Goonj, an award-winning non-profit organization in India transforms old discarded clothes into a resource.
Mansi Reddy, Bangalore 12th September 2011.
Food, shelter, clothing. These are the 3 basic needs that every human being is entitled to. But over a billion people on earth don’t have access to these basics.
The UNDP in its description of the Human Poverty Index states: “If human development is about enlarging choices, poverty means that opportunities and choices most basic to human development are denied. Thus a person is not free to lead a long, healthy, and creative life and is denied access to a decent standard of living, freedom, dignity, self-respect and the respect of others. From a human development perspective, poverty means more than the lack of what is necessary for material well-being.”
The fact is that India ranks 119 out of 169 countries with comparable data on the Human Poverty Index. And this translates into millions of Indian’s living without basic needs. While several programmes focus on food and shelter, GOONJ is one of the few non-profits in India that recognizes and addresses the lack of clothing among the poor. GOONJ won the Marico Innovation Foundation Social Innovations Award in 2010.
Anshu Gupta, the founder and face of GOONJ has an interesting story to tell. His insights emerged from an early experience with the chaos of natural disaster. In the 1991 earthquake that struck Uttarkashi, Anshu, a graduate student at the time, travelled through the area to contribute to the relief efforts. For people affected by the disaster there was no access to food, shelter or clothing.
The general belief is that people affected by a natural disaster need clothing and donations come pouring in. However Anshu noticed piles of clothing lying on the streets, untouched and unused.
Clothing donation is the norm in the face of a natural disaster but consider this: where are disaster stricken people expected to keep their new, donated outfits when they don’t even have a home to go to? The challenge lies in allocating appropriate goods to the affected people and not just in acquiring donations.
But are disasters the only time when people need clothes?
Impacted by what he saw, Anshu pursued this insight further. As a journalist in Delhi in the mid 90’s he spent time with Habib, a man whose job it was to collect abandoned dead bodies of homeless people from the streets of Old Delhi. He learnt that the average number of bodies collected in the winters was 4 times as much during the summers; many poor and homeless people were dying because of a lack of protection from the cold. Winter comes every year and proper clothing protection is required by all, yet clothing is still viewed as a disaster relief item and not a year round basic need like food or shelter.
In 1998 Anshu quit his job to start GOONJ based on what he had learnt. Public contribution does not match the needs of people who suffer from a lack of clothing. While large quantities of donations come in during natural calamities and go unused, no one realizes the year round need the poor have for clothing. And here was an opportunity to create a social enterprise that could correct the disparity.
Crafting the supply chain behind discarded clothes
The GOONJ model is designed around a mindset shift: From the Donors Pride in giving old clothes as donations to the Receivers Dignity in receiving clothes that are really needed . GOONJ does more than just provide a space for donors to give; they allocate clothing according to the needs of the receiver. Donors take pride in giving away clothing but in reality they are unconsciously passing on discarded articles without considering where they end up. For example the urban poor and average rural poor have very different clothing requirements; the average waist line of an urban male is about 34 inches but the average rural Indian male has a 26 inch waistline. GOONJ addresses this gap, recognizes that every individual’s clothing needs are different and aim to distribute articles that match the needs of every person.
“Clothing is a synonym of dignity. What matters is how you give not only what you give.”
GOONJ capitalizes on unused material and resources while creating a significant social impact; they procure and use donated material that would otherwise go to waste. All aspects of clothing donation right from collection and procurement, sorting and production to distribution are systematically organized and administered. Scrap cloth is converted into sheets, bags, sanitary napkins etc. Essentially, they turn old cloth into a resource. It costs only around 97 paisa for GOONJ to collect, sort, clean, pack and transport one article of clothing.
Not just a piece of cloth….
The ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ Program was initiated to solve the problem of dangerous and unhygienic menstrual practices among rural women in India. It is often said that the first thing real poverty takes away is human dignity. Poor women struggle with their menstrual cycle every month, using unhygienic, harmful and uncomfortable ways to manage the blood flow. “Anything that can absorb”, comes in handy including materials like sand, mud, leaves and scrap cloth. Poor women without adequate resources put themselves into situations of grave danger. But no real alternative exists.
GOONJ makes cheap and effective sanitary napkins from excess cotton cloth and even teaches women how to prepare their own napkins for future use. Producing about 200,000 napkins every month, distributed in sets, costing three rupees a piece, washable and reusable. The real value in the ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ program lies in the dialogue initiated around this taboo subject. The program empowers women by teaching them healthy, hygienic and safe menstruation practices and provides a safe space for them to discuss these issues.
21 States, 250 Partner organizations, 70 Tonnes a month
GOONJ now processes over 70000 kg of material a month, partnering with over 250 organizations to get their product and message across the country. They were involved with the relief efforts in the 1999 Chamoli earthquake, the 2008 Bihar floods and the 2009 Assam floods. GOONJ has a presence in 21 states in India and have drop off locations in Delhi, Bangalore, Bhubaneshwar, Chennai, Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Kolkata, Saharsa, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Pune. They engage with volunteers to help with the collection, sorting and distribution of clothing. Other non-profits work in this area too, however GOONJ has been able to create a much larger impact by layering their operations with education and awareness creation around the subject of clothing – focusing on the core transition from donor’s pride to the receiver’s dignity.
We had a chance to interview Anshu at the Mumbai Practitioner session, watch a video excerpt of the interview.
The Marico Innovation for India Awards recognizes breakthrough innovation in the Business, Social and Public Sectors. To learn more about the awards and to send your application, check out the website for information and the eligibility criteria. Apply now, the last date is 16th September 2011.