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An engineer goes diving… what happens next?

Shaan Lalwani is one of those people who has let her passion drive her to make a meaningful change in the world. Living in India, it isn't always easy to get access to high quality, sustainable products and she recognised this gap in the market which she has solved for her with eco-friendly, non-toxic and natural laundry detergent brand Coco Custo.

girl diving

What inspired you to create Coco Custo and the products you've developed?

I always tell people the idea came to me 25 meters below sea level. In 2017 I was diving in Mauritius and the scene around me was gorgeous. Lot’s of colourful coral and beautiful fish – and I found myself completely horrified. Earlier that day during a surface interval the instructors were talking about how the cleaning chemicals had killed off most of the coral in the neighbouring bay. When I got home, I started reading. It turns out cleaning chemicals are a huge environmental problem. Not only that, they contain known human carcinogens, asthmagens, endocrine disruptors and can even affect human fertility and unborn foetuses.

I’ve always loved the ocean, it's my happy place. But more than being our planet's lungs the ocean produces 50% of all the world's oxygen and coral reefs support 25% of all marine life.

Already having pledged to give up plastic a couple of years earlier, I now decided to completely change my life. But that was easier said than done. I faced three unique problems with the first being that eco-friendly products weren't widely or easy available nor were they price competitive. They also still came packaged in single use plastics and contained a number of harmful chemicals. My third concern was that most eco-products weren't up to par with market leading brands. That's really when I decided to start Coco Custo.

Being from an engineering background, how did you find the process of building a brand from scratch and working on everything from the aspects that are comfortable to you and those that are not?

The thing about engineering is that it doesn't teach you a subject, but instead it teaches you how to think. The process of building a brand was definitely a lot of fun, and I had the super team at Bokaap Design helping me realise my vision for everything from the name to the logo and packaging label. It's strange but when you start your own company, you surprise yourself with the clarity of vision you have. Entrepreneurship has a whole different feeling.

When I started Coco Custo, I carried 10 years of experience in the real estate industry, and most recently as General Manager at Sila's construction projects division, I was in charge of all aspects of the business from proposals, hiring, cash flows, and overseeing projects from end to end. All that experience carried over and helped me navigate the business aspects of Coco Custo.

What were some of the biggest lessons you learnt while launching your brand?

Always, always listen to your customer. Nine times out of 10 the feedback we get is great. People love our product and that has helped us grow much faster than expected. So listen to what people like about the product or experience and build on that. That one customer though who has a suggestion for improvement, or even a complaint could add immense value to the product or brand experience in general. For example, we started out with cardboard boxes but they didn't exactly last in the laundry room and sometimes fell apart while shipping across the country. We took this feedback to heart and changed our packaging to "Forever Tins" and launched our refill pack program at the same time.

What is your scientific process like when developing a product?

To begin with, it's a lot of research. It is hours and hours of scouring through journal articles to identify possible raw materials and processes that are both sustainable and scalable. Part of it is intuition and the rest is rigorous scientific process and adherence to standards, (we decided to use EU standards for detergency, fabric, dye and stain performance). Overall it was lot of experimentation and recording and analysis of data and the entire process lasted 18 months.

How do you feel this pandemic has affected the demand for sustainable products like your own?

Demand actually skyrocketed in the weeks before lockdown was declared! We had our highest ever per day sales on the 18th of March, 2020. Even today we get multiple emails and messages every day from old and new customers who want the product. We're in the process of getting back on our feet and making sure that when we do re-open it is in a way that is 100% safe for both our teams and our customers. For sustainable products in general. I don't see the people dedicated to sustainability changing their minds in the least. I hope that this pandemic has taught us the value of clean air and clear skies and dolphins in the bay at the least and that after all of this finally ends, demand for sustainable products will grow.

Before you go...

If you were a sea animal, what would you be?

A tiger shark.

What do you need around you to do your best work?

An hour of nothing in the morning before I start my day.

Your favourite time of day?

Midnight to 2am.

The best book you've read lately?

The Dalai Llamas Cat was just the lightness I needed during this pandemic.

Your favourite quote?

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Work Essentials #1 // Sustainability // Shaan Lalwani and Leila Veerasami // May 26th, 2020

Work Essentials is a new series which features conversations between two entrepreneurs who share an essential value to their businesses.


PS // We first met Shaan during our Freshly Squeezed pop up in February and were immediately big fans of her product and story. We love sustainable brands that are unique, creative and have a great story to tell.


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