Eco Femme: Changing the Relationship between Women and Their Periods!

By Sanna Rasmussen

Have you ever wondered what is the difference between an NGO, for-profit business, and social enterprise? NGO’s are non-profit organizations whose aim is to help a community in need. A for-profit business is a company whose goal is to make a profit and accrue capital. A social enterprise is somewhat a combination of the two. Located in Auroville, Eco Femme is a social enterprise that produces and sells re-usable sanitary napkins, also known as menstrual pads, while simultaneously supporting the community of women who are behind the production. More than that, Eco Femme has created development programs, connected to the global consumption of their products, which educate women about menstrual hygiene in rural villages around India.

Around the world, many women choose to use disposable menstruation hygiene methods, as it has been marketed as being the normal, if not only option available. However, with increasing focus placed on the environmental impact of single-use plastic, menstruation hygiene has a place within this dialogue. Disposable sanitary pads and tampons are made of plastic that cannot be recycled, therefore, after the six-eight hour viable life span, these plastic products sit in the landfill for over 800 years before beginning to break down. Clearly the women of the world have been shown a norm that does not benefit anyone besides big industry; the giants who produce all of these single use products. Although pollution is a global issue, India in particular is a country that is highly populated, where many women do not have access to menstrual hygiene. In 2000, in a quest to redesign how women in India engage and manage their periods, Eco Femme was created.

Eco Femme’s re-usable menstrual pads are fabricated from layers of organic cotton, which is sourced in Tamil Nadu, India. They produce four varieties of pads; heavy night, day plus, day regular, and panty liner. The nighttime pad is made with seven layers of cloth, the day plus with six, the day regular with five, and the liner with three. All pads include a finishing cloth layer that is coated with poly urethane and is anti-leak. The pads are made with wings that have a snap, so that they fascine around the underwear and do not move while being worn. Once the pad is soiled, or for means of transporting it, the pad can be discreetly folded and fastened with the snap from the wings to create a small square of fabric.

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For the logistics of cleaning the cloth pads, Eco Femme harnessed the power of mother earth. Once the pad is soiled, the wearer is to soak it in cold water and then hang to dry under the sun, which acts as a natural disinfectant. That being said, the pads are also machine washable.

In every step of the supply chain, the cloth pads are produced by women from villages near Bangalore and Auroville, India. The empowerment of women is a pillar of Eco Femme’s mission, and has led them to function as a social enterprise, with two developmental programs; Pad for Pad, and Pad for Sisters. Pad for pad involves international customers of Eco Femme, where for every pad bought, a pad is sponsored for an economically disadvantaged girl in rural India. Up to date, over 10,000 girls have been sponsored. Pad for Sisters is a program that subsidizes pads between 50 and 80 Rupees. On average, Pad for Sisters subsidizes 1,500 pads a month.

According to Eco Femme’s co-founder, Kathy, re-usable cloth menstruation pads have acted as a trojan horse by opening the once taboo dialogue around what menstruation is, and how women can understand it. Eco Femme promotes the message that women and girls should feel empowered by their periods, and embody all that it means to go through the transformative change of the body. Through the work of their development programs, Eco Femme is a model of what a social enterprise can do to benefit a community, while still engaging in a competitive business market. Eco Femme re-usable pads can be purchased in Auroville, throughout India, and on their website directly.

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Naturellement Café: A Love Experiment

By: Jon Daniel McKiever

This past week has been filled with meeting incredible individuals who are impassioned by the desire to improve the lives of those around them. Martina Ljungquist is one of these people as she embarked on a journey 26 years ago to empower the local Tamil women by establishing the Naturellement Café.

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From the Naturellement’s website, one can see the aims of the restaurant are to (1):

  1. Empower women from disadvantaged back grounds by providing them meaningful work.
  2. Engage in socially responsible and fair trade business practices.
  3. Support sustainable farming by using organic raw-material whenever possible.
  4. Provide natural handmade fine foods of the highest quality to our customers.

Martina’s quest has always been to “bring down into the matter, something higher. The question is, ‘how do you do that?’” This question inevitably led Martina to Auroville where she claims, “the startup of this company created itself and I’m always trying to catch up!” The rise of this social enterprise has allowed its workers to create a livelihood for themselves all while learning an array of skills from cooking to operational management for their restaurant.

img_0274It’s evident Naturellement’s success is due to the combination of Martina’s love for her workers and the motivation her love spurs within the ladies to generate a solid work ethic amongst the restaurant staff.

