The Eternal Optimist | Verve Magazine

Cover Story


Text by Aalika Mahindra. Photographed by Siddharth Devaraj. Styled by Hasnain Patel

It’s not surprising that Sahar Mansoor’s favourite movie character is Disney’s version of Hua Mulan, the legendary teenage heroine who took her ailing father’s place in the Chinese army disguised in male garb. This civilian acquired the skills to become a keen soldier, going on to thwart the invading Huns and patriarchal precedents while embodying the tale’s Confucian moral core of remaining true to oneself for the greater good. Mansoor was around seven years old when Mulan released and innocently unaware that over two decades later, she would be involved in a noble battle of her own.

The 28-year-old social entrepreneur and environmentalist stands out among her peers, a demographic congested with ersatz climate activists and “eco-warriors”. While she, too, possesses the constitutional pluck to turn spokesperson for a cause (an evolutionary result of having spent their teens crafting public-facing images for online audiences?), Mansoor is the real deal. When devising her career path, she had been driven as much by memories of childhood visits to Bengaluru’s ecologically sumptuous Cubbon Park with her late father as her “deep-seated desire to help build a more sustainable, inclusive world in all aspects”. In July 2016, surrounded by a cadre of like-minded women, she founded Bare Necessities, ensuring that the zero-waste-living hub’s flagship range of personal care and lifestyle products coheres with the values of ethical consumption. A track record of effectually disregarding sceptics also marks Mansoor’s story. She smartly ignored the myopic ‘advisors’ who warned that her dyslexia would impede the chance of attending college abroad, as well as the mansplainer at a start-up mentoring session who slung this careless instruction: “Just be content where you are, making products out of your mum’s kitchen”.

By 2018, she managed to fit the waste she had individually generated over the past two and a half years into a single 500 ml glass jar, and today, the University of Cambridge grad with an MPhil in environmental economics and environmental law is a recognisable name in the fight for clean living and the go-to ambassador at sustainability awareness events targeting teenagers to 30-somethings.

Watch videos of Mansoor speaking in any one of her numerous interviews or talks, and you understand how she so quickly became a relatable poster child for India’s zero-waste movement. She presents troubling facts and figures in an unaffected lilt, the bits of information tethered to personal anecdotes that are disarming rather than didactic. She doesn’t exude the defensiveness of navel-gazing virtue signallers; she is grounded in the awareness that what she is doing is bigger than her. You can discern her emotional acuity, consciousness of the present — conceivably bred from suffering the loss of a parent early in life. Within the collective experience of solastalgia then, consider how strategic foresight can alter the grief response. Mansoor, instead of falling into a paralytic state from anxiety over climate change, focuses on individual and professional goals that are achievable and at the same time are catalysts for the progression toward systemic shifts. The way this optimist has chosen to live, as she explains it, is to be “kinder, humbler and socially driven while still enjoying life’s beauties. These are simple values that we all must have”.

Cities, though, continue to be stifled by overbuilding, sprawling outwards into rural landscapes, and so urban humans have been rewiring our innate connection to nature. We are constructing a delusional reality in which this interdependence is not being deemed critical to our survival; the effects of uncontrolled growth on the populations that still rely on direct access to natural resources are more or less invisible to us. Insofar as the attempt to reform off-kilter urban citizenship where governance is lagging, bottom-up leadership rooted in a positive outlook and a levelheaded understanding of sustainable development — the kind Mansoor displays — is a logical recourse.

It is essential that the abilities of environmental role models don’t take on a superhuman dimension, however. For you or me to be compelled out of passivity, perhaps we also need to learn the average details. That Mansoor is spending the lockdown “sitting in the garden, cooking meals with my mum, colouring, getting crafty and journaling”, that the five words she’d use to describe her closest friend are “loud, hilarious, adventurous, humble, inspiring”, or that she is still trying to master Excel. Because her proximity to us holds a promise: restoring an intimate, symbiotic relationship with our natural surroundings is not a pipe dream. There’s the comfort of seeing that even flawed action is helpful, if mobilised by sincerity. Mansoor is perennially fine-tuning the practices of her minimalist lifestyle and criteria for spiritual fulfilment, but what we should first aspire to assimilate, is her enduring capacity for hope.

