Small Steps An alternative to the plastic shopping bag

Prajapati, Uma is the Founder of Upasana Design Studio in Auroville. Her interests lie in designing for social development and she was the initiator for the Tsunamika project that brought into sharp focus the plight of the victims of the Tsunami. A graduate in Economics with a Diploma in Fashion Design from NIFT. New Delhi she has worked on a wide range of projects including Small steps, a project for the development of the Varanasi Weavers and design work for many NGO. She is Visiting Faculty at several Design Institutes.

May 2009, Craft Revival Trust

Small Steps is a project initiated by Upasana Design Studio based in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India. Following our design philosophy, we try to bring design to a level beyond the product and apply it to answer the various problems of everyday life. Small Steps is born out of that philosophy.

Small Steps is an initiative to promote an environmentally and socially just world. We believe that a better world is possible if we take continuous small steps in that direction. The project’s first step is to promote a responsible alternative to the plastic shopping bag. The Small Steps bag is a product designed to inspire people to carry their own shopping bag.

India alone generates 5600 tones of plastic waste daily. Small Steps is a modest attempt to bring some awareness in this direction in a positive way. We are trying to provide a solution to a global social problem and simultaneously creating livelihood for women in the local villages, education material for schools. This is a campaign for a green world to the citizen of world inviting every one to take tiny personal steps to make our Planet a better place. The project reflects our belief that the environment is an important issue to work on after livelihoods. The project has covered many villages around Auroville and continues to proceed in that direction.

Small Steps was launched on Earth Day, 22nd April 2007. In the last year and a half, the project has grown in the following ways:

The Small Steps bags: small ways to tune it in line with the project philosophy are committed to the project goals

In the villages: Livelihood and awareness for the women who create the bags.

In the Villages
The Small Steps bag is created by women in 11 villages in the bio-coastal region surrounding Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India. These women come from various classes and backgrounds and have mostly been housewives.

  • Through the project, a total of about 250 women have been trained in tailoring and other aspects of bag making

  • Currently 150 women are involved in regular production and we are giving training in more villages in collaboration with different NGOs across India.

  • The systems are based on the individual capacities of the women i.e. they earn based on how much they are able to produce. The average earnings of the women are between Rs.750 to Rs.1500 per month.

  • The women have also been exposed to various awareness tools such as the presentation and talks with the Small Steps team. Some have taken the message into their hearts and daily lives. As a next step the leaders of each village are being trained to be Small Steps ambassadors in their local area.

A Case Study
Vijaya and her group of women in the village of New Nadukuppam is a passionate bunch. Not only do they create bags but are ambassadors in their own right. “We should keep our homes and villages clean” says Vijaya and they have been trying their hand at it too. “We have banned plastics in our homes and that’s the start…”say the women with broad smiles. The message is being spread and we are proud to see it happening on its own.

The Small Steps Bags
The materials used in the bag have been chosen for increased durability of the bag. The size and shape of the bag has been designed to increase efficient use of the materials and prevent wastage. There are 2 styles of bags available in 5 colors. The bag itself has been a key element of the awareness campaign and is being sent across the world. We have been thinking ways to make the travel more environmentally friendly.

  • When Small Steps bags are sent, we avoid sending it by courier and are grateful to find volunteers who take the bags when they travel. In this way the bags travel without clocking any extra costs or wastage. In India, the bags travels by road parcel services.

  • In case the bags are required in a larger quantity and a courier cannot be avoided, we have thought about the packaging. The cartons are sized to minimize wastage and we use minimal plastic to protect the bags.

The Campaign
So far the campaign has reached out to more than 50000 people around the world. The aim of this project is to make 10 million bags. The journey has just begun. In order to spread our message far and wide, we have developed many campaign tools.

  • Small Steps presentation – Presentations have been made by the project team and project ambassadors throughout India and abroad. The Small Steps campaign has made its presence felt through green seminars in the corporate sector, by meeting students in primary schools, design schools and colleges, organizations and government bodies to UNESCO, Paris. The project has already managed to inspire many people and especially the youth who have volunteered to carry the message far and wide.

  • Posters, Brochures and Stickers – The posters augment the presentation and the brochures and stickers help spread awareness as they go along with the Small Steps bags.

  • Small Steps website (www.smallsteps.in) - The site contains all the information about the campaign as well as contact details of all our ambassadors. The presentation and posters are uploaded on the website. The Small Steps blog section invites viewers to leave their ideas on the problem of a polluted environment.

Spreading the message amongst the children – Schools have been our main field for spreading awareness. We have visited all the schools in and around Auroville and children from here are actively involved in small waste reduction projects. There are regular dialogues between the local school children and the Small Steps team. They meet every few months and the children relate the steps they took to educate family and friends to reduce waste and avoid plastics.

Small Steps distribution - We promote “gift economy” which is based on unconditional giving. Under this type of economy, the bags are not “sold” but simply given. This concept is being carried out in places like schools and villages.

Where We Need Help
  • Donors to help us execute the training workshop in villages.

  • People who would help the project to provide micro finance in villages for the women to buy their own sewing machines and solar lights.

  • Donors who would help us with the production of bags so that we can take this campaign to a wider mass of citizens, especially children.

  • More volunteers.

Our Ambassadors
Small Steps Ambassadors are the pillars of the project. These are passionate men and women who believe in the same ideology and are more than willing to carry the message with them everywhere. They have been vital in the awareness campaign and many have presented Small Steps in their communities, in exhibitions and also to the media.

  • Today we have about 50 active ambassadors in India, USA, Europe and South Korea.

  • We are soon launching monthly conferencing which will help the team and the ambassadors keeping touch and become inspired by each other.

  • To promote gift economy we invite Corporate Companies to “Take one and Sponsor one”. Bags that they sponsor are gifted to students and villages. In turn they are asked to contribute by spreading the message of the environment and working towards our green planet. This concept has been embraced by some companies like CAN from Spain.

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