IS SUSTAINABILITY COMPATIBLE WITH INDIA'S GROWING TEXTILES INDUSTRY?
TALLIS HEADS TO INDIA
The textiles industry is a huge source of employment in India. The abundance of resources such as cotton (it’s the world’s second highest cotton producer), as well as labour, has allowed the textiles industry to grow to contribute to 11% of India’s overall exports. The effect this has on reducing unemployment is of course encouraging. Unfortunately, however, the industry offers jobs to both skilled and unskilled professionals alike and it is those unskilled workers who are most vulnerable to mistreatment and poor working conditions, within the industry that is large, factory based and working to economies of scale. In addition, the volume of textiles created in this booming industry needs to be supported by the cotton production at grass roots levels, leaving the cotton production workers exposed to long hours and bad pay. We want to know, can India’s growing textiles/fashion industry be sustained without compromising on standards of sustainable and ethical working conditions and practises?
A designer plots his latest carpet design using a colour grid for weavers who can't read.
After taking part in the hugely successful and inspiring Fashion Revolution week in April, I headed to India for a month of traveling, exploration and sourcing. With the principles of fair trade and working conditions within the fashion industry at the front of my mind, I began a journey to discover the best, most creative and sustainable sides of the textiles industry in India, with a view to instigating future collaborations.
What I discovered in India far exceeded my expectations in terms of the sheer potential for creativity, in both the cities and local villages alike. Being one of the oldest economies in what was once the richest country in the world, naturally lead to a breathtaking abundance of hand-spun textile techniques, using traditional tools and methods, across the country. I encountered skills of weaving, embroidering and dying that had been passed through families for generations, however, it seemed hard to envisage how these skills could be protected in a 21st century economy that encourages mass-scale, fast fashion production.
CARPET MAKING IN AGRA
There were, however, glimmers of hope. For example, in Agra I came across the Kanu Carpet Factory. They explained to us the story of how a few years ago it was noticed that local factories in the area were causing pollution that was damaging the much loved, iconic Taj Mahal monument. The revenue from tourism is hugely important to the area and as the dark smoke was tarnishing the white marble, it was decided that the factories would be closed down.
Two men work on a handloom.
As a result, many of the people from the villages local to Agra became unemployed. Progressively, the Indian Government then devised a scheme that would bring many people back into employment, as well as protecting the skills of handloom carpet making, that had been famous within the area for hundreds of years. They invested in a number of carpet looms, donated them to local villages and offered training. Now-companies such as Kanu Carpets exclusively sell the exquisite carpets they create.
Each carpet, depending on size, can take between 4 and 6 months to complete.
NATURAL FIBRES & TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES
Another encouraging organisation was the Ganga Handlooms company, in Varanasi. Sunil Gupta and his team of weavers and tailors run a fantastic enterprise creating garments, blankets and pashminas using hand looms and natural fibres. In their dedication to traditional working practises and fabrics, over a cup of chai, they will enthusiastically explain how each product is made, to anyone who will listen. Even offering tips on how to spot ‘real’ pashminas, made from natural goat’s wool, rather than synthetic blended fabrics (the trick is to burn a couple of strands of the fibres with a lighter and observe how they combust!). Across the remainder of my trip, I found it interesting watching vendors squirm when I asked for them to complete the test on the pashminas that they were trying to sell me under the pretence of them being 100% natural wool. It is so simple, yet such an important way of raising awareness of how many cheap, imitation scarves are churned out of the industry and in to the hands of unsuspecting customers all across India. The small premium you pay to a company such as Ganga Handlooms, which is slightly more expensive than a stall vendor on the street, guarantees the integrity of the product.
A man works with a handloom.
During my time in India, it became abundantly clear that there need to be more businesses that promote local industry and fair working conditions for employees. This is before even considering a whole other list of worrying issues that I witnessed in the larger corporations, such as signs of decentralisation, bad organisation and poor supply chain management. It seems like the growth of the industry is outrunning its ability to adapt and so, in the interest of sustainable fashion, the textiles industry in India must be improved...and fast. Without developing progressive businesses, such as the Kanu Carpet Factory and Ganga Handlooms, a generation of workers are at risk to being lost to the corporate approach to mass-scale fast-fashion and all the negative working practices that come with it.
- Vicky Maskill, Team Tallis - Geneva 3 August 2016