Alternatives to Plastic: Harish from Natura

“I don’t want to use plastic”, says Harish, who is tackling the challenge of sustainable packaging for cosmetics.

Planted with banana trees and aloe vera shrubs, Natura’s workshop in Auroville feels more like a tropical garden than a factory. Soap is Harish’s passion, and he is always on the lookout for new ingredients: “We want to use only natural raw materials used in daily life. Our products are made of 90% edible stuff. Whatever we can eat, we can make soap out of”.

Natura spun off from a big workshop of handloom textiles called Imagination, which used to span the present location and the neighbouring lot. Harish came from Nainital, Uttarakhand, in 1993. Growing up by his town’s branch of the Sri Aurobindo ashram, he began participating in exchange programs which brought him to Pondicherry and Auroville.

In 1999, two American tourists with a hobby for homemade soap taught the Imagination team their formula. At a time when only a single, red-coloured brand of soap was available, this was a delightful surprise. “Their soap was snow white”, Harish recalls. “When we used it, the whole bathroom smelled so good”. After a period of intense experimentation, the Natura soap brand was born, which now comes in 20 different formulas, ranging from activated charcoal to turmeric.

Green Packaging

Packaging soap bars is not without its challenges. With South India’s extreme humidity during the monsoon, much of the mass can be lost to soap sweating. Harish found that the soap bars he was exporting to Italy had shrunk by 10% on arrival. Though plastic packaging is by far the most effective antidote to humidity, it is far from sustainable.

A surprising solution came from an abundantly available byproduct of a local crop: Banana leaves. After looking for plastic alternatives for many years, Harish tried wrapping his bars with green banana leaves, in the same way that food is packaged in local villages. He also experimented with drying them, and the new presentation became a smash hit. Orders for hundreds of bars soon came in from as far away as Calcutta.

This soon meant traveling to the surrounding villages to secure the large amounts of leaf required, and Harish also planted his workshop yard with banana trees. While this was immensely popular with customers, the soap bars were still getting damaged during the two-month rainy season, and Harish was faced with requests for a better solution. “Now I have a lot of bananas, and we have to eat”, he laughs.

Since 2020, Harish has been experimenting with plastic-free wax paper. The material is also called butter paper, because it is used for wrapping dairy products. It is grease-proof, vegan and biodegradable.

Natura also makes a variety of other products, such as shampoo bars, laundry soap and hair shine. Hair pack is a powder you can mix with water into a paste, and leave in your hair for one hour. It rejuvenates the hair and keeps it in good health, eliminating the need for shampoo, conditioner or oils. Tooth powder is made up of natural, edible components and is an alternative to toothpaste.

Some of the items are packaged in glass jars as a substitute for plastic. Studying the best ways to package and ship products remains a challenge, as glass bottles sometimes break in shipping. For Natura laundry powder, which is safe enough to be mixed by hand, Harish has found a simple solution: common brown paper.

A variety of cosmetics and bath products from Natura are available from the Online Store.

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