Tuesday, 7 December 2010

In praise of . . . Bishopston Trading Company

I've pinched the phrase 'in praise of . . .' from The Guardian, where it's used each day for their third leader article, to draw readers' attention to something worthy of notice that isn't the kind of thing to make front page news.

Fair trade is something that many of us are used to in relation to tea, coffee, fruit and vegetables. Bishopston Trading has tackled fair trade in the notoriously unfair textile industry.

Bishopston Trading Company is a fair trade company whose sole aim is to provide employment for the people of K.V.Kuppam, in India, with whom they have been working in partnership since 1985.

They use Fairtrade certified organic cotton and are members of the World Fair Trade Organisation.

In 1978 a group of residents of Bishopston in Bristol twinned their community with the South Indian village of K.V.Kuppam. Their intention was to promote friendship and mutual understanding between two very different parts of the world.

Several years later, Carolyn Whitwell, the group’s secretary received a letter from a village leader in K.V.Kuppam which moved her profoundly: the letter thanked the twinning committee for all their support, but made the simple assertion that as skilled craftspeople the villagers wanted work not charity. With this in mind Carolyn set up the Bishopston Trading Company as a means of providing employment for the village of K.V.Kuppam by utilising the traditional handloom weaving that was one of the major crafts of the area.

In essence the company is a trading partnership: Bishopston provides the design and marketing skills and the capital investment in the form of forward payments, and K.V.Kuppam provide the weaving and tailoring skills. From small beginnings, when six people were employed in the Tailoring Units in K.V.Kuppam, the company has grown to provide employment to almost 200 tailors, cutters, hand-finishers, embroiderers and craft workers. A further 90 people are employed as handloom weavers who produce the handloom Fairtrade certified organic cotton cloth that is used to make clothes, toys, bags, bedding and much more. The company now has five shops, as well as an online and catalogue mail order business and a wholesale department.

The mission statement of the company is: To import directly from rural India with the sole aim of Fair Trading. This must be one of the most unusual company set-ups recorded at Companies House!

The price paid per garment ensures the members of the K.V.Kuppam Tailoring Societies receive above average wages, secure employment, a health care allowance, provident fund, gratuity and an on site crèche for their young children. All profits generated by the business which are not used to grow the business and generate further employment in K.V.Kuppam are donated to Bishopston's charity, The South Indian Rural Development Trust, which supports social development projects in the area. In 2006, architect-designed model tailoring units were opened on the outskirts of the village to ensure the workers have a spacious, cool, light and comfortable environment to work in. These buildings were funded through the company’s profits which were channelled into the Trust over a number of years.

K V Kuppam

The vast majority of Bishopston Trading Company’s Fairtrade organic cotton clothing is produced in the village of K.V.Kuppam, and Bishopton works in partnership with the K.V.Kuppam Tailoring Societies.

K.V.Kuppam is situated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, approximately two and a half hours west of the state capital Chennai (formerly known as Madras). It is actually a number of villages organised under the administrative district of K.V.Kuppam. It is a very busy and bustling place, but still very rural in outlook and culture. The villagers of K.V.Kuppam speak Tamil, although there are a few villages in the area where the first language is Telugu. The majority of people are Hindus, but there are also significant populations of Muslims and Christians: the people of different religions live harmoniously together.

The K.V.Kuppam Tailoring Societies are one of the largest single employers in the area. The main other form of employment is subsistence agriculture. Every Monday in the village centre there is a crowded weekly market, it is full of fresh produce, some craft-items and even some live animals. There is a long tradition of handloom weaving in the area, and Bishopston Trading Company works with about 90 handloom weavers who produce Fairtrade organic cotton cloth for them. Mostly this is then tailored into garments for their clothing range, but they also sell the cloth by the metre to other fabric shops and to other designers. The weavers work from home, weaving in the traditional way and on the looms passed down through generations of their families.

Many of the cutters, tailors, hand-finishers, and embroiderers that work in the Tailoring Socities are women. Their earnings are equal to the men, and their incomes allow them to support their families. Education is the most valued asset a family can have; there are primary and secondary schools in the village and many of Bishopston's partners are keen that their children should complete further education and attend university. The Tailoring Societies have a policy of spreading the opportunity to have long-term, stable, well-paid employment to as many households as possible. For this reason they will only employ one member of a household. They also have a policy of employing people based not only on their ability to learn the skills required, but also based on the economic need of their household, in order to ensure the opportunity of a good job at the Societies reaches the most marginalised people in the area.

In the 24 years that Bishopston Trading Company has been working with K.V.Kuppam there have been marked improvement in the quality of life of the villagers in the area. This is evidence of the power of Fair Trade to help the most economically-deprived people of the world improve their situations through putting their skills to productive use.

After delivery to the Tailoring Societies, the handloom cloth is washed and ironed to ensure it is pre-shrunk. It is then sent to the cutting room where the Cutters cut the required pieces needed for the many patterns the partners have become expert at tailoring. The tailors then use peddle powered sewing machines to stitch the garments. Although there is mains electricity in the Tailoring Units, its supply is interrupted by power cuts most days. There are some tailors who use electric machines due to leg disabilities.

The fine detailed appliqué work that is distinctive of Bishopston Trading Company’s style is undertaken by the khaja tailors, who are highly skilled and very patient. There is also a society of hand-embroiderers who produce the popular embroidered garments.

It is very important to Bishopston Trading Company to provide full-time employment throughout the whole year, and to ensure as much value is added to the products in the local community. Their popular Fairtrade organic cotton bags are all woven, stitched and screen-printed in K.V.Kuppam. Their beaded jewellery and batik scarves are also produced there by a group of fifteen women.

Bishopston Trading Company - The Next 25 Years?

Bishopston Trading Company and its customers have made an enormous contribution to supporting the K.V.Kuppam community over the past 25 years. Those of us who have been regular customers are at the heart of this success so the company now wants to share with us some of the difficulties they now face.

The past year has seen a massive rise in cotton prices, a fall in the value of sterling against the Indian ruppee, ongoing global recession and a substantial rise in the cost of living in rural India.

While existing customers will doubtless remain loyal, what Bishopston really needs is to increase their customer base without wasting valuable resources on glossy advertising.

Their clothes (for men, womenchildren and babies) are attractive and good value for money, and their textile gifts make very nice ethical Christmas presents.

They have a thriving line in printed shopping bags and teatowels, all made from organic Fairtrade cotton and printed by their producer partners. Maybe your children's school, local shop, church or environmental group would be interested in having some of these 'bags for life' printed for them?

They also make aprons with embroidered logos - do you know a local restaurant, cafe or bakery interested in ethically produced catering uniforms?

Could you organise a fashion show for their products?

You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch and suggest friends do the same. You can also follow their blog.

Let them know if you have other ideas.

They are pioneers in this field, have a unique business model, and are committed to continuing their work in K.V.Kuppam where they have made such a big impact on the lives of so many families.

Bishopston Trading shops in the UK are located in south-west England in Bristol, Glastonbury, Malmesbury, Totnes and Bradford-on-Avon. They also have an online store.

If you are already a customer, please continue to support this company. If you aren't, now is a really good time to become one, and do your bit for fair trade, while discovering some really good products.
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