By Maureen Dunn
I’ll never forget the skeptical look on Manjula’s face as I explained that a skirt above the knee would sell in America. I was her first foreign buyer, and she was accustomed to the more modest hemlines of Indian fashion. That was my entrance into the fair trade community, a global movement committed to transparency in supply chains and ending poverty through equitable trading relationships.
Here’s the backstory. My two best friends and I developed a severe case of wanderlust and found ourselves traveling the world, saving up again, and traveling some more. In order to support my habit, I decided to start a little business, buying things on my travels to then take home and sell. Leather sandals, antique tapestries, colorful bangles, you name it. I was in India buying in the local markets, and I started to question who was making my goods and how much they were being paid. I’d heard about fair trade, and once I looked into it I realized there was a better way to do business. I sought out fair trade cooperatives so I could meet the people who made my products and work directly with organizations making a positive impact on the grassroots level. Soon I not only had unique handmade products, but I also had what felt like a new family with the co-op women I worked with.
Mata Traders now partners with several women’s cooperatives in India and Nepal that train, employ, and empower hundreds of women in marginalized communities. This is what we love about working with them:
The cooperatives are not your standard workplaces. In fact, they equal social service agencies in the support they provide to end the cycle of poverty for the women and their families. Health care, daycare and scholarships for the women’s children, paid maternity leave, retirement pensions, vision testing: all part of the membership package. Social workers on staff assist the women in addressing their personal needs, from opening a bank account to situations of domestic violence and dealing with HIV/AIDS.
There are regular workshops on topics like hygiene and nutrition, reproduction and parenting, and even taboo subjects like child sex abuse. The groups offer literacy classes and computer training, and I’ve seen this educational piece really make a difference. Sidhama told me that before the co-op, she never rode buses because she could not read the bus numbers. Now she travels around Mumbai by bus without problem. The co-ops empower the women to navigate their own lives, quite literally!
This is what we feel is most special about our products. Our garments are individually stitched in small workshops, with one seamstress creating an entire garment rather than repeating the same small action over and over again in a factory production line. Many Mata styles are then carefully finished with hand embroidery in the women’s own homes. Every year when we visit the groups, we take a big stack of our catalogs to show them.
The women eagerly gather around, proudly pointing out the styles they themselves stitched. To get to where they are now, stitching entire garments to exact specifications, the women have put in a lot of work. Their training starts with hand sewing buttons and dolls before moving on to simple machine patterns, like bags, and eventually mastering the sewing machine. If they show leadership skills they can become head of their sewing group or get promoted to positions like trainer, quality checker, materials buyer, or assistant production manager. In a country as socially stratified as India, this type of social mobility in the workplace is a rarity.
India is a traditional society where a woman moves in with her husband’s family after marriage and doesn’t usually work outside the home. She is expected to defer to her husband and often to cover her head in the presence of men. It’s not too bold a generalization to say that upon joining the co-ops, many of the women are shy and timid and haven’t quite come into their own. That soon changes. The women form close friendships, and this environment invites them to open up and come out of their shells.
As co-op social worker Sampada explained: “First they are like, ‘meow.’ But later they are a tiger of the Center!” This newfound confidence and voice carries over into their own communities. Choti was the head of an embroidery group in her rural village. Several years ago the region was experiencing a drought and her village had no water. The villagers had appealed to local officials and been told they would get water trucked in, but weeks went by and nothing happened. Choti and the other women in her sewing group, some 200 of them, organized a protest, blocking the main road for days until, sure enough, the water trucks showed up. Choti told me that it was through the co-op that they had realized their power together and gained the confidence to stand up for themselves.
Admittedly, it was the textiles that inspired me to start importing. I fell in love with Indian block printing before I understood what that was; the aesthetic just grabbed me. When I first started working with fair trade cooperatives I was thrilled to find that they were sourcing artisan-made fabrics, like handwoven ikat and khadi, and the endless variety of hand block prints. We say we use old-fashioned techniques with fashion-forward design, but we are proud to help support the traditional cottage industries of weavers and block printers. Though long since surpassed by factory production, in India there are still many many families for whom this is their livelihood.
I guess I saved the most obvious for last. Fair trade is most known for producers getting a fair price for their goods. The women at our co-ops generally earn a living wage that considerably exceeds the local minimum wage, but they are paid per piece so not everyone earns the same amount. The benefit of this system is that it allows for flexibility in terms of hours and skill level. Some women choose to work part time, and for those who are slower sewers, they will never be fired for low productivity as they would in a factory. The women do exercise control in determining the piece rate, and as the cooperatives are member-owned organizations, they receive a share of the profits.
Something I learned right from the start was that the product’s got to sell. Since that day I asked Manjula to shorten the hemline, my goal has been to translate fair trade principles into fashion that will be successful in the mainstream marketplace. This hasn’t been without its challenges, particularly given the nature of handmade processes in a world where consumers expect factory-like consistency. Recently there has been an expansion of the scope of fair trade into the factory setting. For decades the fair trade movement has been pioneered by small farmers, artisans, and cooperatives, but the designation is now starting to be applied to privately-owned plantations and factories.
Third-party certifiers audit labor practices at these factories and often require some profits be set aside for a worker-controlled community fund. This expansion of fair trade has been met with some trepidation from loyalists who worry that the practice of fair trade will be watered down -- a very real concern. But, with over 97 percent of the American fashion market produced overseas, there are many fair traders who see this as an exciting way to bring supply chain transparency and awareness of fair trade into the mainstream. In the past year, we’ve visited some fair trade factories and are learning more about what makes a factory fair. We hope that both arms of the movement can be appreciated for their impact and at the same time recognized for their differences.
Maureen Dunn is the founder and creative director of Mata Traders, a fair trade fashion label based in Chicago, IL. All you Chicagoans out there, please call your alderman to ask him/her to support the Sweatfree Community Ordinance being introduced in May.