Excerpts from an interview….

Why do you call yourself a “climate optimist”?
I call myself a climate optimist firstly because I do think our actions can influence the building of a more just, peaceful and greener world. Secondly, there are so many change-makers in the climate action space doing phenomenal things, which fills me with hope for a better future! Thirdly, we already have the knowledge and technology we’d require to feed a larger global population, provide energy for all, begin reversing climate change and prevent most extinctions. The public desire for action is bursting forth on the streets. Last September, some six million people worldwide went on a “climate strike”. Fourth, the renewable energy sector (wind and solar power) is mature enough to deploy on a massive scale, which will reduce dependency on polluting fossil fuels, and batteries to store the power — both centrally and house-to-house — are getting better and cheaper. And finally, we care about our future generations and want them to enjoy the calm, serene beaches and mountains that we did. I think us millennials wish to leave this earth a better place than what we inherited.

You often talk about being inspired by Bea Johnson. Considering that you’ve similarly motivated many young Indians to change their way of life, how do you navigate occupying a public space while continuing your own journey?
That’s really generous! I genuinely hope that Indians, especially the future generations, are inspired by my journey to start leading an increasingly sustainable lifestyle that is more aligned with personal values, both environmental and social.

If you seek to create impact by changing mindsets on waste in India and beyond, it’s easier if people can relate to your entire journey rather than just the brand. I think it’s important for me to candidly share my lessons, learnings, findings and failures along the way so that others don’t make the same mistakes that I did or still do!

I try to find a balance, centre myself and build communities in my life beyond just sustainability. I feel like I have found this in my football community, “Sisters in Sweat”. They help refuel my mind and body, and are a really fun bunch of women! Surrounding myself with people I look up to and admire keeps me motivated and inspired to continue striving towards my goal of creating impact, and also helps me realise that huge changes don’t happen overnight.

Young and successful entrepreneurs are not anomalies anymore. Still, people with strongly held beliefs and a clear sense of self are considered intimidating or even dismissively labelled as “not fun to be around”. Is it sometimes tough being a 28-year-old with such a steady moral compass?
The world has Greta now; in fact someone recently called me a “more happy Greta”!

But it’s tough because sustainability and zero waste are growing trends; the latter is not widely practised yet. I find that people sometimes can’t wrap their heads around the fact that I carry my own straw, cutlery or containers. I sometimes get asked why I don’t want a plastic straw, or sometimes people will give one to me anyway, even when I request to skip it.

And as communities transition to becoming more sustainable, some aspects of life that were fun suddenly become questionable because I’m aware of what happens in order for that product or service to be in front of me. However, that kind of awareness can open up your mind to the various discrepancies that currently exist. So I’m motivated to continue having fun while finding sustainable and just ways of doing it. I think that at some point, living an earth-friendly life becomes a habit or part of your lifestyle, or an unconscious ritualistic act.

I have an insanely supportive social ecosystem: my Bare team, the like-minded people around me, kickass social entrepreneurs trying their best to re-imagine a more just world, and my mum and sisters — whose life choices are very different from mine, but who never fail to be my first supporters.

My love for nature has been a centring force in my life, from my weekends in Cubbon Park that seemed infinite to a five-year-old Sahar, or my experiences scuba diving and hiking in the mountains that made me realise how little we humans are. The unquestionable beauty of the underwater or mountainous worlds, married with the sense of unchartered freedom is, in my opinion, a commodity rarely found in the modern world. Being in nature has always been a humbling experience for me, and that helps me hit the reset button whenever I get caught up in the man-made labyrinth of my life and lose perspective on the things that truly matter.

So, being a person who draws so much from their connection to the natural world, how did you adjust to the lockdown — mentally and otherwise?
Finding the interconnected spiritual feeling that being in nature gives me in my new routine was key. As is spending time with family, meditating; bringing back my gratitude journal; spending time in my garden and adding fresh compost from my compost khamba (how beautiful it is that our banana peels are now nutritious food for my plants!). I am also seeking comfort in the fact that this little “break” is just what our “Mama Earth” needs in order to breathe.

