Fair-Trade Manufacturing in the Himalayas
By SheFly Co-Founder Charlotte Massey
The Fair Trade Factory
Our partnership with Visible Clothing began by chance: I emailed my Social Entrepreneurship advisor to ask about connections in San Francisco, and he sent my email to a whole list of potential contacts. One of them was Andy, co-founder of Visible Clothing. Visible is a sustainable, zero waste, fair trade manufacturing facility in Dharamshala, India. We set up a call and immediately clicked. Visible was willing to work with us through the prototyping process, offer flexible minimums and even ship each order directly from the factory to our customers’ homes. This minimizes shipping waste, helps orders arrive faster, and means we don’t have to arrange for distribution ourselves.
We spoke with many manufacturers that wouldn’t give us a chance because of how small our first order would be. Large minimums and up-front charges make it extremely difficult for small brands to get started. The team at visible worked with us throughout the entire process and helped keep costs low.
Many manufacturers have Fair Trade certification and claim to produce ethically, but Visible makes fair treatment part of their central mission. They employ women as tailors, provide daycare services for children and have five-day work weeks with hours from 9:30-5:30, in addition to time off for holidays.
We aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed how great Visible is: They made the Common Objective Top 10 Shortlist for manufacturers who are maximizing their positive impact on people and the planet.
One of Visible’s coolest initiatives is that they recycle all leftover fabric scraps and turn them into paper. They work with a local organization that employs Tibetan refugees to turn the paper into handmade notebooks. This minimizes fabric waste, employs refugees and creates a beautiful new product-all at the same time.
This August, I finally got the opportunity to visit the factory in person. I flew in to New Delhi and tried to get a flight to Dharamshala the next day, but my flight was canceled because of some heavy rain. Karam, the assistant manager, arranged for me to catch an overnight bus and picked me up from the bus station at 6 am. I was exhausted. Karam offered to let me rent a room from him during my stay, and I was immediately welcomed into his family. They put me to bed upon my arrival with some hot tea and woke me up with dinner that evening. His wife cooked me delicious meals and the whole family constantly tried to feed me more rice, dal, and fresh fruit than I could possible eat.
I woke up for my first morning of work at the factory and went for a walk to get a sense of where I’d ended up after my 10 hour overnight bus. Dharamshala is a gorgeous town nestled into the Kangra Valley of the lower Himalayas. The area is famous for being the home of the Dalai Lama and the nearby areas of Daramkot and McCleodganj see many tourists who come for the gorgeous mountains, good food, and well-developed yoga scene. I was so preoccupied with gazing at the beautiful lush green mountains that I didn’t notice one of the many local stray dogs come up behind me and bite me on the heel. I limped back to Karam’s house and he drove me to the hospital (for rabies shots) on the back of his motorbike.
I spent the next week limping around the factory- they lent me a cane to use for the stairs- and getting to know the team that produces our pants.
Everyone was extremely kind and considerate to me, as well as to each other. I appreciated the daily afternoon cups of tea, the smiles every time I walked through the factory floor, and the laughter that I could hear upstairs while working on my computer in the main office. Everyone seemed pretty happy with working conditions, and they get more and longer holidays than we get in the states! They also have a team dog named Moov, who is adorable.
There were certainly some arguments and disagreements, but overall, the whole team seemed enthusiastic and glad to be working at Visible Clothing. The factory felt like a little haven where deadlines were met and sustainability was prioritized in the midst of the rest of the Indian apparel industry- a chaotic chain prone to constant delays and miscommunications. Unfortunately, our little ship of efficiency relies on this sea of chaos to source our fabric and hardware, and so our manufacturing hasn’t been immune to delay. Karam and I would call the zipper producers three or four times a day and usually they would pick up once, if we were lucky. The amount of phone tag was ridiculous and caused so many delays. Our other big delays came from needing to import fabric from Taiwan because no fabric mills in India make a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coated fabric at the quality we were looking for. We refused to settle for cheap fabric and so we had to deal with customs and sending wire transfers to multiple countries. But now we’ve nailed down our suppliers and should be heading towards smoother seas in the future!
I’m ending my third week at the factory and won’t be back for a while, but I’m looking forward to many more Skype calls and WhatsApp messages with the team as we move forward into full-on production! Thank you, Visible!