Handmade: Meet the Makers Talking Ethics & Fashion
Billie Edwards sits down for a chat with Meherose Borthwick to talk ethics, fashion and their recent trip to Nepal and India.
Meherose is the daughter of Tree of Life company founders John and Wendy Borthwick. She is a budding anthropologist with a background in buying, currently working as social media and marketing coordinator at Tree of Life and preparing to do a PhD at Sydney University on Indian women and fashion. Meherose and Billie’s recent trip to India and Nepal was undertaken in part to gather information to share about Tree of Life’s supply chain for manufacturing garments. These stories are shared on our “Meet the Makers” series on Tree Blog.
Billie: I know you have spent much of your life visiting India, starting from a very young age with your parents - experiencing the very beginnings of the family business. You have now gone onto studying anthropology. Can you tell me what the study of anthropology is, and what area you specialize in?
Meherose: Anthropologists study culture; the infinite variety that comes out of how people interact with each other across different places and times. Anthropologists do long-term fieldwork with small groups of people to really get inside what is happening in a particular place and why, to try to understand the bigger picture. My studies are focused on how globalism is impacting women in India, through the prism of fashion. There has been a huge change in what Indian women wear since the 1980s. New fashions are symbolic of women’s potential in the transforming social, political and economic scene, and at the same time a source of anxiety and debate.
Billie: How did this interest in the relationship between fashion and women come about? Do you think Tree of Life naturally shaped this for you?
Meherose: I’ve always loved India and been fascinated by Indian forms of dress. I love the variety and beauty of Indian arts and crafts. Since I have been coming to India since I was 7 years old I have really been able to observe first-hand the changes that have occurred. The women who lead the businesses we work with in India are of course also very interested in fashion and Indian style. My mother is the main buyer for Tree of Life and I worked in buying also. So, there has been an ongoing conversation for many years about this subject because we all love it! There is a flow of ideas and fashions between India and the West. I feel so lucky that I was born into this amazing family and out of it came Tree of Life. The focus of my anthropological studies have definitely been shaped by my life experience.
Billie: In recent years, we have seen a rise in demand for ethically produced fashion, which I personally think is a great progressive step for the fashion industry. I’ve noticed however (especially in the fast fashion world) this demand for ethics is full of contradictions and complications. Customers are demanding ethical clothing, but at a low price-point. How do you balance this need to look after your workers, your customers and yourself? Has it been difficult?
Meherose: It is wonderful that there is growing focus on the social and environmental impacts of fashion. This movement has so much potential to transform people’s lives. But it is a complicated picture that is often oversimplified by the word “ethical”. It’s not always clear what is truly going to be helpful to workers. At the same time there is a long history of Westerners going in to third world countries to fix what they believe is wrong whilst not fully understanding the cultural scene and thereby causing unforeseen problems. We are now, and have always been, people-centered and continuously look for improvements for workers taking a careful and consultative approach. We have many products with fairly complex components, and use a lot of smaller suppliers rather than large-scale factories. It makes it tricky to fully vet every part of the supply chain. We are currently working with a local NGO, Indian Resources for Fairer Trade, to develop tools to address this.
Many people don’t realise that by far the largest proportion of retail selling prices covers costs from within Australia. Things like rent and wages, and all the other business costs that are hidden, like marketing and distribution, not to mention GST, must all be covered in the price. Then there is the expenses of importing. Only a small percentage of the cost of a dress stays overseas. Our profit margin is between 6-7% and that doesn’t take into account if a garment has to be discounted. So, if we sell a dress for $100 we will make around $6 profit if we are lucky. This doesn’t leave a huge amount of wiggle room. We want to continue to make the business successful but we have had many difficult years. Customers often complain that we have closed some stores, especially those in Perth, Adelaide, and Darwin. These closures were not taken lightly but rather were hard business decisions that we had to take to keep the business afloat in the wake of the financial crisis. Many similar sized retail businesses have closed. We believe that the main reason we have managed to keep going is because of the charm and uniqueness of our products, a large proportion of which feature handmade elements.
Handmade really means slow fashion which costs more to make. This is not a high-profit, get-rich-quick business. If our attitude was just to try to make a lot of money we would not be doing what we are doing. It is a true labour of love for everyone involved. We try to keep our prices at a level where they are competitive because if we become too expensive that will effect the success of the business. At the same time, there is the concern to make sure we are paying a fair price so that the people who make our garments are getting a reasonable wage. It can be really tricky to manage this balance. We communicate continuously with the owners of the businesses that we deal with to ensure undue price and delivery time pressure is not being placed on them and their workers. Often we end up reducing our profit margins on certain products in order to keep handmade items in our range. An example of this is our handknits made in Auroville. We really love this product and it has been a fantastic and empowering source of income for village women. But people won’t pay the full amount for a wholly handmade item. So the price of this collection only includes a profit margin of around 2%.
