Living Blue is the operating body for the community-led social enterprise Nijera Cottage and Village Industries Ltd (NCVI), who work in direct collaboration with CARE Bangladesh. NCVI represents over two hundred and forty artisans, and two thousand seven hundred farmers within the rural and marginalised communities of North Bengal. The organisation’s prime purpose is to promote traditional crafts and natural dye cultivation through community driven employment and socio-economic development.
The NCVI Project processes natural indigo dye while actively promoting and selling indigo dyed quilted clothing, home textile and accessories to international buyers. NCVI is located in Rajendrapur of Rangpur; a poverty stricken north-western district of Bangladesh which has operations in Dinajpur, Lalmonirhat and Nilphamari. While comprised largely of women artisans, the organisation is also owned by the artisan representatives.
There are several economic and geographical factors that persistently contribute to the poverty in Rangpur including but not limited to natural calamities, low levels of literacy and discrimination. The community-led approaches taken to address the chronic poverty in the region proved to be fruitful. The project focused on using indigenous skills to find simple solutions for everyday problems of the rural, marginalised society. Such initiatives heralded higher chances of sustainability. Furthermore, in order to tackle certain livelihood and social issues, CARE Bangladesh promoted ‘Nijeder Janya Nijera’ (We for Ourselves) Project. Based on the success of the community led approach of the project, Nijera was transformed into NCVI Ltd in 2008. Till date NCVI has hit several important milestones that include reintroduction of Indigo as a commercial product, hosting of workshops on natural dyes, artisans having received training from India, introduction of Shibori, participation in Dastkar Nature Bazaar, Delhi and ISEND of France and Indonesia, and having won several awards along the way.
After attending an informative seminar on the mission of Fashion Revolution, the fashion design students of BGMEA University of Fashion and Techonology divided into groups and were assigned case study companies to research.
The students read everything they could on the companies and compiled a questionnaire to gain firsthand insight into the company’s general policies as well as its sustainability initiatives and/or advanced labor practices.
Below are the questionnaires and responses from the case studies:
1. How do you treat the water that is being used?
Living Blue: water that comes out during indigo processing is channeled to the nearby farming fields. This indigo infused water works as fertilizer for the soil. Indigo plant is leguminous, meaning it is nitrogen fixer.
2. As most of the workers works at their own houses, how do you ensure it’s a proper working environment?
Living Blue: The whole idea of Living Blue being a community led, community owned social business is to provide maximum income opportunities to rural artisans and farmers. The textile items of Living Blue have been chosen keeping the reality of the context in place. The kind of materials they work with do not require use of machines or electronic tools. They do work of hand.
Historically, and rooted to Bangla folk culture, quilting is a tradition, a heritage among rural women. Living Blue has worked to revive the quilting techniques and in process provide income to artisans.
Every quilter works in open space, which ensures plenty of work space. They have floor mats and bags to protect the textile in hand. Living Blue management team visits the villages on a regular basis and strict code is followed.
3. Does your business take responsibility for the safety and security of workers in their own house?
Living Blue: at this point the 50-odd full-time artisans shall soon fall under the insurance scheme.
4. With this home-working model, how do you help workers manage work and family care?
Living Blue: artisans make their own working hours, coping the day with other family chores. Typically they work for 3-5 hours per day, when there is work at hand. They are given a flexible dateline and working conditions, and this is followed by everyone.
5. Does your firm currently ensure the workers’ children get a proper education?
Living Blue: The payments of the artisans are given considering multiple spending needs, and education of their children is one. In near future, we shall provide more funds for education, and work with local primary schools too.
6. What other benefits does your company provide to the worker?
Living Blue: Artisans and management team are provided with zero % interest loans. They are also offered doctor referrals and company takes care of the cost too. Underway is health camps in all the 6 clusters where government doctors are taken to villages to provide health care. Then the company also takes special note of the eye patients, and takes responsibility of the logistics and cost.
Other benefits include fund for any loss in their family too.
7. What types of problems do you face in your efforts to create a more sustainable production process?
Living Blue: we face challenge in streamlining the current growth in business, and to address that we have taken support of management software, by digitalizing every step in the chain. This will make our business more transparent, efficient than now and creative environment.
Otherwise, we have a strong management system in place, where every step is critically followed. We do not do more work than we have capacity for, that is how we keep our quality in check.
8. Is your product for the international market only or also available in the local market?
Living Blue: Our products are available for both the market. However, in Bangladesh we do not have a retail partner. We sell directly in fairs and trunk shows.
9. What is the total number of worker? And how many shifts do they work in a week?
Living Blue: in the central Living Blue Workshop, 40 to 50 artisans can work at a time. They all have one shift and that from 9 am to 5 pm, for six days a week. There is never a shift in the evening, nor do any of them work ‘overtime’.
In total we have 1071 artisans and farmers, during season, or from home or in the Workshop.
10. Does your worker get their salary properly every month?
Living Blue: Payments are cleared every month, without fail.
11. Does your company provide any insurance to your staff?
Living Blue: we are in the midst of a process to be put in place from fiscal year 2015-2016. Under the initial scheme, the permanent artisans shall be covered under workplace insurance.
12. Any medical facilities on-site?
Living Blue” in every union, the government has their ‘community clinics’. There are clinics of different health organizations and there is always the Thana Health Complex. We seek support from these medical facilities, moreover, provide direct medical services.
13. What are the maternity leave policies?
Living Blue: We allow 6 months maternity leave.
14. How do you think your organization contributes to the long term economic development of Bangladesh?
Living Blue: Living Blue directly contributes in local economy of the northern region, in household level, and in other regions too through working with weavers. The nature of our business ensures the people living in the bottom of the pyramid gets access to income opportunities, access to market and trained in self-governance. Each of them are changemakers and leaders, besides being an artisan and a farmer.
15. Are you thinking of industrializing this indigo cultivation?
Living Blue: we are in the fore-front of indigo research and cultivation in Bangladesh, and producers of the finest Indigo, perhaps, in the world. We are producing as per market demand and have plans to steadily increase the farmers’ coverage and production.
16. What are the processes of training up your workers? Are your trainers local or foreigner?
Living Blue: Each cluster has a number of master artisans and under their tutelage a continuous training model is in place. All the senior artisans and dyers are entitled to train their apprentice. We also seek technical support from foreign experts. Living Blue ensures an environment of continuous improvement and learning and creativity.
17. Did your workers get any welfare fund after training?
Living Blue: each apprentice is provided with adequate training materials and trainee allowances. After they get trained and graduate into the regular artisan group, they get regular work in hand. All welfare and benefits are linked with the work they do.
18. Tell us about your mission & vision.
Our values are:
– High quality products
– Labor intensive technology
– Increasing employment
– Socio-economic development in rural communities
– Developing the skill, talent, and productivity of marginalized communities through social business and innovation.
Our aspiration is to sustainably nurture communities, through job creation and skill development.
19. What are the good things about natural dyes and what are the bad things about them?
Living Blue: The good thing about indigo as a natural is that it benefits the farmers. Besides that, this creates employment opportunities and helps to revive organic and ethical fashion culture.
The bad side may be it slow and niche market, that needs to grow and more people needs to be educated the benefits of natural dyes.