The term organic often conjures clichéd images of clean, chemical free food, usually in an elitist setting. Organic food is, in fact, a basic necessity along with sustainable clothing and housing. Interestingly, all our three basic necessities – food, clothing and housing – can be met sustainably through plants, the soil and with the facilitation of one of the main guardians of Earth – humans, if we live up to being good guardians of our planet.

The focus of this article is on sustainable clothing, and specifically on cotton in India and some of the community-driven initiatives to sustain the indigenous cotton movement.

A fabric embedded in history

Cotton, the oldest fabric invented by humans, was widely cultivated during the Indus Valley Civilisation when hand spinning, weaving, and natural dyeing was in vogue. Indian cotton goes back to 600 BC with its earliest mention in the Rigveda. Much later, and from the 17th century onwards, all of India’s foreign traders, travellers, and invaders including the East India Company highly sought Indian cotton. Homespun and handwoven cotton or khadi was made popular by Mahatma Gandhi as a part of the swadeshi movement beginning 1905, symbolic of the end of dependency on foreign goods during the British rule.

A woman ginning cotton Source: Wikimedia Commons

While most of us think cotton clothing is cool, healthy and safe, the story of mass-produced commercial cotton is quite the opposite. This includes handlooms and sometimes even khadi. Most textiles are not entirely organic or socio-environmentally just, with some form of chemical input or social injustice at certain stages. This downfall came about in the 19th century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution followed by mass factory production, capitalism, and the present neoliberal era.

The cotton textile industry continues to flourish in India as a big number to be added to our Gross Domestic Product, for large corporations to profit from, and to provide, employment in factories. However, the story at the starting point of the cotton value chain is grim. Cotton farmer suicides are high due to reasons such as the high agricultural investments required for hybrid and genetically modified varieties like the controversial Bt cotton, a debt trap created by local moneylenders, poor yields due to factors like monoculture and climate change. Also, spinners, weavers and tailors are often on very low daily wages that are not commensurate with the hard work they put in.

The sustainable clothing movement

Socio-environmental injustices often lead to social movements and activism led by those in the community who are determined to make a change. Such movements are a powerful means of achieving transformative change along with civil society to support and champion its objectives.

Three social activists based out of Chennai were concerned about these injustices and put their thinking caps on. Jaishankar is a farmer and social activist, Pamayan is a popular writer and social activist, and Anantha Sayanan (Ananthoo) is a safe food activist and one of the co-founders of two organic stores and community centres called ReStore and Organic Farmers’ Market in Chennai. Ananthoo explained, “Hand-spinning and hand-weaving are labour intensive and women centric tasks, yet spinners and weavers are paid a pittance of Rs 120-160 a day.” He added, “The best solution is to have a distributed and decentralised model for the cotton industry with better wages and dignity and with the least number of middlemen involved as possible.”

Ananthoo (2nd from right) and team. Image courtesy: Author

In 2011, they formed a social enterprise called Tula in Chennai as not just a store that sells fair trade and sustainable cotton garments but as a holistic institution that takes into consideration the entire cotton value chain from crop to garment, with every stage being livelihood sustaining and socio-environmentally just. They realised very early on that there are many more interconnected livelihoods in the cotton clothing segment such as spinners, weavers, dyers and tailors. They brainstormed and came up with a balanced model that incorporated the entire cotton value chain and that could also be easily replicated or scaled up by others wanting to venture into the sustainable cotton segment. They began in the cotton belt of the Madurai region of Tamil Nadu and retailed their garments at ReStore.

However, in the first year of working in this region, they were ridden with a variety of challenges such as erratic weather conditions, farmers switching to a hybrid variety of maize for cattle feed for the quick profits it fetched, and many farmers who preferred to work with large export garment establishments in Tiruppur due to the social prestige associated with them.

Eventually, an organic agricultural policy introduced by the Karnataka government made it easier for Tula to work with farmers in Karnataka. They wanted to focus not just on organic cotton but also on desi (indigenous), rain-fed and old world, short staple varieties rather than the hybrid, long staple, American variety and the infamous genetically modified Bt cotton that the farmers were growing. Desi cotton is less water intensive, naturally resistant to many pests and diseases, and boosts the livelihoods of farmers, spinners, weavers, and tailors.

