When I visited India in late 2014, and journeyed across the continent tracing the making of cotton garments from the rural cotton fields to the factories of industrial India, my guide and mentor for much of the journey was Ranga. Ranga is a man of the hour. His story is a fantastic one, but one I can tell you later. More pertinent to this particular post is the story Ranga himself tells.
Every time Ranga visits the city of Tirupur in southern India he also visits his parents in a small village about an hour away. Every time he visits his father sits him down and asks him in his own very Indian way whether all the hard work Ranga is putting into pushing the garment industry to be a more ethical, more sustainable one, is really worth the pain. On our particular visit there was a uniquely and beautifully Indian analogy that had something to do with grasping the tails of crocodiles, and there was also this one:
Over that classic southern Indian breakfast of idly and sambal Ranga’s father looked at him across the table and said ‘when the Bengal tiger is hunting in the jungle the languor monkeys chatter loudly to warn all the other creatures in the jungle that danger is near; a tiger is hungry and hunting, they are saying ‘flee’!’ Then he looks at Ranga and says are you the chattering monkey and are the other creatures in the jungle still listening to your warnings?’
As Ranga noted it was hardly a flattering comparison, still it was not a bad analogy for what he and I are trying to do.
When I first created the muka kids model I did it for two big reasons 1) I wanted the market for ethical and sustainable clothing for kids (and ultimately adults) to be bigger, easier to access and well just a bit cooler frankly and 2) I wanted to do my part to address what is some fairly massive scale exploitation of women, children and natural resources by the garment industry. I did not necessarily want to make kids clothes, but it seemed the natural way to achieve these goals, and you know what, with the help of some talented people I got some pretty lovely concepts to sampling stage. With the help of some other really fantastically generous and supportive people I also got to India to find out more about how those clothes were going to be made. I visited cotton farming villages and I was confronted by the scale of desperation there, especially from the women. I got to see how cotton was cleaned, milled, knitted, dyed, cut, sewn and finished. In experiencing how the the ethical and sustainable side of the industry works I became a blind witness to the workings of the other 99% of the industry… the picture of waste and exploitation is a miserable one.
About half way through the trip I lay in my room in rural India, under a mosquito net so low it was touching my nose, muttering to myself and slapping away (mainly imaginary) malaria stuffed mosquitoes. I was confronted by the realities of what I was trying to do, was the way I was going about all this going to work? The voices of the doubters rose like wraiths about me, and my own concerns and fears buzzed away more irritatingly than the mosquitos. We continued on our travels and a new and different India was revealed to me, somehow both more desperate yet more hopeful than the one I had encountered before. I left India with a face coated in Kolkata grime yet already thinking about when I could come back.
At home on my windy Wellington hillside I talked and thought, and wrote and also pushed away a few thoughts. Then thanks in part to a fantastically enlightening conversation with a brilliant mentor and listener Lauri Foon, who has done all this before me, the path became that much clearer. What I absolutely knew was these three things
- The women in the cotton farming villages I visited were desperate for support, specifically access to tools & loans that would enable them to step outside of the subsistence farming system they are trapped by. They have both the ability and the strength to build alternative sources of incomes for themselves and children and prevent the grim downstream effects of poverty in rural communities in India. I wanted to and could do something to give them more opportunity with the help of other women like me.
- The garment industry is woefully, embarrassingly unsustainable, and continues to be so because it works for the industry. It works for them because we buy and consume mass produced cheaper clothing and discard them just as quickly. We do not do this because we actively choose to but because this is the path of least resistance. What I need to focus on is supporting the development of a system where sustainability is the path of least resistance, where buying ethically and sustainably made clothes, especially for kids, is as easy and feels a whole lot better. Not to just chatter about sustainability but to get strategic about supporting it. Incidentally, this is where my skill set lies.
- And finally, what I learnt while I was in India, was there are a lot of people out there making beautiful kids clothes (and adults’) who are driven by the principles of sustainability and care deeply about doing the right thing, while still ensuring their business thrives. Growing that market, supporting these people and their clothes, but also challenging and supporting them to push even further towards a more ethical and sustainable ways of manufacturing is key. In creating another new clothing business I would miss the opportunity to provide such support and lead on sustainability and ethical issues in garment production, as my focus would need to be, by necessity, on the creation and building of that business. Similarly, these enterprises themselves are often looking for ways & means to be more sustainable and ethical but do not have the capacity or funds to further these aspects of their business, or they want to do it as part of a collaborative system where the impact will be greater.
With these three things in mind an evolution in muka kids has occurred. The biggest change being that muka will not be producing new kids clothing, rather we will be an online tool to support and build the trade in sustainable kids clothing, both new and used. In rebooting muka kids we aim to achieve four big things:
1) Improve people’s (your) access to the sustainable & ethical clothing being produced and therefore grow the market for all sustainably & ethically produced clothes. We will do this by removing some of those barriers we all experience when seeking ‘good’ clothes (availability, choice, cost, trust barriers).
2) Reduce the waste from clothing production & use by encouraging the trade in pre-loved (and other discarded) ethical & sustainable kids, and eventually adults, clothing.
3) Provide clothing producers, who want to undertake sustainability improvement activities, with an easy means to do so. We will provide a means for labels to support & reward their customers for diverting clothes they no longer wear from landfill to reuse.
4) Assist women wanting to escape the poverty trap of subsistence cotton farming to develop alternative sources of income to support themselves and their families. We will do this by building up a microloan fund from fees within the platform.
Sounds complicated? Really it is beautifully simple and it looks like this:
What muka kids has now become is what I call a ‘systems solution’. An answer to the problems that ultimately I hope will have a much wider reach than a single clothing label. One which given some time will support the start-up and development of many other labels. While I am sad to turn away from the path that was, I am very excited about starting down the path that will be. I hope you are too and will continue this journey with me. Next post I will give you the details on what’s next. Love to hear your thoughts.