Does the world need another bag?

I am a big believer of re-use, re-do, up-cycle and all those other ‘buzz words’. But I have always wondered about the ‘actual cost’ – human and energy cost – of upcycling/ redoing reuse etc. What is the kind of energy we expend in giving something a new avatar? When is it better to just ‘throw’ something away or to let the ‘professionals’ handle it?

Sometimes one gives something a new avatar and yet it is only ‘homemade craft’ at best. It got a new lease on life but it can’t be ‘sold’ (income generation) because no one would pay money for it or not enough to cover the cost of re – anythi – ing it. But it means one thing less (for a while at least) in a landfill somewhere. It might even be a lesson in creativity for someone. Or maybe even employment for someone else.

For eg – old newspapers and packaging paper I use to make new paper bowls. Only the paper and the mould are old. The PVA glue is fresh. The plastic clingfilm used so the bowl can be taken off the mould is new as well. Due to the nature of the material the finished bowl has limited usability and hence can only be sold at a certain price. It can be used for dry and not wet things. What was totally free was the human labor- mine. BUT… there is an opportunity cost to that as well. Could I be doing something more productive in the same given time? If I employ someone else to make it, I give employment but I can’t intrinsically increase the selling cost of the bowl too much as that is not elastic in nature.

People block print and hand stamp old newspaper to make wrapping paper. I think that’s a fantastic idea but what about the printing inks used? This wrapping paper will be discarded anyway. We just delayed the inevitable. So now when it reaches a landfill or the environment we just added more harmful dyes and inks. If this is done on a mass scale it is giving employment, delaying the item reaching the environment and maybe even slowing the production of fresh wrapping paper. But does it balance out in the end? What about the water used to wash the implements/blocks and your hands? Water in the case with the bowls I make  mentioned earlier as well but thankfully to a lesser degree. The rubber gloves?

Re-cycling fabric or reusing ‘fabric factory rejects’ has more potential. But for it to be viable it has to be done on an industrial scale, at which point the sheer economics of the situation make it economically viable but not always environmentally viable in a sense. At that scale, time and efficiency will demand systems and processes that will still lead to wastage. But here the hope is that the wastage is less. It also has to be done at a design level so there is a minimum level of wastage and thankfully we have a fabulous system of using rags and bits of fabric waste by turning them into foot mats and rugs etc. The real chindi ( waste bits of fabric) gets used to clean parts in automotive factories etc.

Of course, there are people like me who do their little bit in-house and to the best of their skill and maloom (knowhow) but these are few and far between. Also this ‘doing’ at home at a small scale does not lead to enough money to sustain oneself if there are no other avenues of income generation. The energy expended here is again human. This in my mind at least in my case is all right.

The sad part is people using fresh fabric to make things and then calling it up-cycled. Sadder still is when completely functional items of clothing go to a land fill or get burned for commercial reasons. (You can read about that here, here, here, here,  and here.) Sad is how the market today is running on money and a false sense of glamour and social media approval. Sad is how large internet market places in their drive for higher profitability and higher numbers is killing the small guy.

I love this new boom in handloom in our country. I love the beautiful sarees everyone is wearing. I love that weavers are getting more work. But are they really? How much is made in factories and how much actually by the weaver? How much are the multitudes of middle men taking? There needs to be more transparency for sure.

You know that beautiful kantha bedcover for 800 rupees available in your neighborhood’s store? After removing the GST, the store commission of 30-40%, the cost of fabric and embroidery threads, the transportation and other misc. costs, the middle man’s cost – how much do you think the person who actually did the kantha work will get? And something else I think about – someone doing Kantha on a bedcover may have got sporadic work and made say 50 bucks per piece, now she has steady work and say gets 100 bucks per piece. Double of what she could get earlier. But this is back breaking work and she only has a finite number of hours in a day when she can do this work. So built into this system is a ceiling of just how much she can earn. Will she ever be able to earn 500 per piece? The middle man or designer may well employ many like her and ramp up production but is there a way to change her income bracket? Or does she have to find other work? Is this one of the reasons why so many are leaving traditional craft work and moving to cities?

Sometimes I wonder if it is just different levels of ‘livelihood’ and trying to survive and indeed thrive that makes us justify things. Like I ask myself – does the world need another bag? At all?
Ok, so I am using old stuff and giving it new life. I am giving employment to one karigar who is educating is two daughters. I bought him a scooter and he is now mobile to do other peoples work and hopefully take on more work and deliver more because of that mobility. But I do use custom printed fabric which is new. I do use paint. A little but I do. I have used up old curtains and chindi but really the base question remains – does the world need another bag?!?!

I don’t have answers to these questions. And I understand that there are many points of view here and this topic itself can’t be just one blog post. I just find myself mulling over these points quite frequently. So.. Please weigh in with your thoughts and I would love to hear other arguments and viewpoints.

By the way the irony is not lost on me that I have just recently added the latest edition of ‘The Poonchh Collection‘ to my online store- I sit behind the justification that it is after a few years, I generate employment and give away 50% of the profits as well. It is indeed a labour of love but does it come at too high a cost is the question I battle with.

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