When you walk into a grocery store, you have lots of options: there are fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products, packaged foods; the list goes on. For every category, you can find an alternative that is organic, non-GMO, fair trade, natural, local, grass-fed, cage-free, or any other similar descriptor found right on the label of the item you pick up. We generally value information about what we put in our bodies and are increasingly considering the sustainability of its sourcing.
However, when it comes to what we put on our bodies, we have less information and pay less attention; we don’t thoroughly consider the sustainability implications of our clothing. That was one issue UVA students Jane Hammaker and Shafat Khan, along with fellow students Malvika Jain and Raghav Savara, wanted to address when co-founding Shakti Apparel, a registered limited liability corporation partnered with the Raj Lakshmi Stitching Center in the small village of Tahtajpur, Uttar Pradesh in Northern India.
It all started when Jane, who will complete her master’s degree in public policy this spring, took an internship with Mrida Group in New Delhi, India, in the summer of 2017. Mrida is a social business venture that promotes development in rural southeast Asia. Jane worked with several of their projects, one of which was a program training village women to sew and eventually independently operate a completely women-run stitching center that sews palazzo pants.
When talking to the women in the stitching center, Jane was surprised to find that “they were really passionate about their work but they didn’t have enough of it. It struck me as odd, especially since there are so many opportunities to get a job around UVA.” So Jane decided to order some pants and take them back home to sell to her friends. “I was totally shocked by how fast I was able to sell them, especially since I’m not really a huge salesperson. I thought, ‘You know, we might have something here.’” Upon returning to the US, Jane paired up with Shafat, who will earn his bachelor’s in economics and social entrepreneurship this spring, and began their business with UVA students as their primary customer base.
From the beginning, Shakti, like any other business, has faced sustainability tradeoffs: “Our initial prototype was made of rayon, which is one of the least environmentally friendly fabrics, but it’s soft and it was what we could afford at the time,” Jane explained. “We found out that rayon’s not very sustainable and got some customer feedback saying the same thing. In developing our second prototype we used a cotton/rayon blend which was what we could afford to pay for more for a more sustainable product.” As the business expands, they are trying to move toward 100 percent cotton or explore other fabric options.
For the patterned pants, Shakti sources its printing from an NGO in New Delhi that works with women living in urban slums. “We pay a little bit more for that, but we know that we are creating work for more women who want and need it. We aren’t just going with a low-cost printer.”
“Another decision we had to make was on our dyes,” Jane continued. “We’ve invested in a vegetable-blend dye. There’s no way to dispose of dyes sustainably in the village; there’s no chemical recycling plants or anything like that, people just dump everything down the drains in front of their houses, including excrement. We wanted to use a dye that can just be tossed away.”
Shakti has also started using fabric scraps from the palazzo pants line to make headbands. Jane noticed that “after the fabric would be cut to make the pants there would be a ton of leftover fabric waste. They were literally just throwing it out of the stitching center because there’s no waste management system in this village.”
“That’s something that I’m really proud of,” Shafat said. “Another big issue associated with fast fashion is clothing waste. We turned our waste into headbands, which helps our margins, but, more importantly, gives the women more work and more income.” Jane added: “It ended up being a really valuable thing for everyone involved. We didn’t have to pay for extra fabric for this new line of products.”
As the business has developed, Shakti has had to consider such sustainability tradeoffs. “Most major brands tend to sacrifice the human aspect of production for the best fabrics and the best products, sacrificing all of these human lives,” said Shafat, who is from Bangladesh, citing the 2013 Rana Plaza incident in which a garment factory collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring some 2,500 more.
“There’s organic food and discourse about how we treat animals and some people care about animals, some people don’t, but these are humans. These are people who are getting treated terribly every day,” Shafat emphasized, speaking of the sweatshop-like conditions in unsafe buildings, long hours, low wages, and abuse that occurs in the garment industry that predominantly employs women. “This is not normal, and the challenge is that no one here knows. Like if I showed someone the documentary The True Cost, they would say, ‘Oh, I had no idea this was going on.’”
In addition to the poor working conditions and low pay, “If you go to any fast fashion company’s factory, the workers dread going in to work. They don’t even know where their products are sold,” Shafat said. Jane added: “At our stitching center, we can show the stitchers pictures and our Instagram and our website of the products they made and who’s enjoying them. That’s a huge motivator for them.” This is a relationship that most people don’t have with their clothes. Even just browsing Shakti’s website, there’s a section devoted to their stitchers so consumers can see who made their pants and have a sense of connection with the production process.
Shakti’s model has sought to provide ethical labor and skills development opportunities to the village women whose traditional life path primarily leads to marriage. Shafat explained that instead, the women can “become the income generators for their families. That suddenly leads to empowerment. Because you have extra income, you can go to your family and say, ‘I don’t want to be married right now, I’m already earning for myself’ and for the parents that logically makes sense.”
Having a skill set and a source of income leads to independence and opportunity. However, it’s not worth much if there isn’t demand from companies like Shakti. “Building a company around the practices of what it should be is really important,” said Shafat. “Right now, ethical apparel is a way for companies to charge a premium. It’s seen as something cooler, or more hip, but it should be a standard. Companies right now look to South Asia for cheap labor to keep margins low, but that’s not how it should be.”
Shafat insists that mainstream brands need to make serious changes to make ethical clothing accessible. “If you give someone a $10 option versus an $80 option, especially if it’s a college student, why would they buy the $80 one? It’s definitely the brand who needs to step up and say, ‘This is how it’s made,’ or at the very least not lie about being fair trade and say that they practice ethical principles.
“There’s no affordable ethical brand out there. I don’t believe in blaming consumers because they’re only going to buy what’s provided,” he added. “Being affordable is so important, and I think we’ve done that pretty well.”
He also qualified that with some research, there are ways to verify the sourcing of your clothing. “There are ethical fashion bloggers and websites out there. There’s an interesting new startup called Humruk who are working to build a platform where you can shop knowing that everything is going to be ethical. It’s like going to a natural foods store; you know everything is going to be well-sourced.”
Images courtesy of Jane Hammaker, Shafat Khan, and www.shaktiintl.org