What makes a dress—manufactured by a Fair Trade-certified company, employing full-time artisans and working with organic fabrics and eco-friendly production processes—more than just a dress?
The question occurred to me when I read Kate Hall’s post last month, asking if sustainable fashion influencers really change the world. Of course, my answer is an emphatic “Yes.”
And here’s why. “Influencers” tell the human and environmental stories behind the Fair Trade tags, the organic fabric designation, and the water-saving filtration systems. Without those stories, without an understanding of the wide impact—much of it hidden—those elements have in the world, a dress—even a Fair Trade-certified dress—is just a dress. The dress gains meaning when the person wearing it feels a connection to the people who made it and understands how their world is changed by the way the dress is made.
Mehera Shaw, a long-time member of the Fair Trade Federation and other ethical employment organizations, is both a clothing brand and a custom manufacturer for other brands around the world. We are best known for the block-printed fabrics made by artisans whose families have been practicing the craft for generations. We’ve been doing business in Jaipur, India, for 10 years.
During that decade, we’ve been striving constantly to reduce our environmental footprint while providing jobs for 35 people. Despite the fact that most of our employees are men, we know that our adherence to Fair Trade employment policies empowers women even beyond those who work directly for the company.
We are empowering women who have never been independent of their fathers or husbands. We are providing an example of a workplace under the leadership of a woman, where female employees are treated equitably. Perhaps most importantly, we’re having an impact on upcoming generations of women in India by encouraging and supporting their continuing education.
Ours is a small example of how the sustainable fashion movement—the dress and how it’s made—is changing the world one garment at a time.
Handcrafts contribute $4.48 billion to India’s economy, and comprise almost two-thirds of the country’s $300 billion export earnings. According to CraftMark, a non-profit organization that authenticates Indian handcrafts and represents more than 80 craft organizations consisting of 20,000 artisans across India, there are 23 million craftspeople in India. Most live in rural villages, are self-employed and barely make enough to support their families—only about 40 percent are wage earners, versus home-based or itinerant workers. In most cases, family members are working alongside the artisan, so the true size of the workforce is unknown.
“Most people who work in the global garment industry are women living below the poverty line. They’re seeking a better life for themselves and their families,” says Rebecca Ballard, who worked as a worker advocate for many years before founding women’s conscious clothing label MavenWomen. “Often these women leave their communities and end up in situations that are far worse than they imagined. It’s so important to support artisan groups, like Mehera Shaw that creates an entirely different narrative, one of a good place to work—with benefits, friendship, training and more.”
Here are some of the ways Mehera Shaw, and other Fair Trade companies, are changing the lives of women.
- We hire women. Most have been in quality control roles, though we also have a female supervisor overseeing the skills program. Mixed female/male workplaces are somewhat unusual in India. We’ve created a safe working situation for women, in which they are treated with respect and acceptance by their male colleagues.
- We are raising money for simple water filtration systems for home-based printers, as well as for our own production facility. Our CleanWater4Artisans campaign will allow us to cut water use by 80 percent, as well as provide clean drinking water for individual homes.
- We train women. Our non-profit Mehera Road Foundation teaches marketable skills in the textile industry, such as stitching, how to follow pattern directions, how to check for quality and the importance of consistency in production. We donate materials used to make up-cycled products, then buy those products—cash up front. Some of the women have confided that their earned incomes have given them new status in their families. Others have said they keep this income separate from other household funds and spend it as they see fit, rather than ceding all decisions to their husbands or fathers.
- Most importantly, we encourage education for daughters as well as sons. Every year, Mehera Shaw makes education loans to employees, which can be repaid through payroll deduction. The company also pays one-third of annual bonuses in the fall, when extra money is needed for tuition and school supplies.
I recently attended a family wedding of one of our employees. A daughter and a niece of Mehera Shaw’s master pattern maker came up to tell me she recently accomplished a big goal: graduating from high school. Our pattern maker, who heads an extended family of 25, now insists that girls in the family be as fully educated as boys. And our master cutter now pays tuition for both his son and daughter to attend English schools. It’s so gratifying to know that we’re having an impact on the future of India through the education of its women as well as its men.
Mehera Shaw is only one example of the impact of sustainable production and Fair Trade practices —full-time permanent jobs, fair pay, pension and insurance benefits, and loans for education as well as medical emergencies—create the stability, safety and security needed for families to thrive. And that’s what makes a dress more than just a dress.