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Diary: NUS visits Epona in India

Tuesday 5 January 2016 NUS News

From 3-10 January, Richard Brooks, Simon Blake, Evette Prout, Daisy Lindlar and Tom Andrews are in Raipur, India to learn about how Epona Ltd - NUS’ ethical clothing supply company - produces 750,000 units of clothing each year for SUs and the positive impact that it is having. In this blog, they share their stories from India for

Jump to a diary entry by date: Monday 4 January | Tuesday 5 January | Wednesday 6 January | Thursday 7 January | Friday 8 January | Saturday 9 January | Sunday 10 January

Epona Clothing study tour to India 
This week has been a rapid and intensive master class in Epona clothing, organic cotton and Fairtrade farming. The diary chronicles our week, and here we try to sum up Pass Notes style (with apologies and thanks to the Guardian). 

Age: 13Became part of NUS three years ago give or take a month or two. 

Are we talking about the student movements most iconic Fairtrade Clothing Company? Yes. We think so.

Why did Epona Clothing become part of NUS Group? Because we wanted to be able to provide students' unions with Fairtrade clothing products at affordable prices for students because it is the right thing to do, both ethically and environmentally. 

So what has Epona Clothing done with two Sabbs, a NUS VP and Chief Executive this week? Basically, it has opened our eyes to what it means to be a Fairtrade clothing company and shown us that whilst NUS is about education in the UK, through Epona Clothing we are also helping support children in rural villages in East India to access education that without organic cotton and fair trade farming wouldn't be happening.

Briefly what did you people learn about the impact of organic cotton and Fairtrade farming in village communities? That it changes lives. It helps farmers to develop sustainable futures through financial, technical and practical support and price guarantees. At the heart of success is the autonomy and control of communities to identify their problems and their solutions. 

What did we learn about organic cotton and Fairtrade farming itself? Just how many people, how much labour and how many different stages there are before it becomes the cotton we would recognise in our clothing. 

When you weren't learning about organic cotton and Fairtrade farming what did you do for kicks? A rather speedy trip around Mumbai in a rickshaw and a couple slightly/very spicy dishes. 

Fair trade clothing:

Do say: “it is really important the student movement takes a lead on this”

Don't say: “does it really make that much difference if the clothing in students' unions is fair trade or not?” 

What happens next? Keep an eye out for a video from this trip and if you are interested in Fairtrade clothing in your union, find out which officer is responsible for sustainability and ask them. Or you can contact any of us via Twitter@guild_represent (Daisy Lindlar) @entirelyevie (Evette Prout) @Just_RichardB (Richard Brooks) @simonablake(Simon Blake) or Epona Clothing @eponaclothing @tomepona.

Sunday 10 January 

The alarm goes at 5.30am. The first leg to Dubai done and we’re now sat in Dubai Airport waiting for the final leg of the trip. We may have all had a rather delightful little foot massage to help pass the stopover time.

Saturday 9 January 

A quick visit to another, much smaller, factory before heading to Coimbatore Airport and travelling to Mumbai. You could have heard a little groan as Daisy, Richard, Evette and I were bumped from our direct flight, and rerouted through Dubai which meant two things - a ridiculously early morning and an extra ten hours travelling. 

In the evening we had a bit of a thrilling, sometimes hair raising, sometimes a little bit dangerous journey in a rickshaw. We asked that the two rickshaws stayed together so we wouldn't get lost. Pretty sure there was miscommunication and they thought we asked them to race each other. 

Friday 8 January

The end of the line 
Today we were at the other end of the production chain. We have visited two factories, both of which are potential factories for Epona to work with. 

As with the cotton picking and ginning process, we were all conscious about how little we understood about both the amount of different processes involved in the production of garments - from making and cutting the fabric, to sewing, embroidering and printing patterns and emblems, ironing, steaming, packing. Enormous amounts of skilled work. 

At both factories we were pleased to learn that like with the Fairtrade cotton ginners everybody was paid an equal wage based on skill not gender. We are still unclear about how the living wage is calculated. Different people and organisations have different views - establishing the facts on this is a key area of concern for NUS and Epona with any future supplier relationship.  

We were pleased to learn about the different welfare committees which establish positive working conditions including the women's welfare committee which tackles issues related to sexual harassment in the workplace. Both factories also had a crèche for workers with children. 

