“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.

Priya look 2015 (55)
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

 

Chidambaram and Pichavaram Excursion

Our first stop was the market to grab some fruits for our breakfast

Our first stop was the market to grab some fruits for our breakfast

At the Anandha Bhavan we had Idli-Sambar, a typical South Indian breakfast, along with Medhu Vadai a popular snack in Tamil Nadu.

At the Anandha Bhavan we had Idli-Sambar, a typical South Indian breakfast, along with Medhu Vadai a popular snack in Tamil Nadu.

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Chidambaram temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located in the town of Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, South India. The temple is known as the foremost of all temples (Kovil) to Saivites and has influenced worship, architecture, sculpture and performance art for over two millennium.

Chidambaram temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located in the town of Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, South India. The temple is known as the foremost of all temples (Kovil) to Saivites and has influenced worship, architecture, sculpture and performance art for over two millennium.

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Kali is the goddess associated with empowerment, or shakti. She is the mighty aspect of the goddess Durga. The name of Kali means black one and force of time, she is therefore called the Goddess of Time, Change, Power, Creation, Preservation, and Destruction.

Kali is the goddess associated with empowerment, or shakti. She is the mighty aspect of the goddess Durga. The name of Kali means black one and force of time, she is therefore called the Goddess of Time, Change, Power, Creation, Preservation, and Destruction.

Pichavaram mangrove forest, the second largest in the world

Pichavaram mangrove forest, the second largest in the world

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-Chrystal Vavoulidis

Chocolate Can Help Save the Planet

save worldWhile the above phrase is meant to be a joke, it actually is quite true. The cacao tree can aid in the healing of not only Earth but humans well.

Sustainable cacao tree growing is not only environmentally friendly, but assists in providing natural balance for forest vegetation. Also, it can grow simultaneously next to 50+ types of other trees (including the coconut tree which is very important to India considering it is one of the top exporters of coconut in the world) which naturally pollinate the cacao tree and therefore requires minimal, if no, use of chemical fertilizers.

cacao podsI know I stated that chocolate can heal humans and that might be a little farfetched. However, there are certain properties of the cacao bean that are beneficial to humans and can aid in improving our health. Consuming dark chocolate, in small quantities of course, can improve heart health, lower blood pressure, and packs some serious powerful antioxidants.

There is already a huge chocolate industry, so why are environmental and health benefits still being discussed? While that is correct, the industry is not all sunshine and rainbows. There is a darker side to the cacao industry which is not sustainable to human beings.

Luckily, the dark side of chocolate does not seem to be present in India, at least as much as in other parts of the world. India is not necessarily known for its cacao industry although many big chocolate companies, such as Cadbury, Mars, Hershey’s, actually do get their beans from India. However, the farmers in India sell all their beans to these big companies; meaning both the good AND the bad beans are going into the chocolate that you more than likely buy. These big guys aren’t too keen on superior quality.

That is starting to change. There is a movement in the chocolate making industry now to follow what is known as the bean-to-bar process. I must admit that I had no idea what this was until I was introduced to a wonderful social enterprise here in Auroville called Mason & Co Craftsmen of Chocolate.  This process of directly making the chocolate bars you consume straight from the bean itself (and not from pre-made bulk chocolate that is melted down and molded into bars) not only allows for better flavor and purity, but also allows the farmer to harvest a better quality product and be able to receive fair prices for his beans.

mason cacao roastingmason chocolate barMason Bars 3It was not apparent to me at first, but now, after studying this company, I can see how almost anything can be under the umbrella of sustainable development. How working directly with farmers to improve their crops to obtain a fair trade value provides the income needed for the farmer to support his farm and his family. How with improved crops it in turn improves the quality of the cacao beans used to make chocolate. How even deciding to plant cacao trees in the first place helps the Earth’s natural soil components while also aiding the vegetation surrounding it and naturally keeping away pests so that there is no need for artificial pesticides.

Next time you buy some chocolate, research the company before you do and see whether they are on the right track to help heal the planet while of course at the same time providing you with a delicious treat.

I think I’m going to go take a chocolate break now…

 

*All images courtesy of Mason & Co.

