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Rag pickers' products a craze in UK

Handbags made by Indian rag pickers are new fashion statement in Britain, reports Nabanita Sircar.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2006 19:14 IST

Odd as it may seem, rag pickers in India have contributed to fashion in London. The sale of fashionable handbags at some of London's trendy boutiques started out as used plastic bags scavenged from the rubbish tips of Delhi.

The plastic bags ferreted out by poor rag pickers are moulded together into single sheets of thick, durable plastic in the homes of a few rag-pickers, stitched into handbags with bright, colourful designs, and sent off to boutiques in Britain, the US, France, Spain and other countries.

The latest fashion statement is the realisation of a four-year-old environmental and development dream by an Indian couple, Shalabh and Anita Ahuja, who run their own non-governmental organisation (NGO), Conserve. What began as a small-scale project for a single slum has now become a highly profitable enterprise, exporting all over the world and with an annual turnover of about £100,000.

Ms Ahuja says: "People tell us it's so successful we should turn it into a business, but we don't want to. Development was the father and mother of this project. When you start something like this you make a lot of promises. And we feel we have to fulfill our obligations.

"The fact that we're a non-profit-making organisation has made us a brand internationally," she says. "That's part of what makes people want to buy the bags."

Native-by-Native, which sells the bags in the UK, promotes them on its website as environmentally friendly. The India Shop, another UK supplier, has posted a picture of the waste bags on its website, and promotes them as "addressing environmental and social issues".

A first of its kind, the project has developed its own rules on quality control. The bags use colourful designs, but no dyes are allowed. The colours are all the original colours of the plastic bags. Pieces of different coloured plastic bags are carefully stitched together to make the patterns, and then they are heat-pressed to form what appears to be a single sheet of plastic.

Ms Ahuja believes, "every NGO should have one market-driven project. Being completely dependent on outside funding is very difficult, always having to go to donors and sell them the project. Often they're only interested in numbers. You want to do a project for, say, 800 households, and they won't fund it unless you expand it to 1,500, but you can only do it properly for 800."

Conserve's original idea of making compost wasn't working, but then they started thinking about using the plastic bags that they were discarding from the rubbish. Their original idea was to press them into sheets to sell as cheap night shelters. But Nandita Shaunik, a fashion designer, saw the plastic sheets and decided to make a few handbags out of it, just to see how they turned out.

Today, Conserve's handbags contribute to the livelihoods of more than 300 people, from the rag pickers who are paid for collecting the plastic bags, to the skilled labourers who sew the handbags. Employing only women did not work out. "We found that wasn't what the rag-pickers wanted. In their community, the women were much happier if their husband had a job than if they were bringing in all the money. That just served to create tension. So we employ and buy from a lot of couples."

And the rag pickers do more than just collect old plastic bags. They wash the plastic bags, using machines given to them by Conserve. Then a few trained rag-pickers sew the various different coloured pieces of plastic together to designs given to them by Conserve and press the finished material together into a single sheet using a heat press given by the charity. Only then do the skilled labourers take the materials and stitch them together to make handbags.

The charity tries to use as much recycled material as possible, but had to use commercially made artificial leather for its handles, because its own material was not suitable.

Conserve initially trains rag pickers to wash and make the material. Then it provides them with machines and helps them set up on their own. "We work with them for a while and once they're confident we set them up with a machine," says Ms Ahuja. "We monitor them closely to make sure they're doing it properly, and we don't allow any child labour."

Setting up a successful business has meant Conserve needed skills it couldn't find among rag pickers or the poor labourers it could afford to employ. In that it was fortunate in attracting a number of young Western volunteers to help. A British volunteer, who had worked in the private sector, helped set Conserve up as an export business. Several Westerners who have worked in the fashion industry worked as volunteer designers, creating its original designs. International development agencies and donor NGOs have funded them.

Claudia von Hansemann, a German designer, is trying to take Conserve in a new direction by developing designs for jewellery made from leftover plastic after the bags are made. Ms Ahuja hopes that these will be easier to make than the handbags, and that the rag pickers will be able to learn to make them. Conserve is also making shoes from the same plastic it makes its bags from.