Fairtrade projects
We learned about a few different projects being prioritised by a committee elected by their colleagues. They included provision of nourishing food at work and health insurance. One also provided a factory shop which sells food at wholesale prices. 

Almost time to go home 
So we are almost at the end of the trip. We have all learnt an enormous amount about organic cotton, Fairtrade farming and ethical clothing production and have been blown away with how much we hadn't thought about, didn't know and the positive impact the Fairtrade premium makes on communities. 




Thursday 7th January

 11 hours, two flights and over 12,00 miles travelled - leaving Raipur, via Mumbai to Coimbatore and on to Tiripur in the South ready for the next leg of the visit. 

Wednesday 6 January


After a night in Kantabanji where we were once again looked after fantastically well by the owner of OM Organics we set off early with the ambitious aim of visiting Bahabal to see the newly installed steps to the bathing pond, pick some cotton ourselves, visit a school and then visit a cotton gin. 

Visiting the village, Bahabal 
Bahabal had identified installing steps into the bathing pond where the community wash themselves and their clothes as a priority for two reasons: because elders within the village were falling and hurting themselves and it was dangerous for young children. Combined resources from the premium from Fairtrade activity and sponsorship from OM Organics the capacity building and development agency enabled the steps to be built. 

Talking about the steps, Daisy said “It was great to see that Fairtrade principles are making the community safer. If there are less people having accidents it also means that people are more able to continue work, and that means they are more financially secure.”

And Richard commented that “Once again we were shown how fundamentally important it is that both the problems and the solutions are being identified by the communities themselves. The farmers’ collectives have control of how they spend the Fairtrade premium so they can address the problems that are most important to them in ways that work for them.”

Picking cotton 
After being given beautiful, brightly coloured cotton scarves made in the village on the hand loom we went to learn about cotton and the process from growing, picking to ginning. First we went to pick cotton. It is fair to say all of us were a bit surprised at how little we had thought about where the cotton in all of our clothes comes from, what it looks like on a cotton plant and the intensive, intricate process of making cotton. 

Evette said “Today helped me visualise how you get the clothes and the process to get there was important. You so rarely think about all the hands that are behind the process.”

We were pretty good at picking the cotton itself - which on a plant looks like cotton wool. We were much less successful in packing the cotton into sacks. We thought we had done an adequate job, but as we left we turned to see that we had not used enough force to pack the cotton tightly enough. 

We then learned that with income and support from organic cotton farming and Fairtrade, Bahabal has developed a water irrigation system which means they can get two cotton harvests each year which increases their income. 

Visiting the village government school 
On the way to visit the Cotton Gin (no gin involved) we visited the government school which is wildly under resourced. In the school there were 150 children and five classes with only three teachers including the head teacher. The teachers move between classes whilst the children learn themselves. The children in the class we visited were 7-8 years-old when we arrived they didn't have a teacher with them and were busy studying until our arrival distracted them. They all had books and were studying modern Indian language and they were keen to communicate their enthusiasm for learning. This school received additional books and the children school bags to carry the books as a result of the organic and Fairtrade farming.

The Cotton Gin 
The ginning process is the process of removing seeds and impurities leaving just the raw cotton reading for yarning. It is at the ginning stage that the cotton is checked for quality. After ginning you are left with raw cotton which is then packed into bales. Both Daisy and Evette remarked on how many people involved in making cotton and the amount of work that is done by hand was surprising. It was overwhelming. 

Similarly overwhelming was the sheer quantity of it. We climbed on top of the bales which equated to 1,000 tonnes of gin cotton. It was like walking on a cloud. 

We were delighted to see the Fairtrade 'rules' painted on the wall as soon as you walk into the main entrance. Amongst the rules these three have particular synergy with our shared values - the right to collective bargaining - that you can achieve more by working together than alone; equal remuneration for men and women and that sexual harashment (sic) was not acceptable. 

Another day which showed why organic and Fairtrade farming is so important, and why the student movement must lead the producing, buying and using products that ensure sustainable futures. 

This diary has been written as we wait to fly South to Tiripur to visit some factories.

Simon (on behalf of Daisy, Eve, Richard and Tom)

Tuesday 5 January

After a night to recover in Raipur we set off east for a five hour plus journey to understand more about Fairtrade and organic standards, and to visit a village to see first hand the difference this - and our clothing company, Epona - makes to local communities. So after a reflection on the day, Daisy, Evette and Richard nominated me to write today's diary entry. 

