- Simone Preuss |
It's a sunny day in Goa, a tourist destination most would not associate with the apparel industry. But this is where FashionUnited met Apurva Kothari, founder of No Nasties, India's first 100 percent certified organic fair trade clothing company, to talk more about a supply chain that contains absolutely no nasty stuff like genetically modified seeds, synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, child labour, price exploitation or farmer suicides.
FashionUnited: Apurva, how did No Nasties get started? You mention farmers' suicides on your website - was that the trigger to do something?
Apurva Kothari: Yes. The average rate at which farmers are committing suicide in India is one every 30 minutes, that's 250,000 farmer suicides in 15 years. These numbers were too disturbing for us to ignore. We decided to do something about it and looked at the current initiatives in India to address this issue. We were glad to discover a solution in 'organic' and 'fair trade' farming practices. However, all this work was being done only at the grassroots level. There wasn't enough support for it from the end consumers - from you and me.
So that's how No Nasties came about?
The idea had been in the back of my mind for about 10 years, and then I started five years ago. I had been in the US for 12 years but checked on factories even from there. In India, I went to organic farms and noticed that they were out there but were producing for export. We now work with Chetna Organic, the only farmer-owned cooperative in India that operates in the north, Maharashtra, Andra Pradesh. We started with them up north and then went further south.
What about production?
We also looked around in Tirupur, which is the t-shirt capital of India, making hundreds of thousands of t-shirts a day. Overall, the industry is a big polluter but there are sustainable companies out there as well but they are even more export-oriented. We then tried a small factory in Bangalore, which had really soft products that we liked.
Production was the biggest challenge as they wanted large volumes. And we have to work with big factories because only they can afford the certification - all factories and subcontractors have to be certified. We tried three production houses over the years, but this year we are focusing on one.
How do you make sure the factories stick to the certification and the conditions that were agreed upon?
I visit the factories at least twice a year. We only produce in India. The farmers cooperative produces only certified organic cotton. Ironically, sometimes they sell organic cotton as regular cotton because there is no market for organic. Of course, then they don't get the premium.
What happened after you worked out farming and production?
The reaction to the initial collection was great, which spurred us on to expand our offer. We have a full-fledged clothing brand since last year and plan to offer tunics and wovens next, also kids' clothes from next year, which will be entering a whole new market. We sell through People Tree, a Goa- and Delhi-based marketplace, some smaller stores around the country and the world and our own website of course. We ship internationally.
How do you remain competitive? And aren't people always looking for a good bargain?
People are price-conscious but our prices are affordable; we offer t-shirts from 399 rupees onward (around 6 US dollars). Or prices are good because we are cutting our margins. Imagine then, how can you afford to buy a t-shirt for 100 rupees from Linking Road [the bargain district in Mumbai]? There's nothing left for the factories, the workers. Fast fashion is what's killing it.
What about the competition?
There are no competitors for what we do in India, only collaborators, we are 'the green people' in India.
Does it help to educate the consumer? Is a movement towards buying organic and fair trade to support change under way?
Educating the consumer certainly helps. Our main goal is to get to the consumers. If you look at the chocolate industry in the UK for example, the fair trade ones have really done a good job. Consumers started asking for the product. It took 10-12 years for fair trade to become a movement, but it happened. Levi's makes organic jeans but doesn't sell them here; getting organic into the high street is a challenge in India.
Last but not least, if anyone out there feels inspired, what pointers can you give about setting up an eco label?
Make sure your supply chain is solid, that's the most important thing. Business plans, etc. can be good but it won't work if the supply chain is not solid. Transparency would also be great, as well as certification. Battle scepticism with transparency, be open and honest as a brand.
Images: No Nasties