27 Feb 2019 19:56 IST

7Weaves, a promising model for ethical, slow fashion

Strategic partnerships, innovative marketing and a compelling story can help the brand grow globally

The 7Weaves business model would work well in the emerging arena of slow fashion, considering the success with which its founders simultaneously target environmental, social and economic goals, as is evident in the outcomes:

1) Environmental goal: protect biodiversity; this increases the dependence of communities on forests, so that they will, in turn, protect the forests

2) Social: provide sustainable livelihoods to forest-dependent communities, and high-quality cruelty-free silk to customers

3) Economic: Ensure competitive returns to investors.

Slow fashion is different from fast fashion, which we are more familiar with. Slow fashion primarily involves working with sustainably sourced fair-trade fabrics that are long-lasting and locally manufactured. In addition to sustainability, the other criteria that need to be met are local production, traditional values, ecosystem preservation, diversity of sources, and responsible approach.

Sustainable approach

The 7Weaves model is a practical and sustainable approach to solving a problem faced by the forest-dependent communities in Assam. Engagement with local communities and the model adopted shows much promise as a social innovation. In addition to generating social and environmental value, the model shows potential in providing sustainable and competitive financial returns to the founders.

Such business methods and a market-oriented approach are particularly important when the social problem being tackled is related to poverty in the developing world. The model involves the low-income rural communities (bottom of the pyramid) on the supply side and the rich (top of the pyramid) on the demand side. 7Weaves adopted a Hybrid Value Chain model and developed a revenue stream while integrating a village-based textile unit to the global ethical fashion market (see diagram).

 

As of now, 7Weaves has been able to touch the lives of 36 households. Starting at a small scale has helped the venture establish credibility by demonstrating the idea and learning from that experience before attempting a more dramatic change.

Factors in 7Weaves’ success

Some of the factors that reinforce the 7Weaves model and indicate areas of improvement for scaling up are:

Marketing on the biodiversity plank: While the aim of providing sustainable livelihoods to a marginalised group of people is, in itself, good, it may not be unique. However, linking it to biodiversity is a noble idea, as this is a growing concern today, and likely to gain traction with various stakeholders. In its marketing communication, 7Weaves should focus more attention on this aspect.

Revenue Model: As of now, 7Weaves has a B2B model, where it is a supplier to brands such as Jyoti Fair Works. Being in the slow fashion industry, the company’s pricing needs to be transparent and, for that, traceability of its supply chain is very important. It is good to see that each garment can be traced back to the persons who wove it, spun the fabric, and reared the cocoon, and it is possible to calculate how much each of these persons have earned from that particular piece of fabric / garment.

It should also come up with an easy to navigate website with information on the company, its product and the specialty of Eri silk.

7Weaves can also, eventually move up the value chain and have a B2C model too. This usually requires huge resources and capabilities including investment in design and brand-building. However, the internet provides an opportunity to test the model on a global scale, at a comparatively low investment. The target consumers can also be engaged through social media and digital marketing.

7Weaves can set up at least one boutique for products developed with local designers, as such an intimate setting can be an effective point of sale and will showcase its offerings. Through this boutique, 7Weaves can provide personalised services that cannot be provided by a mass-market brand. It can cater to a niche segment of affluent customers looking for a distinctive personal style or tourists looking for local designs rather than brands.

Strategic partnerships: 7Weaves has strategic partnerships with private organisations and individual fashion designers. In addition to financial capital, 7Weaves could tap these partners’ social capital and intellectual capital (for instance, those of Artisan of Fashion’s Caroline Poiner, Jyoti Fair Works’ Carolin Hofer, and others). The company should also explore the opportunity to work with design houses and design schools in India and abroad, and even offer internship opportunities. Its facility in Assam, set in scenic surroundings, can be developed as an innovation hub for slow fashion. 7Weaves should also try to forge partnerships with PSEs, which can help it scale up and lend the credibility required to work with rural communities.

Legal status and source of financing: Having adopted a fully commercial, for-profit model from the initial stage, 7Weaves is eligible for commercial financing. Its model is a bold one for this sector, going beyond what is being done through government-aided models, NGOs, and cooperatives. It is designed to generate increasing returns over time for its stakeholders. However, attracting commercial sources of capital for scaling up requires a business plan and track record that adequately addresses the finance community’s risk concerns. And 7Weaves will have to demonstrate this by highlighting its key performance metrics.

Adaptability: Working with low-income rural communities, on one side, and the rich, on the other, requires different strategies and a mix of capabilities, including understanding the social context, building from the bottom up, and sharing resources across organisational boundaries – so 7Weaves will have to also tap the resources of partners such as Jyoti Fair Works, and engage in a significant level of co-creation.

