In this episode of Sustainability Ambassadors, we speak with Nitin Dani, Founder of Green Initiatives to learn about the work that he has done in Shanghai to develop one of the strongest platforms for sustainability minded young professionals to come together, to be engaged, and be catalyzed to act.
It is an interview that offers a lot of insights into how he, as a young entrepreneur, had taken this organization from a monthly gathering over drinks, to an organization that views impact as its primary measurement of success and has come up with innovative products, services, and programs for the GI members to use as a medium for change.
As always, we hope that you enjoy the interview, and if you do, please like, share, and comment!
Nitin Dani is an architect by profession and an environmentalist at heart. In Shanghai he works full-time as a Project Director with GIGA, an organization working on material research, cloud software and indoor air quality certification. He is also the Founder an Director of nonprofit organization Green Initiatives (formerly Green Drinks China).
Green Initiatives GI is an environmental nonprofit organization that focuses on education, awareness and action on environmental issues through events, workshops, short-term campaigns and longterm impact projects for the community.
For more stories like Nitin’s, and to learn how to foster similar leaders in your own company, check out our Building a Sustainability Ambassador Network Report.
About Sustainability Ambassador Series
Sustainability Ambassadors is a video series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organization into action: to identify those with the potential to rise and think outside the box, and build a collaborate community of such people that can help your organization forge new paths of longevity and evolve into something powerful.
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For more insights on Sustainability Ambassadors, and to learn how to foster champions who can take your organization beyond business as usual, check out our Building a Sustainability Ambassador Network Report.
- June 17 – Chitra Hepburn, Senior Strategy Executive, ESG, Sustainability and CSR
- June 24 – Dr. Lu Jianzhong, Partner at Brunswick Group
- July 1 – Sandra Durrant, Director of Responsible Sourcing at Target
- July 8 – Sharon Xiao, APAC Sustainabilty Manager at UPM
- July 15 – Michelle Garnaut, M on The Bund
- July 22 – Yue Cao, Seeking Opportunity in Sustainability
- July 29 – Nitin Dani, Director at Green Initiatives
- August 12 – Raymond Fang, Sustainability Director at APP
- August 26 – Echo Bao, Strategic & Sustainability Program at DSM
- September 2 – Patrick Riley, VP of Global Accounts at Interface
- September 9 – Roy Zhang, Asia Director of Sustainability and CSR at UTC
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
RICH: Good to see you.
NITIN: Good to see you.
RICH: Thank you for coming. Do me a favor and give us your 30 second introduction. Who are you, why are you here and sustainable mastership.
NITIN: My name is Nitin. I’m from India. I’ve been in Shanghai for about six years. Originally an architect. Did my masters in design management, whatever that means. But I came to Shanghai in 2010 initially just to work in a company that focus on branding. Because from my background, always talked about you know doing things in a better way by communicating better. That and there was a time when I founded Green Initiatives. It used to be called Green Links China. The initial awareness was just about creating education and awareness on environmental issues. But, we’ve evolved in the last 7-8 years,. We’ve gradually shifted our focus more and more recently to creating action-oriented projects which people can talk about. Or take part in, but it’s not just about learning something new, but it’s about having the tools and the process to engage in something that makes a change.
At the same time, I also work with a company called Giga. We are focus is on creating healthy spaces to technology through software to data and through certifications and standards. So at this point of time, I’m playing dual role and for me its great because its very, very complementary and it’s very, very harmonious relationship. Because Green Initiatives focuses on CSR and community engagement. Whereas Giga focuses on B2B professional services and making a positive difference through technology and data.
The reason I’m here simply is because you know I find that I have a lot of time and energy to do things that I may not have back at home. Back in India, I would be dealing with other issues. So I just feel that unlike most people are here, I want to be here not to just make money. That was never the intention. The idea really is that we have the platform, we have the tools, we have the convenience, we have the community. Id’ like to use that to do something more positive for the environment. Whether its for China, with the world it doesn’t matter, just want to do something more positive.
RICH: What is it about China that is so unique, so important that you’re here?
