Industrial Ecology is the need of the hour, with a focus on reducing the environmental impact of businesses, organizations and processes on natural ecosystems.

Pranav Mithra, our next pathbreaker, Ecodesign Engineer at Faurecia, calculates carbon emissions from automotive products (seating material, manufacturing and the whole supply chain) with the aim of reducing emissions by increasing operational efficiency, decreasing material usage and reducing wastage. 

Pranav talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from  The Interview Portal about the huge influence of his parents in shaping his career with a holistic approach towards sustainability.

For students, always remember that sustainability is not just an environmental or technological challenge but also a social and business challenge which needs cross-disciplinary solutions !

Pranav, Your background?

My father is a retired professor who spent a majority of his career researching myxomycetes in the Western Ghats. He taught Botany and Microbiology and enjoyed being outdoors. He preached sustainability way before the term came into vogue. My mother was into literature and has always encouraged me to pursue something I love; “even if such a career does not exist, make sure to create an environment that interests you”, she says. So I can say that I come from a background where education and passion is highly valued over all others. Growing up in Hyderabad, I always wanted to work with automobiles and have my own garage one day. There were no inhibitions about the interest I had developed in my childhood towards automotives and this was the kind of environment around me when I was growing up.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2016, which was something that I always wanted to do. I went on to do my master’s in Sustainable Technology in Sweden after a couple of years of work in between. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

There were some really distinct situations and people who had an impact on me through the process of me choosing a career. Firstly, my father played a major role. I can relate to almost all of his conversations about sustainability in daily life even today. Most of the notes he made on textbooks I can read today and find them spot-on; especially those that are about how we can evolve as human beings.

Secondly, my mother who always encouraged me to think differently, especially at the time when the idea of moving into sustainability with a focus on industrial applications was developing in my head. I had no words to explain what I wanted to do but she immediately understood what I meant. She told me to read more of my father’s textbooks and somehow this clear picture developed in my head about what I wanted to do.

And finally, situationally, the major motivation came after I had completed my bachelor’s. At this stage, we often try to see where we fit into the world both in terms of skill set and mindset. I had started working as a quality control engineer at a boiler manufacturing company in Hyderabad with the thought that I can really apply myself and learn as much as possible practically. Of course, this experience was enriching as an engineer, but soon after I realized there were lots of loopholes within an industry especially in terms of efficiency and wastage. The practical part of my brain was telling me that this is common practice and that the waste would be handled by recycling companies and the industry earns enough to spend on the energy it requires. But the logical part of my brain always told me that efficiency and wastage go hand-in-hand and there are opportunities to make the process so much better right in front of my eyes. I had developed this kind of holistic thinking because of my father who had written research papers about sustainability, and I had a front row seat in listening to him talk about these concepts. This definitely made me rethink a lot of concepts that I had already learnt and look for complementary ones that I felt could be essential.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I had started out working as an engineer right after my graduation. Literally, the day after my exams got over, I was at work. My intention was to learn and not expect much in terms of payment. Then once I had understood the way things worked, I started trying to fit in. I realized that implementing a ‘sustainable’ thought process within a complex industry was not an easy task and I required more knowledge in environmental sciences. Once I knew this was the direction that I wanted to pursue, I quit, joined the WWF as a full-time intern to work on environmental projects and tried to apply my analytical brain there. With some amazing guidance, patience and support from the state director of WWF Hyderabad, I understood that environmental problems are much more complicated than we can imagine. As this required formal education before attempting to solve such complexities, I had to do some background research about the education that I required, which led me to pursue my master’s at KTH University, Sweden, the hub for sustainability. This is a unique program that one can apply to with any degree they have, be it engineering, business or sciences. The program offers you an overview about industrial ecology before deep diving into the environmental issues along with courses in problem solving based on technical, managerial or scientific techniques. The electives that are available for the program give an individual much required flexibility in understanding how they want to approach sustainability based on their backgrounds. Me being an engineer, I had picked most of the technical lines, but did not hesitate to educate myself in environmental regulations and management courses as well which are highly sought after inter-disciplinary courses.

The course also required us to do an extensive masters thesis which spans about 6 – 8 months. As I planned to align sustainability with engineering, my thesis was about conducting a comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) of two lubricating greases with a grease manufacturing company called Axel Christiernsson AB based in Sweden. One being a lithium based grease containing petroleum constituents and the other being a polymer grease majorly manufactured artificially. These greases are essentially used in nut runners or torque wrenches; and the aim of the study was to evaluate the environmental impacts of both the variants. The work involved obtaining adequate data from the raw material suppliers, creating a solid system boundary for the evaluation, modeling the constituents of the grease from how they are extracted, transported and processed, to the manufacturing of the greases and how they are used in the nut runners. Finally, the study evaluated the impact of the greases across multiple environmental and technological ecosystems and suggestive remedial actions were suggested and put into place to reduce these emissions. Once I had the theoretical knowledge, I had to scale up my practical capabilities as well and the thesis was the perfect opportunity to do this, making as many mistakes as possible and re-working areas that required it and asking as many questions as possible till the answers were satisfactory.

Once done with my master’s, now it was all about applying myself once again in the world outside! With advanced knowledge in automotive, mechanics and sustainability, it was only a matter of time till I found the place I fit into!