Resource-intensive: Slow fashion requires different attitudes, business processes, frameworks, and values. So, 7Weaves’s bold move of investing in resources (for instance, salaried staff, textile units) rather than outsourcing, may well prove to be the master-stroke in attaining its triple bottomline objectives. It is crucial that 7Weaves not only provide monthly salaries to the artisans but also increase it to ₹10,000 per month and more, so that the quality of life of the people in the Eri silk supply chain improves.

Otherwise, with time, the opportunity cost for the community will become so high that they may not choose to engage in this activity, instead pursuing other options that may not be so sensitive to the fragile ecosystem. Ventures working on slow fashion must invest more time and resources in their projects and bear both higher overheads and variable costs, as they are in the business of offering timeless pieces and long-lasting value.

Professionalism: Getting the right kind of human capital is crucial as, even with adequate funding, a venture may not be able to scale up significantly due to lack of managerial depth. To attract funds for scaling up, attributes such as predictability and longevity are important. To be predictable, an organisation must have repeatable processes that should not depend solely on the brilliance of the founder.

To instil a sense of professionalism, 7Weaves insists on the artisans to come to the shop floor for a fixed number of hours in a day. However, the key for 7Weaves is to be flexible with this rule as it is still in the experimentation stage. For instance, with time, deserving local artisans may be involved in management functions. Women working on the shop floor may be empowered to control product quality. This will increase local embeddedness and can mitigate any political concerns.

Other factors: Assam, with its scenic beauty and unique flora (many dye-yielding plants) and fauna (the Eri caterpillar), and people with traditional knowledge in handlooms, provides just the right setting for 7Weaves. Other factors, such as the global wealth disparity, failure of welfare states to provide a solution to the healthcare and livelihood requirements of indigenous people living in forest-dependent communities, rise in ethical consumerism and emergence of slow fashion, have all contributed to the promise of 7Weaves’ model.

Marketing 7Weaves to the world

7Weaves has to market its products in a way that is attractive to the socially and environmentally conscious consumer.

Customer: Being in the B2B segment, 7Weaves’s primary customers are the global fashion brands, particularly those that are actively promoting slow fashion. However, it is essential for 7Weaves to know its end customers well. For 7Weaves, both the quantity produced and the customer base are small. And, since slow fashion encourages the ‘quality over quantity’ mindset and lifestyle, it should be targeted at a niche segment at a high price. For instance, the target customer may be educated, even affluent, people who supportlocal communities and the ecology.

Products: The products must be of high quality, durable, and capable of customising to individual styles. So it is a good that 7Weaves is providing fabrics that are then being designed and sold to the end customer by fashion brands. This ensures that the product is trendy, yet personalised and exclusive. Eri fibre does have some benefits over khadi, though its functional characteristics alone may not justify the price premium. Its high social and low environmental impact are big factors in the purchase decision.

Transparent pricing: Studies show that consumers who are willing to accept a higher price tag for ‘sweat-free’ products. Conscious customers, involved in the slow fashion movement, are willing to accept a 30 to 40 per cent price premium for such products over fast fashion offerings. 7Weaves must adopt the concept of transparent pricing whereby it reveals the true costs behind all of its products — from materials to labour to transportation, and the need for sustainable livelihoods of the artisans and other people in the Eri silk supply chain. This will lead to a better acceptance of premium pricing.

Marketing and marketing communication: 7Weaves would gain from showcasing its story at international trade fairs and fashion shows. This will facilitate collaboration with established fashion brands and help it tap into their resources and capabilities. Working with designers such as Handwork Studio’s Rachel MacHenry to showcase a fashion collection at the upcoming Berlin Fashion Week is a great idea. 7Weaves can also work with eco-designers and participate in ‘green’ fashion weeks such as London’s ‘Esthetica’, which highlights the work of eco-designers.

Brand story-telling

7Weaves’ marketing communication will be unique as it can tell the story of the brand. While emphasising the product’s premium quality and durability, it should educate consumers on aspects such as its the cruelty-free nature, and how it supports sustainable livelihoods and contributes to preserving the ecosystem.

The stories themselves should be aspirational and highlight the journey of the fabric, and the stories of the individual artisan. The stories need to compelling and hopeful. The messages may be in the form of beautiful images, inspiring videos or even leverage technological advances such as virtual reality. A VR documentary with a powerful narrative could show the situation of an artisan before and after 7Weaves’s intervention, making a customer want to buy the fabric as it leads to positive change in society.

For both fashion designers and consumers, clothing is a means of self-expression. It should be subtly communicated that what they are wearing is not just trendy, but mirrors the wearer’s personality. The more they are involved with the brand, the greater their advocacy for it will be.

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