India, like many third world countries, has a mixed history with the production of textiles. On the one hand is a rich tradition of cotton gauze, silk and brocades with hand painted and batik prints. On the other is exploitation by Western countries for their own profit. Few Indian companies have found a way to enhance the first factor and overcome the second.
Archaeological evidence shows a thriving cotton industry in the Indus Valley as early as 3000 B.C. By the time of Alexander the Great (330 B.C.), the Ancient Greeks were buying India’s fine flowered muslins and robes embroidered in gold. During the 1340s A.D. the Sultan of Delhi employed 4,000 silk weavers making robes for his family and foreign dignitaries.
In the 1500s, fabulous Indian apparel, pillows, wall hangings, even elephant blankets were a common discussion topic of English ambassadors. Also in the 1500s came shawls from the region of Kashmir. Napoleon’s Josephine owned 300-400 of these Kashmiri shawls. India essentially dressed Europeans who, until the time of the Greeks, were still wearing animal skins.
With that rich history, one would think that India today would be a world leader in fine textiles. Instead, it has become a common contributor to mass produced clothing, exporting $40 billion worth of textiles and garments, mainly using bonded labour. What happened?
In the 1700s and 1800s, at the behest of local flax & woollen mills, the English government banned imports of cotton fabric from India. Using assembly line manufacturing, England started mass producing clothes powered by new machines and cheap labour. Mill owners imported raw cotton from the American colonies, copied India’s colourful prints, then flooded Indian local and export markets with cheap British cotton goods. This destroyed thousands of jobs in India and nearly impoverished the country.
During World War I, with England and Europe embroiled in war, India began to use mills of its own to produce cotton fabric for military uniforms. But as it picked up, the industry hired young women on contract, in squalid living conditions, with low wages and no health care. Bonded labour has since been made illegal in India but, because of weak enforcement, it still continues to this day.
Now, with its 1,800 mills, India is the 2nd largest producer of fibre in the world. It’s the largest producer of jute, the 2nd largest producer of silk, and the 7th largest producer of wool. India’s raw materials and fabricated garments are supplied to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States.
In an attempt to eradicate the entrenched bonded labour system, international non profits and brand owners are working with the Indian government to audit their suppliers. The progress is slow as they are facing several hurdles including local government reluctance to admit the issues to begin with.
Fortunately, some in India are moving forward in another way.
A Hopeful, Positive Example
An inspiring example is Fabindia; a company re-elevating India’s textile traditions (despite being started by an American businessman, John Bissell). Started in 1960, Fabindia is a leading trading company that links over 55,000 craft-based rural producers to modern, urban markets. The company and its members design, make and sell products (using hand-woven & printed textiles) that come from original Indian designs, while protecting the natural environment. They call their business model “inclusive capitalism,” and are one company that can be trusted to provide slavery-free textile goods from India.