UL Responsible Sourcing thanks Indigo Handloom’s Smita Paul for insights into her artisanal hand-crafted Indian textiles group, which belongs to the industry commonly referred to as the Unorganized Sector. We met in May 2018 in Vancouver at the Full Members Meeting of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which has developed monitoring tools that are manufacturer-led. Within this initiative, self-assessments of production site conditions are verified by Third Parties and these are shared amongst member brands and retailers on a closed members-only platform.
Jude Mackay, UL Responsible Sourcing: What is your brand Indigo Handloom all about?
Smita Paul, Indigo Handloom: I launched Indigo Handloom in 2003 with a mission to change the fashion world, which is the second largest polluter next to the oil industry. The fashion industry has up to 8000 different chemicals at their disposal: many of them known carcinogens and many of which are unregulated. At minimum, an average cotton shirt goes through 20 different chemicals processes before it rests on your skin. The textile industry – which is mostly powered by coal — uses approximately 132 million metric tons of coal per year worldwide just to weave the cloth. This does not include the sewing of the garment. In contrast, making handloom cloth doesn’t need to consume even one piece of coal: just the energy and expertise of our artisan weavers. If you compare the energy needed to make two shirts – one with machine-milled cloth, one with handloom – there is enough energy saved to power a small laptop for 8 hours. I was especially motivated to join the handloom sector when I realized that India’s signing of the WTO trade agreement meant a commitment by India to cease its subsidizing of domestic industries. This contradicted India’s 1970s campaign to support Indian weavers, when India’s government was significantly more socialist: during this period, the government set up training centers and supplying marketable designs and quality yarns, assurances of work, and a retail network. Prior to India’s WTO commitments, a large budget allocation was assigned to handloom workers, but this is now no longer a government-protected sector. I wanted to create a perception of value for India’s handloom weavers. I wanted to be part of the solution.
Jude Mackay, UL Responsible Sourcing: Smita, our conversations at the SAC meetings in Vancouver were fascinating. We were surrounded by brands-retailers that want to see their apparel and footwear supply chains self-assess their production sites and verify their own assessments. How does the SAC model apply to your sector? Is the Higg Index useable in its current format?
Smita Paul, Indigo Handloom: We joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) just before the Vancouver meeting in May. Indigo Handloom has been working with an American brand SAC member for a decade now, and this customer encouraged us to join. I heard about the group last Fall, and I am keen to work with the Higg Index: I want to see how this can be applied to hand-weaving. Our customers are those who have already made a commitment to sustainability: we are looking to find more partnerships to appreciate our [handloom] industry. Our handwoven textiles are low impact, and very soft: we use a rice starch (just rice and water) which allows our delicate yarns to be woven with strength, and this starch is washed out when the fabric is finished. In comparison, the softest mass-produced cotton involves using chemicals to remove impurities to flatten yarns to be able to go through giant mills, but we use a hand-combing process which has no water or air pollution. The world seems to be moving toward man-made fibers and mass-produced cloth, but the handloom sector deserves a piece of the pie. I needed a “seat at the table”. I’m still working out how we can use the Higg Index tools. We are beginning to work with a dyeing chemicals supplier we met at the SAC meetings. We don’t currently use natural dyes as we found that the color fastness to washing and dry-cleaning could not be controlled: but we use low impact dyes and azo free dyes. Our SAC member customer has a social project in one of the villages we work in and the dyehouse used was inspected by their team. At the SAC conference, we saw everyone looking to the future, and talking about spider silks and hi-tech solutions for the destructive nature of the clothing business. But Indians have always had a tradition of making our own fabrics in a low-impact way, like Gandhi and his civil disobedience “khadi” crank-mechanism spinning wheel handwovens, and we should be looking back to explore how things were done pre-industrial revolution.
Jude Mackay, UL Responsible Sourcing: What are the typical risks you see in your sector? And what issues do you work on now?
Smita Paul, Indigo Handloom: First of all, the flow of orders is precarious. It takes multiple companies to be involved in buying handloom textiles; but our weavers are free to take orders from all sources. We can execute large volume. Aside from our SAC customer, we supply two large [American based] department stores that retail our products, and we occasionally receive special make-ups orders [SMUs] from them; and, another American brand, a denims multinational, recently retailed a beach cover-up of ours to 3000 units. We are ready to scale our international buyers’ orders. I want to work with other brands, as well as developing my own brand. I do believe the mass market can look to handwovens. We work with master weavers via contracts. The master weavers, or “suppliers”, bundle out the work to as many as 9 levels of production throughout handweaving villages in four textiles cluster states in India: this creates 9 times as many employment opportunities as a mechanized scarf manufacturer. The master weaver is just the top of the fabrics supply chain, and our business supports 500 weavers. Many women are employed in these jobs, and we see a fairly even gender split among weavers. I could easily expand [business]. But we need to work with several hundred boutiques to scale to a serious impact level. Timeliness to western quality expectations is expected, and we can achieve these commitments. We want more work to afford the weavers to work full-time throughout the year. We suffer a misconception that handweaving yarn is low quality, and therefore should be low cost, and perhaps this impacts our potential flow of orders. Yes, fashion can be made cheaply and quickly, but a superior handloom is expensive. Most people think that “Khadi” handspun is uneven and nubby, the roughest and cheapest type, but textiles experts can show you hundreds of variations in quality and design. We wanted to change the perception that handloom meant uneven yarn and low-end product. Most Indians who work for Western brands have never worked in this space [of handloom weaving]. Many Indians in India don’t know about the variety of handloom quality and where the handweaving villages are: it’s under the radar. Typically, government-run organization would take finished designs and saris and number them for sale in government-run shops, in nearby cities, so few of them made it to Delhi, Mumbai, or beyond India. I felt that it was necessary to elevate handloom to a luxury status and it had to be high-end product [to be attractive and economically sustainable]. But as I mentioned, we use very soft yarns and are able to stabilize their use through the weaving process naturally. We keep quality consistency with our master weavers via a quality control system, and perform color, fastness and physical performance tests to buyer requirements. We understand these fabrics, and how to keep quality consistent.
