Spotlight Series: Q&A with Harnish & Smital, Founders of Bombay Trade Co.

We spoke to husband and wife, Harnish & Smital who are on a mission to reduce textile waste from one of the world’s largest populations.

What is your ethnic and professional background?

Harnish and Smital are both of Indian descent. Both of their families immigrated to the US in the 80s. Harnish is a Healthcare management consultant by day and Smital is a People and Organizational Management consultant.

What is Bombay Trade Co, how did it come about and what are your main values as a business?

Bombay Trade Co is a platform to allow users to buy and sell, new and pre-loved, South Asian fashion. The idea came to be in 2019 during our wedding shopping experience. We had tons of outfits sitting in our closet that had all been worn once or twice and were just collecting dust. Smital had gone to India to purchase her wedding outfits, while Harnish purchased his from LA, Chicago, and NJ. The process of buying was so difficult and the process to upcycle our current wardrobe was non-existent. We value making the process easy for the buyer and seller and ultimately help us on our mission to reduce textile waste from one of the world’s largest populations.

How does the platform work?

A seller who is interested in listing their outfit would fill out a quick form on our website. We’ll reply via email with shipping instructions, and once you send us the item, we handle the rest! Once we receive the item, we get it professionally cleaned, photographed, and measured to list it on the site for resale. Once the item sells, we’ll send a check to the seller for their portion of the price.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?

At first this started as a good way to sell clothes and purchase more in a simple and streamlined way, but as we dug deeper we learned more about textile waste.  We became so engulfed in the issue that the mission of our business changed from just offering a marketplace to buy and sell, to really trying to minimise the effects of textile waste and fast fashion. We added additional services to contribute to this mission such as responsible recycling clothing, donations, and small business solutions that partner with brick and mortar boutiques to expand their reach and sell more of their inventory to a wider audience.  

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for your sustainable business idea from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it?

We certainly did and still do. Circular fashion is becoming more and more normalised in the world, but there is still a stigma in the South Asian community.

We constantly reiterate our value proposition as well as the macro impact textile waste has on the environment.

This is definitely an uphill battle as this “trend” is just about becoming normalised in everyday wear, we have a ways to go to normalise it for ethnic or fancy wear – but we’re up for the challenge!

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

We had always been pretty conscious in our purchasing behavior, but we started to make some changes around the house to be better about wasting unneeded items, recycling, donations, etc.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

I feel there is a stigma and lack of understanding in all communities around the climate crisis. We think the issue is two-fold: 1. it is not an immediate impact you see within minutes or hours so it’s much harder to believe through experience vs education; 2. The climate crisis is a byproduct of many other crises such as textile waste, air pollution, water pollution, light pollution, and others; because there is so much that feeds into it, it’s hard for the average consumer to connect all of those dots instantly to make an informed decision. 

We try to educate our consumers in the more micro sense; for example, close to 80 billion cubic meters of water was used by the textile industry in 2015 vs one of your t-shirts used enough drinking water for 1 person to drink for 2.5 years: the second fact is much more real, more micro, and more actionable and connects back to the same root.

Do you find such a lack of understanding makes having a sustainability-led business like yours more challenging? 

Yes, but the good thing about consumer behavior in 2021 is that people are willing to learn and make smart choices and not get tricked by sales lingo.

In your opinion, what’s the future of South Asian fashion? 

One of our brand partners said it best, “we come from a place that values its craftsmen and artisanship to the point where items are carefully produced over an extended period of time, then saved and shared for generations.” Fast fashion and this idea of “can’t wear the same thing twice” has completely thrown that value to the side.

South Asian fashion may never become majority secondhand, but what we hope to see is a larger emphasis on sustainable materials and more conscious production practices.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

They are giving US the advice! This younger generation is so smart in their purchasing decisions. They don’t only look for a cheap price tag and a familiar “swoosh” but dig deeper to learn about the company, the founders, the mission, and the impact. They are doing it in numbers and in every corner of their life – we all need to learn from them.

What have been your greatest successes and learnings? 

Greatest learnings are definitely centered around how much we didn’t know about textile waste and what goes into production of garments.

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you? 

Stories are difficult since some of the most impactful ones are very personal, but just as a general rule of thumb, we like to live our lives in the pursuit of doing good for others. It makes others feel good, and it makes us feel good – what more can you ask for!?

