Preserving the planet and India’s craft workers

9 Mins read

At just 25, Nishanth Chopra has founded Oshadi, the fashion brand which aims to give to a new life to and support India’s textile industry.

While also using environmentally-friendly ancient Indian techniques and materials. He encompasses this all within a modern and contemporary clothing collection. Oshadi aims to try and mitigate some of the environmental issues which the planet is subject to, as a result of fashion.

Fast-fashion, where clothes are produced quickly and very cheaply, to provide new collections on the high street and mirror the trends of the catwalks, is having extreme and negative environmental impacts on our planet.

High street stores such as Primark are releasing new pieces weekly, leading to people buying more and more clothes. This is an unhealthy cycle where demand is increasing, therefore production has to keep going, exacerbating the problem even more. According to Reuters: “More than 400% more clothing is made now than 20 years ago.”

Fleur Britten, assistant editor of The Sunday Times Style, and passionate environmentalist spoke to Artefact and explains the catalyst for her sustainably-lead lifestyle, “there’d be trouble if we’d left a light on in a room we weren’t using, my mother would always make her ‘waste-not-want-not’ stews and soups, and we ate off the land to a significant degree.

“That said, no one else in my family is particularly into sustainability, and I was mocked for wrapping presents in magazine pages. I guess we were all fed the same messages at school, but they really mattered to me,” she continues.

When asked if she finds working for a large fashion magazine infuriating, as it is somewhat an unsustainable industry, Fleur said she believes that “people conveniently divert themselves away from the issues for the sake, and love, of fashion. Being fashionable is definitely a priority over the environment, with big seasonal wardrobe changeovers.”

oshadi lookbook, girl in orange dress in field

Oshadi SS19 lookbook [Nishanth Chopra]

A large proportion of the industry has, therefore, neglected the social and environmental factors which are increasingly important. With pressure to reduce cost and time, they are adopting an increased use in synthetic fibres and chemical dyes, as well as, workers rights seemingly holding no importance.

Fleur urges shoppers to “read the label and really try to avoid buying anything synthetic – which releases microplastics into the waterways, piles up in a landfill without biodegrading and is chemically intensive to produce. I would urge people to buy vintage, charity, second hand over any other retail options. If you are going to buy new, treat yourself to something that has been made with love for the planet and the people behind it. Buy slow, not fast.”

This increased use of fossil fuels in the production cycle has made the textile industry the second largest polluter, second to the oil industry. With dye houses in India being, “notorious for not only exhausting local water supplies but for dumping untreated wastewater into local streams and rivers,” the Guardian reported in an article detailing the risks the textile industry poses to our waters.

Cotton production is also having a detrimental impact on our seas. Stacey Dooley travelled to Kazakhstan this year in her latest documentary, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets.

She visited the former Aral Sea, where camels now live. The sea was a large 68,000 square kilometres, and now more than 60% of it has disappeared and turned to desert.

This is a result of cotton production – cotton fields require huge amounts of water to produce to the plant, and millions of gallons of the Aral Sea has been syphoned off for cotton irrigation since the 60s.

Artefact spoke to Nishanth by Skype – he was at Oshadi’s weaving shed in a small village outside of Erode, Southern India. It was about 6:00 pm and almost entirely dark, with the wifi being intermittent, Nishanth attempted to show me around the workshop where there were men and women, working on the handloom machines – all of their fabrics are handwoven.

“I come from a textiles family, my family have been in textiles for about 50-60 years, my grandfather, my father – are all in textiles”, Nishanth begins to tell me how Oshadi came to be.

He told me how his family’s business “do things with machinery, so everything is made in factories in India, and I was brought up in that textile environment, and when I started working, I always knew I had to do be doing something with textiles, as I found it interesting.”

hand weavers

A team of hand-weavers [Nishanth Chopra]

The natural path for Nishanth would be continuing with his family business, but, he did not feel excited by the textile production side of things and was more taken by the craft itself.

“India has a very rich craft tradition, there are loads of villages around where I was brought up, so I started visiting those villages and discovering the traditional crafts – hand weaving, tie-dye, and loads of others,” he continues, explaining his journey to founding the brand. “I planned I would do something with textiles, maybe producing fabrics. But, coincidentally I met the designer at Central St Martins, and he was super into the project after I told him about some of the potential ideas.”

Oshadi is a partnership between Nishanth and a designer, who carries out the design process in London. Nishanth knew the partnership was the right decision, as he tells me “his work with sustainability made it right.” The designer who also has his own label won the LVMH Grand Prix scholarship and had since been shortlisted for another LVMH prize; all of these achievements perpetuating Oshadi’s strength as a brand.

“It was a coincidence, nothing was planned. I found all these crafts, and I have a very good knowledge of textiles because of my family I have always been brought up with the textiles environment around me,” Nishanth details how this is led them to the handwoven project, with the collection of garments solely made with hand-loomed fabrics.

Handlooming is engrained in India culture, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged this in 2015 when he set up National Handloom Day. But, it is argued this recognition only paid a lip-service to the craft, as many workers in the sector are facing threats and do not have desirable living conditions or way of life.

A handloom census from 2010 revealed that 54% of handloom households live in kutcha houses, which are made from mud or thatch; that 30% of workers had never attended school, and 47% of workers own ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards.

Neeta Deshpande wrote recently in The Wire that, “some of the problems that plague the sector include exploitation of workers at the hands of master weavers, unrelenting competition from synthetic fabrics such as polyester and the power loom sector which dominates cloth production and undercuts the place of the handloom weaver in the textile sector.”

