By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Back to Earth has given corporate gifts a sustainable twist, with products like pens, pencils, notebooks, pen-drives, and pencil holders using discarded or recycled items like cinnamon wood. These products have a story behind them too – they minimise any negative impact on the environment while also uplifting communities in Monaragala.
The Morning Brunch had the opportunity to sit down with Back to Earth Owner Jayampath Attanayake for a conversation about the business and the values that form its foundation.
The Back to Earth story
According to Jayampath, Back to Earth’s story began in 1997, when his brother Senarath Attanayake established it. His brother was a very unique person, Jayampath said, explaining that he was a lawyer and politician, and was also disabled, after contracting polio when he was just one and a half years old.
Their roots in Bibile, Monaragala gave Senarath Attanayake a look into poverty and similar issues. And disability – overcoming it and uplifting disabled persons – became his main intention or focus. Senarath Attanayake also had interest in sustainability and recycled products, establishing businesses in these areas while practicing as a lawyer. He combined the two, having families in Monaragala trained to produce various product, and this is how Back to Earth came to be.
“Initially, it was a very small operation, mainly to uplift their lifestyle and enable them to be independent, because he believed in that so much. And then it became a cottage industry through publicity and went a long way.”
Jayampath was involved in the business and travelled to various trade fairs, even overseas, with his brother, and when Senarath Attanayake passed away in 2017, Jayampath wanted to keep his legacy going. This was the main intention, but there was also the potential for sustainability, and Jayampath believes they took it to another level.
“But even now, the things he created are in demand,” Jayampath said, adding that they began with recycled, eco-friendly stationery, but then realised the potential of souvenirs and hospitality, which have become their main markets. “So we changed our perspective, and sustainability is one of the main things.”
Back to Earth mainly uses discarded material, like leftover bamboo shoots from construction sites and cinnamon bark after what’s required is extracted. The families making the various products are asked to refrain from cutting down trees to source material.
“Somebody’s garbage is our main product,” Jayampath quipped, pointing to tills made using discarded tinned fish containers and notebooks made using offcuts from medium density fibreboard (MDF). “One of our hot selling products is pen drives, which are also made using cinnamon.”
While emphasising that sustainability is not a marketing tactic, Jayampath said one cannot expect 100% sustainability, as there are moments when some materials cannot be sourced from construction sites, for instance, depending on demand. However, they try their level best to ensure sustainability of material.
More than a product
Sharing the story of how Back to Earth came to be, Jayampath emphasised that it goes beyond a product. “My view is that when somebody is purchasing our products, they are not only purchasing a product, they are contributing towards society.”
Jayampath went on to say that a lot of people, especially those in the corporate sector, show more interest once they are told these are sustainable products.
“And certain companies, when you say the products are from Monaragala, they need the story, so we have to include the story as well.”
Designs and products
Hasitha Liyanage is the designer behind Back to Earth’s products, and Jayampath said Liyanage is very particular about the designs. They are all handmade, with 80% of the products made in Monaragala itself. “Certain things we have to do here, like engraving and finishing, and Hasitha Liyanage is very particular.”
Unfortunately, some buyers do not understand that handmade products are not consistent, which results in the rejection of some orders.
Jayampath added that if they purchase 100 pencils from the manufacturer, only 25 are used, to ensure quality and standard. This affects the pricing of the products, but Jayampath ensures that the families in Monaragala are adequately compensated every month.
In terms of products, Back to Earth is hopeful about the upcoming festive season and corporate gifts, which it has already started on. The team is thus hopeful about demand towards the end of the year.
Back to Earth is also hoping that the lack of Chinese-made products in the market, due to import restrictions, will increase its potential. However, with people being more price conscious, there are other challenges as well.
What comes next
According to Jayampath, the next step is to work with crafters at the National Institute of Mental Health in Mulleriyawa, as they also create certain products. In addition to this, Back to Earth also plans to capture the global market, as the team believes there is a lot of potential out there.
Jayampath went on to add that they want to spread the message that Sri Lankans believe in sustainability, and also reach more disabled communities in Sri Lanka. He also said that he would like to encourage expatriates and those leaving the country to purchase such products.
Photos Krishan Kariyawasam