By the time you finish reading this magazine, yet another farmer may have committed suicide in the dust bowl that is the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Like most other people, your first instinct may be to turn away from this information. Or, like Apurva Kothari, you might sit up a little straighter, whip out pen and paper, and go about drafting a plan to lend a helping hand to the beleaguered farmers. That’s what the tech professional did a couple of years ago, and the result was No Nasties, an organic, fair trade T-shirt brand.
Kothari, a former product development manager with Travelocity, and his wife Shweta Deliwala, a designer with Polo Ralph Lauren, were living in suburban bliss in New York when news of farmer suicides in India exploded all over mainstream media in late 2005. By then the couple had been in the US for over a decade.
With every visit back home, Kothari delved deeper into the issue, till he could no longer ignore the horrifying tally — according to National Crime Records Bureau data, nearly 285,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves since 1995, and suicide rates in the group are higher than for the rest of the population, the result of crippling loans and excessive dependence on the monsoons for irrigation. In 2010, Kothari and Deliwala decided they couldn’t just “sit and watch” — they moved back to Mumbai and launched No Nasties in April 2011 with ₹8 lakh of their own funds. Social incubation programme Unltd India has also invested close to ₹3 lakh in the clothing venture.
The idea of selling fair trade clothing had occurred to Deliwala in the past, when she explored the possibility of moving back to India to start her own fashion store. “To us, fair trade clothing seemed like an ideal solution to India’s labour and agricultural troubles — it was ethical, it would get farmers out of debt, and the production process and end product would be completely natural,” says Kothari. A large proportion of the world’s fair trade clothing originates from India and a majority of it is exported. Those who do sell in India are largely focused on ethnic wear. “There are hardly any casual options for teenagers, so we decided to retail to this market,” adds the 37-year-old.
How does it work? Deliwala, who has set up her own independent venture, is the in-house consultant, deciding the styles, fits, fabrics and colours every season. Independent designers create the patterns for the tees, for which they get a 10% cut on every sale, a dedicated page on the No Nasties website and credit on the tag.
The garments are manufactured in Kolkata, using organically grown, fair trade cotton sourced from a farmers’ cooperative working across Vidarbha, Telangana and Odisha. They are then printed in Tirupur using green, water-based dyes. The tees are sold through stores in Goa, Australia, Italy, Germany and Romania, and online across India and the world, where domestic delivery is made through Mirakle Couriers, which employs low-income hearing-impaired people. Oh, and the packaging is recycled too.
But seriously, what’s with the name? “No Nasties is a fun name. We wanted something cool and catchy for the brand, nothing overtly ‘green’ or preachy. We wanted to tell people that there is nothing ‘nasty’ in the whole manufacturing process of our T-shirts: no GMO seeds, no toxic pesticides, no carcinogens in the dyes, inks and labels. It’s our promise to the customers,” says Kothari.
As is usually the case, being good comes at a price. Most T-shirts in the No Nasties portfolio range from ₹599 to ₹1,199, making these garments more high street than roadside. Kothari defends the pricing. “If you buy a T-shirt for ₹100-200, think about the margins the farmers producing cotton for that shirt must be getting. By buying cheap products, people unknowingly oppress some poor worker at the other end of the spectrum,” he says. “We want people to vote with their wallets. The social impact of a No Nasties T-shirt is baked right into the product.”
Going green is just as costly for the promoter. Though No Nasties broke even within 10 months of its launch, Kothari still does not draw a salary, surviving on his savings and pumping all revenues back into the business. The brand’s four-member team operates out of a flexioffice in Mumbai, saving on overheads. Still, they’ve come a long way from when Kothari’s home doubled as a warehouse for the 800 tees the brand started out with. Nearly two-and-a-half years and 10,000 T-shirts later, the garments are now stocked at the printer’s facility in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, and are dispatched directly from there after printing. The brand now stocks plain T-shirts and prints them on demand, to keep inventory levels low.
