Harvard Business Review

Green Leadership from an Unexpected Place

25 March 2009 | Source: Harvard Business Review

You’ve probably read about the dibba-walas of Mumbai. They are part of Six Sigma folklore today, having been showcased across the world for their error-free business model. Yet, just a few years ago, the thought that this local and unconventional grassroots business could teach the world a thing or two about cutting edge business practices may have seemed absurd.

Drawing an unlikely parallel, I do believe that the kabadi-walas, a traditional recycling business unique to India, could provide a valuable lesson to the new world, which — to borrow a term from Thomas Friedman’s latest book Hot, Flat and Crowded — had declared a “Code Green.”

The green alert has now gone far beyond the early efforts of a few people like Al Gore and David Suzuki. It resonates wherever you turn today, be it the World Economic Forum where Green Investing was an area of priority at the recent annual meeting, or the Obama clean energy stimulus plan.

It is the new way of life.

Much against the popular perception, going green is no rocket science. It comprises small steps that change the way we think and do everyday things. Morgan Stanley’s Little Green Book with tips on 50 things you can do to green your life personifies the simplicity of this movement.

Embracing green offers endless opportunities for change in every facet of life, whether you are building a home or workplace, driving to work, buying home appliances, or simply grocery shopping.

Now think of the value a kabadi-wala can introduce into this continuum with a business focused solely on reuse and recycle. In fact, the word “kabadi” stems from the word “kabaad” which literally translates to junk. The kabadi-wala could therefore loosely be described as a dealer in junk. Yet he is much more and an intrinsic part of the Indian fabric.

For centuries in India, every household in every neighbourhood has depended on their local kabadi to collect old newspapers, empty bottles, plastic containers, etc. from their doorstep and pay them that little pocket money to make the effort worthwhile. In turn, the kabadi is the supply source for endless small businesses that buy paper, plastic, glass and even scrap metal from him at deeply discounted rates.

The David Suzuki Foundation, which is doing some commendable work in highlighting the value of small green steps, has estimated that one metric tonne of recycled paper saves 4,100 kWh of electricity, 2.4 cubic metres of landfill space, 1,362 litres of water and two barrels of oil. Yes, it also saves seven trees.

There are no formal statistics on this largely disorganized trade in India, but it would be safe to say that every household would be saving this and more with just the newspapers they sell to their neighbourhood kabadi.

And, the fact that the kabadi-wala has survived through every stage of the changing economic landscape in India is proof enough that recycling is a sustainable business. So just like the dibba-walas were the unlikely source of Six Sigma lessons, the world would certainly benefit by studying the unique and enduring Indian tradition of kabadi-walas for important pointers on the roadmap for our return-journey to a green planet.

Originally posted on Vineet Nayar’s Blog site on Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2009/03/leadership-lessons-from-unexpe