Friday, March 04, 2011

Sustainism As Natural as Elephant Dung and Dutch Apple Pie

The year was 1987, my new friend and possible future business associate Zia and I were waiting in a first class lounge at Schiphol airport for the boarding time of her flight back to Bombay to be announced. She recapped the things we had done in the week that had passed and presented me with a gift to thank me for my assistance with her business venture in the Netherlands.

The folder she handed me was made of rough, handmade heavyweight paper decorated with white line drawings that depicted villagers dancing in a circle at a life cycle ceremony; the folder held three paintings of similar drawings on a dark brown background on much smoother paper.

Zia told me the artists originally made paper of elephant dung and that they used rice paste to draw images on a painted background colored rusty brown with a natural pigment (or paint made from the same resource). Since the production of the paper was laborious (and the ingredients questionable to potential buyers) Zia had the artists paint on more easily obtained paper which allowed the artists to create more sheets, sell more art and thus make more money.

The prospects Zia painted at this last meeting about me getting my designs produced in India, combined with strong Dutch coffee, made me jittery and in my excitement I dropped a wallop of whipped cream from my apple pie onto the folder. Without thinking, I swiped the cream up with my finger and stuck it in my mouth. 

Zia's hand flew to her lips, she seemed in shock.
"What's the matter?" I said.
"The folder..." she nodded at the port folio on the coffee table.
"I don't think it's going to leave a spot," embarrassed by my clumsiness I used my napkin to rub the rough paper. "See, it doesn't show at all!"
"That's not it, it's, it's..."
Why was she so concerned?
"The folder's material is made of elephant dung, remember?"
Time for me to bring my hand to my lips.

Today there are no worries about the resources, on the contrary, in 2008 the makers of the elephant dung paper received a The Green Business Award for their sustainable project.

The Times They Are A-Changing, but what remains true through the times: one person's trash is another person's treasure.

There must be more stories about straw spun to gold and sh.t turned into a sustainable business. What's yours?

This work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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