Martina makes it very clear she’s never been well versed in typical “business” operations but she actually began her career as a Kindergarten teacher! She’s an educator at the end of the day; yet, she’s using the café to educate and empower the local women through the lens of business.

img_0271                                           (Left: Tanya Elder, Right: Martina Ljungquist)

Through her past jobs, Martina learned how not to be a boss. She’s learned this and has applied to it be an effective manager for the Naturellement café. Her model for success is never benchmarked by maximizing profits. Instead, Martina’s desire for the well-being of her ladies if the focal point of the café.

“When your aim is to have maximum profits, you start making short cuts.” – Martina.

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Products for sale at Naturellement Café

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A shot of the café’s store

Her dedication to maintaining a sustainable supply chain while setting higher standards of living for her workers has established a more ethical approach to business operations. The company’s revenues are making a positive impact for the 35 ladies that are employed here today.

When “profit maximization” is removed from the worker’s mindset, it cultivates a more personable environment where the ladies are free to unwind and be themselves while working.

Her love for these women is evident as she elaborates on the various ways she strives to provide for these women. Some of her stories are more light-hearted as she illustrates how they all took a break last week to turn on a movie in the office during a work break. Her other stories are more serious as she expresses the difficulties she faced when she’s learned some of her employees have been beaten by their husbands.

According to the Times of India, around 60% of men throughout India admit to wife-beating. (2). While it’s shocking to learn these cruel and archaic practices are still prevalent throughout India, one can only imagine the ethical dilemma it creates between Martina and her ladies.

Martina is in a unique work environment where her business model is centered around the well-being of her employees. Thus, it may seem necessary to intervene as a manger when your employee is physically assaulted because it harms the core of this restaurant’s business structure. However, Martina is a Swedish entrepreneur who may come across as a “westerner” or “foreigner” to her employees’ husbands. What do you do when your good intentions to protect your employees conflicts with cultural norms that you were never born into?

This is a complex issue which Martina has artfully navigated throughout the years with her fellow workers. She mentioned her initial reaction was to ask the ladies if she could speak to their husbands about this issue; however, she learned the women didn’t want this as it would only make the situation worse.

This experience must have taught her how to help where she can by being a listening ear and a support system for these incredible women. Her efforts yield results as we learned none of her current employees are beaten today! Progress here at Naturellement café could be perceived as being “shwiya ba shwiya” or “little by little,” yet the progress made within the lives of the Tamil women that work here is interminable.

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References:

  1. http://www.naturellement.in/
  2. Dhawan, Himanshi. “60% of Men Admit to Wife-beating: Poll – Times of India.” The Times of India. Bennett, Coleman & Co., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Dec. 2016.

A Visual Insight Into a Sustainable Fashion Business

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

Check out some pictures I took during my time working for Uma Prajapati, ethical fashion designer and founder of Upasana based in Auroville, India.

 

 

“I am Full of Hope for the Future”

Sustainable fashion designer Uma Prajapati talks about bloody cotton, high-speed trains and why she never wanted to become a business woman.

DSC00121Uma Prajapati in her apartment in India. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

January 7, 2016. 3:22 P.M. Auroville, South India.

“Hold on tight or you won’t survive,” I keep telling myself while sitting on the back of Uma Prajapati’s motorcycle. The rebellious driving style of the fashion designer and founder of Upasana clearly reflects her obstinate approach to her career path. We are on the way to her apartment, where I interview her over a cup of tea. Besides her impressive book collection, design furnishings and a kitchen everyone in their twenties can only dream about, it is her story that fascinates me.

MIA WINDISCH-GRAETZ Tell us about your career progression, where you studied, where you worked, who influenced you.

UMA PRAJAPATI After I finished my studies in economics in my hometown Bodh Gaya, I went to New Delhi. There I did my major in fashion design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) from which I graduated in 1994. Then, I worked two years for the European fashion market in Delhi. For a design project I came to Auroville in 1996. I remember I only had 2,000 rupees in my pocket, less than 30 euros. Actually, I was supposed to be there for two weeks but those weeks turned into years. And well, I ended up creating Upasana in 1997. Wow, it’s now been twenty years since I first got here.

MWG What does sustainable fashion mean to you?

It means to care. Once you start to care about people and the environment, the ways you make decisions will change. This twist in your mind comes naturally. The way you think changes. And your plans change. You really have to plan ahead to dodge around big conglomerates that only want to make profit.

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MWG What inspired you to create Upasana? 

UP A couple of things. A little more than ten years ago, thousands of cotton farmers in India committed suicide because of the rising costs of farming brought about by Monsanto. It has driven them to crippling debt. They felt they had no other choice. That really hit me. And change happens when it hits you. It doesn’t come easy but when you get hit and cry helplessly, that is when you find the change.

