Some brands are now turning facilitators, promoting the artisan’s business and treating them as partners
The Ajrakh handblock-printed dress arrives in a soft linen bag. An information card, tucked within the generous swell of fabric, has smiling photographs of the artisan, Ibrahim Khatri, and the tailors, Satinder and Sadiq, behind the outfit. QR codes lead to a webpage, where one can read about Ibrahim, the Ajrakh craft passed down through his family, and his love for chai. About the Delhi-based tailor duo, we learn that workaholic Satinder unwinds by playing badminton with his children, and Sadiq enjoys Ludo and old ghazals. It is a brief but sweet glimpse into the garment’s creators. The card says ₹675 of the dress’ ₹1,599 retail price goes directly to these karigars. The website of the sustainable artisanal brand behind this dress, Tamarind Chutney, also provides a breakdown of the amount spent on packaging, transportation, company overheads, and more.
“We source fabric directly from artisans, pay our tailors above market rate wages, and share products’ price breakdown on our website. This keeps us accountable to fair wages,” says Tamarind Chutney’s chief design officer and co-founder Charanya Shekar. They also provide their artisan partners’ contact details to interested consumers. It’s an interesting change in perspective from ownership to facilitator, promoting the artisan’s business and treating them as a partner, not as labour.
This acknowledgement and detailing the specific amount paid to the karigars is unusual: a rare transparency in an industry that is historically exploitative and dismissive of the skilled craftspeople who create the products that make brands profitable, but who share little of the earnings or credit. While pioneers like Fabindia and Anokhi have long tried to empower craftspeople, more Indian brands are now forging meaningful partnerships with the artisan community, attempting to provide them with the acknowledgement, compensation, respect, and ownership they have been traditionally denied.
Fashion for good
India’s textile industry was worth $223 billion in 2021, according to market data resource Statista, and employs 4.5 crore workers including 35.22 lakh handloom workers. However, many artisans continue to earn only a fraction of the retail price of a product they create. “While there is a billion-dollar market for craft products, India’s artisans earn less than 5% of the final price of finished goods due to exploitation by intermediaries, unfair wages, limited innovation in designs, and unorganized working conditions,” says Tanvi Bikhchandani, Tamarind Chutney’s CEO and co-founder. She explains the brand’s origins in 2019 to create a transparent, sustainable, and equitable way of doing business and improve artisan livelihoods through product development and profit-sharing at scale.
Sonica Sarna, founder and CEO of sustainability consulting company Sonica Sarna Design, began her career in the US market and quickly realized the fashion industry’s exploitation of people and environment. “It was conflicting and troublesome to work with global brands with billion-dollar valuations on the one hand, and with the talented artisans and factory workers who lived at the poverty line in slums, on the other,” she says. Her desire for fashion to be a force for good resulted in her consultancy which helps artisans with marketing, quality control, and creating products for the international market by providing links to brands, and educating fashion companies on forming equitable and mutually beneficial artisan relationships.
After years of experience working with artisan communities, Sumita Ghose, founder and managing director of artisan-owned craft company Rangsutra, realized that mindsets needed to change regarding artisans’ dependency on government grants. “The whole system sees them as beneficiaries. This needed to change to them becoming owners,” she says. Rangsutra began in 2006 with 1,000 Rajasthani artisans investing ₹1,000 each, while Ghose took loans from family and friends to match the ₹10 lakh, starting with sales through FabIndia stores, gradually forming other partnerships, and selling under their own brand name. Rangsutra’s 2,000 artisan shareholders from across India are also producers and decision makers participating in the supply chain. Rangsutra’s website includes a video of one of their first artisan shareholders, Badli Bai, speaking about the recognition and work helping her family to continue their craft.
The Sonica Sarna Design website features a video interview between Sarna and fourth-generation ikat artisan Chandana from Koyalagudum, Telangana, the latter detailing the skill and time required for this traditional weave. Sarna expands on value extending beyond physical design. “When working with a traditional artisan, a designer or brand is drawing on their cultural heritage, religion, symbolism, and a way of life. Unless there is a deeper understanding of the value of what is being obtained from artisans, acknowledgement is insufficient.”
Bikhchandani observes that most brands do not think about the potentially exploitative conditions in the supply chain. “Most brands work with the craft, but not the craftsperson.”
Acknowledgement can end up as mere tokenism without sustained and meaningful partnership with the artisan community. Sarna feels acknowledgement is unhelpful if the artisans do not gain long-term social or financial benefit through a brand partnership. “Indian and global brands need to do a better job of redistributing profits back to the community whose cultural heritage is making them brands to begin with,” she says.
This change in perception also requires consumers to appreciate the skill and value of handmade work. “In India, because handmade work is readily available, people take it for granted, not valuing the skill,” says Ghose. “Only when people buy the products, will the craft live and be continued by the next generation.”