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What The Dabbawallahs Of Mumbai Can Teach The World About Sustainable Business

Freshly cooked dalokra, rice and roti are packed safely into a metal tiffin when the doorbell rings. A white capped dabbawallah is anxiously waiting for the lunchbox but he is sure to flash a smile before he speeds away on his bicycle.  At the local train station, he adds six more lunch boxes to a wooden plank that is hoisted onto his colleague’s head. It weighs 65 kilograms (143 pounds). Fighting the remainder of rush hour commuter traffic, the second dabbawallah steps into the luggage compartment of a Mumbai local, sets his cargo on the ground with the help of two colleagues and chats idly as the train pulls out of the station.

Several stations down the line, plank again on his head, he disembarks from the train and passes the tiffins off to another white capped dabbawallah who hops onto his bicycle and races off down the street. He enters an office building and drops off the lunchbox on the indicated floor.

Dabbawallahs At Churchgate Station, Mumbai[/caption]

This is the process through which 5,000 dabbawallahs deliver 200,000 lunches in Mumbai each day. It is a system of unparalleled complexity that is widely lauded for using an unwritten system and almost never making a mistake (perhaps one in sixteen million). The service has been featured in numerous case studies by elite management programs such as Harvard Business School, and its efficiency has been loudly praised by international publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Forbes. While the service’s success rate and complexity are commendable and impressive, the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association should instead be revered as a model for sustainable business.

The dabbawallahs’ business operations have an extremely low impact on the environment. First, they bring back lunch containers, which allows the use of reusable metal tiffins. Meanwhile, other lunch delivery services bring their hungry customers their lunch items in separate, throw-away plastic containers. Given that the dabbawallahs deliver 200,000 lunches per day, they are effectively saving a million plastic cups from being used, every day. From production to disposal, plastic represents a slow motion ecological disaster. The importance of ending our dependence on plastic cannot be understated: by 2050 it is projected that plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish.

Second, dabbawallas use clean transport to deliver the multitude of lunch boxes each day. They exclusively use bicycles and public transport, which brings their transportation environmental footprint to nearly zero. Traffic and pollution are two issues that unite every Mumbaikar. Any business that opts for clean transport and doesn’t add to the clogged st