Find more about Bombay Trade Co.:

Website: https://bombaytrade.co/ on Instagram and Facebook

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Co-founder of Sustainable Style Speak, Lavanya Garg

We spoke with Lavanya, Co-founder of Sustainable Style Speak, India’s first community on a mission to drive meaningful change in the fashion industry.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I grew up in India. To be more specific, in many parts of central India, including ones that would be considered rural and backward. This was due to the nature of my father’s job in government service. My formative years were spent in the capital city of Madhya Pradesh – Bhopal, and for my undergraduate degree in economics I was at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) in Delhi. Post that I pursued graduate studies at Yale University (in USA) and moved back shortly to work on development issues in India. Since then, in the last five years, I have spent most of my time in Bengaluru and Delhi, working on worker wellbeing issues in the garment industry at the Good Business Lab (GBL).

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice and social impact? Is there a particular story you can share?

The values of public service were ingrained in me pretty early on. One, of course, by witnessing first hand the career trajectory of my father. Two, even through small actions my mother took to inculcate this. For example, I remember a birthday where my mother took me to an orphanage, to not just make me grateful for my circumstances, but also share my birthday cheer with people I wouldn’t interact with on an everyday basis. 

At LSR, I co-founded a student run NGO called Asmat, through which we organized volunteer programs for college students in rural Rajasthan. I remember this moment, when 15 of us, tucked in a sweaty, dusty Rajasthan Rail Roads bus were making our way towards the village. One could crib, and we did, about the physical discomfort. But on an emotional level, it was inspiring – to be a part of a movement, to feel that if you try, you can make a difference, even if small.

Can you tell me a bit about SUSS and how it all started? How successful has it been?

SUSS (Sustainable Style Speak) is a rapidly-growing community of students, entrepreneurs, professionals and conscious consumers on a mission to drive meaningful change in the fashion industry. We create learning experiences, provide actionable resources and curate the most relevant content to empower each of our members to shape the future of fashion. 

SUSS started back in 2018 as a Facebook group; as my co-founder Gauri and my effort at personal networking with people in the sustainable fashion space. We realised there was no platform that brings people in this space together. Gauri and I met through work (Gauri works at Shahi Exports, India’s largest apparel export house, and Shahi is GBL’s industry partner), but that was serendipity! We wondered why there wasn’t a more structured way of meeting similarly like minded people? 

From a Facebook group we have now grown to a learning community, having organized 13+ events (panel discussions, masterclasses, factory tours, clothes swaps), engaging over 700+ unique attendees. Our family has also grown – we are now a four women team, striving both through our day jobs and SUSS to move the needle on sustainable fashion in India.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

Building two successful organizations from scratch (as co-founder at SUSS and Chief of Staff and first employee at Good Business Lab) has been my biggest success undoubtedly! It’s included – finding the right people to grow your team (GBL now has 47 full time employees), building the right culture, partnerships, and developing a deep understanding of gender issues on the ground through research projects in a sustained manner. It’s been a ride, with its challenges and learnings: 

At a personal level, finding the right mentors, support group at work is what can keep you going, nudge you in the right direction.

Expecting radical change to happen quickly is a grossly wrong expectation! Focusing on incremental change to keep yourself motivated and not burnout is more real. The systems that keep us away from gender equality or basic living standards for all are complex with many (vicious and virtuous) loops, and we all (whether we are in the system or outside) have a role to play. Choosing your role, sticking to it, while respecting other players in the system is also key.

At an organizational level, I cannot stress this enough but articulating your vision, mission, business model, even if it’s a side project is crucial for its long term survival. As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast; culture is something you need to focus on from the beginning and work on everyday!

Picking your battle; none of us can fight a war everyday or work on all issues that exist in the world. Choosing what we want to fight for and conserving energy is important to keep going and not feeling overwhelmed.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for working in a generally lower paid CSR role from family, friends or society at large?

No, I didn’t. But perhaps this is gendered; because there are generally more women (at least in India) working in development and sustainability and the pressure to earn a certain amount is more on men. Although, I would say that there are increasingly spaces in this industry as well that value your work and pay you competitively. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

– Reducing meat in my diet

– I went a year without buying any new clothes; now it’s become a habit and I only buy when I need; and try to buy better in terms of quality, sustainability ethos; or even borrow or swap. 

At an internal level I have worked relentlessly on my own emotional wellbeing and physical health by pursuing hobbies, doing therapy; something I firmly believe is required in our industry because how can you work for a better world if you don’t feel good about yourself, at peace? 

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate emergency among South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

I don’t feel well equipped to answer this one. At least among the folks I have interacted with there is decent awareness, but they don’t represent South Asians as a whole, tough to say.

