Shivam Punjya, founder of the contemporary ethical bag brand, behno, and co-founder of the MSA Ethos factory in India, has a different approach to fashion and it’s flaws. He believes goods should be produced in an environment that is fair and ethical, and that problem solving is an ongoing process that requires a willingness to listen rather than prescribe. We chatted with Punjya from his home in New York City last month to learn more about his unlikely path to contemporary fashion, how he helped develop an ethical fashion factory in India, and the value of collaboration.
The Frontlash: How are you doing?
Shivam Punjya: It's really difficult for me to know how I am doing.
I'm worried about friends and families who are being affected by [COVID-19]. Both of my dads are doctors, and they're on the frontlines. They're older, they're both in their late 50s, early 60s. That's a prime age to get it and not necessarily have the healthiest recovery. Then, my sister has down syndrome so she's immunocompromised. I have grandparents that live at home.
Then in terms of business, our wholesale business has completely gotten shot. We've had Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's cancel orders. I haven't canceled any orders with our factories, because that's just not my belief system. I think it's my responsibility and the business’s responsibility to figure out what we do with the inventory that we now have from our wholesale partners because it's very irresponsible for them to cancel with their factories especially when those folks are the most vulnerable on the supply change.
Then the third thing is, a lot of our garment workers are not working in factories in India. We don't own these factories, they're just partners of ours. It's really interesting to see how we can have these conversations to see how we can work with the workers and the factories to get some sort of security around their livelihood.
So, I don't know how I am doing. I think there are just a lot of thoughts.
What were you doing before behno and what was the impetus to launch a fashion brand?
Before I started behno, six years ago, I was in grad school. I was studying women's reproductive health at Duke, and I was in the field, doing my research on folic acid supplementation [in India]. A lot of our study participants were textile weavers and part of my methodology for my thesis was to get to know folks very intimately in their lifestyle to kind of see if that would impact folic acid consumption.
In that process, I went to everyone's home, got to understand them as family members, civilians, working-class folks, and just tried to synthesize what that meant. At the time, I didn't really make much of the fact that they were textile workers until I came back to Duke to write my thesis and Rana Plaza collapsed. For me, that was a very emotional moment because so many of the women I was working with were very similar to the women that were murdered in the atrocity. It was an emotional, angering, nerve-wracking moment. I just couldn't synthesize it. I couldn't understand how such a large factory that was used by so many large players could be so poorly looked after.
Also, I had grown up going to garment factories because we have a lot of family friends in the garment industry in India. So, this was on my mind, I talked to my family—I have a large family, two moms, two dads, dad's younger brother married my mother's younger sister, we live in one home in California, and I was talking to both my dads about this and at the time I had a job in healthcare consulting that I was going to join after grad school.
I was just not happy about that decision because I felt so strongly about something that I had no background in. My family, my moms were so against it. They were like, "You've been wanting to go into the healthcare consulting space forever. Why would you want to go into fashion? You know nothing about fashion. We know nothing about fashion. You're crazy."
And my dad was like, "Okay, take a shot, let's try it, but what exactly is it that you want to do?"
So we decided that we would build a factory with industry veterans—so the former president of Adidas from Germany, he manages the factory that we have now built. We had a nonprofit partner, MSA, that joined to help with the social programming. Together, these three parties built a factory called MSA Ethos. So that's what I was doing before I started behno, and that's kind of how it led to building a factory.
I am so fascinated by this "I built a factory." How do you do that?
I didn't build a factory. We built a factory. I think the most important thing is all the partners that we had in the process. There is no way at all that I could've done anything without these partners. That's like a non-starter. I would never be able to take any credit for it. The gentleman that spearheads our factory, he used to run factories as a part of his livelihood. After he ran Adidas in Germany, he moved back to India. He lost his wife and his wife’s goal in life—she used to do a lot of nonprofit work—was to work with garment workers. So to live out his wife's dream, he started building factories. He's responsible for building the factory.
But then we added another dimension to that factory where it wasn’t just about the infrastructural audit. We wanted to add a dimension of humanness and look at what that looked like. And I think that's where I came in, my family came in, and the nonprofit. It's all partnership driven.
Okay, but pulling those partnerships together is also a big deal, and I've got to think that was a lot of work that went into making that happen.
Yeah, so the first year, it was just about laying out the foundation. We weren't even design-focused at that point. We didn't even think we would have a clothing brand. We thought that we would just work with other clothing brands and manufacture for them.
But what happened was people wouldn't trust us and people didn't know what kind of quality we could manufacture; people didn't know what could come out of our factory, which is why we started behno, to set the gold standard of manufacturing that could come out of MSA Ethos.
I see. So then, behno the brand was born, basically, for proof of concept?
Yes, and to qualify good quality products coming from rural parts of India. A lot of factories in India are manufactures of fast fashion, and then obviously you have embroidery houses and ateliers that are working on couture level pieces. India has a huge bridal market. So a lot of Indian fashion is bridal fashion. So it's always been like two extremes, where it’s couture and then fast fashion. There was nothing in the middle and that's what we wanted to showcase a different side of Indian manufacturing.
Contemporary fashion, essentially?
Exactly. We did focus groups, and three things that we consistently heard from people was that Indian-made goods were low quality, made in sweatshops, or hippy-dippy in aesthetic. So those were the three things we were trying to attack directly and flip on its tail, to showcase, okay, it's not necessarily always made in sweatshops, can be high-quality, and can have a more directional design sensibility.
What is “the behno standard” at your factory and how was it established?
We did a lot of research to figure out what's important to garment workers, and that's how the behno standard was born. There are a lot of factories in India that are great places to work, but I think they sometimes focus on just what's expected of them, and there is no extra mile that's being walked by these factories. At the end of the day, having a safe building is great, but that should be a basic right. How do we now provide benefits and how do we look at things that garment workers want that they've never been asked about before?
