COVID-19 has exposed the dangers of a linear waste-making business model and underlined the importance of reducing our carbon footprint: Mahesh Singh, Flipkart
Sustainability conversations are no longer just powered by individual actions and passion projects but have the support of the entire leadership structure: Mahesh Singh of Flipkart
With the festive season upon us, e-commerce packaging is at an all-time high. Here's how Flipkart is reducing its waste
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COVID-19 has exposed the dangers of a linear waste-making business model and underlined the importance of reducing our carbon footprint: Mahesh Singh, Flipkart

With the festive season upon us, e-commerce packaging is at an all-time high. Here's how Flipkart is reducing its waste
  • In the last few years, sustainability has become more than just a buzzword in the marketing and advertising world. It is now one of the biggest decision-making factors.
  • Consumers are asking for more transparency and expecting to see more concrete action from Indian brands.
  • E-commerce packaging, which comes in layers of plastic, bubble wrap, tape, air packets, paper and cartons, have contributed a lot to India’s plastic waste.
  • Mahesh Pratap Singh, Head of Sustainability and Social Responsibility, Flipkart talks to us about embracing sustainability across multiple departments within an organisation, finding an organisation’s true purpose and how it is adopting zero waste practices.
After the emergence of social media, consumers across the world have started demanding that brands do more than just sell their products. They are demanding more sustainable products, faster service and less plastic pollution. Indian companies have responded by onboarding a dedicated full-time resources to prioritise sustainability and social responsibility, developing purposeful strategies and even by embedding sustainability and purpose into their overall B2C communication.

However, due to COVID-19 and the resultant global demand for safe disposable solutions, the issue of plastic pollution has compounded. One of the least studied and underreported generators of plastic are e-commerce companies. E-commerce packaging often comes in layers of plastic, bubble wrap, tape, air packets, paper and cartons and it has contributed a lot to India’s landfill waste. It has to be bulkier than usual to protect the product throughout the journey to avoid any damage. With the festive season upon us, e-commerce packaging is at an all-time high.

Earlier this month, e-commerce giant Flipkart announced that it has eliminated all single-use plastic packaging used across its fulfillment centres in India. On the logistics front, Flipkart currently operates close to 1000 electric 3-wheelers and 2-wheelers and aims to completely transition to electric vehicles by 2030.

We spoke to Mahesh Pratap Singh, Head of Sustainability and Social Responsibility, Flipkart to find out how the home-grown company is working towards substantially reducing its carbon footprint to help build a greener future. He further shared how Flipkart is in process of creating a consolidated sustainability policy.

Excerpts:

Q. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a safety dimension to sustainability that consumers and organizations must now balance. Many organisations have switched to one-time plastic use to ensure their consumers' safety. With this, sustainability is kept on the backburner. Has it been challenging for you to achieve 100% single-use plastic elimination?

Sustainability by definition is to understand and meaningfully adapt to the world around while keeping a systems view of the future. The pandemic has only further strengthened our resolve to ensure that as a company we continue to evolve in the most sustainable manner possible to ensure long term trust and value for all our communities.

Flipkart has been very meticulously driving its sustainability initiatives across electrification of its fleet, waste management and increasing the use of renewable energy and elimination of single-use plastic. In line with this, we doubled down on our sustainability initiatives and made a pledge to eliminate single-use plastic packaging from our own supply chain, which we achieved last month (July 2021).

In our journey, we have been incorporating the circularity approach of 5R’s (Reduce|Reuse|Recycle|Refurbish|Regenerate) where possible. Throughout our warehouses and logistics operations we have been implementing packaging optimization and creating national standards on packaging materials to reduce waste in our supply chain, promote reusable and recyclable materials, and work with close to 70 brands on removing additional layers of packaging. We have also partnered with Canopy on their Pack4Good initiative to promote the use of forestry certified and responsibly managed pulp and paper across our packaging initiatives. In addition to this, we have also filed for patents for 2 ply wrap, which is a replacement for bubble wrap) and for security paper bags made from virgin Kraft paper.

Q. Is sustainability an immediate focus today at Flipkart? Why is sustainability becoming an important component of your strategic thinking?

To answer this simply, yes. At Flipkart, we believe in ensuring that we continue to democratize all aspects of the business we are in, and sustainability is no exception. With e-commerce becoming an important part of our lives to meet our evolving requirements, instilling the principles of sustainability into our business operations is imperative. Given the uncertainty that the world is currently facing, as a business the more we have incorporated sustainability it has resulted in business constructs that ensure innovation, affordability, availability and long-term success and value for the entire business.

The last one and a half years under the shadows of the pandemic brought in a different side of businesses where they have stepped up to take care of not just their own but the entire ecosystem. This has been an encouraging shift where sustainability conversations are no longer just powered by individual actions and passion projects but have the support of the entire leadership structure. As companies relate business continuity with sustainability principles, the shift towards incorporating sustainability as an intrinsic part of the corporate strategy is great to observe.

Q. Please tell us more about your larger sustainability plan. Where did you start and how did you get to where you are now?

