Product, Service & Design Innovation
Tilonia Showing Economic Growth Doesn’t Have to Lead to Environmental Degradation

It is often presumed in the modern world that drawing people out of poverty results in higher carbon emissions and environmental impact; the biggest driver of greenhouse gas emissions has been economic growth. However, Tilonia®, an ethical accessories brand based in Rajasthan, India, has shown that the conventional growth model can be broken.

Tilonia draws upon the traditional skills and training of locals to produce a range of handmade textile products, providing a key source of income and social mobility for the communities involved. In the process, the model manages to attain economic growth alongside social and environmental sustainability by sourcing local natural materials and dyes, and utilizing traditional techniques.

Sustainable Brands caught up with Ellen Fish, Tilonia’s executive director, to learn more about the initiative and its effect on the communities it supports.

Tilonia® is an artisan enterprise affiliated with the Barefoot College, which works to improve the villagers’ livelihoods through entrepreneurial projects. Tell us more about the program.

Ellen Fish: Tilonia is a joint initiative of Friends of Tilonia, Inc., a US non-profit organization and our partner in India, the Barefoot College. The artisan products draw on the cultural heritage in Rajasthan using craft techniques that have been practiced for generations. Block printing, tie dye (bandhej), appliqué, embroidery, handweaving and leatherwork are all traditional craft skills practiced by rural artisans. Barefoot College has helped artisans to develop cooperatives, develop product designs for contemporary urban markets, and market and sell the handcrafted products both domestically and internationally.

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Many of the artisans of Tilonia are women, and work from home in villages scattered throughout the region. The team manage a decentralized production process where material is distributed to the women to sew, and then when the work has been completed, the women return the finished items to field centers in these villages. The women are paid by check so that they learn how to sign their names and open a bank account in their own name. They have control over the income they earn.

Most of the rural families in Rajasthan depend on subsistence farming. In times of drought, the men migrate to the cities in search of work. The women can earn income from the sewing and needlework enabling them to feed their families and send their children to school.

Beyond the social benefits of the brand, are there environmental benefits to Tilonia’s products? What sorts of materials and dyes does Tilonia use, and from where do you source them?

EF: Most production processes are human-powered; materials are locally available, natural fibers are used with AZO-free or natural dyes. The block print fabric is cotton and printed with AZO-free dye using hand-carved wooden blocks; the Barefoot handloom is woven from cotton on 4-harness hand looms; Avani silk is hand-spun, naturally dyed and hand-woven; the silk is gathered from silk cocoons raised by local farmers. Fabric is stitched using hand or foot-powered sewing machines.

What sort of customer base does the brand attract? Is it primarily other locals, or is the base global?

EF: Tilonia sells domestically through Tilonia Bazaars, exhibition sales held in major cities, as well as through production for Indian retailers and international buyers. Online sales via Tilonia.com are targeted to international buyers, both retail and wholesale. The Tilonia bell tota is popular across all markets. The style of prints and colors for the home textiles are specific to each market.

Where do you personally see local projects such as Artisans of Tilonia fit into a global industrial model? As the process of handmaking can take a team up to a month to complete — do you see this as conducive to a wide market or do you think it’s limited to a niche base?

EF: After agriculture, artisan production is the second-largest employer in the developing world. Two-thirds of artisan crafts are produced in developing economies. And given that most people live in rural areas, it is vital to create rural livelihoods.

Small-scale, local production - whether agriculture or craft - is vital for developing economies to continue to grow. Urban migration already overwhelms cities in developing countries; there isn't enough water, power, sanitation, land, employment to support mass migration to the cities. In rural communities in southern Mexico where Friends of Tilonia also has artisan partners, the men migrate "al norte" - to the US.

The challenge for these rural enterprises is building capacity and skills, providing access to markets to build sales, and access to financing to support enterprise growth.

In rural communities in southern India where FOT partners with Rope International, agricultural waste products (banana fiber) are used to produce home decor products. Rope has built business capacity - both production capacity and management process - to market to international customers like IKEA, Canvas Home Store (wholesale) and Sobremesa (fair-trade wholesaler).

The challenge is building and strengthening the supply chain to create sustainable livelihoods in rural areas. That takes commitment from buyers and market demand from consumers who want to purchase sustainable goods.

How has the brand - and the Barefoot College - affected the lives of the villagers in Rajasthan?

EF: Sales of Tilonia products provides income to more than 450 artisans in Rajasthan; sales of Avani products provides income to nearly 1,000 farmers and artisans in Uttrakhand in northern India.

More than 400 artisans, most of them women, earn supplemental income through sewing, needlework, embroidery, tie-dying, block printing and weaving. Designs and production methods draw on Indian craft traditions that are centuries old – but create modern, and otherwise unavailable, opportunities for these illiterate and semi-literate women.

The women of Tilonia tell their stories of breaking with traditional practices of purdah (the practice of concealing women from men) and child marriages. They are “open” and do not cover their faces with a veil while working on the College campus. They send their daughters, as well as their sons, to school. Kailesh Kanwar, one of the women working on the Barefoot College campus, smiles proudly when she tells of traveling to major Indian cities, like Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, for Tilonia Bazaars to sell Tilonian products to urban markets. The courage of these women in the face of initial opposition from their families has created economic opportunities for them and the women in their villages who work together, regardless of caste.

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