30 billion dollars worth fashion industry, according to the US State Department, is fuelled by a lack of transparency in unregulated production and illegal work practices. Slavery in the fashion world can appear in a variety of forms from harvesting the cotton for a t-shirt, spinning the fiber to yarn, sewing the garment and modeling the final product. The difference between slavery and extremely exploitative labor can be vague and the fashion industry walks a fine line.
In 2013, a building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1127 people who worked for companies that manufacture clothes for big global brands. But with small and local manufacturers it is no different. Much of the labor and backbone of a clothing collection is contracted out to various players and tracing all the steps from raw material to final product proves quite difficult, thus making exploitation and illegal activities get unnoticed.
Enter Peeyush and Leticia, young entrepreneurs from Jaipur who were looking for suppliers for their upcoming merchandises venture.
“We found a significant lack of transparency in the sector. Companies that claimed to produce goods, would buy from someone else. Manufacturers refused to allow producing companies to meet the labors, dodging quality inspection. Artisans were exploited in the entire garment industry. So we decided to ourselves go to rural India and find artisans who’d work directly for us”, says Peeyush, co-founder of Happee, fashion accessories company.
Digging deeper into the subject, they found that although officially there are 7 million artisans in India, unofficially this number was as high as 200 million. (official figures count only the master artisan in that business). Crafts are the backbone of the rural economy after farming. Today, 70% of Indian population lives in rural areas, more than 800 million people, and every Indian state has a different form of handicraft, made mostly by artisans who manufacture in their homes with other members of their family.
Most artisans have a poor educational background, exposing them to exploitation by loan sharks, manufacturers and even customers who often bargain and refuse to see value in intense work.
“Since the industry doesn’t pay well, upcoming generation no longer wants to be in the same profession. Often, many artisans end up moving to bigger cities to be underpaid manual laborers. Combining these factors with the advances of machine-made goods that attempt to copy handmade items like embroidery and tie dye, many crafts are in jeopardy, being less valued over time, putting the whole rural economy at stake”, adds Peeyush.
Sifting through houses in rural Rajasthan and Gujarat, Peeyush started dealing with artisans himself, trying to understand their lives, their needs and pricing structure, to ensure the artisans were paid adequately for their craft. Happee currently works with 10 artisans from 2 states, providing fair wages and improving the products so they reach international quality standards. The company is also working to provide them training sessions about business and finance. The artisans and their work are also promoted via social media and product tags, so as to bring forth the faces behind the beautiful craft.
“Happee was born out of a desire to create a better and happier world, taking unique handmade Indian accessories globally and providing artisans a better life, creating an ecosystem that makes all stakeholders – employees, artisans, customers happy”, says Leticia.
Happee is based out of Jaipur and currently sells online at their own website, with more than 80% of the revenue coming from foreign customers, especially from Brazil, United States, United Kingdom, Italy, and France.
Speaking of the operations, Peeyush says,
“We identify artisans and give them an initial training. Next, we periodically visit them to keep a track of their progress, while guiding the, in latest trends in design, finishing, ergonomics and other aspects which can improve them and make their products more appealing to international customers. We believe in meeting global quality standards when it comes to our product, which we rigorously pursue with the artisans. Right now we are working with fashion accessories, which for us are divided into shoes (mojaris and leather chappals), leather handbags (wallets, tote bags, sling bags and so on – with embroidery and tie dye) and scarves (block printing and tie dye)”
Happee has so far commissioned goods worth INR 6.5 lac while paying higher wages to artisans as compared to others, which has directly contributed to the improved income of artisans. Also, in an attempt to support the education of underprivileged kids, Peeyush and Leticia donate USD 2 for every product sold, and the funds so generated have so far sponsored the education of 5 kids for a year.
Both Leticia and Peeyush have had their set of personal challenges. While the former found it difficult to deal with the male-dominated public spaces in India, the latter faced family pressure to take up stable jobs.
“It’s all worth it, at the end of the day”, says Peeyush, sharing some happee pictures of associated artisans.
For young entrepreneurs who aspire to address the social challenges facing the country, Janhit Jagran is offering a valuable platform to nurture ideas into successful ventures. An initiative by Dainik Jagran, Janhit Jagran is currently accepting entries for ideas that solve a social challenge – projects that solve societal problems through entrepreneurial, creative solutions. Winning projects will sign up for the incubation program and avail funding facilities. Click here to participate.
Cheers to Happee and similar initiatives for working towards solving the problem of labor exploitation, empowering one labor at a time. Do you know of any such initiative? Write to us on [email protected]
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