Since then it became very clear to me that fashion has to be sustainable. I worked in fashion and with cotton at this time. I had to live with that. I felt responsible for what happened. Many people in India pretend to not know what’s really going on. There is a seed mafia and farming communities are not well educated. I knew that everyone would just continue the way they work. Why is the world so unfair? Fashion is the second largest industry in the world. And it’s a really bloody business. When we started to work with cotton farmers in South India, it changed my life. What I could do to help these people? I had the choice to either write nasty articles and blame others, or I could just go ahead and change the way I work and consume. And that’s what I did. At first, it was hard but I realized that positive conversation has a far greater effect than negative conversation for a positive cause. I thought, Okay, I will give you fashion but I will make it my own way. I also wanted to create a space where young professionals from all over the world can come and explore Auroville through textiles and design.

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Upasana Spring/Summer 2015 Collection. Image Credit: Upasana

MWG You said ‘a couple of things.’ What else hit you?

UP There was an old lady. I encountered her in a village where I was running a project to empower local weavers in South India. When I was sitting there, next to our car, about to go home again, she suddenly came over to me. She nudged me and asked: ‘Would you support us too?’ I did not expect that and just asked her: ‘What do you want me to do?’ She just wanted to work and earn a few rupees a day. This woman was about sixty and still had a dream. The dream of only earning a few rupees a day.

MWG How is Upasana a sustainable fashion brand?

UP We only use cotton from local farmers. Going organic was the biggest change we have ever made. The clothes are made by our seamstresses and tailors at Upasana. And we only use high quality, naturally dyed fabrics that are made in India.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Sounds very costly… Between ourselves, does it pay off?

UP To be honest, it really broke us financially. We did not realize how badly it would hit our business. I did it all wrong. I jumped in blindly. If I had known how difficult it would all be, I would have done things differently. Instead of taking a leap of faith I might have taken baby steps in the right direction. Despite everything, I am very proud of that move.

MWG Why did you choose fashion as your medium for social change?

UP Because I didn’t know anything else. If I had known music I would have used music. If I were a writer I would’ve used writing…

MWG Every project you have started so far has been very successful. You launched a concept store in Pondicherry and sell your clothes throughout India. You give TED talks, CNN reported about you, and local designers as well as people from all over the world come to work with you. Was starting your own business always a dream of yours?

UP No. I never wanted to start my own business. I wanted to be an artist. Even as a child I was obsessed with painting and writing poetry. It was clear to me that I wanted to become a painter or a writer. I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t be able to make money. Making money didn’t interest me at all. But then I came to Auroville and well, look at me now. I don’t know why, but something in me accepted that I am a business lady now. It took me a long time to digest that.

MWG What keeps you doing all of this?

UP I love the community. Many people appreciate us for what we do, for being consistent and for actually doing what we truly believe in. Bringing a sense of value in the fashion industry is what I am very proud of. I have a good night’s sleep, you know. And I am really grateful for all the support we get.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Did other girls you were growing up with have the same opportunities as you had?

UP Wow, that’s a very serious question. I can’t speak for other girls. I can just say that you have to jump at every opportunity life offers you. I just did it. When you keep on asking yourself questions like ‘Is it the right time? Can I? May I? Will I?’ and never risk anything, then you might risk that there might be no more chance. And the opportunity will be gone forever. Sometimes we just have to make decisions and act. I can think of so many girls in my class that had the exact same opportunities as I had but few put them into practice.

MWG Do you think people consciously ignore the work that goes into what they buy?

UP We are living in a high speed train. Everything is so fast. Now you are relaxing and listening to me, but as soon as the interview is over, you will go back into the train. The speed of life is accelerating and the demands to our flexibility are constantly rising. Sometimes we manage to communicate through three technical devices at the same time. Everyone is on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. And we are expected to respond within seconds. There is such an overload of information. The question is, How do we process all of that? Our attention is limited. Being quiet enough to make a conscious choice is very hard nowadays.

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I personally need to mediate and do yoga for at least thirty minutes a day. It is challenging to make a conscious choice in times like these. When we hear that Africa suffers we say ‘Ah, that’s horrible!’ but a few seconds later, we forget about it because we get a Whatsapp message from a friend or see a funny post on Facebook. News touch our brain cells for just a few seconds and only a moment later, they do not exist any more. Because we have other problems. Because we do not feel responsible and don’t have time. I think that many people simply don’t know that the consumer has the power to make a conscious choice and change the world. So I would not blame anyone.

MWG Do you think that peopleʼs values regarding sustainability have changed in recent years?