Is there a lifestyle change that you still hope to make, but have so far found hard to do?
Decluttering my life some more! I am super sentimental; getting rid of stuff can sometimes be difficult. I definitely want to improve in this aspect of my life.

I’d like to travel less in the post-COVID world — my only exception is seeing my sisters! I did a carbon footprint calculation for all the flights I took in 2019 and was horrified to find out the amount of Arctic ice that had melted as a result of my travel miles.

We know that in today’s opinion-overloaded existence, it’s impossible to please everyone, including ourselves. What’s the most common criticism you find yourself facing? How do you deal with it?
If I were to use a professional lens for this question I would say that monetising aspects of my business — for example the “Zero Waste in 30 Days” online course or the talks and workshops we conduct — or even the price of our zero-waste products such as bamboo toothbrushes, has definitely faced a lot of criticism.

However, I try to be transparent and break it down for the people who may only be looking at short-term implications and pricing rather than the big picture. For instance, we also conduct many free educational workshops for government schools, online webinars and so on. Additionally, we highlight what we, as a humble social enterprise, are doing to support livelihoods, whether that is through ethically sourcing certain raw materials or ensuring that our supply chain supports local farmers. We also strive to provide opportunities for women from underserved socioeconomic backgrounds and invest in upskilling them to show the extent of their potential. It’s all about the triple bottom line: balancing environmental, social and economic objectives so that they are all congruent.

On a more personal note, when facing this criticism, I most definitely take it as feedback. I also take the time to reflect and make sure that I’m being completely genuine and authentic with myself with regard to the decisions I make. This normally eases the effect that common criticism can have, because I know I am trying my best for my long-term social or environmental goals.

It must be a tightrope walk to share rather than impose your knowledge and learnings. Could you talk about initiating dialogues with, say, friends or family who may not be aligned with your ideology? Have those in your close circles made the switch to Bare Necessities products?
I am definitely happy to talk trash, circular economy or sustainability to anyone who is keen to listen. But yes, this is quite challenging and difficult, especially after I became aware of the problems, how I was contributing to them and why others weren’t seeing it the way I was. And dwelling on this too much can lead to poor mental health, climate anxiety and loneliness.

What we must recognise is that we all learn differently, and through different avenues. Different people around us need to be approached on a personal level and receive communication with a thorough understanding. Forcing a lifestyle on someone is certainly not the way, because it simply backfires and could make you an outcast. There is that cliched yet powerful saying: “actions speak louder than words”. This is what I believe in. I believe in being authentic to myself, and genuine with my actions

I aim to influence family and friends in this journey, and I do this by making changes in my own lifestyle and raising awareness to the best of my abilities — which is also what led to Bare Necessities. Many of my friends and family have transitioned various aspects of their lives to a more low-waste lifestyle. I think it’s all about the baby steps; like [zero-waste chef] Anne-Marie says: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

Does the prominence of digital/social media have a direct effect on how you approach environmental advocacy and Bare Necessities on a larger scale? How does it factor into the mindset of Generation Z — a demographic that is inherently quite aware and active?
Yes, it definitely does. With huge populations being absorbed by social and digital media, this is a big platform that we use to communicate with citizens about the problems we are facing, and how we can all become part of the solution. Our main goal is to ensure that our communications and social media channels are relatable, approachable and that we are accessible as well. We try and embody a “you can do it too” rhetoric in our communication and seek to be inclusive and meet people wherever they are in their environmental journey. Through such efforts, we have built a growing community of aspiring change-makers who can continue the efforts towards environmental advocacy along with Bare Necessities and myself.

I totally agree that Generation Z is becoming more mindful and asking manufacturers the right questions like: “What’s in my products?” The emerging conscious millennial population wants to align itself to certain causes by virtue of its consumption choices.

