Milee Bags: One Small Step Towards Plastic-Free Earth

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to mankind. To mitigate and to counter these threats the United Nations has come up with Sustainable development goals which are to realise by 2030. In an effort to achieve these goals is a non-profit SUSTERA that focuses directly on climate change adaptation, mitigation, outreach, and advocacy. To contribute to sustainable development and make the rural society profitable, they have come up with unique ideas like that of Milee Bags. Milee Bags is an example of upcycling wherein old products are rethought and remodeled and remade into products that can be sold. Milee Bags is about upcycling of sarees into bags which can be reused multiple times. Here in this conversation with the founder of SUSTERA, Mr. Sanju Soman, we grab some insights into SUSTERA and Milee Bags.

Mr. Sanju Soman while doing his Masters in Climate change and Sustainability Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences had two options, either take up a job from campus placements or go back to his hometown to start something that will create an impact. He chose the latter option and came back to Kerala to start his own venture. Naming the organisation was a critical thing because he along with the other founders wanted to focus completely on climate change action and they wanted the name to reflect that vision. It took a year before they came up with the name SUSTERA. This name has two parts ‘SUS’ which stands for sustainability and ‘TERA’ which means soil or earth. Hence, SUSTERA means sustainable earth or soil. Interestingly in Malayalam 'susthira' means sustainability. While working with ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) on the preservation of the Vembenad Wetland, it came to light that the wetland ecosystem faces major problems from plastic pollution which has reduced the catch of fish and clam. This is making the survival of families dependent on the lake difficult. This is when the idea of upcycling of sarees which eventually became a commercial enterprise now known as Milee Bags was born.

Now you would be wondering why only sarees were chosen? This is because it is the most widely utilised fabric by women and also when sarees are thrown away they most often end up in water bodies and landfills. A saree is a 6 metre long cloth with beautiful printings and designs. This would make the bags functional, robust, and beautiful all at the same time.

So, ATREE and SUSTERA along with the Panchayats came together to train 40-50 women in upcycling and converting old fabric into beautiful bags that can be reused multiple times. This venture grew and within the next two years almost 250 women were trained on upcycling of clothes, glass waste, converting water hyacinth into various products mostly in the Alipura region of Kerala but they have also trained a couple of women in other parts of the state too.

Woman stitching a Milee bag

It was not smooth sailing as women themselves were not able to market the bags by themselves. Since these bags are formed from pre-used fabric not many people in the rural areas were enthusiastic about buying them. Then it was imperative that proper marketing needs to be done. A private limited company ‘Bhava Ventures’ was established that worked on marketing and sales were realised through this company.

Milee Bags has led to some significant changes in the socio-economic fabric of the community. It has allowed women to get an additional income with around 100-120 women have been making at least Rs. 2000 to 5000 every month on an average. It also led to a wider awareness of the need for upcycling. The concept that old sarees and bedsheets, instead of throwing them away, they also have value, they also can bring in money was a learning for the community. The learning among the people about the fact that you could create wealth from the waste as well as the fabric was empowering.

Milee Bags made from jeans (left); from saree and dress material (right)

Here is an excerpt from the interview that highlights the socio-economic impact

I still remember we have this drawstring bag- drawstring bag is something all of us use for the gym, college, etc. and the strings we used to keep were cotton strings which are freshly made. After 5-6 months of selling this, a Chechi or a didi in our group suggested why not we make the strings also from sarees. She devised or designed the string into a new way by upcycling the sarees into the strings and that itself was a major impact, so, certainly, these training and learning we have given them have motivated them a lot, economically benefited them to get an additional income and has also played a major role in creating the sort of awareness in the conservation of the Vembanad lake and ecosystem.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting on hard the tourism-dependent region of Alleppy more people are now dependent on the Vembenad Lake for their livelihoods. This has created pressure on the resources of the lake. The pandemic has also affected the sourcing of the fabric. Sourcing is done through schools via children. Classes were conducted to spread awareness about the benefits of upcycling, about the negative impacts of polyester and nylon fabric. So, when the students came back with sarees and bedsheets they got seed pencils or seed pens which are made from recycled paper in return.

Sourcing of fabric for Milee bags from schools

With orders which primarily have come from conferences drying up due to the current pandemic, SUSTERA has shown impressive agility by shifting the production form making bags to making masks. SUSTERA is in talks with all the stakeholders about bringing such masks to the market. It should not be a surprise to see Milee Masks are being sold in the market.

Plastic and the resultant micro-plastic pollution is a looming threat to our health and survival and the onus is now upon us to make things right. It should not be forgotten that discarded cloth is one of the major reasons for this pollution. The task is now upon us to join hands in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by supporting this and many such initiatives. One thing which we all can do is to minimise the use of synthetic fabric and use more natural fabric like cotton. The best course of action however would be to buy less of new fabric and exchange more.

Interview by: Mihir Kulkarni and Abhishek Betal

Transcription by: Mihir Kulkarni and Lori Tripathi

Summarised by: Mihir Kulkarni