More orders for No Nasties is good news for Chetna Organics, the firm that supplies fair trade organic cotton to No Nasties’ T-shirt manufacturer, Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills, in Kolkata. Chetna works with 40,000 farmers in the marginalised Vidarbha, Telangana and KBK (Koraput, Balangir and Kalahandi in Odisha) regions to ensure that the pest-prone cotton crop, among others, is protected from the slew of chemicals that make it vulnerable to failure and toxic for humans. “We try to help farmers use organic methods to farm cotton and guide them in getting better value for their crops. The minimum monetary support provided by the government is hardly adequate, so our tie-ups with companies such as No Nasties ensure the farmers have a decent source of livelihood at all times,” says Ayan Banerjee, CEO, Chetna Organic Agriculture Producer Co.
Here’s how a No Nasties T-shirt helps marginalised farmers. Every crop season, government agency Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) sets a minimum price for the purchase of different varieties of kapaas (unginned cotton). Organisations such as Chetna offer their farmers a hike on the CCI market price, plus a premium for adhering to organic standards, which they can invest in community initiatives such as roads, toilets and computer centres. Since the organic fair trade tag is more than just a business motto, Chetna is audited multiple times a year by a third-party firm, Fairtrade Foundation India (FFI), to ensure it adheres to the idea of producing sustainable, cruelty-free cotton. “On an average, farmers associated with Chetna get 30-40% more for their cotton output than the market rate. That isn’t the only benefit, though — they have much lower input costs, lower risk, lower debt and healthier soil due to crop biodiversity, which Chetna encourages,” says Kothari, who researched several organic cotton suppliers around India before zeroing on Chetna.
While sales have increased 100% since 2011 and Kothari is aiming for a 300% y-o-y growth in FY14, farmers are still struggling across India, thanks to a dip in demand due to the continued global slowdown and last year’s monsoon woes. “Thankfully, the farmers who have continued to work with us through Chetna are pretty happy because sales have tripled. In two years, the number of farmers working with us has gone up from 8,000 to nearly 15,000,” says Kothari. Till now, No Nasties has bought about 2,500 kg of cotton from Chetna. This year, Kothari aims to sell around 20,000 T-shirts, translating into 5,000 kg of cotton.
Selling the social story
But it’s not always easy. Working with a small team comes at a price: sometimes, orders get backed up for days. And being a small player in the retail segment, the brand doesn’t get any priority from its sole factory in terms of deliveries. Sizing for different markets is also a tricky proposition. In spite of all those hiccups, the brand is building a fanbase among Mumbaikars, including celebrities — Aamir Khan and his film-maker wife Kiran Rao, celeb hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, actor Jackie Shroff and musician Uday Benegal have all been seen sporting No Nasties tees. Benegal, lead vocalist of rock band Indus Creed, first came across the brand at the farmer’s market in Bandra. He later tied up with Kothari to launch an Indus Creed collection. A batch of 300 T-shirts was created as a result of this collaboration and they are almost sold out by now.
The rub-off effect has encouraged Kothari to strike more B2B deals. No Nasties has supplied private label T-shirts to brands in the Czech Republic, the US, the UK, Indonesia and Japan. It also supplies T-shirts to educational NGO Atma and Reality Tours, which encourages socially responsible tourism. “We and our customers are all fans of the shirts in terms of design and quality. I have a few No Nasties shirts myself and enjoy wearing them,” says Adina Goerke, marketing director, Reality Tours.
With business booming, Kothari is moving into expansion mode. He’s working on a second factory, in Tamil Nadu, and is looking into tie-ups with established e-commerce players to reach out to a wider audience. “We’re looking for like-minded HNIs to partner with and have just started spreading the word. We need funds primarily to expand our product range, increase our team capacity and for advertising spend. Over the next 12 months, we are looking to pump in investments in the ₹1-1.5 crore range,” Kothari says.
Apart from a future Bollywood collaboration, plans are also on to tie up with groups that have their own community backing, such as football teams or NGOs, so that the brand has access to a ready audience. Next on the agenda: clothing for babies and kids, laptop sleeves, totes, hoodies and summer dresses. “I want to make No Nasties a sustainable venture, building a community to back it,” says Kothari.