Billie: Coming along on your most recent buying trip to Nepal and India - I got to experience first-hand the manufacturing workers and their conditions. It was here, that I realized the difficulty in communicating to your Australian customers your consciousness and principles exactly. I found this especially in Kathmandu post-earthquake. The villages are still being built back up, and living conditions are difficult. Seeing this with my own eyes, it became obvious that this country needs work and funding from Australian companies such as Tree of Life. By manufacturing here, we can help build better living conditions. Yet - there is the contradiction. Customers are impatient, and they want perfect working conditions (equivalent to Australia’s) immediately…which is simply impractical. How do you deal with this? If you chose to stop working with these people - I would imagine it would be complete devastation to them and their families.
Meherose: We have always really believed that one of the best things you can do to help people in areas like Nepal, which is not only recovering from the earthquakes but also has terrible problems due to corruption in government, is to go there and do business. More than charity, people want work. The chance to make a living and lead a good life. We only ever do business with people that genuinely care about their workers and community. The cousins that run the business that produces our Nepalese clothing are a good example of this. They don’t have a big factory but instead share the workload for manufacturing with as many small operators as possible. They see it as their responsibility to their community to let other people and businesses profit from the orders we place. But this model is less easy to monitor. And when we ask how the cousins know what is happening at the many small units they work with, they respond that they personally go there each week to drop off and pick up production pieces and see how things are going. So, it becomes a matter of trust which we feel okay about because we know the people involved, but it is not ideal when customers, understandably, expect more tangible evidence that workers are being treated well. When we visited some of these places, as you saw, they were not picture perfect. Yet it is very clear that the people working there are extremely grateful to have these jobs. Everyone is struggling and this kind of manufacturing work gives people a chance. But absolutely, the scene is not pretty – the work environments are very basic – and how can we put pressure on the business owners when you can see that so many people have died, so many buildings are still damaged, and they are still struggling to get back to normal. So, it’s a problem and one that we have been discussing with some of the NGO’s working towards ethical manufacture, such as Baptist World Aid.
Billie: On the trip, I also met the wonderful and talented women who specialize in craft and traditional textiles. I found their work inspiring - especially as someone who has studied textiles myself. Tree of Life’s use of these traditional textile methods (such as block printing, indigo dye and knitting) is possibly what I adore most about the brand. The Indian and Nepalese women however, spoke about the western world demanding their craft to be done quicker (as everything is done by hand) and cheaper (which I find cruel, seeing the hours of work gone into their masterpieces) - and are therefore seeking cheap rip-offs of their work. Do you think the art of handcraft is dying? Or do you think customers are able to appreciate the charm and hard-work of the textiles? Perhaps it’s a matter of education?
Meherose: I hope that people will always appreciate the beauty of handmade things. It is partially a matter of education but also when mass-produced products are made to simulate something handmade it automatically cheapens it. At the same time when handcrafts which are culturally specific are produced for global markets it changes the meaning for the people who make them. It’s unclear where all of this will end up. I believe that supporting handcrafts and giving value to things that are handmade is really important. I think Tree of Life is lucky that we have so many long-time customers who really love and appreciate that handmade aesthetic. We always hope that people understand the value of these things and continue to support them.
Billie: In your opinion, what are the next steps in creating a positive impact to foreign country’s developments and ethical fashion? How can customers help create change?
Meherose: This is something we are continuously asking ourselves! For us, just staying in the countries where we are currently working, rather than looking for cheaper places to make things, is important. We want to keep improving in the locations we are already producing from. There are a lot of new laws and regulations in India and Nepal that address things like minimum wages, safety, and environmental effects. But there are also systemic problems which can undermine some of these efforts. In general there has been a lot of positive changes however. We will continue to look further into our supply chain to try to assess where we need to make improvements and continue to work with our suppliers to implement these changes. On our trip we documented many of the fantastic initiatives and practices that the people who we deal with are engaged in to improve working conditions and minimize environmental pollution. At the same time we found some areas that need to be addressed and we are partnering with our suppliers to continuously move forward on this. One thing we were very glad to see is that in the wake of the Bangladesh factory fire in 2013, fire safety is being taken very seriously and every manufacturing unit we visited had clear exits, fire extinguishers and emergency procedures in place.
As for what customers can do, it’s great when they give feedback and ask questions. As a retailer, we respond to what customers ask for but even more so to the actions they take. So your consumer choices become important drivers in how businesses like ours operate. When people support an initiative that we feel proud of it’s so heartening. Last year we raised funds to donate to our Nepalese charities through the sale of our recycled sari bags and it was so successful. We have been supporting this charity for impoverished and orphaned children in Nepal for several years and the funds raised have really made a difference to the quality of the children’s lives.
And just generally treasuring your garments. Extending their life through care, and recycling or repurposing them rather than throwing away garbage bags full of things you no longer want. Every one of us can make purchases with care and intention and treat our garments as treasures rather than disposable objects. I believe that changing your own behavior and attitudes helps organically drive things in the right direction – people power!
The featured images are of two of the main manufacturing units, one based in New Delhi and one in Jaipur, where Tree of Life garments are produced.
Interview with Meherose by Billie Edwards
Photography Meherose Borthwick