NITIN: I think for me initially, I came here just by accident. I never intended to come to Shanghai. Never intended to be here for 6.5 years, where I am right now. Initially I just came here to during the World Expo time studying designs manager, working in a brand studio because my aim always had been to talk about issues in a more positive way through better communication.
I think it just so happened that coincidentally for me in 2010 until the age of 27-28, I never ever had a room of my own. Ever. I always shared my rooms with my roommates, my sister, my friends, whatever. For me it was a bit of an irony that being in Shanghai one of the densest cities in the world, I actually had my own room. But at the same time when I walked around everywhere, I just felt that you know a lot of people didn’t have that room.
But it’s not just room in terms of space, but its also just information and ideas on the way everything around us was growing. You know, we were creating tall critics. We were creating better buildings. We’re creating better infrastructure, but somewhere we were losing touch with reality of our existence. Which is, you know, live well and you know, live in a healthy environment. I somehow saw with a big push in Asia and in China about GDP, about globalization, about just economic grown and economic development. That somewhere we were missing a very ,very important message which was about you know, can’t we do it sustainably in a way that you know takes care of the ecosystem around us. I think somehow it…a lot of series of incidents or a series of coincidences just made me work on what I ma doing today.
RICH: What were your first steps in getting involved with sustainability? You mentioned your branding, your know you’re already in design. Were you already in the mind space environment, or did China catalyze you to think about it differently?
NITIN: I would definitely say it catalyzed it. I used to be an architect like I said before. Back in my graduation days, my final pieces was still around sustainability, which was 11 years ago. Big thing for India and big thing for my school, my class. I was the only guy in my calls of 40 whose project was focused on sustainable concept and sustainable design. Fortunately for me, it did really well at the national level and at the state level and I got a lot of recognition. That really opened my mind to you know, this was supposed to be basic.
RICH: The environment is what it is. It’s a pretty horrible day outside about 151, 180. Does Chinese people care about their environment and has that changed in your time here?
NITIN: Absolutely. I remember some of our first like some of our earliest events in 2010 2011. We would have a group of maybe 60 people or 50 people, 80% of them would be foreigners. I think in the last two years, three years we’ve seen an equal split 50/50. We have more and more Chinese people come to our events.
RICH: Who are these Chinese people? Are they young? Are they more experienced? Like what’s their background?
NITIN:: I think that’s the key difference I think. I think it’s hard to change habits of people who’ve already developed them for decades. But I think that’s where you see a new energy enthusiasm and you know intent to do something more about the message to see around them. I’m not saying that ever single person does it, but I’ve seen things evolving. I mean I don’t know which point was the historic or milestone time, but for me from my personal experiences I almost think that you know 18 months ago or 20 months ago at the time when Under the Dome released. I somehow see that as a breaking point where you know things started to get a bit more out there for people to actually understand and realize that there’s something wrong and we want to do more.
Our Chinese events we’ve done for the first time in 7-8 years we’ve done our events completely in Chinese from starting from August. The first three events have been completely full with 100 Chinese people or 90 Chinese people at these events. That again was completely unheard of 7 years ago when we started that. Because we mostly had foreign attendee audience. So I think things are definitely changing, but there is still a long way to go. I think awareness is out there now. I think people are increasingly engaging with it. I think the key really as a path forward is that sustainability has to be broken down into smaller pieces.
I think for an average Chinese person sustainability is too big a topic. It’s about governments. Its about companies. It’s about everyone else but them and I think that’s where we really have to split it down into smaller, simpler pieces and make it more easy, convenient, accessible, affordable. It really has to be like, the go-to choice. Not a special choice that they have to sacrifice more towards. It think that really is the key.
I think that the point starts now on how we get there and how we make that happen.
ENGAGING THE AUDIENCE
RICH: So how do you do that through Green Initiatives? I mean you’ve got a lot of people who are showing up so there’s clearly interest. Now you’re goal as an organization is to create an engagement and hopefully lead them to action. So, tell me a little bit about the engagement side. What is that you’ve really hammered on or what is a medium or tool that you found very effect to create engagement and to keep people coming back and then deepen it overall.