UP Yes. Education is definitely changing people’s values more and more. Sustainability has never been such a big topic. It matters to us, our children and next generations. I am full of hope for the future! I am very, very hopeful.

Priya look 2015 (28)Image Credit: Upasana.

MWG Will they ever have the potential to compete with big fast fashion conglomerates such as H&M or Zara?

UP There will always be a market for both, as they address different target groups and meet different individual needs. I am sure that there will be more of a change but I can’t predict to what extent. There will certainly always be a place for people who want to promote an ethical lifestyle. Niche markets will always exist and find people who support them.

MWG In 2012 the second largest fast fashion retailer H&M launched its first conscious collection. Could sustainable fashion finally be going mainstream?

UP Not really. This idea sounds kind of utopian to me. We should see the world in many shades of grey. Nobody is perfect. And diversity is a beautiful thing. Let’s stay optimistic and say that although big companies will always exist, they may change their ways in order to become more successful in the coming years. People start to think differently, even if only at a slow pace.

MWG You are already working with many organizations and designers in India. Are there any other organizations or designers in your mind that you would like to work with? 

UP I am impressed how big the ethical fashion market in Europe is. I would like to work with the European sustainable design market.

MWG Which social development project are you most proud of? 

UP The little Tsunamika doll is still our most successful project. She is a darling. She is more than a living symbol. She is hope. She is love. It is impressive what a huge impact a small doll like her can have on people all over the world. In 2004, I wanted to help people who were affected by the devastation of the tsunami. So I employed women to make female dolls that are made of recycled waste that remained of the devastation. The doll cannot be bought or sold but only gifted. More than six million of them made it to eighty countries across the globe. And the Tsunamika story is told in schools ranging from Spain to Singapore.

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The Tsunamika dolls. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

MWG  Where do you see Upasana in the next five years? 

UP Upasana has already inspired many students, organizations, designers, brands and people. We will just keep on designing for change. I want to do as many things as possible: Going international without going too crazy and breaking our neck, keep being financially sound and take baby steps to reach our goals. I see Upasana as a shining star.

 

Towards the end of the interview, the fashion designer suddenly jumped off the couch. Apparently, she was no longer in the mood to answer questions. “Let’s have more tea. We need a break.” After she persuaded me to try some vegan honey nut balls, (Prajapati’s lactose intolerance means one cannot find any diary products in the household), she offered me a ride back to my hostel for the night. Once I arrived, I posted a photo on Instagram and did some work for university while I kept my friends updated on Whatsapp. She was right. I was back. Back on that high-speed train.

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

 

UNESCO World Radio Day 2016

By Lory Martinez

Before coming to AUP, I worked as the news director of my college radio station. I spent my undergraduate years editing and producing radio stories and eventually interned in public radio. I had developed skills in radio production, which for many of my friends, was a useless dying medium. I was told countless times that people prefer visual media, and that maybe I should crossover to video since Youtube was taking over. While slightly true, I always felt like radio still had value.  

And when my friends back home started listening to Sarah Koeing’s “Serial,” I was excited to see  the resurgence in appreciation for audio production. But you see, appreciation for radio comes and goes with the changing times. Gone are the days where it is the first and only source of information in many households, at least in the United States.

However, in many developing countries, it is precisely this “dying medium” that reigns. And it is a medium with such versatility that it can be installed and broadcast just about anywhere.

Tamil Nadu is home to more community radio stations than any other state in India. And up until now there was no real protocol for radio to be used in times of disaster.

This year, the annual monsoon season caused unprecedented flooding in Chennai, Cuddalore and Pondicherry.

With the help of the government, a team of community radio organizers put together an emergency radio station to broadcast in FM to the Cuddalore district during and after the floods. They created an open helpline for people to send their information to the relief workers via the station.

I worked on a panel discussion on the success of this Emergency Radio Station for UNESCO World Radio Day 2016 featuring community members and government officials, who worked together to save lives during the floods. The theme this year is Radio in times of Emergency and Disaster, highlighting the use of radio as a lifesaving medium of communication during and after natural disasters all over the world.

You’ll find the track below. 

Listen Live all day February 13 on the World Radio Day 2016 site

And for those of you who can’t wait to listen to other amazing stories about radio to be broadcast around the world, check out the Soundcloud.

Special Thanks to the Auroville Radio Team and to the good folks over at the Cuddalore Station who helped make this happen.

‘We just can’t’

Two toilet paper rolls, six dresses, twenty-seven cold showers, no laundry load (hand-wash only), and 1.5 Gigabytes of internet. – All in one month. If you had told me that I would be able to ‘survive‘ this way before I left Paris, I never would have believed you.

