(This interview appeared on sustainabilityzero.com dated September 14, 2022. Here's the link to the original interview)
Sweta Patra, Founder, Ethnics Land shares how her venture is weaving in scalability and growth with authenticity and artisan rights in the handloom space. She also talks about green-washing, Blockchain, 3D Printing, and GST and whether these forces spin into warps, possibilities, or challenges.
What inspired you for this venture? Why handlooms?
From the beginning I have been quite creative, I enjoy designing, art, painting, and classical dance, but I chose journalism as my career. Then I took a year’s break and then when I tried to find a job back it was not working out so I decided to start my own thing and as handloom gelled well with my creative bent of mind I chose that. Also, the entry barrier was not that and I could start small and then grow at my own pace. It is a challenging work but that challenge is in all areas of work. Having worked for several years with television news channels like CNBC TV18 and NewsX I thought why not start something of my own and here I am with Ethnics Land.
Any 2-3 big lessons that you have gained since the inception of this idea? Is it still tough to balance the authenticity aspect of handlooms with the limitations of scalability and speed (factors that automated/mechanized alternatives can easily provide)? Do digital platforms help here?
I have learned a lot being a part of the handloom sector. I have to interact with artisans on regular basis and so I have learned quite a bit about the various methods of production and how handloom sarees are made. This helps me explain handloom better to our buyers especially those outside India.
Also, we have to be in touch with the same artisan as they know exactly the kind of work you want and how you work. So I have learned better about building a network and the importance of long-term business associations. The same is when dealing with buyers from different places and different choices. You learn how to meet those requirements with patience. This helps in repeat customers, customer delight, and better growth for my small growing business.
How can customers choose the right products where true impact actually reaches the artisan to the last mile? What would you say to people who have been disillusioned with greenwashing?
The handloom sector is still one where artisans make the products in the loom and you must ask whether it is from a handloom or a power loom. Also, you can make out if a product is a power loom product or from any other mechanized process. If you feel any of such things do ask so that you know what you are getting.
As for people disillusioned with greenwashing – in my experience the handloom sector is still much away from this, at least that’s what I can say from my experience. Yes, sometimes we see some incorrect product descriptions about the fabric but I feel it is more to do with limited understanding rather than any other intention. Handloom products and fabrics take time to be understood and all of us are learning, some more, some less. Rest about misleading claims – that’s a different issue altogether and it is across so many industries. But by and large handloom sector is still about the real fabric by artisans and weavers.
Any views on the use of technologies like Blockchain for creating more transparency of the entire value-chain and assuring visibility for ethically-conscious customers?
Well, these are just new techs that are just taking shape in cryptos and a few others. Let’s keep observing them. It will be quite some time before all such stuff can be thought of getting adapted into the handloom sector. When such a time comes we will have to evaluate them and see if it will help and how.
Would technologies like 3D Printing help or impede the growth of handlooms?
It all depends on buyer choices but handloom, as of now, means handmade and made by artisans and weavers using their age-old skills and art and creating mesmerizing earthy patterns that make to feel so connected to the origins many come from. Especially for many Indians settled abroad, this is the feeling and I am sure such feelings will be there for a long. As for use of 3D, wherever there is a request from the buyer we will surely talk to the artisans and see how much that can be integrated into his weaving.
“You must ask whether it is from a handloom or a power loom. Also, you can make out if a product is a power loom product or from any other mechanized process.”
While genres like Chicankari and Bandhej are quite popular, what about the lesser-known art areas from the hinterland of India? Anything in progress to elevate artisans who are still in the shadows of oblivion?
Our experience is that more and more demand is coming in for handlooms other than Chicankari and Bandhej. People are also going for Odisha Handloom, Bhagalpuri Tussar Silk, Chhattisgarh Handloom, Maharashtrian Paithani and Khan, Handcrafted Kashmiri Aari Embroidered, Chanderi Silk Handloom, Narayanpeth Handloom, and other sarees. In our experience, it has been a mix of sarees from various regions of our country, including Tripura Silk. We feel proud that we can bring products from Bharat to the world and also within our country itself through our website specifically targeting domestic customers.
How much change can come in from exhibitions abroad and special fashion shows themed on handlooms?
This can help and a lot I am sure is already happening. But it has to be a continuous effort and that would help. If there is more push for use of handloom, especially in our social consciousness, it will bring in more work and impact the lives of our artisans. The recent push by our honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Khadi is something that is helping and we have seen a rise in buying as well as more inquiries for such sarees. More steps like these will help.
You need more independent platforms that promote handloom products and also handloom sellers and artisans of such products.
What kind of support do you expect from the ecosystem – anything around taxes, incentives, infrastructure etc,.
There is a whole lot that needs to be done seeing from each stakeholder’s point of view. But for us, we see several platforms want GST numbers whereas all small businesses are not in that position to do so. You need more independent platforms that promote handloom products and also handloom sellers and artisans of such products.
Why this dichotomy? As per the All India Handloom Census (2019-20), production has gone up but the number of weavers has dropped. Are artisans leaning towards other occupations?
There are various reasons for this as this involves several issues. Also, a new generation has new aspirations and they want to try new things. Handloom has its own limitations and if it can offer a quality that almost all look for then I am sure the young generation will prefer to be in it.