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No Nasties was the first fashion brand in India to make 100 per cent organic and 100 per cent Fairtrade clothing. Founder Apurva Kothari in conversation with Subir Ghosh.
Please tell us how it all started.
It was 2007 when Shweta and I were at a cafe in New York when we saw an article online about farmer suicides in India, happening not too far away from where we grew up in Mumbai-just an overnight train ride away. Over 200,000 farmer suicides in 15 years, one every half hour. It was unimaginable. It was shocking. It was just not OK. I started researching the space and started talking to farmer co-ops and folks on the ground to see the cause, and what was being done. Slowly, step by step, we learnt more about the agrarian crisis and realised that a lot was being done on the ground already with the organic and Fairtrade movement, but there was almost no awareness and no support for Indian farmers from our own Indian urban consumers-they didn't know, they didn't have a way to help. That's where the idea for No Nasties came from (though it took me another four years to get it going)-to kickstart a consumer movement for ethical fashion in India-
a) spreading awareness of the farmer crisis,
b) offering a viable alternative by way of our organic Fairtrade clothing,
c) helping the movement grow by being a lighthouse for other brands that wanted to follow suit.
Implementing any idea is not easy. So, how did you surmount those problems?
It's still not easy. The biggest challenge is the supply chain. While it does exist in India, it was (and still is) mostly focussed on exports and large brands. A tiny, two-person Indian startup for organic Fairtrade wasn't heard of, people didn't take us seriously, or just hung up the phone. It was discouraging in the beginning, but we were lucky to find and work with Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills who took us on in spite of our small scale. We took baby steps and have grown steadily since then.
Why did you get into this? Was it because of passion and belief? Or, did you believe that it was a good idea because it would work?
It's not passion, it's purpose. That's our "why".
I had no idea if it would work-the jury is still out-but it's something I couldn't shake off for years while I was still working on my IT career and eventually I knew it was my calling and I had to do this.
(More on this in this video: vimeo.com
How do you see yourself (as an organisation) now? Did you step in too early? Or maybe too late?
Looking back, I think we started at the exact right time-when we could!
Fairtrade was still unheard of among Indian consumers (the farmers knew about it, not us city folks). We were the first fashion brand in India to make 100 per cent organic and 100 per cent Fairtrade clothing, and it's a great feeling to see the movement having grown from there-that's the mission.
From idea to implementation is never smooth. How much of course correction did you have to do? Or, was yours a perfect plan? Could you elaborate either way?
We started out as a designer community offering printed t-shirts. That was a great start-a t-shirt is a perfect canvas. We soon realised though that our target audience was a bit older, and not the college going, t-shirt-wearing crowd. The older crowd wanted more plain and elegant clothing with a higher fashion quotient. So, the last three years, we've gradually moved from being a t-shirt company to a full-fledged fashion brand. The response from consumers has been fantastic since then and growing steadily.
How many people were involved in the conceptualisation of the project? Who all?
More details in that video link, but in a nutshell:
a) I conceptualised this over four years from 2007-2010-researching the space and meeting supply chain partners, working out the business model, ethics and values, branding and marketing, and also the seed capital. (We haven't taken any equity funding to date-it's all self funded and with a couple of grants).
b) In 2010, I brought on Diti Kotecha as a co-founder and graphic designer. She worked with us for the first year and still helps us occasionally as a freelancer.
c) Shweta was always part of the team as our in-house (part-time) fashion designer, and she joined us full time in 2015.
How successful has your project been so far in terms of financial viability? What about profits/losses so far?
We are still a tiny company and have had our major ups and downs. I started it with 8 lakh rupees and since then have had to put in a lot more capital too when things weren't going well.
We've gone from a two-person company running out of my house in Mumbai to eight people in a co-working space in Mumbai, and now to a 10-person crew based out of Goa. Up & down! We are profitable, but I still can't buy fancy wine:)
What about outreach? How much do you think you have been able to place yourself as a brand? Any metrics that you can share?
We've been very successful in getting the word out. Almost all the top newspapers and magazines have covered us, and we've had coverage on Doordarshan too. So, the outreach has been significant nationally and surprisingly, internationally too. We have shipped orders to over 45 countries till date, and gotten inquiries from all corners of the world from Australia to Puerto Rico, from Iran to Vanuatu, from Canada to Korea, from Reunion Islands to Fiji. The world is looking for organic and Fairtrade clothing, and the Internet makes it a level-playing field, accessible for everyone.