Ever since we launched our scarf program in 2009, we have been sourcing handloomed fabrics from small villages in West Bengal, working with wholesalers like Indigo Handloom that are committed to preserving centuries-old techniques.
Why handloom? "There's something about a handloomed fabric that can't be replicated by modern machines," says Inka Apter, Facilitating Manager of Fabric Development. "There's just an aliveness to the fabric."
Our accessories program has grown, so has our interest, concern and involvement with the weavers and their families. "These are vulnerable communities," says Luna Lee, EILEEN FISHER's Human Rights Leader, who first visited West Bengal in 2011. "Artisanal work takes place outside a modern factory setting, which makes it difficult to apply most labor standards and ensure fair wages."
Studying the Issues
To understand how we might improve the lives of the weavers and their families, we commissioned ASK-Verité, a local nonprofit, to conduct a study of West Bengali handloom communities in 2012. They identified a number of challenges:
- Workers depend on a complex web of middlemen.
- Weavers are paid by the piece, often through verbal agreements, making it difficult to ensure that they are paid fair wages.
- Community members are often unaware of government benefits due to illiteracy.
- Weavers, 90% of whom are not in co-ops, lack bargaining power.
- Their long work hours result in vision, musculoskeletal and respiratory health issues.
- Fabrics are often dyed without environmental safeguards, endangering the community water supply.
Creating the Handloom Project
Launched in October 2014, EILEEN FISHER's Handloom Project is a commitment to invest in weaving communities connected with Indigo Handloom, our long-time partner. Indigo Handloom's owner, Smita Paul, has shared her supply chain with us, enabling us to work together and invest in change.
Eileen is passionate about this project and has extended her support through contributions from her personal foundation. With Eileen's guidance, the Handloom Project was designed not as aid but as a laboratory for creating streamlined, supportive business relationships that let workers thrive without ongoing aid. Among our next steps: networking with government officials to create awareness about the handloom community's needs—and to bring them information about rights.
"We are keenly aware that we cannot provide mentoring and financial support indefinitely," says Luna. "Our goal is to help the weavers establish systems that will let them generate sufficient income and enable their families and their communities to thrive."