Right after our arrival at the Chennai airport we went to a restaurant where we did not only have our first ‘real Indian‘ dinner but were also confronted with a ‘real Indian toilet’ for the first time. As soon as you entered the bathroom, the hygiene standards were not the same as we are used to back in Europe because there was no toilet paper instead you could only find a dirty bucket. Some of us went, while others kept saying ‘I just can’t, and waited until they arrived at the hostel. On the bus, some of us were dying to go to the loo because our bladders were about to explode.

Toilet, bed, toilet, bed. – While everyone was out and about visiting NGOs, I was running back and forth from my room to the toilet. Suddenly, I realized that the toilet paper was all gone, which gave me no other choice but to use my hands and a bucket.  And guess what: it was not too bad.

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When we found out that the washing machine broke down at our hostel, I asked myself: am I going to wear the same dirty clothes all week? Consequently, we had no other option than to hand wash our towels, dresses and underwear.

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During our stay in Auroville, the most problematic issue was that internet was almost non existent. Thus, we had difficulties communicating with our families, friends abroad, students from our group and the NGOS we were working for.

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This month was not about sitting in a classroom and learning about sustainable development from the books. We were actually living, breathing and talking sustainably. The problems we were confronted with lead us to find more sustainable solutions.

A question we could all ask ourselves after this month: how much toilet paper, water and energy did we actually save here?

By asking several students and according to the data I gathered from doing some research I found out that our group saved 38 toilet paper rolls composed of 38,000 sheets of toilet paper, which is equivalent to about 2 miles. Moreover, a standard toilet uses about 3.5 gallons of water per flush, a low-flow toilet uses 1.6 gallons whereas for squatting toilets only 0.21 gallons are needed. With the average person flushing about 8 times a day, (not accounting for the people who had diarrhea) we saved approximately 13 502.16 litres of water in total or the equivalent of a swimming pool.

Considering that none of us used a blow dryer or a washing machine, and as we were mostly cycling around with our bikes, we saved a great amount of renewable energy as well.

What will happen when we get back to Paris? Will we ever able to continue the ‘Aurovillian lifestyle?’ – This month, we made it happen, so the answer isDSC_0186: Yes we can.

by Mia Windisch-Graetz

A Utopia of Networked NGOs: Is it Scalable?

As an intentional community located in Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, Auroville is a place to experiment and bring forth innovative ideas working towards all aspects of sustainable development. Aside from the beliefs and values held within the Auroville Charter, it is also a microscopic model of how communities can operate collaboratively to achieve many of the sustainable development goals as outlined by the United Nations. The priorities and values of Aurovillians is admirable and desirable in my view as someone from a Western upbringing striving to work in International Development, however is this microscopic laboratory a replicable model throughout India and other communities in the Global South?

After visiting about thirty non-profit organizations in and around Auroville over the span of seven days, we have been exposed to a broad array of inspirational projects that are working towards one or many of the sustainable development goals. They ranged from environmental and agricultural sustainability, to social development issues promoting education, equality and empowerment. In Auroville specifically, many of these organizations and the people involved work as an interdependent public to support their overall common goals of sustainability and development. For example, several organizations that utilize recycled or reusable materials and have a zero-waste policy such as Upcycle Studio, Eco Femme and WELL Paper are supporting the primary efforts of the organization WasteLess whose main objective is to raise awareness and education on harmful habits that threaten the environment. Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) and WELL Paper are also both working to empower women through skills training and autonomous self help groups, or SHGs. AVAG assists in the selection process for the women who will be trained in creating eco-friendly products for WELL Paper. All of these are Auroville based NGOs, and there are many other instances of visible support and collaboration between the NGOs here.

It is clear that the organizations within Auroville support each other’s visions towards a common goal through various projects. However, even between Aurovillian NGOs and NGOs that we visited in Pondycherry, such interdependency and support is not so apparent. Therefore, can this model of networked NGOs who support and promote one another to succeed in their goals be applied in other areas of India and the Global South? Like anything in the field of development, it would need to be adapted for each particular culture and context. And it is likely that this is already the case in some communities, but perhaps not to the extent and concentration of Auroville…at least not to my knowledge.

While NGOs around India and globally likely do support one another within their realm of development, this high concentration of sustainability and development in almost every aspect of daily life and business that is visible in Auroville seems out of reach given the international complex systems of government, political views, social issues, and the corporate world…just to name a few. This paradox continues to follow me during my time here in Auroville, however I do remain optimistic as a future professional in the field that progress within NGOs and towards a healthy networked NGO model can be made as long as cultural context is first and foremost in assessing the development needs of any community.

-Cristina Castello