Consumerism has gradually become a problem in India. As the standard of living increases, Indians and fast fashion companies, who mass market catwalk designs at cheap prices, don’t seem to care two hoots about the environmental impact of fast fashion.
The growth of international fast fashion brands like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M, among others, stands as testament to this. In fact, India’s apparel market is expected to be worth $59.3 billion in 2022, and set to become the sixth largest in the world, according to a report by management and consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Simply put, more and more Indians just keep on buying. But where do all those clothes go? What happens to the last set of shirts a person bought but no longer used? These were the questions that Sujata Chatterjee kept asking before she finally started her social venture Twirl.Store in 2017.
The platform allows people from anywhere in India to give their clothes in exchange for points that can be redeemed to buy upcycled products on their ecommerce platform. The pile of clothes are segregated at their office in Kolkata either for donation – to slum areas in the city or villages of Santiniketan and Sunderbans in West Bengal – or to be upcycled into bags, jackets, accessories, among many other things.
“The environmental effects of fast fashion are rarely discussed. But that does not mean they are not there. The fashion industry is the second biggest pollutant in the world,” says the 38-year-old Kolkata-based entrepreneur.
Her venture, a little over two years old, is fulfilling four clearly defined goals: reducing wastage of cloth, conserving natural resources like water, meeting clothing needs of the poor, and women empowerment.
The Woman Entrepreneur from Kolkata
As she ideated her venture for a circular economy, her friends were among naysayers who believed such business was “never done before in India” and that women “starting something new” in Kolkata was nearly impossible.
Sujata was part of the sales team at Hewlett-Packard India at the time but felt more determined than ever to let her actions speak for themselves. In hindsight, she looks at it as a “blessing in disguise”. As her venture took off, appreciation and support came from complete strangers and organisations like Selco Gold and Diamonds, Tata Teleservices, and Radio Mirchi Kolkata. After employees of Radio Mirchi got involved by donating their clothes, the Twirl.Store initiative was spoken about on the radio’s morning programme, Sujata shares.
Working with an all-women team, women empowerment has been a core value of the startup. The core team has eight women; 40 women from outskirts of the city are involved in weaving and stitching to upcycle the fabrics.
“We are a group of motivated, young women determined to break stereotypes and bring about a change in the society. We are all-inclusive team where girls from all kinds of backgrounds take care of everything, from manufacturing to operations,” shares Sujata, who bagged a Devi Award from Smriti Irani, Union Minister of Textiles and Women & Child Development in September 2019.
A Mother, A Social Entrepreneur
While starting up in the space of social entrepreneurship is extremely difficult, Sujata says her family members, who keep on boosting her morale, make it possible to continue.
She started the bootstrapped business by sorting her own wardrobe, and much of Twirl’s growth has been organic. The message was largely spread through word of mouth, without any big ad campaigns or marketing budget.
In fact, the biggest challenge, she says, is making people aware of the work Twirl does and helping them understand the environmental cost of cloth wastage.
Speaking on her journey as a social entrepreneur, she shares a harsh reality. “People will appreciate and praise the work that you are doing but not really get involved to make a difference in society. It really takes a lot to get people to act. How many of us are ready to really be a part of the change?”
She asserts that social entrepreneurship can only work when society becomes a part of it by “becoming a little open” to initiatives.
A skillful multitasker, the mother of two takes care of her responsibilities at work and home, but says she is just about managing.
“Twirl is always there on my mind when I am at home and when I am at work, the kids are still on my mind. I’d be figuring out how they will get by from their school to activity sessions. At home in the evening, I’d be planning the logistics for the next day. I just sort of learnt how to manage both jobs in one place,” she says.
Twirl, she says, has become like a newborn child that takes up most of the mother’s attention. And Sujata shows all that is possible when a mother tends to her passion with care and determination.