As we look at creating a responsible value chain, some of the initiatives currently being implemented are:

Packaging: We have eliminated single-use plastic in packaging arising from our warehouses and currently 100% of shipments from Flipkart's own warehouses use alternative materials for the outer layer of packaging. We are also working with our sellers to influence and help them reduce reliance on single-use plastics for their packaging needs in instances where sellers make their own packaging decisions. As we move forward, we are also working with brands that sell on Flipkart on reinforcing the primary packaging to be storing enough to withstand e-commerce logistics thereby eliminating the need for a secondary layer altogether. Our ambition is to take this project to 40% of our packaging by 2023. We continue to pilot and scale a range of different solutions to fit all our shipping requirements in order to reduce our downstream carbon footprint. As we look for alternative materials, we are also ensuring that we do not create an adverse impact on the forestry landscape and only source from responsibly managed forests.

Mobility: In 2020, we signed up for the EV100 commitment to completely transition to electric vehicles in our logistics fleet by 2030 and introduce 25,000 EVs in our delivery fleet. In less than a year of this commitment, we currently operate close to 1000 electric 3-wheelers and 2-wheelers in our last-mile fleet.

Operations: As part of our extended producer's responsibility (EPR) across plastic waste and e-waste, we currently recycle 100% of the plastic being used at our warehouses and liquidate all our e-waste through certified Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs). We also ensure the use of energy efficient lighting across our facilities and operate close to 30 ISO 14001 facilities. We are also working with all our facilities to ensure proper waste management and water management.

Infrastructure: We currently have our entire energy load across 4 strategic facilities being met entirely by solar power and continue to set up rooftop solar across all facilities to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation. We are also ensuring that any new construction that Flipkart undertakes meets the Indian Green Building principles.

Products & Sourcing: As we look for opportunities across our value chain, we have also tried to ensure that the manner in which we source our products is also sustainable. We are now incorporating sustainable materials, recycled fabrics and responsibly sourced rayon and viscose for all our in-house brands.

We are in the process of creating a consolidated sustainability policy and a defined approach to climate change mitigation which looks at innovation and technologies to reduce our environmental impact across the value chain. We are still far from done across the business but as we continue to partner across the sustainability community, the support we have received has been immense. We are hoping to continue our partnership in this manner.

Q. How are you ensuring that you get more Flipkart consumers to switch to eco-friendly practices?

We have been working across our category teams to identify and onboard sustainable brands as part of the portfolio of products. We have identified close to 50 brands that are currently selling on the Flipkart platform and have sustainable attributes that we will be showcasing throughout the year. We believe that sustainability is a common goal, and it is important to develop a culture that encourages participation of stakeholders, including employees, and enables continuous learning and action towards achieving sustainability goals. Flipkart has been conducting a series of workshops and awareness activities, including webinars on adopting zero waste practices; upcycling and reusing old products; the importance of biodiversity, and more for thousands of our employees. These initiatives are also amplified on our respective social channels to extend the conversation to millions of our customers across the country.

Q. Tell us how Flipkart has improved its ecological footprint? What kind of changes are you bringing about to make your business more environmentally friendly, and why was this important?

Flipkart performed its first greenhouse gas assessment in 2020 where we looked across the business to identify our footprint across our own operations and in our sourcing and supply chain. Through the exercise, we identified various aspects of our operations that we could take action on to make long-term sustainable choices. Our involvement in the EV100 program, WWF’s UnPlastic Collective as well as our recent partnership with Canopy are part of those efforts.

As we move forward to the next phase of sustainability, we do see some exciting possibilities across the supply chain and moving forward with initiatives that empower and enable not just our own activities but also creating learning and sharing opportunities beyond.

Q. Brands play a huge role in bringing about change in society. How do you think brands can empower consumers to have eco-friendly choices around waste management?
The Covid-19 pandemic has made us aware of the interconnected nature of the world we live in. It has exposed the dangers of a linear waste-making business model and underlined the importance of reducing our carbon footprint. The role of corporations in creating resilient and sustainable communities is vital. Data suggests that companies that manage their ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) goals well are outperforming other businesses. So, it is important for businesses to learn how to build resilience, prepare themselves for risks, and build resilience within the communities they work with.

At Flipkart, environmental sustainability is deeply embedded in our DNA and we are committed to fostering sustainable practices across our business and value chain and lay deep emphasis on both environmental sustainability and social responsibility. We are also creating awareness about our sustainability initiatives both at industry and at customer level to ensure widespread conversations on the importance of sustainable means of living.

Q. Going ahead, what does your sustainability roadmap look like? Many companies have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025, reduce waste of landfills, etc.

Moving forward, there are several milestones that we hope to achieve in our journey and are working with global experts to help us define what those should be. While we fully acknowledge that sustainability is an evolving topic we are proud of the support we have received across the organization.

We have been very meticulously driving our sustainability initiatives across electrification of our fleet, reducing wastage and tapping renewable energy and elimination of single-use plastic. What started as a one-of-its-kind initiative for Flipkart a few years ago has transformed into an organisation-wide motive where multiple stakeholders both within and outside the org came together to build a sustainable supply chain.

We are also working with our seller community and other stakeholders in the ecosystem to understand how it can best implement new innovations to bring sustainability in their operations. We have made tremendous progress in achieving its sustainability targets that are spread across various categories and will further our initiatives to offer the benefits of e-commerce to customers in a sustainable manner.