Bebe Sachi is unique in the babywearing world, it is a social enterprise.
What is a social enterprise? A social enterprise has at its heart the value of building community. Not by following fashion trends, not by chasing the latest concept, but by creating something strong and lasting. Bebe Sachi also places a great importance on respecting the values and traditions of the local people, and it does this by treating them as equal partners. Their goal is to preserve the tradition and skills of the artisans who use the Asian handloom. I’ve been to several of their presentations and in them, you will always here this:
“It is important to understand the glorious history of Bengal’s textile in order to appreciate the need for preserving the Asian handloom legacy.”
And that’s just it. It is a glorious history. To understand the importance of preserving this tradition, we must visit why the decline in the Bengal textile trade occurred. It happened in two waves.
“From the final decade of the eighteenth century cloth exports from South Asia had already begun to decline for a variety of reasons, including the monopsony that the English East India Company had built in Bengal and South India, which blocked manybuyers from obtaining cloth.”1
After the British take over of Bengal in 1757, they slowly squeezed out most of the foreign buyers of Bengal textiles from the region and significantly reduced Bengal’s trading links with the outside world. Divide and conquer was the goal of the British Empire. By the end of the 18th century, the British were exporting almost all of the textiles produced in the region through the East India Company and other British companies. There were few independent exporters left.
At first, when the British Empire expanded into South Asia, it provided real boost to the local handweaving industry. Many fine fabrics, including the best cottons in the world were woven here. But with the onset of the industrial revolution, it enabled the British to produce these fabrics more cheaply back home. Instead of exporting fabrics to Britain, The East India Company flooded the Bengal market with these cheaper machine made cotton goods from Britain. As the British had almost a full monopoly in the region, the impact was immediate. The Bengal textile industry declined rapidly and by around the 1850s it had almost disappeared.
From Bebe Sachi themselves: “There were hardly anything left of its past glory. These factors caused the once famous textiles industry of Bengal to demise, causing the death of the legendary fine muslin textiles. Muslin was Bengal’s finest heritage that made the region famous and attracted visitors and riches to its shores for millennia.”
The impact on South Asia was devastating. All of a sudden, the work that was available disappeared and the impact on communities was horrible. Though brilliant for the British back home in Europe, what jobs had been created through heavy colonization was now destroyed. There was no thought to the people left behind.
The situation nowadays in countries like Bangladesh for those in the fabric and garment industry nowadays isn’t much better.
The Rana Plaza building where many of the clothes we use to dress out children collapsed April 2013 1,135 Bangladeshi garment workers and injuring 2,500 more.2 It was such a shock as Canadians to see brands like Joe Fresh in the rubble. We here in the West were, through our need for fast, cheap, affordable fashions, somewhat responsible for what happened. Not because that is what we ordered or required. But because in order to make clothes cheaply, factories act like prisons. Days are long. Bathroom breaks rare. And as we learned, workers are essentially locked into the building, with few ways to exit in case of emergency.3 This is no way to live. Our companies are still making clothes here. And conditions aren’t safe.4
Moreover, to work in these factories people must move to larger centres away from their families. It is quite common that a mom goes to work in one location, a dad goes to work in another, while their children live with family members elsewhere. In order to ensure the financial health of their family, parents no longer have the luxury of raising their own children and of creating a strong relationship with them. Can you imagine if you barely saw your parents except for briefly throughout the year? Though you may love your aunts, uncles, or grandparents, who did you want to be raised by as a child? Who do you want to raise your own children? Relatives?
Given the emphasis on attachment in babycarrying, where and how our carriers are produced should be important to us. Are we truly supporting attachment to family and to community if we do not consider how a carrier is created?
Because when a company like Bebe Sachi establishes itself in a country like Bangladesh, it creates community and encourages attachment. First, by preserving the traditions of the Asian handloom, they are valuing the work, skill and artisanry of the local people. When a weaving set up is built in a small community where people live, families can make a strong enough living, creating financial strength which enables families to stay together. Parents of the Bebe Sachi community get to be the parent. And they do what most parents do around the world, they raise their children, the take charge of their education and they raise them in the values that are important to them. As a result of the Bebe Sachi project, weaving set-ups were revived, and the looms are alive again. Their small set-up has become an exemplary model. It has created opportunities to do work such as yarn spinning, dyeing, warping, and so on. Weavers have a flexible working environment. They are able to weave and farm as needed. This means they can provide food for their families. Weavers remain with their families, they ensure that their children attend school, and the members are active in the local community.
Supporting a local enterprise is not just about buying a product, it’s about respecting the people who live abroad, creating community and supporting family cohesion. It is also about respecting the values of the people who live there. All woven items are designed and made by the local artisans and weavers. They are learning to experiment and learn how to create items that are popular and will have a lasting impact. Runs are short and there are no product lines to speak of. Each weave has its own purpose – items are woven for everything from shawls, place mats, handbags through to fabric suitable for carrying babies and much more. There is an inherent respect when you let people determine their own destinies. Moreover, Bangladesh is primarily a Muslim country. The Muslim religion does not allow images of animate beings, whether they are humans, animals or birds, and whether that is engraved, on paper or fabric. This means that every piece woven does not go against their own personal beliefs, as occurs in the larger industrial centres. Can you imagine if you were forced to make something offensive to you just because someone else will like it, or because it will sell? Bebe Sachi weavers do not have to.
Another thing is that a social enterprise can do is to respect the natural cycles. An example is based on weather. Here in Canada the one thing we can predict, is that winter will come and the snow will fly. It impacts every part of our life. In Bangladesh, the weather centres on monsoons and floods. When the rains come, they don’t just come for a day or two. They come for a whole season and flooding is quite common. A business that cannot support itself during these periods of mandatory stillness is devastating to the community. Bebe Sachi always has at its heart the goal to create strength to survive past these periods. This year has been particularly difficult in Bangladesh, the storms have been particularly hard and the flooding greater than usual. Over 1,200 people died in the region this year alone.5 When the floods come, the looms lie silent. There is no way to farm, to spin or to weave. As such, the continuous support from babywearing communities around the world plays a huge factor in ensuring their sustainability.
The long term goal of the Bebe Sachi team is to be able to expand their social enterprise to other South East Asian regions. Both women, Rita Rahayu and Azizah Attard are Malaysians and would like to be able to bring the strength they are working to build in Bangladesh to a greater number of people. Consider shopping with Bebe Sachi and help them build more communities worldwide. We are too accustomed in Canada to hearing the words “fair trade” and “social enterprise” and associating it with very high price tags that are truly far too expensive for most of us. Because there the weavers are selling directly to you, the prices of Bebe Sachi products are fairly reasonable and each run is quite unique. You can buy from them here , like them on facebook, or join their facebook community called Bebe Sachi Love to share your love of their products.
In celebration of a project like Bebe Sachi, Babywearing in Canada is sending their own Bebe Sachi wrap out travelling throughout Canada as part of International Babywearing Week. Stay-tuned to our facebook page for more information!
1. Cotton Textile Exports from the Indian Subcontinent, 1680-1780, Prasannan Parthasarathi↩
2. Article from CBC.ca titled Joe Fresh continuing garment business in Bangladesh in year after tragedy published April 10, 2014. ↩
3. To learn more about the garment trade, watch this documentary by the Fifth Estate called Made in Bangladesh. ↩
4. Article from the Globe and Mail, Four years after the crisis, are Bangladeshi workers any safer? published July 28, 2017↩
5. Article from the Guardian entitled South Asia floods kill 1,200 and shut 1.8 million children out of school published August 30, 2017.↩