Green and with a Conscience

A team of talented women from the underprivileged areas of Mumbai and New Delhi, India, are essential in the design and creation of upcycled products. (EarthFrendz photos)

A team of talented women from the underprivileged areas of Mumbai and New Delhi, India, are essential in the design and creation of upcycled products. (EarthFrendz photos)

How a woman in Massachusetts uses secondhand textiles to empower women in urban India

By CHRISTINE PEMBERTON/ecoRI News contributor

WAYLAND, Mass. — It’s a common understanding in our society that recycling, reusing and otherwise conserving resources play important roles in protecting the environment. Something we often don’t think of in this context is the empowerment of women in impoverished regions of urban India.

But one Massachusetts resident, Priya Samant, found a way to connect the two. Her business, EarthFrendz, intertwines environmentalism and social justice.

The Wayland-based company sells Indian-made fabric bags and accessories to American consumers online and at numerous Whole Foods Markets across the Northeast and California. What’s special about these items is that they are made largely from textile scraps that might have otherwise ended up buried in or blowing around landfills, by artisans who might otherwise have been prevented from practicing their skills, because of social barriers.

Most of the materials used in EarthFrendz’s products are surplus from large textile plants in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. The artisans buy them at secondhand markets, where they are sold by individuals who obtain them directly from the factories.

The men and women involved with EarthFrendz are paid fair compensation for their work and are encouraged and enabled to become independent and self-reliant business people. This, the empowerment of disadvantaged communities, is really the core goal of Samant’s endeavors.

She grew up in Mumbai in a family with a tradition of helping the underprivileged. Her paternal uncle, one of many doctors in the family, is well known for his work with leprosy patients. However, while her relatives’ engagement focused on health care, Samant’s educational background is in management. Naturally, she employed her knowledge of business and entrepreneurship to do her part.

India is a country known for its rich, colorful fabrics. It’s the world’s second-largest producer of textiles, and the industry is growing. The yearly production of manmade fibers in India averages about 1.3 million short tons, according to a report by the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service.

Consequently, fabric waste is plentiful. Using secondhand and scrap materials for quilting and other sewing work is a common practice that, growing up, Samant experienced as the way of life. To her, building a business by creating something from vast factory waste made sense.

“I knew what was available in the market and I knew how to make good use of it,” she said. “There was tons of it available, but it was not used in a proper way.”

In addition, the use of scrap textiles agreed well with her desire to incorporate environmentalism into her efforts.

The women involved with EarthFrendz are paid fair compensation for their work and are encouraged to become self-reliant business people.

The women involved with EarthFrendz are paid fair compensation for their work and are encouraged to become self-reliant business people.

However, being green is more than just icing on the cake to EarthFrendz’s humanitarian work. Pollution in the underprivileged neighborhoods outside of Mumbai and New Delhi, where EarthFrendz operates, directly impacts those who live there.

“These are overpopulated areas, so basically all the trash gets thrown in the slums,” Samant said. As no proper infrastructure for waste disposal, let alone recycling, exists, waste can clog the already-sparse gutters and draining systems, resulting in the spread of communicable diseases.

Furthermore, textile production and processing are notoriously water-polluting industries that often hurt marine life and, as a result, those who depend on these ecosystems. Avoiding new production not only lowers pollution, but also saves resources such as water and energy.

Currently, Samant partners with two groups of artisans. One is based in Mumbai, Samant’s hometown, and was introduced to her via her family network. The other group, based in New Delhi, Samant met at a government-sponsored textile exhibition.

The artisans, each contributing different techniques to the operation, are organized in self-help groups. Self-help groups are small voluntary associations of people, typically from the same socioeconomic background, who come together to solve mutual problems and establish shared capital through small, individual savings contributions.

While self-help groups are present in other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, most of them are in India, where they are the dominant form of microfinance.

“There are many people in India who actually make a living working with needle and thread,” Samant said. However, social and cultural barriers keep a lot of talented needleworkers from being able to practice their skills. The situation is especially challenging for women.

Samant explained that in many of the underprivileged communities it’s believed that women are responsible solely for maintaining the household and shouldn’t be allowed to work otherwise, especially when the job involves leaving the home and jealously from husbands or concerns about wives neglecting their domestic responsibilities cause issues. In some cases, a man might feel threatened, worrying that his wife’s financial independence could cause her to take a more dominant role at home.

Talented men also are actively involved in the work.

Talented men also are actively involved in the work.

EarthFrendz mitigates these fears by actively involving the men of the community. Although Samant’s goal was always to empower women, she was aware that, in some instances, the key to reaching that goal would be to get the men on board first. Hence, in one case in the New Delhi group, she started out with a male worker. Once the business took off, she suggested to him involving his wife. He did.

Samant later encouraged the wife to ask her female friends to participate. Having more and more working women in the community started a snowball effect of changing mindsets. It promoted compassion for  women and an understanding of the fact that they aren’t only equally capable of preforming the work, but also everyone benefits if they are allowed to do so. Similarly, evolving attitudes could be observed in the Mumbai group, where one husband grew from being jealous and very opposed to his wife’s work, to being quite supportive. The transformation took about two years.

There is no middleman between the workers and Samant. They sell directly to her, she pays them per piece. Since the cost of raw materials tends to fluctuate on a daily basis, Samant leaves it up to the artisans to determine their price. This way they acquire much more than just handiwork skills. The goal is for the self-help groups to run independently, and for the artisans to become as self-sufficient as possible. That includes managing part of the business side.

“It’s not like I’m their boss,” Samant said. “We are all equal.”

It’s also important to Samant that her collaborators can manage without her.

And there have been first successes indeed. Feeling empowered by U.S. sales, and to gauge response in their home country, the artisan group from New Delhi presented its merchandise at an exhibition in southern India. The colorful designs were received well, according to Samant.

Samant is proud to report that the artisans are able to manage such events on their own now, but she still helps when needed. To assist in situations where lack of education or limited literacy might cause problems in customer interactions, she created a special e-mail account. A card displaying the corresponding e-mail address can be handed out by the artisans if they find themselves unsure exactly how to respond to a potential purchaser’s inquiry. Having the questions directed to her this way, Samant can then facilitate the communication between the artisan and the shopper.

“They are at a point where they can do it on their own and be very comfortable in doing it,” Samant said. “This is a big milestone.”

EarthFrendz, on a small scale, addresses a bigger issue: Environmentalism and social justice often go hand in hand. What harms a specific environment tends to also harm the people living in it. True long-term solutions to economic disparity are those that also take the environment into consideration.