A long way from the Sweatshop. Challenges in Ethical, Sustainable Fashion.
We produce a significant number of our beautiful handwoven scarves in Siddhipur, Kathmandu. As part of our commitment to ethical and sustainable practice, I recently visited our workshops to ensure that our standards are being met and to continue to build on our relationships there. We have a fantastic partnership with the workshop owner in Nepal and together we are always striving to do things as well as we can.
We are privileged to be part of the resurrection of the craftsman in Nepal, rekindling skills that were in danger of being lost when the production of cotton goods became mechanised and the skill of hand weaving started to become devalued. Thanks to the workshop owner and her team, these skills have been transferred from handweaving cotton, to the yarns of our scarves- such as Yak, Camel and cashmere.
On my first trip to the workshop, I was struck by the cleanliness and order there. It was a welcome oasis amongst the crazy clutter, chaos, noise and dust that exists outside in the city streets of Kathmandu. Our Master weavers in Nepal, Yamin and Sachin are men, originally from Bangladesh. Before weaving they prepare the warp according to my design and translate my ideas from paper to cloth. The dye master has a team who are responsible for colour matching according to our designs, using eco friendly dyes from Switzerland.
The weavers are currently mostly men, as they are deemed to be stronger and faster than the women. Each weaver can produce 6-15 scarves a day depending on the design and the weaver’s skill and speed.
Currently, the majority of the spinners in the workshop are women. The luxury yarn for our Yak and Camel scarves is spun on traditional spinning wheels in the workshop. This creates an amazing texture and gorgeous hand-feel to the finished product.
It is perhaps easy to look at the division of skilled work between men and women and feel a jarring against our innate sense of gender equality yet, our priority has to be to support both men and women at work and to encourage the increasing number of women that are now succeeding as weavers to inspire the next generation of skilled craftspeople.
Working within a setting with a different culture and work ethic is a process that takes patience and respect to understand. Relationships have to be nurtured and we are proud to be a part of this. Our weavers work a six day week which is standard here but are paid an above average salary plus overtime after their initial training and trial period.
There are many holidays in Nepal and one of the workshop challenges is that a public holiday is often called at a day’s notice. Imagine- you have a scheduled order due with a deadline for the next day and suddenly your whole work-force disappears! There are up to 74 public holidays in Nepal and festivals are an important part of the culture. Wages are often saved to spend on these culturally important occasions.
The workshop employees also need to take time off during the rice crop harvest season. Traditionally weaving was a seasonal job that was worked around the harvest. However, since the weaving workshop is an all year round enterprise, it's another challenge when your staff have different work priorities for a period in the year. Indeed, the mentality is very different in Nepal to any country I have visited on the manufacturing side. They work to live rather than live to work, which is such a positive way to achieve balance in your life- it is hard not to ‘get’ this, despite our culturally ‘driven’ background.
Working in this way is not the easy path. In order to support these incredibly skilled and talented Artisans we have to find ways to work that respects their culture, whilst at the same time fostering a sense of pride and commitment to their craft and the business, of which they are a part. It is a long way from the sweatshop mentality that I have seen in many manufacturing environments and I am privileged to be a part of a working practice that strives to create a partnership between its workers and the customer, for gender equality, fair wages and a work life balance.