Tula India – Reviving desi crafts and livelihoods with low footprint garments

Tula sells fair trade and sustainable cotton garments while making sure that the cotton value chain is livelihood sustaining and socio-environmentally just.

This section on Ethical Fashion is made possible with the support of Bhu:Sattva

Popular bazaar poster from the 1930s.

Popular bazaar poster from the 1930s. Source.

A fabric embedded in history

Cotton, the oldest fabric invented by humans, was widely cultivated during the Indus Valley Civilisation when hand spinning, weaving, and natural dyeing was in vogue. Indian cotton goes back to 600 BC with its earliest mention in the Rigveda. Much later, and from the 17th century onwards, all of India’s foreign traders, travellers, and invaders including the East India Company highly sought after Indian cotton.  Home spun and handwoven cotton or khadi was made popular by Mahatma Gandhi as a part of the swadeshi (self-sufficiency) movement in the year 1918, symbolic of the end of dependency on foreign goods during the British rule.

While most of us think cotton clothing is cool, healthy and safe, the story of mass produced commercial cotton is quite the opposite. This includes handlooms and sometimes even khadi. Most textiles are not entirely organic or socio-environmentally just with some form of chemical input or social injustice at some stage. This downfall came about in the 19th century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution followed by mass factory production, capitalism and the present neoliberal era.

The cotton textile industry continues to flourish in India as a big number to be added to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), for large corporations to profit from, and to provide employment in factories.  However, the story at the starting point of the cotton value chain is grim. Cotton farmer suicides are high due to reasons such as the high agricultural investments required for hybrid and genetically modified varieties like the controversial Bt cotton, a debt trap created by local moneylenders, poor yields due to factors like monoculture and climate change. Also, spinners, weavers and tailors are often on very low daily wages that are not commensurate with the hard work they put in.

Ananthoo of Tula India. Picture by author.

Ananthoo of Tula India. Picture by author.

Respecting the value chain – from crop to garment

Three social activists based out Chennai were concerned about these injustices and put their thinking caps on. Jaishankar is a farmer and social activist, Pamayan is a popular writer and social activist, and Ananthoo is a safe food activist and one of the co-founders of two organic stores and community centres called ReStore and Organic Farmers’ Market (OFM) in Chennai. Ananthoo explains that, “Hand spinning and hand weaving are labour intensive and women centric tasks, yet spinners and weavers are paid a pittance of 120-160 rupees a day.” He adds, “The best solution is to have a distributed and decentralised model for the cotton industry with better wages and dignity and with the least number of middlemen involved as possible.”

In 2011, they formed a social enterprise called Tula (pronounced Toola) in Chennai as not just a store that sells fair trade and sustainable cotton garments but as a holistic institution that takes into consideration the entire cotton value chain from crop to garment, with every stage being livelihood sustaining and socio-environmentally just. They realised very early on into Tula that there are many more interconnected livelihoods in the cotton clothing segment such as spinners, weavers, dyers and tailors. They brainstormed and came up with a balanced model that incorporated the entire cotton value chain and could also be easily replicated or scaled up by others wanting to venture into the sustainable cotton segment. They began in the cotton belt of the Madurai region of Tamil Nadu and retailed their garments at ReStore.

However, in only the first year of working in this region they were ridden with a variety of challenges such as erratic weather conditions, farmers switching to a hybrid variety of maize for cattle feed for the quick profits it fetched them, and many farmers who preferred to work with large export garment establishments in Tiruppur due to the social prestige associated with them.

Tula's range includes cotton garments for men and women.

Tula’s range includes cotton garments for men and women.

Eventually, an organic agricultural policy introduced by the Karnataka government made it easier for Tula to work  with farmers in Karnataka. They wanted to focus not just on organic cotton but also on desi (indigenous), rain-fed and old world, short staple varieties rather than the hybrid, long staple, American variety and the infamous genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton that the farmers were growing.  Desi cotton is less water intensive, naturally resistant to many pests and diseases, and boosts the livelihoods of farmers, spinners, weavers, and tailors. According to Ananthoo, “Since desi cotton is cultivated as a polyculture where there is intercropping and companion planting, it ensures that food is brought in along with fibre.”

Tula works closely with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), which is a nation-wide informal network of over 400 organisations across 20 states in India, and together organised a Kisan Swaraj Yatra in 2010 –  a nation-wide mobilisation to draw attention to issues pertaining to food, farmers, and freedom. They also work with a network of farmers across Karnataka called Sahaja Samrudha, dedicated to reviving traditional seeds. The Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote, Karnataka helps with the weaving and stitching of Tula garments. This is a voluntary organisation founded by Gandhian and Jamnalal Bajaj awardee, Surendra Koulagi in 1960 that focuses on social and economic elevation of the weaker sections of society. To give the garments a stylish, contemporary, urban edge, Tula works with Bangalore based designer Tara Aslam who has her own brand called Nature Alley that mainly stocks khadi clothing. Besides working with cotton farmers in Karnataka Tula has also started working with farmers in Vidharbha, Maharashtra which incidentally is the worst hit Bt cotton belt, witnessing devastating farmer suicides.

A visit to the Tula store

A visit to the Tula store in a leafy lane in Adyar is warmly welcoming, unlike walking into a mall or store where salespeople hover around you with artificial smiles to make you buy the most. They also retail online through their GoOrganicLife platform that was recently created by Suresh Lakshmipathy, one of their many passionate and hardworking members. The store is simple and neat with no plastic packaging or marketing gimmicks and opens into a breezy balcony dotted with potted desi cotton plants on display.  Each garment is unique as it is handspun, handwoven, and naturally dyed. Besides, each garment supports artisan livelihoods, revives traditional art & craft, and has a low carbon footprint. Ananthoo is often seen working there on his cool floor mat on a miniature portable desk and is always approachable for a chat.


All images courtesy Tula India, except where mentioned. 

The Sustainable Fashion Hub is a series that examines shifts in the the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India. It explores what goes into creating a just and sustainable fashion value chain – from the creation of garments and lifestyle accessories to making them available to consumers. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative. 

The Hub is supported by logo, India’s first certified organic designer apparel brand. With products that are directly sourced from organic cotton farmers at fair trade terms. Bhu:Sattva® uses natural colours, vegetable and herb dyes and goes further to work on reviving various forms of traditional weaving and handloom. Information on its products and processes can be found at http://www.bhusattva.com


Maya Ganesh is a sustainability practitioner, socio-environmental educator, researcher and writer with a specific interest in community-led sustainable initiatives, urban-rural linkages, and waste management at source. more


  Top Stories on TA

  Top Stories in LIFESTYLE

   Get stories like this in your inbox

Maya Ganesh is a sustainability practitioner, socio-environmental educator, researcher and writer with a specific interest in community-led sustainable initiatives, urban-rural linkages, and waste management at source. more

Discuss this article on Facebook