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India Pushes More Ethical Supply Chains

The trend toward more ethical supply chains and more sustainable apparel is a global one, and in India it means more consumers are adopting traditional handloom clothing.

Sunday, Aug. 7, marked the first ever National Handloom Day in India, part of the government’s effort to support local craftsmanship of hand-woven fabrics in the face of competition from cheaper, machine-made copies.

The sustainable, eco-friendly handloom process is experiencing a revival of sorts.

“There’s a greater desire among the youth and the middle class, who are frustrated with dirty politics and crooked companies, for something better,” Arvind Singhal, chief executive of retail consultancy Technopak Advisors, told Reuters. “Having a greater sensitivity to people and the environment is ‘in,’ and people are even willing to pay a small premium for what they perceive to be ethical and responsible.”

Pressure to cut costs and speed up deliveries is part of what led to the lessened uptake of handloom fabrics in the first place, and domestic demand dipped as many households can’t afford the higher-priced products for much more than special occasions.

But India’s Ministry of Textiles is trying to turn that around.

The handloom industry is the second largest provider of jobs for rural India, according to a recently released market research report, and the government is undertaking to preserve it.

The first step will be to properly promote it. The study found that many consumers can’t tell the difference between handloom fabric and cotton, availability hasn’t extended to platforms like e-commerce where more and more of these shoppers are making their purchases, and many are seeking more contemporary looks, whereas handloom goods have steadily erred on the side of traditional.

Handlooms are also eco-friendly, organic and sustainable—another selling point that has become increasingly relevant among younger consumers, especially.

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As part of promoting handloom products, the government launched the India Handloom Brand to brand the high-quality handloom products with “zero defects and zero effect on the environment,” according to the Textiles Ministry. Handloom manufacturers will now be able to register for the India Handloom seal, demarking the product’s authenticity and social and environmental compliance in the production process.

The brand initiative will allow buyers and exporters to source quality branded fabrics based on their design specifications, weavers will get bulk orders and higher wages as they’ll be interacting directly with the market, and weaving companies may be able to expand their offerings outside of the country.

One thing other stakeholders have said will increase consumption of handloom fabrics is bringing the cost down, but India’s government hasn’t addressed that part of the challenge.

The uptick in responsibility in the apparel industry isn’t limited to handloom products. Companies like No Nasties and Do U Speak Green are part of the fledgling Fairtrade clothing brands in India, and are seeking counsel from Fairtrade India (which has been established in the country since 2013) to improve their offering and make it more accessible.

“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” chief executive of Fairtrade India Abhishek Jani told Reuters. “There is a lack of technical know-how, a lack of capacity, and a lack of awareness about ethical supply chains, even among big businesses. But the fact that we’re invited to talk is a good starting point.”