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“Sometimes I feel like the Robin Hood of the fashion sector”

More than a hundred vulnerable women in the Indian countryside will soon be weaving clothing and accessories for European customers. The social enterprise Solid ensures that the workers receive fair pay for their work. Manager Lyn Verelst says this is a win-win situation. “I don’t believe in charity”, she says. “But I do believe in giving women opportunities and allowing them to take control of their own destiny.” Solid is receiving support during the start-up phase from the Business Partnership Facility, which is managed by the King Baudouin Foundation.

A fair trade weaving workshop in Ranchi, capital of one of the most vulnerable regions in India. Lyn Verelst from Solid wants to develop it further, using support received from the Business Partnership Facility. “You are mad”, was the warning that Verelst received from one Indian lawyer. “Lawless”, was the way he described Ranchi : a place where not laws but corruption determines what happens. “It is also the state where human traffickers entice the largest numbers of young women to go to the cities to work as domestic slaves”, says Verelst. “We thought it was important to work specifically in that area.”

This workshop is not the first project for Solid. It has been running a knitting workshop in Peru for some time now, making hats for AS Adventure’s Ayacucho line and alpaca sweaters for LN Knits. “We have been in Peru since 2005. Even then people were warning us about the dangers. The Shining Path terrorist organisation came into being in Ayacucho.” That did not stop Verelst from starting up their project. “I cannot stand injustice”, she explains. “Now I lead the family foundation that was set up by my father. I lived for a year in Peru, working as a volunteer. I have had so many opportunities myself. Now I want to give back some of those opportunities to vulnerable women.”

Verelst wants Solid to work mainly on capacity building. “Many uneducated women are skilled in a craft and have talent. I don’t want to give women money; I want to help them take charge of their own destiny by offering them an honest job.” The same principle of independence applies on her own non-profit organisation. “I don’t believe in charity”, says Verelst, a trained economist. “We at Solid do not sell artisan products based on altruism; we keep up with fashion and work with Western designers. That allows us to find a market for our products here. We combine designs from here with the crafts and materials from there. In Peru the women knit alpaca wool, while in India they weave organic cotton, merino wool and silk. It is a win-win situation for the women and also for our partners.”

Solid India

“Many uneducated women are skilled in a craft and have talent. I want to let them take charge of their own destiny by helping to get them working.”

Lyn Verelst, manager Solid

A cellar full of looms in Antwerp

Verelst is now pushing boldly ahead to create a similar win-win situation in India too, with problems along the way, of course. She calls the Indian workshop her ‘step-child’. “Doing business is easier in Peru. In India you have to struggle with the bureaucracy. Everything takes much longer there. It was make or break. Until that telephone call came.”
Verelst had just arranged a meeting to discuss the future of the workshop. “That was the moment when a supporter from Solid called me. He knew someone who happened to have seventy looms in his cellar in Antwerp. Seventy! He had to get rid of them and he was willing to donate them. Were we interested? Even now I can hardly believe it.”

Nevertheless, even that was not enough by itself to save the ‘step-child’. “Once we had the looms we felt that we were able to put in a strong application for support from the Business Partnership Facility. It all depended on whether we would actually get the support. We were informed in late May and now we are going full steam ahead. We are already employing 25 women, and soon there will be another 90. Eventually we want to become self-sufficient, just like we are in Peru. We invest the profits in the women themselves.”

Working with major retailers

The looms were shipped to India in August and there is no lack of ideas on what to make. Verelst considers herself fortunate that her partners and customers understand her way of thinking. “Some of our customers are exclusive brands that order sweaters made from 100 percent alpaca or silk scarves. However, we also work with conscious retailers who are able to work on a much larger scale.”

Verelst considers that an increase in scale is necessary to have a greater impact. “Actually there are two sides to it. On the one hand I believe in slow fashion, with the emphasis on sustainability, production on a smaller scale and consumers who are more conscious about clothing. I have also noticed that mass production does have certain benefits, because you can only change things when you work on a large scale. When you place big orders you can get your suppliers to do more and they also become more reliable. But above all, I just want to help as many women as possible. India is huge, so you just cannot do it on a small scale.”

Robin Hood or Che Guevara

To keep the price of those large orders down, some fabrics are not made of 100% alpaca or cotton. “Some of our scarves are partly made from viscose. That is the only way we can pay the women a fair wage and not end up with a huge cost price at the end of the day.”

Verelst has raised a difficult point here: fair trade often comes at a high price. “My friends are disappointed that they can’t buy fashion from our workshops because in some cases they are quite expensive. So I feel like the Robin Hood of the fashion industry: I am taking from the rich and helping the poor. The high cost price is not only about fair wages, but it is also about pricing. Brands and stores need to multiply the production price to cover their commercial risk and operational costs of rent and staff and so on. That multiplication applies to the labour costs too. The result is that small increases in costs at the source, like improved wages, can easily lead to major price increases in stores.”

“Eventually I would like this to be different. I would like to separate fair pay from margins so that fair trade is affordable for everyone and still commercially viable for stores and brands. Nevertheless, that is easier said than done: the whole system would have to change and that would take a revolution”, she adds.

With or without a revolution, Verelst is positive about the future. “First of all we really want to get the workshop in India off the ground. After that we can have another look at some additional projects.” Solid is currently working on three continents. In addition to Latin America (Peru) and Asia (India) Solid has a project in Africa: they have a collection of colourful baskets from Kenya which have been woven by more than a thousand women. “In the long term I can see us maybe doing a project in Belgium. But first we need to give India everything we’ve got!”