Secondly, literacy rates are around 65% for India’s women and girls. Typically, we see fourth-grade education levels. Master weaver work is controlled with a “challan” paperwork system, to log how much work has been distributed: we found that all weavers can sign their name and perform simple arithmetic to summarize their expected pay. It’s a cash society, but there is a paper trail. We don’t have a language barrier to communicating expected quality levels: we write a quality manual in local language/dialect, and this is used throughout the chain. We decided to train workforces and we found working directly with villagers helped to get things done. Where we found quality inconsistency was high, we explained this, to reduce the rejection level, and the village weavers adapted to our expectations. We created a zone of higher quality.
Thirdly, our supply chain can be vulnerable to the monsoon season. We add some weeks to production timelines in monsoon season and communicate this to our buyers to make sure they understand that we have make allowances for local natural challenges. But weaving takes place throughout the year, and regardless of harvest.
Jude Mackay, UL Responsible Sourcing: The domestic contemporary ethnic wear brand market manufacturing is perceived to be located in remote villages away from city centers and resources, and to be poorly governed with low transparency. What are the typical differences you see between mass market supply chains and the Unorganized Textiles Sector in India?
Smita Paul, Indigo Handloom: One of our American buyers mapped our supply chain producing their goods. If there is a dispute, it’s hard for us to hear about it beyond India: weavers would not be able to raise concerns to clients. But through mapping, and regular trips to the weaving villages, we now feel that the villagers can talk to us. There is complete freedom for the weavers to work with any trader, and they are self-employed, so have freedom to choose to take work from us or not. Villager women take multiple sources of work, and they are paid a day salary and final piece salary. Typically, migrant workers move to mass manufacturing hubs in the cities, but [with handloom weaving], the suppliers take the raw materials in to weavers’ villages, so they stay within their family networks, and are homeworkers: there is no transportation risk, and they can keep their children close. We don’t see Sumangali, [bonded female child migrant labor working for end-term dowry savings]. Our sector is not to be confused with the handweaving carpet sector: we use a pit loom (an old-fashioned wooden loom) which can only be operated by adults of a certain height. It is a fluid group of people, but our traders are 2 groups of weavers we’ve been working with for 15 years, within a 50 miles radius.
About Smita Paul, Founder of Indigo Handloom: Smita is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, who joined The Cincinnati Enquirer in the early Nineties. An American-born Indian, she first visited India at 26, visiting a village in her capacity as a reporter, to research the silk industry, and toured silkworm cocoon markets, spinning mills, and handweaving villages. She saw Ikat hand-weaving, indigenous to the area, and was struck by how impressive complex patterns were being hand-knotted into hanks and dip-dyed prior to weaving: one tiny mistake and the weave would be ruined, she couldn’t believe the quality of the fabrics. These workers could produce traditional designs by memory without computers or designs. Many were illiterate. The villages had no electricity. Why was nobody in the West giving these artisans work? This deserved to be honored and studied. Smita had many questions, like, ‘how does this get to market?’, and, ‘how are the weavers paid?’. She quit journalism and started Indigo Handloom, not sure of the direction the company would take but with the aim to promote handloom weavers. Nobody was interested in the ten weeks’ lead time it took to deliver her own designs, so she decided to market the weavers’ work. It took some time to find customers, as few were interested in social enterprise at the time. But then she realized the interest in reduced environmental impact: like ‘how much energy does a college shirt take to produce?’. Typically, a third of the energy used to create a clothing item was in the weaving stage, via the geo-thermal powered mill process: but if handwoven, this was avoided. Migrant populations are overwhelming cities and are incredibly vulnerable: and when women move from their villages, they are also landless. Conversely, handloom is the second largest employer in India, after farming, and is executed in communities with very little electricity and only well-water supply. Her personal goal is to save a portion of this craft. Every time somebody asks, ‘what is handloom?’ another light will go on in India. She does this because of [her] experience with the people who weave.
About Indigo Handloom: Indigo Handloom has been designing handwoven scarves and fabrics since 2003, via over 500 weavers in rural India, using ancient techniques. Our work helps to revive the traditional textile arts of khadi (hand-spun yarn) and handloom weaving while supporting community development. We are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of the world of textiles. Everything we offer is made on an ancient handloom, without electricity or emissions, and therefore requires no energy source. Indigo Handloom’s cloth uses organic cotton that is hand-picked, non-GMO and certified GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard), as well as linen and silk, and all are ginned in a slow contamination-free process with a variety of low-impact dyes. We are looking to the past for answers to enhance our global textile industry while minimizing our environmental impact. Indigo Handloom works with some of the industry’s finest brands and retailers, with sales at over 300 sites worldwide, as well as producing client-specified designs.
UL experts provide regular contribution to blogs of interest to the Consumer and Retail Services community. Join the discussion and learn from your peers.