This Company Is One Of The World's Largest Recyclers Of Plastic
Aloke and Suchitra Lohia’s business acumen has made headlines around the world. With his father and brother, Indian-born, Bangkok-based Aloke has transformed Indorama Ventures, also known as IVL, from a modest family business into a multibillion-dollar international corporation which today is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of wool yarn and polyester.
But what is less documented is how, while building their business, the family made it their mission to give back to the community. Soon after the launch of IVL’s philanthropic arm, the IVL Foundation, Aloke and Suchitra spoke to Ruth Shapiro, founder and chief executive of the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society, about the causes they’re currently supporting and how they’re helping to build a brighter future.
Ruth Shapiro: Indorama Ventures is a forward-thinking company in several important ways—how you treat your employees, the globalised nature of your work and your embrace of the circular economy. Could you share your thoughts on these?
Aloke Lohia: We have more than 16,000 full-time employees and another 3,000-plus A that are contract employees, so I believe we are, in effect, helping to support 20,000 families. For us, this means that in addition to their employment, we are responsible for the education and the health of our employees and their families. We believe that family success is paramount to our success. One of our core values and, frankly, competitive advantages is our people—and the views and experiences they bring with them.
Suchitra Lohia: It is a win-win situation for the company and its people. They give it their best because they know the company has made an effort for their benefit as well.
Ruth: Your family is the epitome of a globalcitizen family. You grew up in India, you’re living in Thailand, your kids went to school in the US. You travel. You have companies, factories and offices around the world. How does being connected to the world affect your world view?
Suchitra: It has been a great learning experience that has truly opened our minds. We are not aligned to one religion or one particular culture. These experiences have shaped us and shaped our company. Indorama Ventures is a company that embraces diversity. Of course, we have our roots in India and deeply respect those traditions, but we have built our company to be global. We have built a value system that has adopted different cultures and religions, and made it one. Diversity is a core strength that is integral to who we are and the values we live by.
Aloke: Which we call our “IVL culture.”
Ruth: Let’s talk about the circular economy. For many this is a new term. Can you please explain it and how Indorama Ventures promotes it?
Aloke: The circular economy, in short and simple terms, is the use, reuse and continual reprocessing of resources that are utilised in our economy. For us as a chemical company, it is essentially the life cycle of plastic. We have developed systems that allow us to continue reusing PET plastics in perpetuity. We can take a bottle and recycle it, collect it again, break it down into the original polymer molecules and use it again as a bottle or another product. The same plastic has endless applications that can be recycled indefinitely.
Ruth: Clearly, in order to do this you need to recover the bottles, or whatever the plastic item is, and not let it go into landfill?
Aloke: This is where the news is very positive. Recycling is becoming the norm. Even if an item is thrown into a waste basket, there is a 90 per cent chance that it will return to the recycling stream, back into the circular economy. But, obviously, when it’s left on the side of the road it can be swept into streams and sewers and out to sea, which is the root of well-deserved international concern.
Suchitra: We have been making acquisitions that help us to push the technology further. We are the world’s principle recycler of PET plastics. We recycle about 300,000 tonnes per year. Our acquisitions have allowed us to create a truly complete circular economy with PET bottles. We are also supporting many startups in this space. We understand the science, the markets and the customers. We help startup entrepreneurs take their idea from just an idea to a viable commercial business.
And since we have global operations, we can also help them take their business global. This case shows how our social and economic goals are aligned. We embraced recycling and the notion of a circular economy before the market was calling for it. Now our customers and partners are asking for these solutions and we are ready to help.
Ruth: When it comes to the environment many people feel the situation is somewhat bleak. You are on the frontline of trying to deal with these issues. Are you optimistic? Are you worried?
Aloke: We are glad that this issue is now becoming the centre of attention. We come from Rajasthan, which is a desert, and in the desert you are conscious of the environment, of saving, not wasting. This is how we grew up and it translates directly into our business. We recognise that everything, both organic and man-made, has value. This mindset shapes our business and our commitment to this circular economy. I wouldn’t say that we are worried; I would say we are concerned and are acting on it.
“We are the world’s principle recycler of PET plastics. We recycle about 300,000 tonnes per year”
— Suchitra Lohia
Suchitra: We are also trying to educate the younger generation on how to reuse and recycle plastic. Around our factories and in schools, we are teaching children how to collect plastic waste and have it recycled. We are building awareness and the accompanying infrastructure, which enables recycling. We try to design environmental projects that are aligned with the needs of the communities in which we operate. For example, in Alabama we own 116 acres (47 hectares) of mangroves. We have several programmes to protect the flora and fauna that live in and around that mangrove ecosystem. As part of this work, school field trips come out to the mangroves and our scientists teach the kids about the animals and plants living there and how to protect them.
Ruth: You have recently set up the IVL Foundation. What was the impetus for this?
Suchitra: We created the IVL Foundation to be more strategic in our philanthropic efforts. We wanted to ensure that our donations, regardless of where they take place in the world, achieve maximum impact. The foundation will allow us to be more consistent with our stakeholders, track our projects and see the impact across all the charitable investments we make globally. It also allows us to identify skills and resources within the group and deploy them more efficiently.
From a purely philanthropic perspective, we look to support projects that can meaningfully change the direction of a person’s life. One example of this is Operation Smile, which we have supported in Thailand and Myanmar. Children born with cleft lips and palates are at such a profound disadvantage and yet it is relatively easy to cure. Seeing the profound difference of fixing a child’s smile is simply brilliant and so satisfying. You know you’ve made a difference in these lives.
Suchitra: Another example is a social enterprise called Carcel, which helps women in prison learn skills they can use to earn money while incarcerated and after their release. These skills give the women not only the ability to earn an income but also a sense of dignity that is so essential and which many of us take for granted.
IVL is working in education, economic development and empowerment especially for women, healthcare and social enterprises, as I mentioned, especially with efforts in recycling and ocean upcycling. In all of these cases, we try, to the extent possible, to maximise the use of our own expertise and to create opportunities for Indorama Ventures’ employees to volunteer. It’s philanthropy but strategically carried out. We think this amplifies the impact and spreads good feeling throughout the company.
Ruth: Lastly, what do you want your legacy to be?
Suchitra: I think the biggest legacy is to live by the set of values that have been passed down through the generations. They have stood us well thus far and I think they will stand us well in the future.
About Ruth Shapiro: The founder and chief executive of the Hong Kong-based Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society, Ruth Shapiro is a global expert on philanthropy in Asia. With her team, Ruth identifies the best practices, models, policies and strategies that can contribute to improving philanthropy in Asia, then disseminates this information to leading philanthropists, social-delivery organisations, corporations, governments and more. She is the author of multiple books and has contributed to leading publications around Asia, including Asia Tatler titles.
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