The entire standard was bottom-up.
The behno standard is broken up into six different categories ranging from eco-consciousness to family planning, to healthcare, to garment worker social mobility, to women's rights.
It looks at different things that we compiled after talking to garment workers and factories directly. We did a lot of research with factories in Turkey andChina. I did apprenticeships in four different factories in the south of India for two months. It's just like going into spaces and interviewing, working, listening, listening, listening, and then just trying to synthesize what that meant for what a different type of factory could look like.
Why isn't the behno standard the norm and what is the norm?
The norm is making sure that the building is safe. There are a lot of different accreditations that factories can get but the norm is providing a safe space to work, providing basic breaks, providing signage in the factories—this is the fire exit, this is where the water is, bathrooms are. The norm for a good factory in India is also to have a contracted labor force, so they have a contract with their workers.
But what you also see—there have been factories that I have gone to where I have to climb stairs and crawl to where the workers work, and they're literally crouching in probably four feet of space. That is not the norm for good factories, but that's the norm for a factory that needs to improve.
You see many different types of factories and I think there is so much focus on just the environment, but I think humanizing the space and giving benefits is very difficult. In countries like India, benefits can’t be homogenized, different parts of the country require different things, different cultures have different things that are important to them, dietary practices are different, for example. If you have the right partners that are local to that space, it's possible.
For example, with MSA Ethos, our factory, we have found a local nonprofit, MSA, that did all of the execution for the social programming because they understood what the local communities wanted.
To that point, I would love to learn a little bit more about the behno bags, who makes them, and how?
So we did pivot from ready-to-wear to bags about two years ago now. We found this amazing factory on the outskirts of Bombay that do the interiors for luxury automobiles. They really understood the quality standard that we were looking for, but they were also open to growing with the behno standard and implementing something that they may not have been doing or they had done in the past but stopped doing.
Making a handbag in an automobile factory might seem strange, but it's just like a different contraption made out of leather and similar reinforcements and it's a similar process. We were the first handbag brand that manufactured in their factory.
They are really conscious about their waste and how it goes back into the environment. They come from a very fantastic heart and a very fantastic place, but it was just more about how do we communicate this message, building stronger together?
I feel like the sustainable and ethical brands that I speak to that are most successful, have this collaborative approach. As opposed to thinking “we'll just sketch a thing and have someone make it to spec and tell them to do this thing sustainably” not understanding that it is a holistic and organic process, from beginning to end.
Brands have to be on the ground.
Last year, I went to India, probably six or seven times and our design team goes probably the same number of times. If you're not on the ground, you don't know what's really happening. I firmly believe that.
You learn so much. You get to interact with the makers. You get to learn about people that are so different in skill. And then it gives you a different appreciation.
But now I think companies are so distant from manufacturing, it's just a product. You send out a tech pack, you get a product back and then you comment on that product and then someone fixes the product but it's just about the product, it's not about the ecosystem around that product.
Well speaking about being on the ground and being there, you mentioned earlier about your concern about security for your factory workers. You're still paying for orders but I know that a lot of brands have basically abandoned their manufacturing partners in India and Vietnam and Bangladesh during this crisis.
Do you know ways in which we, as consumers or designers, can help the security of those workers?
I've seen some initiatives roll out, where the people are trying to expunge for garment workers. I don't necessarily think that's the most effective way because how is that money going to be disseminated to garment workers if you're planning to give it to factories. I would be very wary about that because sometimes factories don't always guarantee that that money makes it into the hands of garment workers.
It's challenging. I think there are probably nonprofits that can be partnered with, but even those nonprofits are struggling, right? So, I don't know what the answer is, to be honest. I do think that the first thing brands will have to do is talk to their factory and really understand where they are.
At our factory, MSA Ethos, a lot of the workers are salaried, so we are trying to keep them on salary. However, they're not coming into work because the country of India has been completely locked down. Just understanding where the factory is and what their struggles are, and then trying to come up with a mediation plan that allows them to transition back into work or allows them to keep their workers on the payroll through this time. Not all countries are offering plans like what the United States is doing with the PPP program. So, I think it's a challenge but you have to talk to your factories.
This might be a difficult question to answer—none of us knows how long this virus is going to last or how each nation can and will respond. Do you have any thoughts about how this virus will impact ethical and sustainable fashion going forward?
I think people are probably going to design one collection a year. It's going to be a lot more of a permanent offering.
I think people are just going to consume less. I hope that's what comes out of this. I think people are taking this time to really understand what they need to be spending their money on, and I think it's coming back to the basics. You want to spend your funds on basic levels of food security, rent security, those sort of things.
I think people are asking themselves what's really important. And then like we were talking about earlier, family and friends. Those are the things that really matter.
We are going back to our roots and looking at how we design. Right now we do four collections a year. We don't produce large numbers, but we do sample four times a year. I think we're probably going to drop it to two. And then seeing how the business plays out, we may even just do one, and then carry it through the year and get more innovative with how we rely on artisans and maybe include them more in the design process then what even we do right now.
What, if anything, is giving you hope right now?
Right now, I'm very hopeful by the sheer level of selflessness by people who are doing essential jobs. I also have such profound respect for folks that are delivering food, just outside, in a time where everyone else has been asked to stay indoors. I think it's a very scary role to be out and about, including healthcare professionals. That gives me hope because there is nothing frivolous about what they're doing, and on a day-to-day, when the pandemic wasn't around, I didn't think as much about them. I think now, it gives so much perspective.
Words: Laura Jones
Edited by : Sonjia Hyon