Conserve India is an industrious upcycling business formerly based in Delhi, but now located in Bahadurgarh, Haryana, India. The Upcycling Portal posted an article about their work that you can read here. The organization also worked to try to upcycle waste from the 2010 Commonwealth Games which you can read more about here.
A few months ago I received this notice from Conserve about "Waste to Wealth" tours that the company was going to be hosting in and around Delhi. Here is what the notice says:
"A learning journey for the eco-minded tourist, the Waste to Wealth tour brings you through the process of how discarded plastic bags can be converted into high quality fashion products in a way that benefits both the environment and slum dwellers. Also experience firsthand the problems the ragpicking community face through a visit to a local slum."
Here are the highlights:
- SHOPPING! The tour package also includes a voucher for the Conserve Store, so make full use of it by purchasing the same fashion products strutting the runways in Europe!
- PLASTIC SORTING ACTIVITY Learn how to sort plastic the way ragpickers do - through bollywood stars! Try your hand at sorting the various plastics that go into creating high fashion bags sold all over Europe.
- VISIT TO LOCAL SLUM Gain and understanding of how local slum dwellers live - observe the ragpicking business that provides sustenance and watch how the women prepare rotis the traditional way for their families.
As someone who has hosted learning journeys before and has been faced with the many dilemmas that these kinds of experiences seem to unearth I have to say that this flyer deeply disturbed me. Though I recognize the importance of the innovative work that Conserve is doing I have long been challenged by the way that they continue to be deeply entrenched in the capitalist model and mode of operating. There are some aspects of their business that I deeply respect, like the fact that they are not importing higher quality garbage from other places for their bags. But I struggle with the glorification of the European fashionista dominion and their insistence on exportation.
Now the Waste to Wealth Tour may be taking things a step too far for my comfort level. I suppose what is most disturbing is that the first thing that the flyer highlights is SHOPPING! YAY! just what the world needs ... more consumption. Don't people realize that SHOPPING is what has gotten us into this waste mess in the first place. I'm all for making our own things from garbage and even selling (on a reasonable scale) upcycled products ... but if this is an educational experience intended to enlighten folks to the realities of slum life I can't imagine why you would want to make shopping one of the highlights. Any one else find this ironic?
Then there is the ever present moral dilemma of hosting this type of “reality tour” that takes (presumably privileged) tourists into slums, shantytowns and favelas around the world. I feel that it is important that people have a first hand experience of true poverty. It has changed my worldview for sure, but I guess without some space for deeper analysis about WHY people end up in this state of poverty it seems not only ineffective but actually offensive. There is something particularly difficult for me in the language of the flyer about “observing” or “watching the women prepare rotis” – as if these people were zoo animals or something. Not appropriate in my book!
Then of course there is the ever-present question of including “hands-on” activities in these kinds of tours. At Berkana we have had lots of conversations about the importance of including experiential activities in our learning gatherings or journeys. The issue that we continually bump up against is that most often the work that can be done in an hour or two by participants on a journey or tour is actually not useful for the project or local work. So, who does this experiential activity actually serve in the long run? I have my doubts about it serving either participants or local people.
Finally, after my visit to the dump two weeks ago I am thinking more about people who actually live from the garbage and how we could actually start to revalue and understand what it means to live this life. I think that to some degree Conserve India does do this. It is offering a more lucrative end to the process of sifting through garbage, which is a form of validating the work. But how can we take this even further? How can we really appreciate and see this profession as truly meaningful and noble? I am feeling more and more called to be in these questions with this particular segment of society.