Mani and Vijayalakshmi tell us the fascinating story of how farmers in Karnataka and weavers in Tamil Nadu together bring out an ethical and sustainable range of weaves that includes all.
If you began this story with ‘Once upon a time…’ it would sound fairly long ago and suitably fairytale-like. But the story of Mani Chinnaswamy and Vijayalakshmi Nachiar is not so distant, though at the end, everybody lived happily. It’s a story that travels between Pollachi in Tamil Nadu and H.D. Kote in Karnataka. It’s a story that travels between farmers here and weavers there. It’s a story that travels from the farm to boutiques.
At a time when the country is opening up to MNC clothing companies , Mani and Vijayalakshmi decided to go back to the fabric synonymous with India — cotton. Mani, a third-generation inheritor of the family’s cotton mill Appachi Cotton, in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, decided in 2006 that they should be an “ethical” business. “So we quit our conventional business,” say Mani, an MBA graduate from the U.S.A. The couple were recently in Bangalore for an exhibition of their products.
It was a decision driven by a whole chain of thought — cotton farming in India had gone beyond being chemically intensive to genetically modified (GM). A traditionally organic farming culture, with overuse of fertilizers, had failing soil, subsequent crop loss, farmers forcibly moving to GM crop because of low yields, farmers being in debt, leading to suicides… “Over 10 years we lost almost all our native seeds. The solution to reviving the soil, we thought, was going back to organic…it’s the only way. And it’s no rocket science. Most of our farmers have been organic by default. We are only making it a planned event.” And so started their Eco-Logic Project.
They partnered with the Savayava Krishikara Sangha in Karnataka, buying up native seeds that were in cold storage for three years from the Karnataka State Seeds Corporation, Hebbal. But why Karnataka? “Every cotton crop requires a climactic specific condition,” says Vijayalakshmi. “For example, varieties like the Dharwad Cotton Hybrid revived looms from Bengal to Trivandrum. Moreover the weather in Karnataka is best suited for cotton crops. Native seeds are hardy, and the shine and lustre of the cotton is intrinsically built into our picking and weaving traditions. Our interest lies in protecting our own identity,” says Mani. Mani had earlier experimented with the idea of contract farming, providing the farmer assurance that all his cotton crop will be bought, in 2000, with Tibetean farmers settled in Mundgod, in Uttara Kannada district.
The area they worked on reviving organic cotton farming was in H.D. Kote on the banks of the Kabini river in Karnataka. It’s a UNESCO-recognised site as part of the Nilgiris Biosphere where 65,000 acres was under cotton cultivation on the edge of the forest zone. When the Kabini dam was built, farmers were moved out of their agricultural land and had consequently turned to GM crops. “It takes about three years for a farm to get certified as organic,” says Mani. They have about 165 farmers in their network now. They don’t offer farmers a pre-fixed price, but a minimum support price; else, a market committee is formed that fixes the price in keeping with market rates.
Vijayalakshmi, a textile graduate, decided that the cotton they grew and ginned should be made into yardage; but that didn’t work because at that time there was no market for organic cotton; in fact perception in international markets was that Indian cotton was one of the most polluted. “That’s when the idea of value addition came in…weavers too have the same sad story as farmers. The weaver works for a wage, gets no recognition for his work, and so doesn’t want his children to continue in that profession,” she surmises. The couple built a 22-room studio with traditional jacquard looms. They also run a free-education school for the children of weavers.
“We finally felt the whole chain was ethical and included everybody — therefore, our brand ‘ethics’ and ‘us’,” she says. They decided to keep the Indian identity, make saris, but with a different look and feel to suit “occasional wear’ that the sari has become. They roped in designers to work with weavers.
Each of their products carries a tag with a picture of the weaver, his name, how long he took to weave it; they have over 50 weavers working with them now. Organic certified dyes have helped them break the colour palette of beige and brown; its more of jewel tones of reds, pinks, greens and blues.The use of mercerised cotton gives their saris, dupattas, scarves and stoles an almost silk-like lustrous finish.
Not a product, but a story
In 2009, Ethicus was finally launched, and boutiques all over the country were willing to stock their products under the original label. “We were sure we didn’t want to sell a product; we wanted to tell a story,” insists Vijayalakshmi. At the same time, they didn’t want people to buy in guilt, so they didn’t want to harp on the organic bit. Point out the high price of organic clothing, and Mani says, “Look at this way…you, as a customer, are paying a ‘conservation contribution’. We pay 10 per cent over what conventional cotton farmers get for their produce.” All the cotton can’t go into handlooms; so they started making machine-made linens, and knit baby garments, exported to Italy and Australia. Designers are invited to come and use the loom and work with them.
The farmer does multi-cropping and so has food for his family; they are now in a position to sell organic jaggery and ragi…a new area of organic food they are exploring. Of course there were many sceptics asking if such a rosy story was true…their clients were invited over to see for themselves everything from farm to weave. The couple saw another business opportunity and started the Eco Logic Tours!
To know more of their endeavour, check, www.ethicus.in