H&M foundation creates a collective impact initiative to equip waste pickers

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New Delhi, June 17 (IANSlife) Together with an ecosystem of partners, non-profit H&M foundation launched a first-of-its-kind $11million initiative in 2020, to address the gaps in the system that keep Bengaluru waste pickers in poverty and exclusion. Now, plastic waste collected by informal waste pickers is becoming a valued resource in the fashion and textile industry, providing a higher income and recognition as an integral part of the circular value chain.

Buttons partly made from plastic waste are now featured on garments sold worldwide. the buttons are traceable down to the source of the waste along with names of workers, social security, salaries and working conditions at the aggregation center.

In 2022, the H&M foundation initiated Saamuhika Shakti, a collective impact initiative aiming to equip waste pickers to lift themselves out of poverty through a holistic ecosystem of organisations. Eight local partners are working together to support the waste picker community in various aspects, that the waste pickers have themselves identified, such as safe working conditions, access to social services and good quality education, water and sanitisation, up-skilling or access to alternative jobs, innovations in waste management streams that are inclusive and provide livelihoods to the waste pickers, a shift in the way the population think about waste pickers, as well as increasing economic opportunities.

Two years in the making, Saamuhika Shakti is already impacting around 20,000 waste pickers, including their families and has caught the attention of others. With the fashion and textile industry working to shift business models from linear to circular, sustainable materials are in demand, and recycled plastic plays a vital part in creating a regenerative industry.

The H&M group has now become a business partner with the social enterprise Hasiru Dala innovations, placing orders for millions of buttons partly made from recycled PET bottles (rPET) sourced by waste pickers in Bengaluru. This has extended the social impact and will further benefit the waste picker community by creating jobs and income opportunities.

“Waste management and material recycling are fundamental components of a circular economy, but in order for it to be truly sustainable, it needs to include that very group of people who can uphold this value chain in India, the informal waste picker community. If challenges related to waste picker’s lives and the waste sector can be addressed, waste pickers have the potential to be a key player in a global circular system, and couldn’t only contribute to the health and state of our planet, but also uplift themselves out of poverty. We call it inclusive circularity,” says Maria Bystedt, Startegy lead H&M foundation.

This initiative takes a holistic approach to improve the living conditions of waste pickers by supporting them in various aspects. By facilitating collaboration across stakeholders and sectors we address the basic needs of the waste picking community such as education, health, safety and access to fundamental rights, as well as increasing economic opportunities.

Maria Bystedt, Startegy lead H&M foundation and Shekhar Prabhakar speak to IANSlife sharing more details. Says Bystedt, “We work outside the business scope of the brand H&M, and the purpose of our foundation is to find solutions and innovative methods to drive towards inclusive society and help the marginalised, as well as allowing the fashion industry become planet positive. We work with innovations to solve social challenges, to really create impact. But we want to share these innovations, methods and impact with the world and make them accessible to all. As a donor we have really drive change processes with a holistic approach, including industries like the textile industry in becoming more sustainable and contributing to positive change.”

Shekhar Prabhakar, Hasiru Dala Innovations, adds, “The whole idea of this innovation is to create livelihood and better opportunities for waste pickers through waste management system and business models that enable the circular economy. We are basically trying to give them access to markets and access to opportunities that would help them to aspire better quality of life. So our job at the company is to try and find brands such as H&M group which the H&M foundation helped us to connect with to be able to create this ecosystem.”

The initiative also has a strong focus on equity, addressing the basic needs of marginalised groups such as women and girls. In order to succeed we work with different partners from different sectors in this project, where a collective impact setup ensures that all activities are mutually reinforcing and that all partners contribute to the overarching objectives and common agenda. All partners are bringing their expertise into the collective effort, working towards common goals. Working together will result in lasting impact at a scale beyond what any actor could achieve alone.

“Through Saamuhika Shakti, waste pickers at my collection centre attended training programs on saving money and collectivizing ourselves. It’s been about six months since we formed our self-help group and our savings programme has been incredibly helpful as we no longer need to borrow money from external lenders but instead rely on our own group. Because so many women are leading difficult lives like me, my dream is to help them grow by training them,” says Kumadha, Dry Waste Collection Center (DWCC) operator.

“In the two short years that Saamuhika Shakti has been working with the waste picker community of Bengaluru, we are already able to see the difference being a collective has made. This project of sourcing recycled PET bottles directly from waste pickers, and ensuring they benefit from these sales, was made possible by collaboration among the collective’s partners–a perfect example of how we are stronger together,” says Akshay Soni, Executive Director Saamuhika Shakti, The/Nudge Institute.

The fashion and textile industry is striving to make a switch to planet-friendly materials, but with this comes a great challenge in guaranteeing that the materials are sustainably sourced.

But while they bring huge economic and environmental value through their work, their own living conditions remain challenging.

(IANSlife can be contacted at IANSlife@ians.in)

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