Graduating from Lancaster University, with his final project on sustainability, and returning to Erode, Nishanth went back to his Dad’s factory and realised that “things are not the way they have to be.” He found it quite difficult after speaking to a lot of the workers there.

man handlooming

Hand-looming [Nishanth Chopra]

“I was discovering the craft, and I realised that the workers there are not satisfied. They really enjoy the work, a hand weaver loves what they do, but they don’t have the right income level. They didn’t have enough work, enough pay, so it was like a very contradicting industry.” Nishanth explains how this sparked his idea for making a platform for them to work more ethically and to get them paid much higher.

“Even when we pay them much higher than the usual prices, we still make a good margin in this business. People get greedy with their capacity to accumulate a lot of wealth.” He explains how he realised that the private companies, the co-operative societies; they are the ones taking all of the money and not paying the workers.

“They cut corners by getting orders for the handwoven product, but they produce it on a machine, and no one knows about it, so, weavers don’t get work.” Nishanth continues to list all of the factors which led him to become more conscious about sustainability, including his mother’s upbringing in a tiny village, where she often witnessed artisan exploitation and later told Nishanth about it.

yarn going into a pot of pink natural dye

Yarn mixing with natural dye [Nishanth Chopra]

“Handloom was one thing, and then we started looking at tie-dye techniques. We started working with the natural dying, where you get colours from flowers and then dye the fabric with flowers and leaves.” When William Perkin invented the chemical dye, the research that was going into developing natural dyes and colours for fabrics completely got diverted into the industrial chemical making. As a result, there has not been a lot of research since.

Nishanth explains how they have to meticulously ensure that “the colour fixes properly and that it lasts, as it is a new thing going on, so it a bit tricky working with natural dye but as we work more and more it will improve.”

When I asked Nishanth if he felt that these techniques had a lack of recognition or needed more, he explained that, “I think the techniques are already global, everybody knows about it, all the luxury brands like Stella McCartney and so many other brands work with Indian crafts, luxury, and contemporary brands.”

Oshadi worked with Stella McCartney in the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. Stella made a dress using Oshadi’s fabrics, which was then showcased in Buckingham Palace.

oshadi lookbook, girl lying down

Oshadi lookbook jacket [Nishanth Chopra]

Nishanth told me that hand weaving “doesn’t have the recognition it needs because all these brands do one-off projects, and they drift away. I am sure there are many other brands who have been working with Indian crafts for a long, long time, but personally, I feel that the craft people here, have been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years, and still have a lack of education and lack of basic amenities.”

Fleur supports Nishanth’s view, in that she believes, “it’s always given different treatment to real fashion, i.e. in a sustainable themed shoot, the consumer won’t take it as seriously as mainstream fashion.” She continued to tell me how she would like, “to see sustainable brands being featured in main fashion stories, and not only wheeled out once a year in editorial virtue-signalling.”

Given all of this, there may be some scepticism towards what the clothes deliver. But the new-age hippy connotations that environmentalists may use to hold can be left behind. Oshadi provides a contemporary, simple collection with clean lines. With structural silhouettes, boxy denim-style jackets, trouser suits and flowing silhouettes on the dresses- the collection is aimed at the modern working woman, for a quotidian wardrobe; synonymous to Phoebe Philo‘s designs at (old) Céline.

Nishanth knew he wanted to do something with a modern design aspect, but he didn’t have a picture of what a modern design was until his designer was to hand. For him “high fashion was probably Zara because that is even really expensive in India. And as kids we get pocket money from parents and buy these clothes and even buying a Zara shirt was like ‘woah this is expensive’.” And he was astonished at what could be done with the fabrics.

Oshadi lookbook, denim dress

Oshadi lookbook, on the beach [Nishanth Chopra]

Arguably one of the most significant exposures for Oshadi in England is their showcase alongside around 60 other brands at the newly launched, Maiyet Collective, in Mayfair.

The label, which has opened a seven-floor concept store, is hoping to use their established name to help raise awareness of the fashionable brands who are also ethically conscious – with most of the brands having a focus on sustainable materials, and human sustainability in their supply chain. The staff in the store will be wearing Oshadi’s dresses as their uniform.

“Maiyet was one of the first brands I discovered when I was looking for other brands who were doing similar things, back in the day Maiyet was moving into a place in India, and I was looking for support and investment, so I contacted them.” Nishanth explains how he knew about Maiyet before they had even established in the way that they are now, “I didn’t know there would be a Maiyet collective, and I would eventually be a part of it. It’s very exciting.”

Ending the conversation by asking Nishanth what he believes the future is, he told me: “There are enough talks about sustainability; I think more than talking, people should start acting on this. I see a lot of summits and presentations. I don’t really know what is going to happen, what the future holds, but there will be a change eventually. People should stop being so greedy, do what they say and have respect. It comes from within.”

Fleur explained that the fashion industry is held in such high regard that “it has the power to really move the needle on sustainability in all industries, if it really got behind the movement.” Furthermore, she believes the importance of keeping “our foot on the pedal and keep pushing for change.”

Nishanth is setting up a handloom shed, which requires a lot of attention. Once that is done, Oshadi will do an Autumn/Winter ’19 collection. He also wants to work on a textile collection, as well as selling garments and clothing.

Nishanth feels that fashion has good seasons and bad seasons, the environment is very unpredictable. But, with textiles, we can assure weavers there is constant work, continuing to go back to the roots with artisans being paid well and getting right work.





Featured image provided by Nishanth Chopra.

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