reduction right?

Dr Naresh Tyagi: ‘Reduce’ is just one of part of sustainability, but we need to ‘eliminate’. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. If you wear only 10 garments, why buy 20? Why throw them in a landfill? I say retailers and brands should increase the durability longevity of products. Give them to someone who cannot afford them.

Ganesh Subramanian: So, how did you persevere despite all odds?

Dr Naresh Tyagi: I think you can do anything if you are convinced and you absolutely believe that an idea is going to work. Working towards sustainability requires three things – passion and pursuance, which will finally translate into performance. I say it’s okay to fail. One may fail 5 or 6 times, but in the end, keep working on it and experiment and you will certainly succeed.

Ganesh Subramanian: You’ve mentioned that it’s never one person’s initiative. It’s always a collective initiative. So what are the initiatives that you have taken as a team and which have worked for you?

Dr Naresh Tyagi: Systematic change is always slow and systematic change requires behavioral change, which never comes easy. To change mindsets and behavious, one has to create awareness and educate people. For example, we had a garment vendor who knew nothing about sustainability. I sat with him and explained how he could become more productive and efficient just by using recycled paper for markers, and today he thanks me for that knowledge. So, educating people is imperative.

Aside from this, the right metrics with correct financials also matter. For example, when we acquired Pantaloon, we decided to make it energy efficient – by reducing 30%. We managed to achieve this and in fact exceeded it (33%) in the stipulated time that we had set. We are now saving Rs 3,00,00,000. So yes, program management is extremely important.

So, in the end, what I want to say is that collective wisdom matters – simplify things, educate people and monitor action to create a positive impact.

Ganesh Subramanian: What I want to finally ask and maybe we can have some questions from the audience is if you must have done a lot of experiments. You said lots of experiments, you do some work, some don’t work right and if you have to say those vital few that you must try right and the chance irrespective of the industry.

Dr Naresh Tyagi: There are some things that an organization must be aware of:

  • Resource Efficiency: Manufacturing inefficiency is what we call waste. Anything which is not useful to the company, suppliers, in the value chain or to the consumer is all waste. There are companies like Birla cellulose who say waste is a resource for us, you give your waste to us and we will convert this into fiber. That’s the thinking which is resource efficiency.
  • Sustainable Production: A designer needs to think of the right materials for the right designs, sourcing for this material needs to be aware of the places he’s getting his material from. A vendor needs to be ethical. This is what makes production sustainable.
  • Warehousing, Logistics & Distribution: These need to be extremely efficient.
  • Forecasts & Predictive Analytics: One should be efficient enough to not be left with a lot of unsold inventory. Knockdown sales don’t make for an efficient system. Using technology to help design and create, understand what sells, where you need more inventory and where you don’t, which sector has more wastage than others etc is extremely essential. Reverse logistics as they call it.
  • Consumer Awareness: Create consumer awareness is absolutely essential. We need to teach the next generation and drive sustainability for them.

I’m so happy India Fashion Forum has taken this up seriously and is creating a platform for sustainability because there needs to be mass movement for systematic change. The day I will be satisfied is the day IFF goes global and says we have done this in India.

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