NITIN: I think it’s really a mix of few different things. I think on the one part, education is absolutely super important. But it does not the only thing. If we really mainly on education, we might tot get to far. It think you really need to compliment them with different kinds of initiatives. I mean first of all when you educate what are the topics, what does an average person connect with? What are the topics that are important to them?
I think definitely start with that, but after one point of time, they’re going to be like, “ok now that I know that, what do I do next?” I think that’s really the key right now. I think that’s why were’ really working hard on. Because starts with education, but you really have to provide them the tools. You know, simple ways of engaging. We’ve been trying to do it in two ways.
One of them is we have an initiatives impact projects. Which is really about long term change in peoples mindsets. But that’s really through concrete action. So if I’m talking about hey, you know there’s a problem out there. We’re trying to create long-term solutions to this problem.
So our first project was clothing recycling. We’ve been working with a lot companies on having boxes in various companies where people can you know recycle their used items, like clothing and shoes for recycling.
For every box that we placed in a company, we go out there. We show them videos. We have discussions. We have debates. We listen to them. We answer all their questions because transparency is the key. A lot of times, you know the local or the average Chinese person doesn’t engage in a lot of chatter about causes or environmental causes or NGOs because they have a little bit of skepticism. Like where do these things go? What happens to it?
RICH: Is that skepticism well placed?
NITIN: I think it is. I think partly it is. I mean, I think if you look back at history, you know, the last 10 years. I think there have been plenty of issues that people are concerned about. I think the other issues is also that in general, again without meaning to offend anyone, I think if you look at a lot of non-profit organizations based in China or who are Chinese, I think the communication is not very strong. Even for us, when we try to reach out to local Chinese organizations to engage with them or write to them to work together, we never receive a reply. I think that’s where we really work very, very hard with the communication to make sure that everything we do looks good, feels good, feels respected and that we have all the right answers to every question that people ask us. I think impact projects is one initiative. So we have clothing recycling, and we also had an E-waste recycling project. So that’s all ongoing right now.
But something that we realized somewhere in between was education was too quick and easy because we do 2-3 events every month. Projects like long term impact projects were much more time consuming. We launch one year or every two years. Somewhere in between there was a gap that we wanted to really fulfill. That’s when we started this new initiatives about 6 months ago called Action Campaigns.
The idea of Action Campaign was really to break down sustainability into small pieces. Specific action leading to specific change with specific impact and really showing people that hey, you do one action of yours this was the impact created. Now we have 1000 people joining in this campaign and that was the impact we created. So all you have to do is really incorporate these to your daily lives. These are very simple changes. The key idea is that the campaigns have to be so simple to engage that people cannot, not want to do it. I means because again, like I said sustainability has to be easy and convenient.
So our first campaign was straight without meat. The simple idea was that just by choosing a vegetarian meal as opposed to a meat-based meal just saving 800 liters of water. So were not telling people to become vegetarian. We are just telling them that hey, once in a while when you go out with your friends, when you go out with your family, have a vegetarian meal. If 5 of you together have a vegetarian meal, you are saving 4000 liters of water right there. And we ended up saving about 557,000 liters of water in two months of the campaign.
Now, we are focusing on the second campaign which is called Keep a Cup. Which is again, just about telling people that the simple idea is that why should you drink in a disposable cup when you’re sitting in a cafe. I think for a lot of business and cafe’s that it has become very convenient. That hey, I give a minute disposable cup, I throw it, I’m done with it. But it’s not recyclable because for various reasons. But, the idea is that just by the simple action of asking them for a regular cup, you’re already changing something because you’re reducing waste. So again, the idea is to have simple ideas like this that people can engage in that really can make difference in the long run.
RICH: Have you been following your people to figure out whether or not they’re then scaling their own actions in other ways. Through their job, through entrepreneurship, through starting your own NGOs, like are you tracking that far as well? Or are you just trying to keep track of your own pieces?
