Godrej is literally a household name in India. In a vast nation of more than 1.2 billion people, where differences of creed, language, caste and class are an enduring challenge, hundreds of millions of households either own or aspire to own a Godrej cabinet to store the family’s most precious possessions.

When I told Indian friends I would be interviewing industrialist and philanthropist Jamshyd Godrej, the chairman and leading benefactor of WRI India, many responded by sharing an affectionate memory of a high-quality Godrej product in the home of their childhood. Try thinking of a U.S. brand that inspires a similarly fond emotion. I can’t.

Next my friends told me about the Godrej family’s philanthropic activities, especially their preservation of vast tracts of mangrove that protect Mumbai, India’s financial hub and home to 22 million people, four out of 10 of whom live in flood-prone informal settlements, from coastal storms that would otherwise take an even greater toll in the low-lying city.

Some also mentioned that the Godrej family are Parsis, members of a tiny Zoroastrian community that has played an outsize role in India’s economy, entertainment industry, armed forces and the independence movement to end British rule. I learned from a Parsi friend that Jamshyd’s wife, Pheroza Godrej, is co-editor of several books, including a landmark 2002 volume of more than 700 pages titled "A Zoroastrian Tapestry - Art, Religion and Culture.

Mangroves and Clean Tech Investment

Finally, I learned from Google that the 2012, Forbes listed Jamshyd and his cousin, Adi Godrej, among the world's 10 billionaires with the largest investments in clean tech companies or an environmental preserve (those mangroves again!). Jamshyd is also chairman of Ananta Centre (formerly known as Aspen Institute India) and president of World Wide Fund for Nature - India, as well as being a past president of the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Indian Machine Tool Manufacturers’ Association. I was starting to get a little nervous about the scheduled interview.

I had imagined our meeting in Mumbai would be atop one of the city’s gleaming new skyscrapers. Instead my car stopped at a modest six-story building that I would soon learn has been upgraded to meet LEED standards and has a tree-studded green roof with sweeping views of the Mumbai skyline.

The modest reception area, where two assistants tapped on laptops and occasionally answered a cell phone, had none of the trappings I expected for a man whose day job is serving as the chairman of Godrej and Boyce Mfg. Ltd, the holding company of the Godrej Group.

Jamshyd arrived precisely on time and ushered me into his modest office, where three large black-and-white photos of the Godrej Group’s founders hung on one wall. In the center was Jamshyd’s great uncle Ardeshir Godrej, who at the start of the 20th century laid the foundations for the family fortune by manufacturing high-quality locks in response to expensive but low-quality British products.

“The high-quality, made-in-India locks were more than just a useful product,” Jamshyd told me. “They were an early assertion of India’s rising ambition to be economically free.” Today the Godrej Group is a diversified India-based multinational with annual revenues of $4.1 billion in industries as diverse as real estate, consumer products, industrial engineering, appliances, furniture, security and agricultural products — and 25 percent of its business outside of India.

"Sustainability Is A Business Opportunity"

WRI India’s Mumbai offices are located in a former Godrej lock factory in the city’s former industrial center.

“Sustainability has been at the core of our thinking and operations for many decades,” he said. “But in recent years we have taken a more formal approach. This is based on our belief that sustainability is a business opportunity rather than an additional cost.”

“If we are to provide for today’s and tomorrow’s needs without environmental degradation, new processes that use fewer natural resources and produce markedly less pollution or waste per unit of production have to be developed,” he said.

Next day in the product display room at a Godrej compound on the outskirts of Mumbai I saw a Godrej-built rocket of the type that successfully launched India’s Mars Orbiter—the first Mars mission by an Asian nation. In the adjacent Godrej Design Center I chatted with two young inventors at work on a solar-powered mini-fridge cold enough to store heat-sensitive vaccines during their delivery to rural villages.

Before leaving, I was invited to visit the mangroves, often called the “lungs of Mumbai.” Looking across the mangroves, we could see the Godrej Industries compound in the distance. This juxtaposition seemed a fitting symbol for the Godrej approach: proof that development and protection for the planet can indeed go hand in hand.

Want to know more? Listen to the audio podcast of my interview with Jamshyd Godrej.