In 2021, the world watched as global leaders gathered in Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. It was a test for each leader, their nation, and commitment to the Paris Agreement. While these discussions and ideas might seem completely foreign for some, we are not isolated from the consequences of inaction.
We all know the importance of respecting the environment and people around us, but somewhere along the way, it seems we lost track. We also have lost the connection to the richness of our heritage, the value it brings to people, and the solutions it can provide.
We see and hear the heavy use of words such as “sustainable,” “empowerment,” “circular.” But words lack meaning or truly give impact, if actions are not transparent or interconnected and aligned to the overall outcomes. For instance, the practice of openly sharing information about how, where, and by whom products are made and what information is being used is critical.
Working in the field of ICH has always been an occupation of purity and trust from the original craftsperson, working humbly with their communities, material, and environment. Issues always arise when you place it within a commercial supply and demand model, where financial profit outweighs the need to look after planet and people. With the integration and adaption of technology, we’ll be able to jump the curve and bring back the allure and value of artisanal craft.
A valued weaver of the Selyn family © Selyn Exporters (Pvt)Ltd
We Can’t Achieve Sustainability Without Being Radically Transparent
Many businesses are evolving to respond to a more socially conscious consumer. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers increasingly want to make the best purchasing decisions for themselves, for other people, and the planet. The fast-growing consumer desire for sustainability—especially within the fashion industry—is increasing demand for radical transparency and solutions such as blockchain technology that allow brands to demonstrate that their products have been produced ethically and sustainably. Transparency holds brands accountable, leading industries to become more ethical and sustainable.
Being radically transparent also holds all players in the value chain accountable—gone will be the days where brands point the finger at a broken supply chain. It will no longer be possible simply to blame someone else upstream—instead, people at all levels will be held accountable, enabling everyone to make better decisions and work towards a greater good.
How Is This Relevant to the Sri Lankan Handloom Industry?
For thirty years, my family has run Selyn Exporters (Pvt) Ltd, a Fair Trade guaranteed social enterprise that promotes handloom weaving and finished production, and supports over a thousand rural artisans across Sri Lanka. At Selyn, we go out of our way to assist our network of local artisans with an operational business model designed to provide access to work. With the Selyn Foundation we provide the skills to stay in work, which is not always a given for rural women. In summary, we have flexible working models that enable part-time and work-from-home possibilities; further, we encourage artisans to set up their own “business” by developing workshop infrastructure, upgrading design and technical skills, and ensuring a guaranteed flow of work. In addition, our members have access to services such as health camps, childcare facilities, life skills programs, and leadership and entrepreneurship training to support them to be holistically empowered Following this model, we have established many workshops in handloom villages in the rural outskirts of the North Western, Eastern, and Southern provinces of Sri Lanka. In this way we hope not only to empower them financially but also to create a way of life within which they are comfortable.
In view of this, I was honoured to share some of our practical experiences at ICHCAP’s 2021 Sub-regional Meeting for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Safeguarding in South Asia in September 2021. As 2021 is the International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, the meeting was a valuable opportunity to explore the power of creative industries in building resilience. The global pandemic—a constant backdrop to the discussion—served as a focus of the discussion, having certainly tested the resilience of our sector in ways not previously imagined. Addressing the topic “Implementing Stable Virtuous Circle for ICH Marketing Route in line with Safeguarding ICH,” I focused on the trajectory for the Sri Lankan handloom industry and found it to be crucial that Sri Lankan handloom products are pitched to premium or even luxury markets, which value quality over mass-produced quantity and speed.
In addition, and perhaps more innovatively, increasing the transparency of our production methods with the integration of blockchain technology into our supply chains will be a crucial step to allow us to better tell the Sri Lankan handloom story, addressing the “green-washing” debate, and providing consumers with verifiable data to inform the purchase of a higher-value textile. Global emerging trends support this hypothesis, as these premium markets and more conscious customers are now craving the stories of heritage and responsibility that Fair Trade and ethical brands can tell. This is an opportunity, not just for the Sri Lankan handloom industry but, in my opinion, for many craft brands around the world.
Artisan in the Selyn factory © Selyn Exporters (Pvt)Ltd
Radical Transparency: Paving the Way
For those companies in control of their supply chains, especially those committed to Fair Trade and ethical trading practices, blockchain technology can be a fundamental tool to enable radical transparency. With blockchain integrated from the point of sourcing to point of purchase—from fiber to fashion—by scanning a QR code, a consumer can now be fully aware of what goes into their product, and how it is made. Blockchain technology ensures that each point in the production process is recorded so that consumers can access independently verified, real-time, detailed metadata of what they want to know. And that’s not all. Consumers can input their own information via the QR code, whereafter if it is given to a friend or resold; it enables circularity for the product.
For us in the handloom industry, this means openly sharing information about how, where, and by whom a product was made. This becomes more than a storytelling exercise, especially since this technology demands that we pay attention to people at all stages of the supply chain: who works for the brand, in what factories, under what conditions, are they safe, are they paid a living wage, how many hours do they work, do they have workers’ rights? It also demands that we be conscious of the waste we emit into the environment, into our forests and our seas, and it brings our attention to how we may be more carbon neutral as we maximize profit. It allows us to humanize our supply chains and spread the premiums gained fairly among all those involved in the process of taking a product to market. We work with people, artisans, and craftsmen with decades of skill and experience. They are all part of the process, and our end consumer deserves to know what goes into weaving craft into apparel. The dignity of our craft has to be taken back to our weavers.
Of course, this is easier said than done and, naturally, brands who have already invested in Fair Trade or ethical trading and operating standards would find it easy to begin the process of integration. Most importantly, this process will require a shift in mindset, away from traditional business approaches of industry competition to one of collaboration and cooperation. For the Sri Lankan handloom industry to thrive, effective partnerships are required across the sector. Shifting towards cocreation using handlooms where all stakeholders enjoy recognition and economic gain, is the only way to protect and grow Sri Lanka’s handloom sector. This also holds true for the rest of its craft sector.
Selyn fair-trade products © Selyn Exporters (Pvt) Ltd
Selyn: Embracing Blockchain
At Selyn, we are committed to transforming our industry by encouraging full transparency of supply chains, integrating new production technologies, and revolutionizing the product we offer. We see a different future for the handloom sector. Having begun the process of integrating blockchain into our supply chain, we believe we can truly walk the talk and present to the world a truly authentic and responsible craft brand, drawing on our Fair Trade foundations and using our social enterprise credentials. With COVID-19 accelerating its work, Selyn is repositioning its presence in the handloom sector to address emerging market opportunities. Our aim is to leverage a commitment to ethical and sustainable practices combined with greater transparency, and ultimately carve out a unique niche for handloom craft as an important part of Sri Lanka’s ICH. And, we are working hard to bring the industry along with us. We believe that the enabling radical transparency in the handloom sector is an innovative step toward positioning Sri Lanka as an industry and global leader that combines technology and tradition to conquer sustainability.