NITIN: I think the current issue is the idea it’s hard for us to track our own metrics. Because we are a very, very limited team completely run by volunteer, no full-time person. We constantly get a lot of feed back from companies and individuals in different companies and organizations that really just talk about how it’s made a difference in their life and they are trying to change things. Just this morning, the first message that I saw when I woke up was…an intern who was with us for four months. She moved back to Hungary because she was from there. Now, she’s basically been selected for Erasmus funding program where she is basically now working on sustainable NGOs. Like how NGOs can be sustainable and she’s starting her own social enterprise.
So, it made a difference to her because she was around the same time that we were running all these different projects. At the same time we were at an event a turban hotel and the general manager comes to me in terms and says look at all this food today is vegetarian for your event. So I think people are really thinking and doing things. It’s just like right now we have not been able to measuere the impact of our matrix way beyond our own organization. Hopefully in the near future, we can track more of these things. But we do see more and more companies wanting to adopt some of these campaigns.
Like we had a meeting with a big financial company recently and they decided, hey, we will probably adopt some of these campaigns. Each moth we will actually have this campaign be for our employees. Because we are always looking for interesting ideas. I think the scope is there. I think the opportunity is there and I’m sure there is a lot of value in there as well. All we just have to follow up in the next stage.
RICH: Is there a moment that you kind of think there will be a critical mass? Like everyone will finally get it. Or do you think that this really is just one off, one by one really creating very simple actions that are catered to every single individual, ever single organization? Like what’s going to be the change if you want to drive or what’s going to change it helps you really…?
NITIN: I think as an organizations, we are dealing with our own issues get really, really too small to do more that we would like to. So I mean internally for us really is the issue has been to scale up and to really increase the impact of our own initiatives. But I think that said with the limited team that we have. We’re doing pretty decent with the team that we have. I think in the next step is really to have full-time people who can just drive some of these programs
RICH: What’s holding you back from doing the full-time thing?
NITIN: Cash. Just cash flow. I mean I think now we are at a appoint where we might finally be able to have our first full-time person next month. We already in talks with a couple of really, really interesting individuals who want to be a part of the team. It think that’s great. I think the key really is the cash flow, right? I mean we are really just trying to create projects that are more like social business kind of projects that are sustainable in their own sense. That takes time because right now we only have two projects.
Events and campaigns, they are mostly community engagement stuff but they’re not really something that can really fund an organization to have employees. But I think our projects like our E-waste recycling project and a new project we are launching next month. I think this is really great because what kind of sucks what we’ve seen with a ______ (15:30) projects in the last six months has been as much or more than the previous project we had done for like almost a year and a half . So I think that is incredible. So that’s why we are launching our next project in December and we already have a few sponsors confirmed to it. I think we probably go official in January. I think that’s great.
We also, I think one thing that has changed for us in the last six months, I think ever since our last interview, we’ve had so much of attention I don’t know for what reason or how. But people just reach out to us. Hey, we want to work with you. Hey, can we use your logo for this. Hey, can you use your thing for that. I think that’s great, but that’s why we have to be very careful about how we work. I think for us it’s good to know that we’ve reached a point now after 7-8 years that people see us as valuable for their brands and I think this is something which I going to try do to do for the next year. How can we really use the value that we’ve created in seven years. You know we can bring in some revenue so that we can support a full-time team.
The other thing we’ve been really, really think of doing next year is really just focusing more on Chinese companies. I mean I really don’t need to work with like two or three companies that pay us a million but I’d be really, really happy if we worked with 100 Chinese companies or 100 companies in general who pay us 10,000RMB a year because we’ve reached that critical mass. For us that critical mass to reach as many Chinese people as possible. A lot of these companies that are fairly decently educated employees. I think that’s where we think we can make a bigger difference.
We can’t really make a lot of difference for someone working in a restaurant or someone just out there selling you know a vendor. But I think even if you can start reaching out to people in these companies. You know employees in the company and engage even a a small percentage of them. I think we have a lot more chances to make lasting impact. So that’s the idea behind really creating smaller projects in the near future. To work with more companies, local and international for a very small amount of money and be able to really work with a lot of companies. So that’s basically our idea of the next year. Really work on reaching that.
