And on the 10th day we had a wee lie down….
Since leaving Wellington we have been on a fairly intensive schedule speeding our way around India from bottom to top (check out the photos as we go). Now we are in Kolkata I finally have some time to sit down and write a few reflections on the journey so far. Not many mind, as really I will need physical and temporal distance from India to absorb and understand a lot of what I have seen and experienced. So more esoteric thoughts later I think!
We have now seen the entire chain of cotton clothing production spanning almost the entire continent of India.
We have had the privilege of meeting with 2 of the 84 small villages of organic fair trade cotton farmers in the state of Orissa and heard their sobering stories of subsistence farming and hope and despair. I feel proud of myself and Paul for having made the journey and heard their stories and totally welcomed by the people, but overwhelmed by the realities they face every day (I can talk more on that later and how fairtrade helps and where they need more).
We saw how raw cotton is ginned, seeds removed and it is bailed into lint in Orissa and then trucked across the continent to one of only two fairtrade organic cotton spinning mills in India
In the countryside south of Tirupur (36 hours away from Orissa by train) we saw how the raw cotton lint is cleaned and carded and combed and spun and knitted into fabric. The spinning machinery was huge, excessively noisy, VERY alarming, and frankly dangerous as hell, but this is India so we were encouraged to wander all over the show and between massive spooling machines winding cotton at thousands of revolutions a minute. I was alarmed. No one else looked alarmed. I played it cool but counted all my fingers and toes when we got out. Spinning factories have their own story to tell about their labour force.
In Tirupur proper we saw the fabric being dyed in huge dying machines, softened and then dried and trucked across the city to the garment factories. Ten of the dying facilities do organic dying out of more than 200. We saw here how at GOTS approved dying factories the waste water is treated, and neutralized and returned into the factory system, in other factories in the area it is not, it goes into the surrounding soil, and these factories are situated in the countryside with large areas of wasteland around them (the government has made moves to address this recently). We then moved to the garment factories in Tirupur (or knitting city). These factories (small and large) occupy every single ramshackle building of this city of 4-5 million mostly transient workers. In these factories we saw workers checking the fabric, cutting, sewing, printing, ironing and packing garments. Marks and Spencer’s alone orders 12 million garments from factories in the city PER season. Of all the garments made in all these factories 17% will never get to market and go straight to landfill.
In this whole chain less than 1% of the clothing produced is ethically made from fairtrade and organic cotton.
In between all of these mind expanding life changing experiences, we hurtled through the Indian countryside by car (this cannot be described, imagined or even understood- only endured), by train (a combination of hilarity, malodour, discomfort and intrigue) and by rickshaw (just plain fun).
We have met and talked with people living here in India who are really passionate about improving the garment industry and the lives of the many people involved. They have shared with me their vast knowledge and experience, and I feel privileged to be given some of their insights. They are both hopeful and fearful of the future. They look both inwards to the industry and outwards to consumers to help change things , while working tirelessly at “wrestling the crocodile” themselves.
At one stage we realized our change of plan had taken us straight to the high risk malaria zone without antimalarial medications. I was very friendly with a bottle of deet and wore way more clothes that I was happy in in 32 degree heat, but the mozzies stayed away!
Now we sit in our room in Kolkata, an oasis of calm and cleanliness, and listen to the frantic tooting of the 5 million plus cars on central Kolkata roads. We go on in the next few days to visit another garment factory here and talk with some enterprises working with marginalized and poor women here in the city.
While my thoughts are not coherent at this stage, I hope the photos I post paint a picture of the experience for you in the interim.
Jess Berentson-Shaw is the founder of the social enterprise muka kids. A fairtrade organic clothing line for kids with a pay it forward twist that aims to improve the sustainability of kid’s clothes and the lives of women involved in the clothing production chain.