Shawl Wallah: Crowdfunding Pashminas for People & Planet
Working as a UN Refugee Consultant may not seem like a natural career path to becoming a fashion entrepreneur, but it was for Greg Doudican, founder of Shawl Wallah. During a trip to Kashmir in Northern India, Doudican saw first-hand the devastation that had been caused by decades of conflict and the resulting economic and social impact. His visit to the region also enabled him to learn about the centuries-old Kashmiri textile industry:
"We have an ancient industry, still producing the original Pashmina shawls, famous the world over. Now due to mass-produced foreign imports, this dying art form is often duplicated yet never replicated in quality and beauty. The various families involved employ centuries-old techniques in gathering, spinning, dyeing, and weaving the fine Pashmina wool, making each shawl a true work of art.”
In November last year, Doudican founded Shawl Wallah, a social enterprise that sources beautiful, 'buttery-soft', ethically-produced shawls. After the hair is combed out of the coat of the Pashmina goat, it is hand-spun, vegetable-dyed and hand-woven - depending on the pattern, it takes between four days and two weeks to weave each shawl. Doudican aims to create secure employment and income for local craftspeople and preserve their hand-weaving tradition which will ultimately ‘help promote sustainable economic growth to the region’. This month they launched a crowdfund campaign on Kickstarter to help develop the project.
Further instability occurred this month after what the BBC describes as ‘the worst floods in Indian-administered Kashmir in half a century’ have left the main city of Srinagar ‘under water’. Around 460 people have lost their lives and up to a million people have been displaced, only serving to worsen the fragility of the economy. Shawl Wallah has been able to contact the families it works with around Srinagar, and though they are fairly safe, the hope is that by increasing their orders, the weavers can start to earn once more and begin to rebuild their lives.
I spoke with founder Greg Doudican to find out more about the collection, the community of Kashmiri producers and their crowdfund campaign:
How are the designs for the shawls developed and what inspires them?
The overwhelming majority of Shawl Wallah's designs are direct from the artisans. We have changed colours here and there, or created one or two unique designs, but many of these are either based on traditional Kashmiri designs, or from the artisans minds themselves.
We have commissioned a few pieces which we have revealed via the Kickstarter campaign as additional options for backers to choose. We are also weighing the possibility of offering a reward tier that would enable backers to work with our designers to create their own patterned shawls!
How do you ensure the artisans you work with receive a fair wage?
We carried out extensive market research with local suppliers, artisans and community members to confirm pricing models and production techniques. Further, two trips have been made to the homes of the artisans themselves. Our pricing structure works on a consignment basis for the families, and the intermediary we work with. For each piece Shawl Wallah buys, 95% of our purchase price is returned to the families, and 5% is given to the intermediary. The intermediary is necessary for reasons such as language barriers, centralized operations, warehousing, and product design.
The majority of work done to ensure a legitimate 'fair trade' practice has been undertaken by myself along with Save the Children India, and a newly created government organization called the Pashmina Testing and Quality Certification Centre, which falls under the Indian Government's Craft Development Institute. This came into being late last year, and as such they are currently designing their certification system. However, we sent them samples of our products, which they have initially confirmed to be hand-spun and hand-woven pure Pashmina wool. This confirms the authenticity of the product.
In addition to paying a fair wage to producers, how does Shawl Wallah support the community it works with in Kashmir?
We donate 20% of the sale price for each item (which works out to 40-50% of the profit) back to Save the Children India projects in child protection and education in Kashmir. So, our business model not only seeks to help support the sustainable growth of this traditional industry in Kashmir; it also takes into account long-term development by way of supporting projects that help Kashmiri children.
Save the Children was chosen as it is a fiscally responsible organization, and the only internationally-accepted child-focused NGO working in Kashmir. For example, UNICEF supports Save the Children's efforts in Jammu and Kashmir as UNICEF is not mandated to work in the area directly.
In some regions where Pashmina goats live in the wild, the sheer numbers can have a negative effect on the surrounding land and ecosystem. Is this an issue in Kashmir and what measures are taken to ensure the land is grazed responsibly?
This is an excellent question, and one which we have been asking local community organizations and government. As Shawl Wallah is such a new social enterprise to this industry (and a unique one, as far as we have been able to ascertain), Pashmina goat herding and environmental impact are two areas in which we hope to conduct more research. As our growth in capital and respectability in the community allows us the platform and position on which to ask these questions and conduct this research, we hope to have the ability to identify any problems that may exist. We will then work with those populations to identify better ways to provide this rare and unique natural fibre.
With the shepherds we have spoken to, the concept of responsible grazing and environmental protection are practiced insofar as it is a necessity for their business to continue, and therefore their ability to feed their families. So, while the techniques used to gather this wool from Pashmina goats is animal-friendly, work needs to be done at an administrative level to ensure the raising of these animals is done in a humane way.
One way in which we ensure animal treatment best practices are followed with Shawl Wallah production, is the refusal to buy Shahtoosh products. Shahtoosh products are also native to Kashmir and the Tibetan region, but have been outlawed due to the destruction of the animal for its fur, and the endangerment of this animal due to mass culling.
You have the two different ranges, ‘Pashmina’ and ‘Cashmere’ – could you explain the difference between the two?
On our website, we offer ‘Cashmere’ products, which are made from the thicker hair of Pashmina goats. These are easier to weave and spin, and are less soft, so lowers the price. The ‘Pashmina’ products are made from the super fine, belly and chin undercoat fur. We don't have any of the 'Cashmere' products on the Kickstarter campaign as we wanted to focus on the pure Pashmina items.
However, ‘Cashmere’ is a misnomer, as Cashmere Wool really means any wool from Kashmir. Our ‘Cashmere’ products are also from the Pashmina goat, but we didn't want to confuse the issue. So the less soft and less expensive line is labelled ‘Cashmere’, and the softer, more expensive line labelled ‘Pashmina’. In reality? They are both made from the same animal.
As Doudican further explains, "there are not many brands employing this type of business model in the fashion industry, and none doing so with Pashmina (or cashmere) shawls. With Shawl Wallah, we hope to raise the bar on international trade, and become a model in conscious and responsible consumerism." If you would like to support Shawl Wallah's Kickstarter crowdfund, you have until dawn on 3rd October. Orders from UK and Canada receive free delivery and rewards include:
Pledge CAD$25 (£13.75*) or more to receive a beautifully hand-painted, ethically produced Kashmir Papier Mâché Box. Perfect for jewellery or keepsakes, and each box is unique.
Pledge CAD$110 (£60.50*) or more to receive a solid-coloured pure Pashmina Shawl (RRP $129). There are ten colours to choose from and your shawl will arrive packaged in a Fair Trade cotton bag with care instructions.
Pledge CAD$125 (£68.75*) or more to receive a patterned pure Pashmina Shawl of your choice (RRP $149). Comes packaged in a Fair Trade cotton bag with care instructions.
Pledge CAD$450 (£247.50*) or more to receive two patterned and two solid-coloured pure Pashmina Shawls of your choice (RRP $556). All arrive packaged in Fair Trade cotton bags with care instructions.
Please note: due to the nature of Kickstarter funding, Shawl Wallah cannot donate any of the funds raised through the campaign to Save the Children. But it is their hope that ‘with the bump that this campaign can provide to our brand, this means potential growth of our business, and subsequent jump in future donations on all items sold.’
*Prices quotes in GBP are approximate according and based on current conversion rates.