RICH: Taking us back to you a little bit. I mean, you’ve been working this for the last 5-6 years. Talk to me about some of the challenges of getting to this point. Like personally. I see you got some gray hair too! You’ve clearly been working on it! What are some of the challenges personally for you to like just keep momentum as you had this vision to execute on it?
NITIN: I think for me to keep things you know I’ve never ever, ever seen the bigger picture. I’ve always just focused on the next three months or the next five months or the next six months or at the most the next one year. For the first time I’m talking about what we intend to do the next year. But I’ve never really been that strategy thinker who knows what the future is. Who knows how to far to go and how to get there.
My strength has always been that, at times I have an idea or you know we work together as a team and we come up with an idea and I think it’s really powerful and we just put everything into making it happen. So I think, I’ve mostly been like that. I think having that kind of strategy thinker or having someone who can really help you plan the next stage , next stages of your growth. I’m not that kind of person, so it’s been challenging from that perspective. I think we’ve had a really, really good team of volunteers.
I would say just thinking about challenges I think the key issue has really ben working with volunteers. Everyone has full-time jobs. Everyone has commitments. For everyone, it’s not a priority so working with volunteers is a big challenge switch you know balancing between two jobs is real challenge. I mean I have probably 90% of the white hair on my head is a result of the last two years managing two jobs.
RICH: It looks good, don’t worry about it!!!
NITIN: Makes me look wiser. I think that challenges are definitely there. Dealing with two jobs and not being able to focus only on one thing. In an ideal scenario, I would love to but I just love both my jobs a bit too much. I really don’t want to take sides right now. That is definitely a challenge.
The other challenge is also the personal finances. I’ve been here for six years. If I tell people how much I earn right now you know it would it wouldn’t sound like a lot. But again, money has never been my thinking. I know that my dad has this one piece of land back in India. If nothing else works I’ll go there and do farming or sell it off and do something else. So I’m a little bit of luxury to fall back into. But I think personal finance has always been a challenge. I’ve done photography in the past. I’ve done Air BNB. I’ve done surfing. I’ve done consulting small web based projects. I’ve done like freelance stuff here. I’ve done freelance stuff there. I’ve done all kinds of stuff to just make sure the bills are paid for on a monthly basis.
RICH: So I’m going to take this a different way. So you..a mass all this great experience you’ve built one organization, really you rebranded, you’ve launched it yourself. You’ve been working with another group called Giga. Obviously as an employee. How does this play into maybe you’re, I mean if you don’t think beyond three to six months, what about your own career path? Has this been a great career milestone? You could step up or are you really thinking I’m going to be in China long term anyway so it’s just one more thing?
NITIN: For sure I’m going to be here forever. So But again like I said I’ve never really focus on the career path. I think ever since I started doing these things, I just realized the fact that things are growing and the fact that the environment was in such danger, I always knew that the experience is going to be valuable. Because how many people have had the chance to you know grow like almost like a monthly chapter of 30 people into an organization with like 10 volunteers working with like 20 or 30 different companies. So I think that is a really, really valuable experience in itself. At the same time with Giga, you know I’ve had really, really strong platform and backing up.
You know I think its so important to have a good boss, a good leader that you can be inspired form and you learn from. I think I’ve ben really, really luck to be working with Giga from that perspective because I have a lot of flexibility and free hand to either do this or that or do both or do nothing. I think it comes down so much to two people management and leadership and trust. I think this is one of the challenges that I forgot to mention that even doing these things for seven years, the biggest challenge really finding good people to work with. I think finding good people is not difficult, but finding good people to work with for a long peiord of time with very little money. I think that’s a difficult thing. I think that’s the difficulty of most entrepreneurs.
RICH: Now when you don’t have them, do you feel that you’ve really been limited by that fact or is it you just…keep or you yourself work harder?
