A conversation with The Burlap People
The Burlap People was co-founded by Samriddh Burman and Karuna Ezara Parikh and creates bags and accessories made of burlap, a fabric woven from jute. They’re based out of a small farm in Calcutta. In a wide ranging, detailed conversation, they spoke about the perils of fast fashion, capitalism, the current state of sustainable fashion and more.
Q. How long has Burlap been around for? And how do you perceive the industry to have changed since you first started?
A. We’ve crossed the five-year mark in December 2020, so we’re babies in one sense, but in another, we feel old. When we began, not many companies were selling off Instagram in India. That was considered a radical idea, which we often had to explain to people. Today, it’s the norm. We were also one of the very few actual sustainable companies out there. Even the word wasn’t thrown around the way it is now. There are good and bad sides to these things becoming the norm now, of course.
Q. What are the main problems you see in the fashion sector today vis-a-vis sustainability?
A. To begin with, the “fast” fashion sector is simply not sustainable. It relies on seasonal trends, in fact, it now relies on a monthly, fortnightly or even weekly “drop”. This is of course to keep people buying, to have customers feel like they’re one step away from that perfect look. People end up chasing an idea, without realising they’re never going to attain it. The industry is set up so as to never let you. It’s Capitalism 101. Add to that the other key points of capitalism—cheaper and cheaper goods, more and more (seeming) choice—and you have a recipe for disaster. Cheap fashion goods are priced so low because they’ve either been made with poly/plastic fibres, or exploited workers in developing countries to make them, or both and worse. Pair the constant buying and discarding with the fact that these things are not biodegradable, and you have a recipe for absolute disaster. Landfills full of last season’s clothes…
Comparatively, sustainable fashion appears expensive and elite to most people, and that’s often the price you pay for fair trade as well as natural fibres grown by actual farmers and not created with chemicals in a factory. At The Burlap People, we have tried to make products that bridge the gap and are eco-friendly as well as affordable, if a little up market.
Q. Given that many brands are now being accused of greenwashing, how are the more conscious brands like Burlap implementing change within the sector?
A. By not throwing out words like sustainable, organic, natural, vegan, fair trade, biodegradable and green, without understanding what they actually are, and how they’re different from each other. We also really believe in the give back… We’ve set up systems by which you can personally send money to the kaarigar who made your bag. We plant trees for every bag sold of a certain line. We use our scrap to create other things. We are constantly in R&D for plant-based leathers and continuously work towards eliminating leather from our bags. We hope to go 100% natural with our dyes eventually. We work closely with NGOs like Ektara for collaborations. We started a programme called #GiveBackBurlap where people can send in their old TBP bags and we repurpose them and send them back, or donate them to charities and offer discounts on new purchases to incentivise recycling our product.
We see The Burlap People not as a company but a community, a green collective of people who care. Every day is part of the learning, and we’re excited by the fact that we don’t know what’s out there. Green living in many ways is so ancient but also so new, the science coming up around it everyday so brilliant…why would you want to greenwash, when you can learn instead? That’s how we see it. We also believe that communication is extremely important and spend a lot of time interacting with our community. We try to be completely transparent and are always available to engage with our customers. Since we offer customizations, we always offer and encourage them to choose the most sustainable materials to make their bags.
Q. How do you inspire your customers to continue to invest in sustainable wear?
A. By reminding them of the greater good. Look, we know it’s a choice you make. We know you have cheaper choices, maybe fancier ones, trendier ones…but we promise we will be your greenest choice. And our bags don’t look bad either (haha)! It’s a lifestyle choice—one that asks you to be your best self. Your most aware, empathetic and wise self. The self your future self, and future generations would be proud of.
Q. Which brands would you recommend in India to imbibe the truest form of sustainability?
A. Bare Necessities Zero Waste Living, NOMH, Sienna, Hasa Atelier. Lata Sita from Calcutta makes all their clothing with waste material, designers like Ka-Sha and Paromita Banerjee. There are so many smaller ones who don’t even have social media presence. To be honest, your local sellers and craftspeople are often the best way forward, and every market segment from food to clothes, accessories and homeware, coffee, tea and so on all have more and less ethical companies. Choose the more.
Q. How can we as consumers drive more pressure for sustainability in fashion?
A. Every time you buy something, you vote. If you want a better world, a greener world, remember to vote for one. And we mean that in every way! Remember to engage and communicate with the companies you buy from. Ask them about their practices. If a company or brand is not willing to engage with you…that’s a red flag.
Q. And lastly, how do you envision the sector evolving? Are you hopeful?
A. We hope to see it become more ethical. We hope the consumer becomes even more intelligent and can begin to tell the difference between greenwashing and those who genuinely care and continue to fight the good fight. We’d like to see more collaboration between sustainable companies, because eventually this is about community. Right now it feels saturated, but eventually something has to burst, and when it does, things will become clearer, and we will see the wheat separate from the chaff. And yes of course we’re hopeful…we have no option but to be. Hope is what we build our lives, this company, and the future on.