We have seen this in the slow fashion movement too. “Who made my clothes?” “How much did they earn in the process?” And even, “What’s in my clothes?” In India, our artisans and those employed in the textile industry make up the second-largest percentage of employed Indians, after agricultural workers. The country is also home to many amazing textile arts — ikat, bandhani, khadi, block print etc. — with each state having their own form. We are definitely seeing that millennials and Gen Z are more aware — they’re shopping less, shopping more mindfully, choosing to support the local economy and understanding the value behind long-term benefits as opposed to short-term benefits.

Your previous involvement with organisations like WHO and SELCO Foundation, as well as your current work, has allowed you to gain both a broader understanding and first-hand experience of how socioeconomic hierarchies further complicate India’s narrative around environmental issues. What’s your take on this aspect?
We often hear about “developed versus developing countries” or “environmental conservation versus development” in India and abroad with regard to climate commitments. We must be laser focused on being part of environmental solutions, free from the “us versus them” rhetoric — we are all connected! One of my favourite quotes by Chief Seattle [a renowned 19th century Native American leader] truly reflects what I feel: “Man didn’t weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

As a country, we should be doing a better job of respecting our waste-pickers (or “warriors” as I like to call them). They are our silent environmental heroes who form the backbone of the recycling industry; we have to appreciate that someone else is taking care of our trash with their bare hands! Our farmers, our fishermen — they are arguably doing the most important task of feeding our country but aren’t being treated with the dignity and respect they truly deserve.

Since it’s not realistic to consider a complete reversion to the past in terms of eco-friendly living, what do you feel is the most effective way to balance sustainability with growth/development?
It’s important to find a balance between the innovations that have been made (which are amazing) and sustainability, and to use innovative thinking to come up with sustainable development for our communities. The most effective way is simply to add a human touch, rather than look at everything through the lens of profitability. Thinking of each aspect as a potential for profit, leads to exploitation, chemically induced foods or unsustainable supply chains, for example.

We should move forward by using the current infrastructure and building upon it. For instance, vertical farming, aquaponics, sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic, and using the land we have to harvest the abundance of natural resources such as wind and sunlight for renewable energy.

Another effective way, as difficult as it sounds, is governance. Setting caps or limits on carbon emissions, creating policies for travel, and for plastic usage, designing products with a cradle-to-cradle philosophy, making policy recommendations to reduce and manage our waste better. The need is to create a better policy ecosystem to help build a place for behavioural economists, ecologists, researchers and consumers alike to develop an ecosystem geared towards a circular economy.

Governments and large corporations must feel the pressure from consumers so they start re-imagining more environmentally and socially just solutions.

It appears that residents of your hometown, Bengaluru, are instinctively more mindful than those in other cities about incorporating sustainable practices into daily living. Why do think this is?
Perhaps because South Indians have a rich history of conservation. Or perhaps, Bangaloreans, by virtue of being in the start-up capital, are inherently willing to embrace new ideas. Maybe that’s why they’re also more willing to incorporate sustainable practices into their lifestyle.

Another super important fact is that many extremely passionate citizens, policy experts, waste-management professionals have spent years giving policy recommendations; I would say that Bangalore has one of the best waste-management practices on paper, and policy as a result. However, we have more improvements to make to implement them perfectly.

What would you say to city-dwellers who might argue that their individual contributions (waste segregation, quitting fast fashion, reducing air travel and so on) don’t make a difference?
Aren’t the Himalayas visible from hundreds of kilometres away, after 30-odd years? Aren’t we breathing cleaner air? Aren’t we hearing koels singing again? India’s Central Pollution Control Board reported that the air quality in 85 cities has improved significantly since the lockdown was announced. What better examples could there be for us to experience or realise the power of our actions in re-imagining a greener, healthier world?

Additionally, the research on the anthropogenic (man-made) causes that are expediting the impact of climate change are plenty. I think we shouldn’t underestimate the power of consumers to vote with their wallets because, by our consumption choices, we are investing in a more sustainable world, fair wages, cleaner waters and much more.

