The New Year always creates a sense of optimism, good intentions to be laid on the clean slate of the months ahead.
This is a good feeling, the promise of the new and the ritual separation of all that has gone before with the as yet to unfold of all that is ahead.
Fashion with its seasonal trend cycles is ritual promise and looking to the future. But there are other cycles of the fashion season, often obscured, such as agricultural ones, where fibres including cotton are grown. It’s the cotton-growing season in India now.
Hence timely to catch up this New Year with Seth Petchers, CEO of Shop for Change (SFC), to update on progress of their pioneering work on Fairtrade cotton for the Indian consumer market.
Seth is American with over 10 years of experience in Fairtrade campaigning in the US. He and his wife have made India their home. It takes single-minded dedication to pioneer a concept like Fairtrade in an emerging consumer market; but also a thinking outside of the box attitude, which both Seth and Founders of Shop for Change (which include veteran grassroots activist Stan Thekaekara) have in spades. In fact, SFC see the booming market as an opportunity to expand Fairtrade beyond established markets like the UK.
Fairtrade begins with a system of certification and set of guarantees, ensuring a better return to farmers. If the cotton is also organic, it commands extra premium for farmers whose livelihoods depend on a small piece of land. Clothes made with this certified cotton have a tag, allowing the consumer a clear way of connecting fashion to a social cause.
Shop for Change has pioneered sophisticated marketing platforms and branding campaigns, lucky to attract the pro bono support of actress Gul Panag, a former Miss India. For her 2011 coming of age film Turning Thirty, Gul saw that the cast wore SFC logo-emblazoned t-shirts at promotional events.
Seth emphasises the importance of people like Gul in creating awareness. She has over 250,000 twitter followers, her tweets about SFC mean massive spikes in hits on our website, he says.
SFC has also recognised the importance of designers like Anita Dongre, who creates boho-chic and cocktail dresses, as well as practical separates in SFC certified cotton. Seth reflects with evident pride that Dongre’s dedicated following of affluent, middle class clientele, now ask store managers for garments with the SFC tag. In 2011 it was a mark of success that across Dongre’s five brands, some 60 to 70 per cent of the higher end diffusion lines, Grassroots, Interpret and Timeless were made from Shop for Change cotton.
The shift towards organic as well as Fairtrade cotton reflects concerns with cotton’s impacts upon human health and the environment.
In India, people love cotton, it lets the skin breathe, it’s natural, perfect for hot summers here, they say. But cotton isn’t natural if one considers the massive amounts of pesticides used in its production. The Environmental Justice Foundation reports that in India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54 per cent of all pesticides used annually, despite occupying just 5 per cent of land under crops. Pesticides include chemicals such as lindane, a neurotoxin that can cause cancer and disrupt the hormonal system in humans. Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment released a report, which cited high levels of pesticide residues in India’s food supply.
Pesticides are linked to widely reported farmer suicides where small farmers in drought prone areas such as Andhra Pradesh are sold seeds by large agrochemical companies. These seeds produce crops that need massive inputs of water and pesticides (also sold by the agrochemical companies). Farmers without access to bank credit borrow from local money lenders at massive usury rates, when crops fail, farmers are left destitute, the rest is history. A niche of consumers increasingly care about this. On their part, some business managers and fashion retailers are aware that it makes business sense to promote more positive ways of producing fashions seasonal cycles. For Seth, the brands that have signed up to SFC cotton see the value in differentiating their product, and score on consumer loyalty. SFCs latest brand tie up is with Raymond-owned menswear stalwart Colour Plus resulting in smart polo shirts. A recent collaboration with Mumbai-based t-shirt brand No Nasties offers something decidedly funky and recognises the growing consumer influence of young professionals.
The challenging thing with branded garments, he says, is to work with the seasonality of fashion, where every few months new collections are produced. And although Seth is often to be seen posing for photos at brand launches his comfort zone is visiting farmers in rural India often accompanied by Gul and fellow SFC celebrity supporter, actor and photographer Parvin Dabas.
In an imperfect system, Fairtrade has many detractors. It is often easier to rage and do nothing, lost in a maze of tired-old recycled relativist ethics, than it is to face up to the limitations and do something, even small. What SFC asks the consumer to do is buy something fashionable, delightful and beautiful, which will also give someone a better chance at survival, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask when perhaps so much more should be questioned. India’s challenges depend upon the ability to harness the massive transformations it is currently undergoing for a fairer distribution of the wealth it is generating. Fairtrade, a social movement with a free market spirit demonstrates one way in which the consumer boom could begin to enable a fairer spread of the good life to more people.
So with the year ahead, and so many fashion collections to look forward to, it’s the cotton season for small Fairtrade farmers upon which I will be making some News Years resolutions.zz
(The writer is luxury editor at Financial Chronicle. She is an anthropologist with expertise on luxury and sustainability and is currently writing her doctoral thesis on Indian fashion)