The new grassroots economy: Oshadi

How a brand in a small city in south India is using ‘regenerative’ farming methods – the fashion equivalent of farm-to-table dining – and making much bigger fashion companies take note.

This 50-acre farm on the outskirts of Erode, a small city in south India, is home to 70 cows, 15 goats, 20 chickens and countless colourful butterflies. The farmland also houses a cotton plantation, a weaving studio and a sewing facility. And it’s here that billowing puff-sleeve dresses and utilitarian tie-dye jackets from clothing label Oshadi are made.

Founded by Nishanth Chopra in 2016, Oshadi is the first brand to implement its ‘seed to sew’ regenerative farming model. Nishanth grows his own cotton and indigo, and employs a 40-strong team of artisans to weave, dye, cut and sew the garments within the farm’s fences. The clothes, designed by London-based Irish designer Richard Malone, are the fashion equivalent of farm-to-table dining. ‘There is less of a carbon footprint,’ says Nishanth over the phone from the farm. ‘Here, we can trace everything in much more detail.’

In recent years, the fashion industry has focused heavily on cleaning up its image. But the industry is the second most polluting after oil and has a complicated relationship with traceability. Oshadi’s vertically integrated business model, then, with everything done within the farm, is a progressive one. Furthermore, regenerative farming goes beyond sustainability, using practices that leave the soil replenished to improve biodiversity and generate larger crop yields. Educated in the UK with a degree in business, Nishanth knew he would go into manufacturing. His grandfather and father own a large textile factory in Erode that employs 100 people. Manufacturing, he says, is in his blood. But he surprised even himself with this grassroots missive.

‘Textiles were a default setting,’ says Nishanth. ‘But in my final year at university, I started working on a sustainability report and I realised how many things were wrong with the current textile industry in India and the fashion supply chain,’ he says. India’s textile industry was worth $250bn in 2019, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation. Nishanth’s hometown is one of the biggest textile production hubs in the country, with thousands of factories punctuating the skyline. The rivers run red with pollution from toxic dyes, and fertility clinics are as prominent as grocery stalls. ‘The future is very bleak,’ he says.

Oshadi began life with a simple mission: to produce women’s clothing using hand-woven, sustainable fabrics. ‘We realised that even the organic cotton we got was not farmed in a sustainable way – even though it was grown without pesticides [which certifies it as organic], it didn’t ensure that everyone within the supply chain was paid well, from the farmers to the weavers to the spinners,’ he says. But the deeper Nishanth got into ethical manufacturing, the more he wanted to change. Agrant from San Francisco-based Fibershed offered him the chance to grow his own cotton – and from there, he developed pest control using indigenous plants and creates his own compost.

‘It was really organic, where we simply found out what was wrong and then developed a solution,’ he says. Richard Malone adds: ‘It’s crazy that these ancient methods seem radical when, in fact, they just make sense.’ Despite its grassroots origins, Oshadi is having such an outsized influence that industry giants are starting to take notice. In 2018, LVMH-owned Stella McCartney partnered with the farm to develop a ‘peace silk’ using discarded silkworm cocoons. Richard Malone also uses Oshadi’s fabrics, along with other sustainable materials, for his namesake collections; in 2019, he won the AU$200,000 International Woolmark Prize for his fully biodegradable and naturally dyed merino wool collection.

‘People are more aware of global warming and our own role within it,’ says Nishanth. As such, he plans to expand the farm’s capabilities with a water conservation project and recycling programme. By next April, he hopes the land will span 150 acres. It sounds like an expensive enterprise. Nishanth says the farm profits at 6x margins, rather than the 10x brands typically look to make. ‘The other 4x profits go to the sewers, dyers or farmers. A lot of brands make something for $60 and sell it for $600. So instead, they’d be making things for $100-120 and selling it for $600. They’d lose $50 per garment.’

He thinks the industry needs to shift its definition of profitability. ‘To me, it’s not how profitable the brand is, but how profitable everyone that works with the brand is,’ he says. Either way, ‘We’re proving it’s still possible to be profitable and to have a social mission.’ Against the backdrop of industrialised Erode, where the air is thick with smog from vast factories, Nishanth’s farm is a drop in the ocean. But slowly, he’s advocating for change. His family’s factories are looking at reducing capabilities to focus less on mass production. ‘Sometimes you cannot change things in one’s lifetime, but you can start a model for people to follow,’ he says. ‘Here, everyone from the community is working on it; maybe the husband is doing the farming and the wife is doing the sewing. All returns go back into the community.’

Nishanth says it’s up to business leaders to initiate social change; working with his hands on the farm helps him stay connected. ‘Take earthworms,’ he says. ‘You look at earthworms from your own perspective and you think that they are so tiny. But those earthworms are creating a cycle under the soil, just so that you can live above it.’ A fitting metaphor for this grassroots farm if ever there was one.

Discover more businesses in the emerging ‘grassroots economy’ that are putting their social missions before profit.

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