NITIN: You just have to work harder. Yeah, I think you have to work harder and I think for me that’s why I think I value so much the relationship with my fulltime job because I have the flexibility . There are times when I go for a meeting with Giga and I end up, you know subconsciously selling Green Initiatives. Then I go for meeting for Green Initiatives and subconsciously end up selling Giga and it’s perfect because it was about the companies. You know that there’s value for both organizations and it really, really gives me a lot of you know psychological security to be doing you know Giga as my other job as well.
RICH: So what keeps you passionate about this? A lot of people get be overwhelmed by this severity of the environmental challenge and duck in. What keeps you passionate? What keeps you going after so many years?
NITIN: I think it’s definitely getting more and more challenging to be very honest. A lot of times when I walk on the street and I see someone selling _____(2300) or _________. I’m like, could we ever do these things in a better way when I look at when I look at people whose packing stuff in a Styrofoam box or people wasting food at a restaurant with tons of Chinese, sorry ton of disposable plastic boxes. I do feel, I do get disheartened. Then I come back and I go turn on the computer and I see my inbox which has like 80-90 emails unanswered and I just get into them and you know I think all these negative energy does not even come in.
I think for me, I would say the key is that I just don’t have to have time to focus on the negatives. Because if I start focusing on the negatives, it’s out of water. It’s a spiral. So I think in general, I’m an optimist. That helps. In general, I really, really try to stay away from negative energy. That helps as well. The third thing is I just stay super focused and busy and when you’re busy, you don’t have time for nonsense, you know. You just focus on things that need to get done rather than things that cannot be done. That really helps I think.
RICH: I guess the other question I have is how do you see the future? Like, you’re an ambassador in many ways. How are you helping to drive the same thing through other people? Is that a goal of yours to have like 5-6 disciples who are out there as well?
NITIN: I think, I don’t know if its a goal or not, but I’m constantly trying to ensure that you know we have more people who are more empowered with the right information, the right tools, the right network so they can go and do their own stuff. I think we all need to do our bit. I mean all the more I think we have to have more and more people you now, more Chinese people, more and more local people who really believe in what is really important and be a part of it. It’s never really about one person. I think but that one personal really can help pass information to all these other people that have been working with them. So I think as an individual you have to be really, really honest. You have to be passionate which is really, really important. People see through you. You have to be capable of motivating people and inspiring people because again, people see through you. If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. If you’re just doing it for PR. If you’re just doing it for whatever, not the best reasons, people see through you and they’re not inspired.
RICH: Is there one issue that you are personally passionate about, worried about that you feel is the most critical going forward? In this big theme of sustainability?
NITIN: I would say leadership and management education I would say. I think, I think even now after all that happened with the financial crisis around, all that’s happened around the world with all kinds of businesses, I still feel, you know I still feel that sustainability as a concept has come out so late. I mean it is a basic, you know piece of existence. It should always be a part of whether its primary education, middle education, high school, university, management, what leadership, whatnot.
I think sustainability and not just environment sustainability social sustainability, you know ecosystem development. Inspiring people through you know positive change and these are important things. A lot of times it’s why we see a lot of the problems around us is because we see people in government positions or in big corporate positions who don’t care. We have people in leadership positions are the biggest countries in the world you know who don’t believe in it. I think it starts with education. I think we really have to continue to emphasize on you know, the very basics in education.
GENERATIONS OF ENVIRONMENTALISTS
RICH: Do you think generations doing it better? Like do you see and through your own work that maybe the boomers have got the least and you know, are you seeing that even in your own groups?
NITIN: I would say more so than the previous generation for sure, but still not enough. I think that’s where I see it as education on entrepreneurship a huge opportunity. I think the current generation are really, definitely much more informed. They have a lot more tools. If you go to any of the schools around Shanghai, you see begin with you see really amazing bunch of kids. Access to information and talking about topics that I didn’t even speak at 17. So I think definitely they have the right tools, but we have to just make sure they you know, somewhere along the way they don’t go down the less, commonly chosen path. You have to make sure they go on the right path and we keep having right content or right information to continuously guide them you know to the right path.
I think leadership is going to be a really important going out in the future as well. I think for people like you and me and everyone in this room, I think it’s our job and responsibility to ensure that we can ensure that.