[Startup Bharat] This textile designer has created a sustainable clothing brand by harnessing the power of sun
Great ideas can come from anywhere!
A casual visit to the Indian International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan in 2016 became the turning point in the career of Lucknow-based textile designer Abhishek Pathak. A solar charkha, or a domestic spinning wheel, designed by IIT-Delhi and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Rural Industrialization (MGIRI)-Wardha, caught Abhishek’s eye, and the designer was immediately interested in leveraging this innovation to start a business.
After digging deeper into the concept and speaking with experts, the entrepreneur realised that a solar chakra or a loom is not just more productive than hand-spun charkhas but also reduces drudgery.
Abhishek soon came up with a business proposition to use solar chakras, looms, and sewing machines to create a sustainable fashion brand, and incorporated his venture —— in 2016.
Greenwear is a Lucknow-based B2B and B2C clothing brand that uses solar-powered equipment to produce yarns, fabrics, and garments. What is unique about the startup is its creation of a decentralised internal value chain in association with community partners and NGOs, where it involves about 5,000 rural women, 480 weavers and 180 artisans across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Founder Abhishek Pathak with his weavers at Greenwear's manufacturing unit in Lucknow
Creating a marketplace for ‘solar vastra’
While the startup was incorporated in 2016, it commenced operation in 2019.
After completing his graduation at NIFT-Delhi, Abhishek had kickstarted his professional career with a US-based home furnishing brand as a product development designer. He soon donned the entrepreneurial hat with his first clothing venture Prakritii, which shut shop within six months of operations owing to the founders “limited business sense”.
By now, Abhishek had developed a deep interest in Indian traditional designs and handmade craft by utilising scraps and landed up at Noida-based non-profit Dhristee Foundation, which was also starting a similar initiative. While working as a lead craft designer for three years, the founder was introduced to khadi along with the issues hampering its growth potential.
“I couldn’t understand why there were no Khadi artisans and spinners on the field. The major drawback was the drudgery involved in the production process. A woman cannot run her hands for eight continuous hours on manual chakra and she barely earns Rs 50 for the khadi fabric. This is where my knowledge about solar chakras came in. I focused on the concept and there was no looking back,” he says.
Abhishek was approached by the president of its current community partner, Bhartiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sansthan, a government-sponsored non-profit that implemented the pilot project for the Mission Solar Charkha, launched in 2018, and the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC).
“My aim of developing a market for products made through an integrated solar charkha value chain aligned with the organisation’s mission of generating employment opportunities for over lakhs of women, weavers, and artisans in rural India through solar charkha-based spinning and allied activities. In 2016, I started Greenwear and simultaneously joined Harit Khadi as the CEO. We successfully executed the pilot project for Mission Solar Charkha and trained over 3,500 rural women on solar charkha spinning,” the founder says.
The value chain
The startup has decentralised the production of yarns and fabrics and has built an in-house unit for final garment stitching. It procures yarns through Harit Khadi, which has equipped over 5,000 rural women across four states with solar chakras at their homes. The organisation provides training and facilitates financial assistance to women to buy their own chakras.
“A spinner can earn around Rs 6,000 per month with a solar chakra based on the hour of work,” Abhishek says.
The yarns are then sent to Greenwear’s sampling unit, run by an all-women workforce, in Lucknow for quality check and production of sample designs for weavers.
The yarns, along with the sample designs, are sent to Greenwear’s partner weaver groups and traditional textile clusters spread to six regions in UP and Bihar, including Nalanda, Gaya, Bhagalpur, Barabanki, Varanasi, and Bijnor. The fabrics are woven on solar looms, involving over 480 weavers.
It has also set up its own manufacturing unit in Lucknow with over 180 in-house artisans, out of which 110 are women, where the fabrics are processed into garments on solar-powered sewing machines. Both the fabrics and garments are marketed by Greenwear to various mainstream fashion brands like W for Women and Aurelia and its two main retail outlets in Lucknow.
The price range of the final product varies from Rs 300 to Rs 5,000, depending on the product.
A woman operating a solar chakra at her house in Uttar Pradesh
Business model, revenue streams, and funding
Greenwear generates its revenue from bulk fabric sale, retail sale of fabric, stitching jobs for brands, retail sale of finished garments and sale of uniforms, bedsheets, covers and other textile material to institutions and small partners. Apart from generating employment opportunities for women in rural areas, the startup clocked revenue of Rs 2.5 crore and Rs 2 crore in FY20 and FY21, respectively.
The startup has partnered with small-scale brands like Kolkata-based Zyenika, which designs clothing for people with disabilities, and has institutional buyers, including hospitals like Saraswati Dental College and Hospital in Lucknow and government schools across regions, where it supplies uniforms and caters to other textile requirements.
It had earlier rolled out its products on ecommerce websites like Amazon and Flipkart through their initiatives — Amazon Karigar and Flipkart Samarth, respectively, but didn’t pursue the opportunity to its full potential. It now plans to make its online debut with its D2C platform in 2022 along with the said marketplaces.
To date, Greenwear has raised Rs 75 lakh from two rounds. In 2019, it had received a seed funding of Rs 50 lakh from its incubator —Indian Institute of Management—Calcutta Innovation Park (IIMCIP), followed by an investment of Rs 35 lakh from Seattle-based impact investors Upaya Social Ventures.
Though the pandemic slowed down the overall business, the startup managed to sustain the growth levels owing to assistance from various industry initiatives. It recently bagged support from Delhi-based think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and Villgro Innovations Foundation initiative—Powering Livelihoods. Greenwear was among the six clean energy innovations selected under the programme and managed to receive its latest funding through the same.
“The programme supported us during the difficult pandemic period. We received important inputs to improve our business model and make the process more efficient. The team also helped us with market planning and testing new products,” the founder says.
Greenwear Fashion retail store in Lucknow
In terms of competition, the startup claims to be the only player in the market following this business model and value chain. The founder sees partnership opportunities with big brands and faces competition from Khadi-owned stores.
“Majority of the big brands look for quantity and quality. Hence following a similar decentralised textile value chain is not feasible for them. However, this develops partnership opportunity with startups like ours where the fashion industry together can strive for reducing carbon footprint and generate livelihood for rural artisans, weavers and women,” says Abhishek, adding that Greenwear is targeting a mass audience and focussing on volume, instead of following a specific niche like other brands.
“We are focusing on skill, scale, and speed along with our social structure of involving women in the value chain. Our aim is to get as many rural women and artisans involved in the process along with revival of old traditional art,” he adds.
The entrepreneurs aim to double the capacity of the startup with 3-5x revenue growth apart from establishing their ecommerce store in 2022.
“We are looking at opening around 10 new franchise-based stores across pan India and targeting a revenue of Rs 5 crore,” Abhishek signs off.