Internal economy of Auroville

eco economy

Auroville attempts to distance itself from the conventional sense of economics by having implemented their own debit card system. The Aurocard, as it is named, serves to eliminate the use of cash in everyday life transactions. The philosophy behind it seems to be that by eliminating the use of cash and thereby reducing the negative visual/psychological impacts that money can bring. The way it works is that you visit Auroville’s financial center to charge your card whenever you need it. This money can then be used at any of the enterprises that are a part of Auroville. For the Indian people I am sure that this has it’s positive impacts. But for me as a foreigner visiting Auroville, the use of the Aurocard essentially just replaces the card I use back home.

To further distance itself from the conventional economy, Auroville has a few cooperatives to encourage a deeper sense of community. One is in the form of a sort of supermarket store where people who want to be a part of parallel/alternative economic system contributes a certain amount on a monthly. This enables members to shop entirely for free without ever seeing a price tag on anything. It works by encouraging and building on a recognition of needs before greeds/desires,. This means that people that are a part of the cooperation shifts their thinking more towards a needs based economy. People are also encouraged to contribute by donating excess products for others to consume.

It is an interesting social experiment of sorts where conventional consumerism is questioned by actually initiating reflection on the origin for the different products that comes from your own community. It makes one think more carefully about the production process and that you actually contribute your money towards your own community. This was a very interesting initiative that contrasts with the intense consumerism culture back at home where most people don’t think that much about the origin of the things that they buy. Perhaps there will bemore similar initiatives all over the world to bring us back to a point where we no longer over-use the resources which are far from contributing to a sustainable future.

//Joel Hellström

Linnaeus University Sweden

Clothes Aren’t Going To Change The World: Uma Prajapati Is

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Uma Prajapati, the founder of Upasana, embodies this quotation to the fullest. Based in Auroville, India, Upasana is the overarching company comprised of multiple different brands of sustainability from organic clothing, tsunami relief, waste management, social responsibility, empowerment and growth. Since working with the brand to increase consumer literacy about organic cotton, I’ve been completely inspired.

Uma Prajapati. Image courtesy of aurovilleradio.org.

Uma Prajapati. Image courtesy of aurovilleradio.org.

I spent some time talking with Uma today and what she had to tell me absolutely overwhelmed me. I wasn’t overwhelmed in the sense that I felt panic or loss of control, but in a sense that I was utterly affected by her story.

Uma came to Auroville in 1996 and after a year founded Upasana. Her aim was to bring India’s textiles to Auroville, so after sourcing from around 16 different states, the company began to develop traditional textile and fashions. It wasn’t until the devastating tsunami hit India in 2004 that Upasana started to transform. This devastating natural disaster killed nearly 230,000 people and affected the lives of 1.7 million in 14 different countries. The company was working to help pick up the pieces through various social projects. Uma ended up working with organic cotton farmers and became profoundly changed with what she learned.

“When I began to work with cotton farmers, I began to know our big brother, Monsanto. I had no idea. I didn’t know there was a seed mafia. I didn’t know that there was a chemical mafia. I didn’t know farmers were committing suicides due to the way the whole economy is structured. They feel so vulnerable. The whole thing hit me so hard,” she said.

Because of this, in 2010 Upasana declared that it was consciously taking the step into becoming organic to support the farming community. She told me that it just blew her mind when she found out that 25% of the world’s insecticides and pesticides get used in one single crop of cotton. She continued to reveal that fashion is corrupt at the very base level, that it can’t even support the people working to produce the crops necessary to create clothing.

Uma questioned her role in all of the mess. “And in that process I chose to align my action and my thought process to the future and the light of the future, not so much thinking about who has to change right now. It’s me who will change and it’s my organization who will change and I will align myself to the future. This is where the sustainable fashion as an option came to me, that if I had to continue doing fashion, it will be only this or I’m done.”

It was this point in the conversation that really made me sit back and examine the world and the people who comprise it. What are we doing to our planet, to our people? If all fashion companies and all of the segments that make it up changed to operate in an ethical and sustainable way the total global carbon footprint could be drastically reduced and countless lives could be saved. If more leaders of companies had Uma’s mindset, the world would be in a much better state.

The future of Upasana lies in international expansion. “It’s time to tell the story to the larger community.” Uma had purposely avoided that route because she wanted to serve her own country and domestic market within India, first. She continued, “now, I’m ready to take this story of a small brand venturing into a fashion and trying to bridge from the farmers to the wearer to the whole line of organic.”

