As we continue to develop the designs for our forthcoming Spring/Summer 2018 collection – which we'll be using as the basis of a Crowdfunding campaign in the new year – we also need to develop our supply chain. After all, these clothes won't make themselves...
As you may have read in my previous blog posts, WYNAD Clothing is a social enterprise whose mission is to address gender inquality through sustainable, ethical fashion. In practice, what this means is that we ultimately have to be very selective with the companies we work with, to ensure they fit our values and help us work towards our mission. It's a case of building an alternative fashion industry to the 'fast fashion' that has become so common and so destructive across the world in recent times.
Through connections we've made in India since arriving here earlier this year, and a huge amount of research, we identified two suppliers in Kolkata that we think could be a perfect fit for WYNAD Clothing. Both of them are Fair Trade certified with sound ethical and environmental practices and seem to suit our criteria pretty neatly.
Fair Trade is a model which spans a variety of industries. It's an agreement to purchase goods from producers (usually in developing countries) at a fair price, so that those producers can pay themselves and their staff properly and afford essentials such as food, education, shelter and healthcare.
In the fashion industry, it's depressingly common for garment workers to be exploited through working long hours, in bad conditions and poor levels of pay.
Although we have some theoretical knowledge of what Fair Trade means and why it's important, we were keen to get a much deeper understanding of it during our trip to meet these two suppliers.
Our first visit is to RCM Organic – an organic cotton mill with GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) certification. We meet Anup, one of the Merchandise Managers and he tells us he's been working in the textile industry for over 20 years. However, he laments that this mill is one of the last remaining garment factories in the city, which much of the industry moving south to cities like Bangalore.
The Mill is a vast complex which can fulfil each stage of the process to turn raw cotton into fabric. It also has the ability to dye and print fabric as well as work with clients to design and produce garments.
Anup guides us through each stage of the factory, introducing us to workers along the way who smile and shake our hands and explain what they're doing with enthusiasm. We get a good feeling that the workforce here are engaged and happy in their jobs - which is an important indicator for ensuring the company lives its values.
There's an almighty roar of power looms and embroidery machines all around us. We meet Master Tailors who talk fondly about their careers, and Production Managers who tell us about new processes for increasing efficiency responsibly. We learn about how the mill is working towards its environmental impact not only by working with organic materials but also with natural dyes and low-impact chemicals. To turn cotton into a fabric to be used on an industrial scale is chemically intense, so mills like RCM have a big role to play in innovating new methods for production.
Finally we meet with Mr Rajat, the Managing Director of the business. We sit down together in Mr Rajats office and over tea he tells us about the beginnings of his family's business. He speaks about the importance of environmental awareness in the industry and the growing demand (albeit largely through an array of small startups) for sustainable fashion.
He also talks proudly about his staff and acknowledges that RCM's Fair Trade accreditation stems from a genuine desire to respect employees as people first. We could see the pride he has in the business and the reputation they are garnering.
We finished our exchange with a hand shake and Mr Rajat encouraging us to "dream big" for WYNAD Clothing.
Based in Kolkata's Red Light District, Sonagachi, Freeset's mission is to provide women who were previously trapped in the city's sex trade with a way out through self-sustaining work. A way to freedom.
Their operation is a garment factory hidden amongst narrow, residential streets and local temples. When we arrive we're welcomed by a smiley local girl who gives us a tour. The building is spread over 4 floors and the women at Freeset make a range of customisable, organic bags and apparel, mainly for small businesses but also for a few well-known brands (we managed to get a sneaky look at some tote bags that had been made for Lush and Chipotle).
Incidentally, they get most of their fabric from RCM Organic across town...!
As we move from room to room, we're greeted by ladies in the middle of a range of jobs from stitching to weaving to printing. Much like at RCM, the teams smile and welcome us and despite the language barrier, there is an undeniable warmth in their reception.
At one point we ask our guide to translate a question to the room: "What is it you like most about working here?" Almost immediately a woman looks up from behind her sewing machine and responds through our translator:
We love working here because it gives us a voice... it gives us freedom.
We were able to spend some time talking with the CEO of Freeset, CJ. Although he has known and been associated with the business for many years in different ways, he was only 6 months into his role when we met. Our conversation covered many topics ranging from the beginnings of Freeset, to challenges they've experienced as they've grown to company culture and staff engagement.
When we ask CJ what it means to the business to be Fair Trade certified, he tells us that there's no doubt the certification adds value and helps to set foundations.
It doesn't stop there for them though. For Freeset, their staff and their culture will always come first. We could feel that from the moment we walked in the building. The place is alive with an infectious energy and we were thrilled to be partnering with them.
In just these two meetings, we had learnt more about the importance of Fair Trade in fashion than any article or book could have taught us. Even so, we're just scratching the surface of what is a huge issue in relation to our plans for WYNAD Clothing.
Businesses like RCM and Freeset are paving the way for the future of a positive fashion industry where people and the planet are treated with respect. We're grateful to have been able to spend some time learning about what they do.
And we're proud to partner with them as suppliers for our upcoming collection.