Why are we here and what have we come to find out?
Epona Clothing became part of the NUS Group in 2012. Epona is a Fairtrade clothing company which you can find out more about here

Richard Brooks, Vice President (Union Development) has responsibility for Epona in his portfolio, and both he in his role, and I as Chief Executive wanted to visit to understand what happens, how and the impact it has on local communities in Eastern India. 

What did we learn on Tuesday? 
First we met with OM Organic, who are a development agency building capacity. Their aim is to support the village based farmer cooperatives to develop their skills and confidence to use their land effectively, and to identify solutions to challenges in the community. 

They explained how they train, support and provide financial and technical assistance to support farmers to secure maximise benefit from their land. We were really pleased to see the eradication of child exploitation as a result of labour based migration, and the realisation of gender equity as core goals of OM Organic. Underpinning all of their goals was education of children, communities and elders within those communities. 

As Evette said 'NUS is about education and this is a different way of NUS helping ensure children have access to education where they otherwise wouldn't''

As context, at OM Organic, before we visited the village, we learnt that;

1. Farmers form collectives to benefit from economies of scale ("This is what collectivism looks like!" - Richard)
2. There is a certification process which assures products are organic which brings financial, hygiene and health benefits for communities.
3. Selling Fairtrade products provides a premium price which enables villages to respond to their issues and concerns (which is what Epona does, and at its simplest it is how the work we do in the student movement builds sustainable communities around the world. 

We then had the immense privilege of visiting Kacherbhadi a village with about 150 residents who have been working with OM Organics for three years or so. This visit was a complete privilege as they welcomed us so wholeheartedly into their village and showed us how the principles and practices of Fairtrade are translated into practice. 

They had been taught to use multiple crops on rotation to enable the land to deliver the most benefit. They had used the Fairtrade premium to build a small rice plant which helped them to feed their families, and to build a plate making machine which gave the villagers a second income by making paper plates and bowls which they sell at local markets. We talked with women who said their dream of a better education for their children could become a reality. All the children were receiving an education. Richard (who became known as Uncle Rich in the village) spoke to a nine year old boy: 'he told me had a dream, he wants to be a doctor. As a direct result of organic farming and Fairtrade practices and the community led development he and lots of other children have chances which he just wouldn't have had beforehand. This is only possible because of the education of the whole community meaning the elders are supportive of the children being educated - some of whom will have an ambitions which include leaving the village.'

I also learnt to plough with cows. I was rubbish at it. And we had great fun laughing and playing with the children, essentially communicating through smiles, waving, laughter and pointing. We left feeling with an overwhelming spirit of contentment across the generations; and most importantly they were both confident and optimistic about their future because of the positive impact that both Fairtrade and organic farming has made in giving them skills, autonomy and control over their lives.

Wednesday we are going off to learn about how you harvest and gin cotton, visit a village school, a cotton ginning operation and a community that has invested in building steps into the bathing pond because there were so many accidents particularly amongst the elders in the village

Simon (on behalf of Daisy, Eve, Richard and Tom) 

Monday 4 January

At 6.00pm, on Sunday 3 January, we all meet in Heathrow Terminal 5.

Travelling are myself, as Chair of NUS Services Board and NUS Vice President (Union Development), Simon Blake as NUS Chief Executive as well as Evette Prout and Daisy Lindlar – two students’ unions members of NUS Services Board. We were shortly met by Tom Andrews, Managing Director of Epona Ltd.

We’re taking a flight to Mumbai, India. It is eight hours long, and because of the time difference, we won’t be arriving until 11am the next morning. We then catch a domestic flight, to Raipur in East India.

For most of us this will be our first time in India, and it’s for a very specific reason. NUS UK owns Epona Ltd, an ethical clothing supply company. They sell somewhere in the region of 750,000 units of clothing every year to institutions and students’ unions. The operations are based in India, and we’ve come here to see for ourselves; what it means to be an ethical clothing supplier, the difference it makes to be a Fairtrade and ethical supplier to the world around us, and what the student movement’s role in changing the market should be.

We’ll be visiting different cotton farmers and villagers, going to several factories and seeing for ourselves the impact the student movement is having on one of the most deprived areas in the world.

For now, it’s late in our hotel room in East India, we’ve just had dinner after 16 hours travelling. We’re up bright and early tomorrow to travel even further east, so will update next time we have Wi-Fi.

Happy New Year!