Beyond just consumption, the power of active citizenship is something that has always inspired me from when I was 10 years old and watched Erin Brockovich. The film is based on a real-life story about a single mother, who becomes a legal clerk, consumer advocate and environmental activist. And who, despite her lack of education in the law, was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993 when she discovered that the company was poisoning a city’s water supply.

Kinda off topic, but I thought it important to share one of my inspirations!

It was clearly a no-brainer for you to establish a wholly women-driven organisation! What do you think the relationship between gender and the environment is? And in India, assuming that most urban households too, still have largely patriarchal structures, I imagine that men aren’t worrying about whether the cleaning supplies are eco-friendly….
Women play a critical role in managing natural resources on both family and community levels, and they are also most affected by environmental degradation. In communities around the world, women manage water, sources for fuel and food, as well as both forest and agricultural terrains. Women produce 60 to 80 per cent of the food in developing countries, but inheritance laws and local customs often prevent them from owning that same land! From the higher levels to the grassroots you have the Chipko movement and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, to New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern’s commitment to building a fairer country in which the environment is protected through the zero-carbon law — all these examples highlight the role of women’s voices and perspectives in re-defining a more sustainable world.

Being part of a largely (and historically shaped) patriarchal society, Indian women have been deemed to take care of their families, children and so on, which leads to a more nurturing nature. On the other hand, men have been portrayed as the money-makers, an image that has transitioned from generation to generation. In the end, men are synonymous with money (whether that’s saving it or bringing in profits), which can lead to an unsustainable lifestyle because sustainable alternatives are more expensive than the conventional, polluting products and services. However, this is slowly changing. Another reason to be hopeful and optimistic!

While plenty of images of clear skies and nature “returning” have gone viral, are you also optimistic that we are going to come out of this pandemic as more conscious citizens?
I am optimistic that this time has caused us all to stop and introspect on our lives and given us all the collective opportunity to slow down.

We should ask ourselves questions like: “Why are baby sea turtles flourishing with empty beaches now?” Every nesting season, sea turtles face a plethora of obstacles that have been known to reduce their success of surviving. Crowded beaches and polluted waters are just the beginning, and these along with other factors have impacted the species’ ability to breed and survive the journey from nest to shore. What can we do differently in a post-COVID world?

Realistically, there are the people who have introspected, the ones who were already fighting for a more sustainable planet, and then those who, unfortunately, have not had the opportunity to become aware or see the benefits of mindfulness. We cannot simply blind ourselves by thinking that everyone has changed, because our world is huge and not everyone can become a conscious, active citizen. But yes, being an optimist, and as saddening as this event is, I feel it serves as a wake-up call to many millennials and Generation Z. And we are at a stage to start making the necessary changes for our planet.

Sahar’s Leading Ladies

“The common factor among all of them is that they are fearlessly, authentically themselves!”

Sanna Marin Finland’s head of government is the world’s youngest person holding the office of Prime Minister, and she is also hoping to take another place in history by pursuing the much-needed goal of moving the country to carbon neutrality by 2035.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Elected to the US Congress at just 29, the consistent record-breaker is spearheading the Green New Deal efforts and making waves by sharing citizen insights at the congressional level.

Zuzana Čaputová Sometimes called the “Erin Brockovich of Slovakia”, the country’s youngest President earned the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for successfully closing a toxic landfill in her hometown of Pezinok after a decade-long struggle.

Tanvie Hans The 29-year-old footballer plays for Bangalore United in the Indian Women’s League. She is the first Indian-origin woman who played for prestigious English clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur Ladies FC and Fulham Ladies FC.

Ishita Malaviya India’s first female pro surfer is transforming the sport in India. She is also creating jobs through the Shaka Surf Club in Karnataka, in alliance with the local community of Kodi Bengre village. And like Tanvie, she too is gaining a foothold in male-dominated territory.

Rani Lakshmi Bai The original badass Indian woman!

Faye D’Souza The journalist and news anchor is committed to highlighting the grassroots voices that are often under-reported on. Her “News That Should Be Headlines” and “Good News” series on Instagram, which list the headlines that mainstream news houses shy away from, really speaks to us millennials.





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