How did you get your first break?

To be honest, it was not exactly smooth sailing for me. I had been to a lot of interviews and applied to many companies hoping to hear some positive replies but I did not get anything solid. So I started working for free as a sustainability consultant with a not-for-profit. I had some projects running on one hand for gaining experience while on the other hand, I was applying for full-time roles in various organizations. Finally, there was an opening for a role in an automotive organization where they had only recently begun working with sustainability issues and carbon accounting. I was willing to take on the task of establishing a team and improving its visibility and this sounded good to the manager and this is how I got my first break.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

There were a few challenges working with sustainability in a world that is highly dynamic and fast-paced. I would call them opportunities because they give us a chance to create solutions to problems that only we know about! 

The first and most important challenge is the way an individual understands sustainability. There are so many definitions; people mistake any ‘green technology’ as a sustainable solution, there is so much greenwashing in everyday life that it is difficult for a person like me who is educated in sustainability to not be upset. But the only way to allow changes to take place within a person is to keep explaining through examples and situations. This is a major blocker and takes up most of my time, in order to make another person aware of concepts related to sustainability.

Another challenge is to explain the ideology that sustainability is not just about carbon emissions and that it includes impact on the entire ecosystem, as the majority of the world currently associates itself to carbon reductions; it forgets to look at other angles. This is called holistic thinking. It is the first thing we learn about while understanding sustainability and the environment. There are always linkages, flows and one impacts another in so many ways. Again, I tackled this situation by demonstrating simulations where the impact of not only carbon, but phosphorus, sulphur, nitrogen, land degradation, water stress, etc. can impact the environment. Through these exercises, I had developed some interesting ideas as well. So it turned out to be a win-win after all.

And lastly, another challenge that still exists is to provide support to those experts who assume they do not want it. Let’s be honest, in India we are always the experts and do not need to listen to another’s opinion on anything. So if I need to correct the knowledge of someone else it is practically impossible. It is funny, because my professors in Sweden are almost 60 years old with ample experiences in sustainability and still ask us to teach them something that we know and they do not! This is still an extremely difficult task for me, but I think the solution is to first ask someone for help. This makes the other know that we are willing to take in the knowledge they have and makes them more open-minded about having a conversation with us even if the facts are incorrect. Aligning to a similar frequency is the first step to making a good partnership and I am working on that now.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I work as an Eco-design engineer at Faurecia Automotive Seating. My work essentially revolves around calculating the carbon emissions from the organization and also the product (seating material, manufacturing and the whole supply chain). This also includes suggesting measures to decrease the carbon emissions by increasing operational efficiency, decreasing material usage and reducing wastage. 

What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills? 

Knowledge about sustainability and the interlinkages between different environmental ecosystems (air, water and land) is of utmost importance in this role, along with knowledge about automotive structures and seating. Apart from this, there is also a requirement to be analytical, and the ability to make quick decisions is much appreciated; often when meeting with a customer who requires explanations about certain details which you have provided that they do not understand. While most of the managerial skills are developed while working with different people and organizations, the technical skills I have developed through my formal education and practicing them repetitively across different products, industrial sectors and through highly interesting conversations with my professors in Sweden who I still talk to even today.

What’s a typical day like?

Usually my day would be like this: I would start my day updating myself about what my colleagues from different parts of the world had discussed the previous day and if there are any high priority tasks I need to work on. Then I make a to-do list of all the calculations and updates that need to be completed for the day which I work on till noon. After lunch, there are meetings scheduled for different projects and we discuss the progress and how we need to proceed further. Towards the end of the day I check the status of my to-do list and make sure to send out emails if needed and after that I am done for the day.

What is it you love about this job? 

My current job balances everything that is currently important for me. I have the right mix of engineering and sustainability to go along with research and development projects which keeps me intrigued. I do something that I had only dreamt of while I was growing up and this passion makes up for 70% of why I love doing this job.

How does your work benefit society? 

We as humans are always in the process of consuming products and an automotive is one of the products that is always in demand. As an Eco-design engineer, my responsibility is to make automotive seats emit as less as possible so that the impact of global warming is reduced in the world. Pretty intense work!

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There was this time when we had to complete an assessment for a customer and the team from France had not met with the customer for almost 6 months. The presentation was on a Friday and the project manager required some updates from me for which he had initiated the conversation one week earlier on the updates. 

That one week of work was the best week I had, we had email exchanges, calls and most of the time did not understand and disagreed on many areas of the project deliverables. It was a back-and-forth process of being on the call, disagreeing with yesterday’s progress, agreeing on the current progress and going back and learning something new to present at the end of the week. It was exhausting at times but we never overdid ourselves and respected each other’s work time and in the end succeeded in presenting to the customer. But more than that, we learnt a lot about mutual respect, being competitive and working for a similar goal.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would say, 100% do what you love. If you have not found it, explore till you do! It’s not the end of the world if you find it later than most or all of your counterparts. You will catch up to things so much faster especially if you love what you do and hold on to it far longer than anybody else. And definitely do not set a time frame for your life.

Future Plans?

I mentioned the garage, didn’t I? That is the ultimate goal for me. But intermediately I can only say that I would want to do a PhD, hopefully in something that particularly piques my interest.