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Freedom businesses of West Bengal

Back in July, Meg and I met to develop our business plan.  Below are some notes from that meeting.

Our Mission?

To unite the conscientious consumer with the artisans of the world in a way that is respectful to the artisan and simultaneously brings high quality products to the consumer.  We commit to treating each customer and each artisan with the same care that goes into each one of our fine products.   

And out of those notes came our Mission Statement,

 Enduring goods bought and sold with integrity.

Meeting in her lovely seaside town in Rhode Island, Meg and I were only able to daydream what this statement might look like halfway around the world.  Selling with integrity seems easy enough; as consumers ourselves, we value honesty and personalization, and so making this commitment to others is a no-brainer for us.  

The buying component is a bit trickier.  Again, as consumers, although we strive to buy with integrity, we have found ourselves in big box stores buying something that came from thousands of miles away, and was likely not made with the best ethical or environmental sustainability practices.  But one week into the trip, having met with fair trade org leaders, change makers in the freedom business (more on that later), and artisans and manufacturers, our Mission Statement is taking shape, and it's looking good!  

So what follows is just one of many stories to come, of the life behind the products we buy.  And with each new connection made, we are reinvigorated by the prospect that we can deliver beautiful products that uphold our Mission Statement.

West Bengal - geography being one of several reasons - registers some of the highest rates of sex trafficking in India. In Kolkata, there is an industry for “freedom” businesses that offer women an alternative income source to the sex trade. I’ll admit that I was skeptical of these types of businesses.  I ignorantly thought that offering these women a sewing job was only a different type of subjection, albeit monumentally safer, and I think we can all agree, better. Nevertheless, I was concerned that the women there now would be locked into a life of sewing-for-westerners.  Again, I understand this is a much better alternative, but I had my reservations.

What I found when I visited Freeset was a community of women with shared trauma, a happy and safe nursery for young children, and a narrative rooted in holistic care and real, well, freedom.  In addition to offering steady and fair income, Freeset offers therapeutic services, health services, and training in any number of areas, from literacy to personal finance.

Below: preparations for the Durga Puja, West Bengal's largest festival.  Taken in Freesets' neighborhood. 

Preparations for West Bengal's biggest festival, Durga Puja.  Taken in Freesets neighborhood.

There were also several anecdotes of women who had joined the organization long ago and had transitioned within the org to a therapeutic role or a managerial role.  Yes, women can and do stay in the production aspect of the business, but there is room only for personal and professional growth, and healing at Freeset. There were also several men employed there, which I was told is beneficial, not just for lifting heavy rolls of fabric, but also for the impact these men can have on other men in the community.  They are role models to other men for their affiliation with such an organization, and for the way in which they engage with the women at Freeset.

What really resonated with me though is the new initiative Freeset Fabrics, located in Murshidabad, the region from which almost half of the women are trafficked. Freeset Fabrics is set up to take a preventative approach to the sex trade epidemic. They are offering vulnerable women jobs before they are potentially snatched up by a deceiving offer of employment.  

More to come on Freeset Fabrics when I visit again in January, but for now we are thrilled to be carrying their very first line of scarves!



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