HerStory’s Women on A Mission Summit awardee Sujata Chatterjee tells us how she is making fashion sustainable and impacting multiple lives through her intiative Twirl.store.Tanvi Dubey
The retail boom has pushed many of us to become compulsive shoppers. Our wardrobes are burgeoning under the weight of clothes, many of which remain mostly unused. It is a problem that most of us acknowledge, but continue to live with, without giving it much thought. But unlike many of us, Sujata Chatterjee from Kolkata decided to act on it.
“Fashion as just a linear line of consumption bothered me and I knew it was necessary to make retail a sustainable circle. I felt deeply about the problem but realised there was not much being done about it. So, I decided ‘to be the change that I want to see’,” she says.
Sujata set out on her entrepreneurial journey and started Twirl.Store in 2017 as an initiative to “reduce cloth wastage, encourage women empowerment, conserve natural resources like water, and meet the clothing needs of the less fortunate.”
The picture below shows the reality that Sujata wants to change:
From consumers with overflowing cupboards who don’t want to repeat outfits, to millions of people who struggle to find basic clothing - Sujata started Twirl with an aim to solve the problems on both sides of the societal pyramid.
“Twirl basically means to go around or spin - the name Twirl for the brand signifies the ‘sustainable circle’ that we want retail to become,” she reveals.
Everyone likes a freebie or a gift, and leveraging the reward system, Twirl. collects clothes from people and rewards them with points that can be redeemed to buy upcycled products on the website.
Sujata says, “We encourage everyone to send their unwanted clothes, bedsheets, table covers – anything made of fabric to us. As a consumer, they get points that can be redeemed to buy new gifts, accessories, etc. At the same time, they feel good knowing that their unwanted things will help to spread smiles - either by being directly used by the needy or by helping a woman earn a livelihood for herself and family. Twirl offers free home pickup across the country. So, it’s never been easier to do a good deed and be rewarded for it.”
After the team collects the clothes, they either donate it or upscale it as fabric to create new products. Till date, the team claims to have supplied over 10,000 upcycled products and given a new lease of life to more than 2,000 fabric pieces.
Initially, all the clothing the team receives goes a thorough check. If the fabric is reusable and can be upcycled, then it undergoes a wash and steam, and then the fabric is taken and used to completely redesign new and unique products like accessories, bags, etc. The ones that are rejected is donated as clothing through huge donation drives, which the team regularly conducts in collaboration with NGOs.
“Our donation drives have been across slums of Kolkata and villages of Shantiniketan, Sunderban, etc, in West Bengal. We inform our supporters, clients, and customers of these drives in advance so they can join us. We also ensure that we have pictures from these drives on social media so people can actually see how their giving is impacting people.”
Women in Kolkata and surrounding areas have a flair for weaving and stitching, especially since West Bengal has a thriving handloom culture. It is this pool of women that Sujata is leveraging.
The reuse and upcycling of fabric and product manufacturing is done predominantly by rural women, which will also provide them a source of livelihood. Twirl’s real achievement, Sujata feels, “is in being able to empower so many women and to have provided clothing to nearly 1,500 needy people, especially children and the elderly.”
Being an all-women team, Sujata says: “We are a group of motivated, young women determined to break stereotypes and bring about a change in the society. At Twirl, our focus is to be all-inclusive and give an opportunity to girls from all kinds of background and nurture their talents in various ways. We are proud to say that from manufacturing to operations - girls from various strata of the society handle the show.”
Born and brought up in Kolkata, Sujata started her career with an IT company. “I spent most of my working career as part of the sales team in Hewlett-Packard India Sales Pvt Ltd (HP), where I was fortunate enough to interact with the seniors and learnt a lot from them.”
Given that her education, work experience and contacts were not remotely connected to the sector, she remained undeterred in the face of all the negativity and continued moving forward. An electrical engineer with a degree in marketing, she decided to give Twirl everything. “I battled all the odds piled up against me and launched Twirl within a year.”
However, despite finding success, she says, one of the biggest challenges has been to deal with the sceptics and the naysayers. “When I was starting Twirl, I faced a lot of negativity around me and nearly everyone I met was sceptical about how, as a woman entrepreneur, was I going to start an ecommerce company, based on a new concept, and that too from Kolkata. The more criticism I heard, the more determined I became that I wouldn’t stop,” she says.
Sujata says, one of the things that still continues to affect her is the lack of support from her extended family and friends who have not joined the Twirl circle.
But the silver lining, she says, has been that “complete strangers have appreciated the work we are doing and they have not just become our customers, but referred us to others and become our greatest supporters. The encouragement we have got from some organisations/individuals really touched my heart and motivated me to keep going and continue to scale.”
As an entrepreneur, she feels what has kept her in good stead and helped her to keep going is her “patience, perseverance, and mental strength - they are your biggest armour against all odds.”
Bootstrapped and with limited funds, Twirl has mostly seen organic growth. While it has leveraged social media, more and more awareness has come through word of mouth.
Sujata says, “My biggest challenge was and is to make people aware of Twirl and the work we are doing. It is an ongoing effort to make people realise the adverse effects of cloth wastage on both society and the environment.”
However, it is her childhood influences and family that keep her inspired.
“My parents made me independent and gave me the freedom to be myself. Seeing them and my wonderful grandparents has greatly influenced the person that I have become. Thinking about others not just in my family but in the society at large just comes naturally to me because of their influence. Also, my younger brother remains my support and guide always. However, now it is my children who inspire me to constantly work for a better world,” she says.
However, Sujata is hopeful that as more people across the country get to know about Twirl and its mission, they will open up their wardrobes and support her vision. While individual support is crucial, she is also looking for support from corporates, retail organisations, and brands to scale up and make this a retail revolution.
She signs off with one message, “We welcome everyone to join the Twirl sustainable circle.”