Would you say feeling purpose from your job is vital for you?

YES! It is a non negotiable for me (among others) in terms of what I want out of paid work. I am also privileged enough to afford this. 

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference?

Being sustainable does not equal buying sustainable, in fact if anything buying our way out of this crisis is not the way to go. I feel it’s more of a mindset; it’s about everyday actions such as reducing meat or buying less, thinking about every purchase. Swapping with or borrowing from a friend instead of buying something new. Having a smaller wedding (as you are planning to do), traveling locally instead of internationally, carpooling. In fact, in many of these examples it’s about scaling back and that is affordable to all of us. It’s more about being comfortable with that, not drawing validation from materialistic objects or social desirability all the time.

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?

Most recently I read one of Ismat Chughtai (an Urdu novelist from South Asia)’s stories (Massoma), which got me looking at her life story. This may be recency bias kicking in, as there are many many stories that have inspired me. Chughtai was bold, unafraid to speak truth to power, at a time when society here was even more conservative. A fierce feminist, she talked openly about female sexuality and commodification at a time when, if anything, our society was more conservative. That takes courage!

Find out more here: https://www.aboutsuss.com

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Saika Waheed, Founder of The Tejori

We spoke with marketing expert and founder of online blog The Tejori, Saika about her ambition to normalise secondhand fashion in South Asian communities.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I am a Pakistani marketer and hold an MSc in corporate communications and BA in marketing management.

What is The Tejori? How did it come about and what are your main values as a business? 

Tejori is an online personal blog about all things related to South Asian fashion and sustainability. We intend to educate and encourage the Asian market on sustainable practices. Additionally, we intend to break down societal norms and boundaries around sustainable fashion, secondhand lifestyle and societal pressures we all face when it comes to fashion and moving trends. 

Behind the scenes we are also working on a project to introduce a platform where pre-owned items can be bought and sold in order to achieve our goal to normalise thrifting and wearing secondhand clothes among our communities, as well as promoting how easily everyone can take part in sustainable actions when it comes to ethnic fashion.

Originally, The Tejori was established in 2017 after I personally faced wardrobes and suitcases full of clothes only worn once, of which many I didn’t want to be seen in twice! It’s then the idea of thrifting, revamping or reselling came to me. 

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share? 

Coming from a family who have a passion for fashion and clothes and keeping up with Asian fashion trends, between us we have rooms and rooms full of clothing and we need a solution! 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for your sustainable business idea from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it? 

A lot of people think no one will want to wear secondhand clothes and it’s not normalised to do so in our communities. Also, people don’t want to be seen buying secondhand clothes, as well as selling their old clothes because of an issue around anonymity! 

To address this the blog intends to make sustainable actions ‘cool’, highlighting the latest articles from relevant brands and celebrities who have taken on more sustainable approaches. We also want to highlight those who have applied sustainability to their business models – it’s all about changing the mindset and that’s what the blog intends to achieve.

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable? 

I try to make my clothing last longer by revamping them to change the style and only buying what I really need. If I do buy new, I always consider the quality so the outfits last longer.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues? 

Yes I do believe there is a lack of understanding as people don’t take it seriously. In the fashion market, consumers always want to be seen with the latest items and would do anything to make sure they are up to date with trends. 

Sustainable practices are at the end of their thinking and decision making process. Also a lot of people are unaware of the consequences to the environment and if they were educated on how easy it is to apply simple things to their daily lives to help the environment, I’m sure people would act! Educating our communities is key and someone needs to take responsibility for taking it forward.

Do you find such a lack of understanding makes having a sustainability-led business like yours more challenging? 

Yes it is more challenging but not impossible. My outlook is, if every other industry is on the being more sustainable ‘bandwagon’, the South Asian fashion market is only going to get left behind if brands and designers aren’t aware to make changes. We need to continue to highlight the issues, which we try to do through our daily stories and news. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

It’s not hard to apply small changes to your daily life, everyone has to do their part to bring positive change. In terms of thrifting, it’s very cost effective – we believe being able to purchase quality-designer items second hand, will attract the younger, student market. 

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you? 

Once I was able to sell some of my lightly worn wedding wear to a friend who had a last minute wardrobe malfunction. This really highlighted that rather than just getting rid of my expensive clothes or storing them away in suitcases (which many South Asians do!) we can become more circular in practice by just selling them on. This is the foundation of what initiated the idea of Tejori in the first place!

Follow The Tejori on Instagram