Just over a decade ago, Subra Eassuwaren was visiting smallholder plantations in Hiniduma from which his family company sourced tea leaves. As he walked along the edges of the estates, he realised that they were bordering the Kanneliya Forest Reserve.
There was no clear boundary between where the plantations ended and where the forest began to prevent entry into the protected area. Eassuwaren was shocked. His mind was racing. Was the money he was paying the tea smallholders contributing to deforestation? Was he encouraging bad behaviour? Could he influence them to contribute towards preserving the forest with good behaviour?
“That was a trigger point for me to begin this new journey I am in, where we try to examine what kind of impact our businesses are having on the world around us,” he says. Eassuwaren is the third generation of his family to take up the tea business, which exports to over 50 countries.
That day, he decided that he would make his tea company the most sustainable in the world. However, international sustainability consultants were charging hefty fees for their advice. So Eassuwaren, an Oxford law graduate, decided to learn the trade himself, with training in the U.K. He wasn’t just satisfied with making his tea company sustainable. He wanted to make consumerism a positive force in the world. He wanted to make a broader impact. This led to the formation of the Carbon Consulting Company with a few like-minded individuals.
“I’m going to face a part of the climate change in my life. When my son asks me what did I do to stop it, I should be able to answer, not just to him, but to myself as well,”
They approached Professor Mohan Munasinghe, a world-famous climate expert, to chair the new firm, and he readily agreed. However, times were different. Sustainability was not yet a buzz word in Sri Lanka. Businesses were uninterested. Hotel chains which market themselves primarily as being sustainable now did not share his feelings.
“We were canvassing so-called sustainable hotels, and the chief executive of one chain asked us why he should pay even a dollar for such services when the guests don’t pay more. That conversation has changed now, but back then, it was different.”
Eassuwaren had to take care not to appear as an activist who would berate companies and offend them. Instead, he pitched the movement as a win-win scenario, where differentiating themselves by doing good not only for themselves but to the environment, could generate profits. As Sri Lankan firms were not interested, Eassuwaren focused inward. He made Eswaran Brothers into a carbon-neutral company and then started pushing for carbon positive impacts.
The firm launched a carbon credit program which replanted trees in the Kanneliya Forest. It had calculated the carbon footprint of the entire supply chain, from the sourcing of fertiliser to the printing of tea bags. Even the end consumers who had initially cared little of carbon positive production expressed their appreciation for the effort. The strongest response came from the U.K., the U.S. and Japan.
Eswaran Brothers is now developing a plastic positive program and certification, along similar veins. It is one of the few companies in the world to be developing such a plan and is excited to share the experience with other countries, not just in Sri Lanka, but across the globe.
The firm is also pushing for organic tea and training smallholders on how to reduce their water footprint in tea estates and preserve biodiversity around the area. Eassuwaren doesn’t view the initiatives as corporate social responsibility. “This is our corporate DNA.” As Sri Lanka is not the cheapest tea producer, it should leverage on such efforts to remain relevant in the market, he says.
Meanwhile, with the propagation of social media, the public, especially millennials, had begun demanding for sustainable products and services, and companies had been forced to step up. The Carbon Consulting Company turned from a venture that its founders had to float with their funds, into a Rs150 million turnover firm. One of the most exciting ventures was to grow mangroves in Kalpitiya in partnership with hotels in the region.
Eassuwaren says that the need for sustainable practices in business will keep growing, as the pressure continues to build to combat climate change. In Sri Lanka, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate risk, companies need to change fast. Eassuwaren is doing the best he can. “I’m going to face a part of the climate change in my life. When my son asks me what did I do to stop it, I should be able to answer, not just to him, but to myself as well,” he says.