Last month, together with our product manager Jessica, I set off on my very first trip to India. We spent 10 days in Kolkata, meeting our business partners, visiting all factories, learning more about leather tanning and production processes, developing an amazing new collection for Spring/Summer 2020. And – yes, of course – enjoying the taste of India by trying lots of delicious typical dishes!
I was captivated by the colors, the culture and the generosity of the local people. During our car rides to the factories I couldn’t stop staring out the window, fascinated by what was going on in the streets. A horde of Buffalos delaying traffic is not something I’ve ever experienced before!
My overall objective for the trip was to get further insight into the production of our bags and the people making them. We visited each of our factories, Springfield, STC, EMA and Mapletree; as well as Sheong Shi tannery who makes our eco-friendly leathers. Jess was kept very busy developing new samples for our next collection – a hard task but a lot of fun! Our ideas originate back at the office in Amsterdam with the rest of the team, and we then work with our talented sample men who turn our vision into reality.
During our visit we were lucky to witness Vishwakarma Puja, a holiday where people worship the god of the machinery. This means people lovingly decorate all kind of machines and thank them for their work. We were invited by the factories to join the festivity. What an experience! The factory owners organize these events for the employees and their families, including a priest to give the blessings and food for everybody. It creates a beautiful feeling of belonging and community among the employees and management.
One of my priorities was to meet with the team members who are responsible for social compliance at each factory. We went through all the documentation related to social accountability, including fair wages, health and safety policies as well as programs that have been setup to foster capacity building and worker empowerment. I was excited to see that the systems they have in place are contributing to employee well-being and each of the factory owners cares deeply about every single worker and their families. In case we see potential for improvement on certain topics or procedures or our partners do not fulfil our requirements, we discuss this as well. Usually we try to find solutions that are suitable for everyone and develop a strategy and timetable according to which changes should be made.
One of the many highlights for me was visiting the ladies that make our dustbags. They live in a remote village and for some of the women it’s their only source of income for themselves and their families. Labour is scarce in this area so it’s very important that O My Bag can make a positive impact by providing safe and secure employment.
Sheong Shi Tannery
The Sheong Shi tannery is our partner in Kolkata who makes the majority of our beautiful O My Bag leathers. The tannery is owned by the lovely couple Patrick and Veronica. Pinky, their knowledgeable manager gave me a tour and explained each step of the process in detail, as well as which machines were necessary for each step.
Afterwards, Patrick and I discussed the challenges of making eco-friendly leather. With chrome free tanning, the process that is used for our leathers, tick bites and creases can become far more visible than it is the case with standard chrome tanning. This is why it is so important to source high quality hides, which are however sometimes difficult to get.
We also talked about topics such as the energy and water use or protective equipment workers have to wear and brainstormed a few ideas to improve the overall process.
Meetings with Civil Organizations: IJM India
After our factory visits, Jess and I spent some time with the organizations we support to talk about funding for their future social projects.
Our first stop was at the International Justice Mission India, an organization that fights modern slavery. They rescue people out of bonded labour and also help them to integrate back to normal life. Together with local authorities they arrest slave owners and put them behind bars. The people working at IJM India are heroes! – we have a lot of respect for their work.
The stories they shared were really touching. We discussed how O My Bag and IJM can collaborate and support liberated women in their new life. We are already working on something together so stay tuned!
Our next stop was at The Cup, a café belonging to Freeset Global, a fair trade organisation which provides alternative employment opportunities and support for women working in Kolkata’s largest red light district.
In 2018, we donated our profits from the Black Friday Fund to The Cup and we were excited to see their progress. It was great to meet the team: Frin, a social worker that supports the women every day, as well as Soma and Kajal.
It was a pleasure to connect with the ladies that were hanging out in the café when we arrived. We bonded over some fun workout routines that were screened with the projector we funded in 2018. It’s a great feeling to know that we as O My Bag, together with our customers, could support Freeset a little in creating such a nice, safe and fun place for the ladies, where they can make friends and enjoy some normality.
Kolkata Mary Ward Social Center
During the last days of our trip we visited the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Center who runs the Brickfield Schools, a project we have worked on regularly in the past. The team updated us about the progress they have made during the last years – the number of schools has grown from 20 to 60 and the attendance has increased from 1000 to 3000, a huge success.
They also mentioned that they were lacking funding for three schools this year which would normally provide education for 150 children. O My Bag quickly decided to step in and help them out – we will be updating you with more details soon!
The Bottom Line
In general, it was so great to meet all the lovely people that make our leathers and bags. Thanks again to Springfield, STC, EMA, Mapletree and the Sheong Shi Tannery for their very warm welcome and their hospitality and for patiently answering all my questions! Apologies in advance – they will keep coming. The whole trip was incredibly inspiring and gave me even more motivation for the year ahead! Let’s do this!
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