Inside a Fair Trade Indian Clothing Manufacturer

I feel like the news related to ethical consumerism is getting a bit discouraging. Between several recent articles in major news publications on "Why buying ethically doesn't matter, in the long run", and several greenwashing and/or "fairtradewashing" rackets I've observed lately, I've felt a bit frustrated. Sometimes I wish I could just go visit each and every production facility that I've ever purchased a garment from, just to see for myself that It's worth it, that there's change happening, that people are being treated with dignity because of the slow fashion movement. 

I figured the next best thing would be to track down a few fair trade workshops around the world to give us all al glimpse inside. I'll be covering cooperatives in India, Liberia, Bangladesh, and Cambodia over the next few months, a bit of a tour around the world of ethical fashion. 

First up, India! I was able to chat with Ruth, originally from the UK, who now works with Fashion with Heart at Jacobs Well, a sewing cooperative in India that produces garments for several fair trade labels. Ruth is also working toward starting her own fair trade handbag company- follow the process on instagram!

How was Jacob's Well developed? What are the specific social injustices in the local community that you're trying to combat?

The Jacobs Well journey began in Mumbai in 1994, as an NGO-led exploration into meaningful employment opportunities for women living in slums and those vulnerable to different forms of discrimination, abuse, violence and exploitation.  Giving a woman the chance to develop a vocational skill and enter the workforce – be it in our fair trade production unit or her own entrepreneurial venture – allows her a huge amount of independence and authority over her life and her future. 

Now a registered company, the Jacobs Well base is a production unit in Bangalore which keeps the same focus on training and skill development.  Bangalore has a budding reputation as a global centre for IT and the technology boom has certainly seen shiny new office blocks and huge tech parks sprout up all over the place.  But this glossiness isn't a reality for everyone: there are still many people in the city really struggling to make ends meet.  Our unit is at the crossroads of several low-income areas and many young people in these communities have been unable to finish their schooling or get a break in life.  Girls in particular may have very few job opportunities, with domestic work, conventional garment factories or early arranged marriages being commonly taken paths. 

Our position at Jacobs Well has never been to say what the right and wrong course of life is for someone – but rather to build an individual up with the skills, confidence and knowledge to make informed decisions about their own life.  We support our tailoring staff to go back and complete their schooling, and gain access to further education.  We give training in financial management and ensure every team member has her own bank account.  We are very particular about training our team in all aspects of tailoring rather than restricting them to one process such as sleeves or buttonholes as is the norm in many garment factories.  We're very proud of the team's success, having had tailoring novices become confident enough to tackle couture wedding gowns after just a few years of work!


Do you have any certifications? Do you see any problems with the current methods of certifying factories in developing countries?

Jacobs Well is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization and we're currently going through the steps needed to be approved for their new Guarantee System.  We've always felt it was important for us to have some form of certification – to reassure clients of our ethical standards, to be part of a supportive network of similar organizations, to add our voice to the fair trade movement worldwide – but certifications aren't without their issues!  There are so many certifications out there – WFTO, FLO, Fair Trade USA for a start – they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and some clients choose only to work under particular certifications.  It's a shame there isn't a more universal body.  

For a small production unit, unfortunately it can be prohibitively expensive to apply for even one major fair trade certification, let alone all of them.  But you can see a shift happening even in the last few years as the ethical fashion movement grows:  there is an acceptance of a much wider range of brands and producer groups under the general 'sustainability' umbrella.  While once upon a time your fair trade certification was your golden ticket to visibility in the global market, these days a small weaving cooperative or jewelry producer can, with the right connections, also gain access to buyers and clients who are aware that authenticity and transparency – and above all, great quality, unique products – are in high demand throughout the fashion and home textile worlds.  For Jacobs Well, the fair trade certification is still really important to us – but it's great to see this whole movement growing in all its different ways.

Ideally, what will Jacob's Well look like in 8 years?

We want to grow!  Last year we took on a second room in our building which has given us a lot more space for cutting patterns, storing materials, checking final products and packing up shipments, as well as a dedicated space for our training program.  We want to grow both aspects of our business – the training and the production.  We have big dreams of opening our own organic, fair trade printing unit and running a training course there too – it is so hard to find printing options for our clients that match up to our high standards.  And we want to use the expertise developed in running this Bangalore unit to support teams in setting up similar units across India and Nepal.  It's good to think big!

What is the work environment like at your facility? 

If you were to join we hope the first thing you'd hear would either be the whirr of a sewing machine or a giggle – this team works hard but plays hard at breaktime too!  It has been lovely to see how each new girl has been absorbed into the team, no matter her age, experience or background.  At 1pm sharp, a mat is rolled out on the floor and everyone sits and shares lunch together, with new local dishes to try and perhaps a speciality from someone's home village if they've been out for the weekend.  The team supports each other through personal and professional highs and lows, through birthdays (lots of cake!), weddings, and sadly the occasional funeral too.  You may be required to perform the 'Lungi Dance' at a Christmas party (been there, done that!) but rest assured the team would be laughing with you, not at you.  At least that's what they told me...!

Lately there has been a lot of talk surrounding some articles written in U.S.A newspapers that claim that consumers will never be able to make a significant difference against unethical labor practices by "buying better" or contributing to anti-sweatshop advocacy. Do you agree or disagree?

I'm no economist, but for me it is impossible to ignore the people behind my purchases.  I know people who had their wages held for three months in a leather shoe factory; that money never appeared.  I know people with critical health problems from the dust and chemicals used in conventional factories.  I know young women who have a genuine fear of men based on their past experiences in the garment industry.  Conversely, I know women who have risen to great professional heights in production units, because someone saw their potential and invested in them.  I know grandmothers whose fair wages send their grandchildren to better schools.  I know cotton farmers who've been to Mumbai Fashion Week and spoken about the huge difference fair trade cotton can make in their communities.  I know company directors who remember the names of each one of their 200 staff members, and even those of their kids.  I know the hearts and faces of every one of the Jacobs Well team: how could I ever say that fair trade isn't worth it, that I'd rather they were sewing sleeves all day and all night in the factory down the road?  Ethical fashion may not be a panacea for all the world's problems, but don't ever think that your fair purchase isn't making a difference to someone.  And that person's family.  And that person's friends, who learn that another career path is possible.  And then, in turn, that person's family.  And their friends.  Go on, buy the fair trade dress already.  In fact, buy ten.  And the jewelry and shoes to match.

How can we support you? Where can we find more information and follow you on social media?

Are you a designer?  Place an order with us!  Strong business is the best possible way for Jacobs Well and the whole fair trade garment industry in India to grow sustainably.  You can also get in touch with the registered UK charity Fashion with Heart Creations who support Jacobs Well with various training schemes and fundraising events.  If you're ever in India, come and say hi!  We'd love to show you around.  While we don't have the capacity to take on student placements at the moment we would really welcome any industry professionals who wanted to visit and help us grow. And do keep in touch via our Facebook page!

Thank you, Ruth, for such an informative and personal view into Jacob's Well! If you have any specific questions for Ruth, leave them in the comments below!