I asked her where she thinks the future of sustainable fashion is headed and without any hesitation asserted “sustainable fashion, it’s the only way!” If we want to we can choose to continue to do what we are doing and destroy the planet, but eventually we have to think about the future. The future lies in sustainability and a conscious lifestyle. It’s not just the fashion industry; many things need to change.

Uma’s passion and dedication to making a difference is exactly the inspiration that the world needs to achieve the larger goal. In a world filled with people and companies whose only concern is to make money over everything else, Uma is so refreshing. But, in addition to her commitment to make this world a better a place, her positivity and optimism for the future makes me hopeful that change can actually happen. I hope my contribution to the effort has even a minor impact upon perceptions of sustainability as a whole. I hope people make the change.

By Alexa Pizzi

India Has a Stray Dog Problem and It’s Breaking My Heart (Warning: Graphic Images)

This little guy has been spotted in several areas of Auroville, emaciated and starving.

This little guy has been spotted in several areas of Auroville, emaciated and starving.

I’m a serious dog lover and the situation I found as I arrived in India has been eating away at me. It’s breaking my heart, more and more every day. It doesn’t matter if I’m walking through Auroville, sitting at the hostel, or eating at a restaurant, stray dogs are everywhere.

We visited a recycling center outside of Pondicherry and this little guy followed me around.

We visited a recycling center outside of Pondicherry and this little guy followed me around.

I’ve visited cities where stray cats are running rampant, but never have I ever seen so many helpless dogs. From the absolutely tiniest puppies to full grown matted muts, they are emaciated, hungry and in need of a loving home. Most of the free-roaming dogs are of an ancient canine race known as the Pariah Dog, which exist all over Asia and Africa. In addition to being scavengers who live mostly on human-created garbage, they are often kept as pets by rural and urban slum households.

Stray dogs are often found eating garbage to stay alive. This was taken at the Pondicherry dump.

Stray dogs are often found eating garbage to stay alive. This was taken at the Pondicherry dump.

Most of the dogs I see roaming around are covered in mange, fleas and ticks with chunks of hair missing all over and dark bloody scabs. They are also typically very thin with most of their ribs popping out. Every time I see one of the dogs, my initial instinct is to run over and give them the best petting of their life, but I restrain myself. I want to feed all of them and take them home to give them all the life my dog has. Every dog deserves a warm fluffy bed, fresh food, water and basic health care.

This dog hangs around our hostel and occasionally sneaks up the stairs near our rooms. The sadness in this dogs eyes is overwhelming.

This dog hangs around our hostel and occasionally sneaks up the stairs near our rooms. The sadness in this dogs eyes is overwhelming.

These four pups were on the side of a walk way in Malappuram, India. They were just fighting to stay warm.

These four pups were on the side of a walk way in Malappuram, India. They were just fighting to stay warm.

It’s not uncommon to see an adult dog lying with her freshly birthed puppies on the sides of the roads or near food markets. It’s so sad to see them struggling from the second they are born. The outlook for their lives are so grim.

I saw this mom and her babies lying on the side of the spice market in Pondicherry.

I saw this mom and her babies lying on the side of the spice market in Pondicherry.

India is home to nearly 30 million stray dogs and in 2012 WHO estimated that India had around 20,000 rabies cases. These numbers are not only heart breaking, but should be an alarming wake up call to the Indian government to create change. The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) has been trying to implement the recently approved National Rabies Control Pilot Project, however due to lack of governmental funds and outdated policies, the program has remained stagnant. NGO’s around the country are working hard, but without needed funding, cannot fully implement the program. It’s very expensive to vaccinate and sterilize the dogs, not to mention that there are so few NGO’s in comparison to the excessive amount of dogs. It takes a lot of effort to control the disease and the overpopulation.

With a population of over two billion people, millions of which have no guaranteed food, water or shelter, it may be hard to justify spending precious time and resources on saving the dogs of India. But, all hope is not lost. In the nation’s capital of New Delhi, police officers have been dispatched to safely collect and find homes for hundreds of street dogs. The dogs will be given proper care and veterinary attention before they begin training to become service dogs. The thought is to control the street dogs, giving them purpose by engaging them with society to benefit the people.

I’m not sure if this issue will ever be fully resolved, but with the right plan of action and support, many dogs could be saved and sheltered.

-Alexa Pizzi