Shirtmaking in a Pandemic
2020 has proven to be an interesting time to be in the shirt business - and not just because our customers have been spending more time in gardening gear than suited and booted (though nothing wrong with wearing a shirt to do the weeding we must say).
Arthur & Henry garments have always been proudly made in India. Our Cofounder and Production Director, Sreeranga Rajan, is based in Bangalore where he works with a number of GOTS and Fairtrade factories producing for several leading sustainable brands. At the end of last year, we were fortunate enough to attend the opening of his newest factory - Sustainably Crafted Clothing (pictured here to the left) - a state of the art facility designed for optimum energy efficiency, plenty of light and space for workers, and a dining room and nursery.
The workers, mainly women and from low income households, come from the local area. In future Arthur & Henry shirts will be made here as well as in the facility in central Bangalore.
The factories in lockdown
However, when the coronavirus hit earlier this year - we were naturally worried about the impact this would have on the farmers and workers in our supply chain. Thankfully many of the brands who source from factories like Sreeranga’s have been supportive and he has not had to face the crippling predicament of cancelled orders like many others who work with less mindful retailers. However with the entire fashion industry facing uncertain times, future orders are likely to be down two thirds on last year regardless.
In addition to this, India’s lockdown has meant that factories were only able to operate at 30% capacity to ensure social distancing, so most of the workers in the Bangalore factory that has made our shirts to date - about 200 people - went back to their villages to stay with family. For those that couldn't do this the state government provided free rice and dal. Most will have had enough savings to survive for a month or two but if business doesn't pick up, things will get very difficult and the outlook for this factory is not great at the moment.
The cotton farmers
Another big challenge is that now facing the cotton farmers. The cancelled and reduced orders meant that farmers were unable to sell the cotton they harvested at the end of 2019 and found themselves short on cash.
Thankfully, the farming group they belong to, Chetna Organic, stepped in and bought all of the cotton at the organic fair price (showing one of the benefits of being part of a collective). However whether Chetna can on-sell it all at the organic or organic Fairtrade price remains to be seen; it may have to be sold as conventional cotton.
The farmers also need support to invest in seeds for this year's harvest. Again Chetna will support them by loaning them the money. They will get paid back, but only after the harvest at the end of the year. While this kind of flow of finances is more common and manageable for large corporates, for Chetna and its farmers this precarious balance of cash is incredibly tight - and add to this the uncertainty of the pandemic - so the risk becomes even higher.
Pivoting to PPE
In order to ensure continuation of production and to support these supply chains as much as possible, the new factory took the swift decision to start manufacturing PPE and other protective clothing, which also meant that he was allowed to operate at 60% capacity during the lockdown and hence keep the workers in work. However India is currently restricting the export of PPE which means that any international contracts for PPE (and potentially also non-clinical use protective clothing) is being halted restricting their options to maintain a steady flow of work.
Keeping on keeping on
At Arthur & Henry we are committed to continuing to place orders for this year and next. We’re only a small portion of the manufacturing capacity at these factories, but every little bit helps and your orders help us to grow our brand so that collectively we can continue to have a positive impact.
Orsola de Castro, Founder of Fashion Revolution says, “if you are a consumer, you are in the fashion supply chain.” This has never been more apparent and true - this pandemic has shown us just how interconnected we are as communities, people, businesses.
We’re pretty chuffed to have such great, loyal customers at Arthur & Henry. Every shirt you buy truly makes a difference so on behalf of the factory workers and the cotton farmers - thanks a million for your support.