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Just shop, drop and swap in Bengaluru with Cleanlabel

Cleanlabel, the latest entrant to Bengaluru’s buzzing sustainable lifestyle business scene, strives to minimise waste during delivery of groceries

The welcome kit offered by Cleanlabel.
The welcome kit offered by Cleanlabel.

Imagine your pantry staples delivered to you at home in glass jars and tote bags, devoid of the plastic packaging in which every item—be it rice and dal or a small bottle of honey—is sold in retail stores. Once you finish the stock and reorder, the empty jars are collected from your home and you are supplied with fresh items—again in plastic-free packaging. This fuss-free “shop, drop, swap” system is the driving force behind the business plan of Cleanlabel, a recent entrant to Bengaluru’s buzzing startup scene.

“Our delivery-and-collection model was inspired by the dabbawallas of Mumbai,” says Shyam Sunder, who has co-founded Cleanlabel with Deepa Channabasappa. “We wanted to break the existing delivery system, which is based on linearity, and create a circular model—one that would also be convenient to use at the same time.”

The idea has been incubating in Sunder’s mind for close to a decade, though it only began to take shape over the last couple of years. Delayed by the covid-19 pandemic, Cleanlabel launched about three months ago and so far has 250-odd subscribers. You can opt for a monthly subscription plan or buy as you need. As of now, Cleanlabel delivers to 30 pin codes in Bengaluru.

“We want to get better before we go bigger,” Sunder says. The same pragmatism explains Cleanlabel’s decision to be bootstrapped instead of going to investors. “We want to be sure that our strategy is working before we take other people’s money,” Sunder adds. Given the scale of waste India generates, hopefully this model will catch on.

Shyam Sunder, co-founder of Cleanlabel.
Shyam Sunder, co-founder of Cleanlabel.

As a nation, Indians create about 62 million tonnes of solid municipal waste every year, most of which ends up in landfills. The bulk of this trash is non-biodegradable and generated by the plastic packaging used by the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry. The zero-waste movement in India is still nascent but sustainable grocery stores are opening in cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune, Ernakulam and Kolkata. Bengaluru leads the way, with brands like Bare Necessities delivering zero-waste personal care and daily-use products. The city also has prominent advocates of sustainable living, like Vani Murthy, co-founder of the Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT), who works closely at the local and municipal levels to raise awareness.

“Convenience has overtaken concern for the planet all over the world,” Murthy says, “though there is much more conversation about alternatives now.” A key area in which her team at SWMRT has made an impact is public functions. SWMRT maintains a sizeable bank of stainless-steel cutlery and plates to loan to organisers of events, be it weddings or conferences, to help reduce plastic and paper waste. “Still, I am often the only person at a wedding pulling out my own spoon and steel tumbler,” Murthy says.

Cleanlabel makes a similar pitch. Empty bottles are picked up, cleaned and sanitised, free of cost, though there is a security deposit in case of breakage. You don’t even have to wash the containers when you return them, as long as you do so within four months of receiving them. Where the ingredients come in bulk, these are delivered in bags made of coir, recycled PET bottles converted into fabric, or organic cotton, instead of non-biodegradable materials like styrofoam. Even the ink on the labels is water-based, not made of harmful chemicals.

“Plastic packaging, as is now well-known, has an impact on our health because chemicals used to make it can leach into the food,” says Sarah Nicole Edwards, founder of Copper + Cloves, which specialises in designing healthy and plant-based diet plans, among other holistic lifestyle shifts. “Even oranges and bananas are sold wrapped in plastic, when they already have their own covering,” adds sustainability advocate Aakash Ranison. “Advocating for change makes sense only when there is a practical solution to a problem—like Cleanlabel is trying to offer.”

A zero-waste delivery mechanism, however, is only a part of Cleanlabel’s pitch. All the products it sells are organic, locally grown and sourced directly from the producers. “We went around the country looking for the healthiest options,” says Sunder. “Be it cold-pressed oils or vacuum-evaporated jaggery, we asked one question each time: What makes this product ethical and healthy?” In the end, Cleanlabel cherry-picked a few options instead of offering many varieties of the same product, like a supermarket would. It sells only two kinds of honey, for instance.

A range of products from Cleanlabel.
A range of products from Cleanlabel.

Coming from a sporty and health-conscious family, Sunder was aware of food choices from a young age. But a major shift took place in the family after his mother was diagnosed with a terminal disease and refused to go under the knife. Sunder says cleaning up her diet helped. After their son was born, Sunder and his wife began to scrutinise labels even more scrupulously.

However, in spite of their best intentions, most people don’t have the time or expertise to go through the fine print and compare products while shopping. “Yet it is crucial that we ask how a product has been grown or produced, if it has been processed, before we buy it,” says Edwards. “If there’s any good that has come of this pandemic, it’s that people are starting to be more aware about a base level of good health,” she adds. “They know they can’t take it for granted.”

Sunder adds that Cleanlabel has had queries for deliveries not only from Bengaluru but also from cities like Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Delhi and Mumbai. That, itself, is a promising sign.

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