Being the eldest sibling, I never had to worry about hand-me-downs, but I’m aware of the trauma it has caused people. The movie Chillar Party even based a main character “second-hand” around it. Older generations may have given hand-me-downs the stigma it is associated with, but younger generations are increasingly embracing ‘thrifting’ and upcycled clothing. This preloved fashion not only allows folks to find their distinct style but also keeps clothes in circulation for longer, a major win for the environment.
In many ways, entrepreneurship is a lot like thrift shopping. They’re like adventure quests that require patience and an eye for hidden finds/solutions. Today, we bring to you the story of Renu Pokharna, founder of India Recycles, a startup that not only gives a spin to thrift shopping, but also trains women to make items of daily use [jewellery, quilts, diaries, etc.], and that’s not even their best feature.
India Recycles is an institution like no other because it taps into a demand sector never explored before. It caters to the needs of the urban poor, selling clothing, utensils, accessories, bags, bed linen, footwear, furniture, and everything else that comes to them through donations collected through 30+ pickup points across three major cities in Gujarat. The startup has recycled over 12,000 items so far and has over 5,000 customers across three cities.
What began as selling off leftover items at a clothes swap party is now raking in countless donations from people all over the world, more and more people appreciating the existence of an avenue that puts to use what they no longer need, attracting 70-100 people & selling more than 200 items per sale.
With a background in public policy and labour welfare, Renu worked as a consultant for the Government of Gujarat and later established the Ahmedabad Project, a think tank that aimed to aid policymakers and the youth in understanding governance better and designing transformative policies. Having done relief work and established connections in labour colonies and slums across Ahmedabad, the startup found an easy market in them, something that would eventually become the bedrock of their initiative.
They solicited donations from friends and family after their first thrift sale. Donations kept pouring in, which allowed them to expand on their endeavour via social media promotions, causing the demand to finally meet the supply. Speaking of why the idea worked, Renu says, “There have always been pastiwalas but you can’t sell off all your refuse. An interesting thing we noticed while doing collection drives was that once people knew that there was an outlet to give away stuff that they don’t use anymore, they started to donate more.” Fast fashion, she points out, is another factor that worked in their favour because it encourages the ability to hoard more items than one needs.
“If there’s something you’ve had that hasn’t been used in more than 5 years, you’re probably never going to use it again, give it away”
A majority of the urban poor are daily wage workers who don’t have the luxury of time to indulge in the joys of shopping. India Recycles ensures that their buyers don’t have to put their daily work on hold, organising sales early in the morning, and bringing the shops to their localities. All items are put in a comfortable price range, giving the buyers access to fabrics and items they couldn’t previously afford. Renu says, “I believe in charity but I also believe that poor people should also have the freedom to choose. When you treat them as respectable paying customers, we give them the freedom to choose and the dignity they deserve.”
Co-founder Pranav Gupta says, “No other organisation has studied labour as a market before; nobody has tapped into their demands or their disposable income.” It is worth noting that India Recycles is an extended experiment of Mazdoor.co, an organisation that makes essential interventions to ensure the welfare of the worker population.
“The catch with poverty is that it is crucial that we tell good stories. A narrative can make all the difference. With India Recycles, we want to flip the narrative. We want people to understand that workers help balance our societal ecosystem. If your local Starbucks closes down for ten days, you may not feel the pinch. But say, for example, if your trash collector stops showing up, your life might quite literally come to a standstill. The question is, are you ready to pay your trash collector the premium you pay at Starbucks?” Renu inquires.
Renu shares that looking after labour welfare often takes a toll, but not more than the indifference of the masses does. And yes, while turning a blind eye to the suffering of people might seem easier, as the more privileged lot, it’s also on us to learn to give. Because only when you learn to let go, can you make space for newer, more exciting things – both in life, and in your closet.