According to Ananthoo, “Since desi cotton is cultivated as a polyculture where there is intercropping and companion planting, it ensures that food is brought in along with fibre.”

Tula works closely with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture, which is a nationwide informal network of over 400 organisations across 20 states in India led by activist Kavitha Kuruganti. ASHA and Tula organised a Kisan Swaraj Yatra in 2010 – a nationwide mobilisation to draw attention to issues pertaining to food, farmers, and freedom. They also work with a network of farmers across Karnataka called Sahaja Samrudha, dedicated to reviving traditional seeds. The Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote, Karnataka, helps with the weaving and stitching of Tula garments. This is a voluntary organisation founded by Gandhian and Jamnalal Bajaj awardee, Surendra Koulagi in 1960 that focuses on social and economic elevation of the weaker sections of society. To give the garments a stylish, contemporary, urban edge, Tula works with Bengaluru-based designer Tara Aslam who has her own brand called Nature Alley that mainly stocks khadi clothing. Besides working with cotton farmers in Karnataka, Tula has also started working with farmers in Vidharbha, Maharashtra, which incidentally is the worst-hit Bt cotton belt, witnessing devastating farmer suicides.

Learning to spin from Madhavji Image: Alarmelu Valli

National Handloom Day

There have been many events and exhibits all over India recently to celebrate National Handloom Day on August 7. The Central government declared August 7 as National Handloom Day in 2015 at a function in Chennai attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to mark the beginning of the Swadeshi Movement that started in 1905 on this day.

Some of the workshops in Chennai recently included a unique four-day Hand Spinning and Wellness Game workshop at the Theosophical Society from August 4 to August 7, facilitated by Shiva Kumar Bharathi from Bengaluru. The holistic workshop focused on hand-spinning as a part of a broader wellness and sustainable living programme. The art of cotton spinning at the workshop was taught and facilitated by Madhav Sahasrabuddhe, an engineer-turned-spinning activist and teacher from Pune. He was introduced to spinning by Sadashivrao (Dada) Bhosale a decade ago and has been spinning and teaching how to use a charkha ever since. Sahasrabuddhe’s book called the Art of Spinning, is available for free download. All the participants worked on and took back a beautiful portable charkha specially ordered from Gram Seva Mandal, Wardha, Maharashtra. Only desi (indigenous) varieties of ginned cotton slivers that included Tamil Nadu’s native variety called karunganni cotton, were used by the participants to spin yarn.

Participants of the spinning workshop Image: Alarmelu Valli

On August 15 and August 16, a Weaver’s Exhibition and Sale called Freedom of Fabric was organised at Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya, Chennai, by Tula. The participating organisations working with weavers and farmers from across India included Nature Alley (Bengaluru), Soot (Jaipur), Mahatma Gandhi Gramodyog Sewa Sansthan (West Bengal) and Tula (Chennai). They displayed and sold socio-environmentally just, naturally dyed garments, contemporary handlooms, and the fine Bengal muslin.

Men's wear by Soot, Jaipur Image: Author

Fine muslin used to have a big market before the Industrial Revolution. However, post that, when mass production was the norm in Europe, small muslin artisans went out of business. Arup Rakshit from MGGSS said, “To weave muslin, high humidity is required in the room. Traditionally, muslin weaving was done in mud houses and woven before sunrise to control the temperature. The government has however made concrete structures now and it doesn’t control the temperature as effectively as the mud structures.” These are a few of the numerous challenges faced by the muslin weavers.

Muslin weaving in Vardhaman, West Bengal. Photo credit: 52 Parindey

However, there is a silver lining to reviving some of the lost art of handlooms and artisan livelihoods. Ananthoo said, “It is exhibitions like these in cities that are pushing urban consumption, thereby increasing the demand for handlooms. Recently, a few educated youngsters in their early 20s happily joined the weaving centre in the Vardhaman district in West Bengal. We now have younger weavers joining the weaving profession because of greater urban demand and better compensation. The sheen and esteem associated with the profession is slowly but surely making a comeback.”

This article first appeared on Eartha.