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Marlborough-based Paper Rain Project meets their makers

Paper Rain Project is an art and design driven social enterprise that’s based out of Marlborough.

Its apparel is created in India by companies such as Common Good, Freeset and The Loyal Workshop, while its prints and skateboards made out of recycled wine barrels are created in-house in Picton.

After a successful stint opening a pop-up on High St in Auckland at the end of last year, the pair had the opportunity to travel to India to meet the women who make Paper Rain Project’s clothes.

The women are all are either freed sex slaves, or come from difficult backgrounds and extreme poverty, so the Rowes wanted to see the effects of their business helping these women have the security of employment and be paid a proper living wage.  

See our Q&A with Indigo Rowe about the experience below.

Idealog: What inspired you to take a trip to India to meet the women behind your clothes?

Indigo: We have been working with the crew at Freeset for four years now but mainly via their New Zealand distributor (and good friend of ours!) Jared, down in Christchurch. Each time he or his colleague, Jeff, visited the workshop in India, we’d hear about unique stories of the women who work there and were continually inspired by those third-hand experiences. As we grew as a business, we were able to see that when you choose a supplier that has a greater purpose, each order helps to support that. Every t-shirt literally equates to fairly paid working hours for a woman who had previously had little choice than to work the line (in the sex trade). Four years’ worth of support from our customers means we are beginning to have a quantitative effect there. More recently, we started working with an off shoot of that company, Common Good, who support women out of backgrounds of severe hardship and poverty. Essentially, the more we have learned, the more we have wanted to have a personal connection with the people behind our product. They sew them and we screen print and produce them, so we want to have a relationship with what feels like the rest of our team! It’s a drive to know who is behind what we purchase. We went there to be inspired and to know how/if we could be more involved in the lives of these ladies and the incredible group of people that are there to guide and support them. 

What were your first impressions of meeting them and seeing where they work?

We visited several workshops whilst in Kolkata. They were ‘businesses for freedom’ – Freeset, The Loyal Workshop, Common Good and Sari Bari – which all exist to provide better lives and opportunity for their employees. The first was The Loyal Workshop, where Kiwis Sarah and Paul Beisly work with a small team of ladies to produce beautiful crafted leatherwear. We spent several days there and loved seeing the confident personalities of women who have experienced so much hardship. They felt like a family. At Freeset and Common Good, which are larger, we didn’t get to spend as much time, but with each person we shared a look and a smile with, you could tell that smile came from the heart. We have so much respect for these women who have been through things that we can barely imagine, yet still turn up with happiness and an appreciation for their work, choice and freedom – things we forget to be thankful for. Something that carried through each workshop was a sense of community. Every day they share stories and cha on the floor of their workshops, taking turns to make the tea and clean up afterward. There was a slower pace, a pride in their work and a sense of belonging. Sarah and Paul of The Loyal Workshop and Ants and the team at Common Good all show a huge passion and dedication to their work. It was evident that the ladies’ freedom is of utmost important to them and that that goes above all else on the totem pole. In terms of the workshops themselves, each was on the outskirts of a red-light district or area of poverty (often one and the same). The buildings were well loved and fairly run down – as are all the buildings we saw in Northern Kolkata. The ladies were at sewing tables or on the floor where they sit more comfortably than any yogi we know of! The workshops were simple but had everything they needed to do their business – from simple metal cha cups to screen printing carousels and laser cutting machines. 

Did you see the effects of how customers buying your clothes are helping these women? How so?

Yes. Ants from Common Good took us to a few of the homes of the ladies’ who work there. Common Good staff are employed from a one kilometre stretch of slums along an open sewer in Northern Kolkata. The homes are made from a combination of bamboo poles and tarpaulins and are around 3x3m in total. Whole families live in each. When we visited, several homes of the ladies who are now employed by Common Good, we noticed ‘luxury’ items such as refrigerators, fans, lights and even TVs (all of which look quite out of place!) These may sound like simple things, but employment has allowed the families items which make a huge difference to their lives. In a Kolkata Summer, for example, the temperature is well over 40 degrees Celsius (more inside a tarp house). Many people die from the heat each Summer. Something as simple as fan can save lives in India. A fridge means that a woman only has to visit the market once a week to support her family, making the food last longer and stay healthier. Every little bit makes a difference.

At The Loyal Workshop, we shared a cha on the roof top of the workshop with the co-founders, Sarah and Paul. They pointed out the buildings we could see all around us with motel-like doorways along terraces up several stories. We learned that a lady ‘on the line’ might live with her family and ‘service’ her customers from that one room. What a lot of people don’t understand at first is that women in the sex trade in India are very, very rarely there by choice. Every eight seconds, a girl in India is trafficked. Modern slavery exists. Poverty, desperation or being sold into the trade are all ways women end up there and it is extremely difficult to get them out. Companies such as Freeset, The Loyal Workshop, Common Good and Sari Bari try tirelessly to work through the seemingly endless loopholes of providing freedom. This involves helping the woman work with her ‘power figure’ to get the go ahead to leave, emotional support, education, health checks, finding her identity (both personally and on paper) and so much more. Women are queuing for an opportunity to work for these businesses. This is what our customers are helping to support.

Was there a moment on the trip that touched you the most?

There were many moments that touched our team on this trip. Some of them were positive and some more painful. We met one of the kids of a Common Good family who was 12 years old and acted as a mama for her three younger siblings while their mother was at work. She invited us into her home, all five of us, sat us down and made us cups of tea. The hospitality of people who have so much less than us blew us away. Any time we looked remotely lost, people would flock around to help us. We tried to tip a couple of the street vendors after devouring their delicious dahl and roti, but they wouldn’t take anything more than the price (20 cents) they just wanted us to enjoy their food. A harder part of the trip was having several five-year-old kids hanging their full weight off your hands, asking for food, or mothers with young babies wanting money for milk powder. It was certainly an emotional roller coaster which brought us back feeling so lucky for what we have here – the clean, breathable air being the least of it. We loved celebrating the Holi colour festival there – simply walking down the street to find food and getting undated with locals trying to paint our faces with coloured powder. There’s no common language needed when you have laughter and a street full of colour.

Would you recommend other businesses take a journey to see where their products are made and the people behind them?

Definitely. Our business makes half our of product in house (our eco-skateboard artworks and screen printing) so having full knowledge of our production is important to us. The most important thing, however, is to know that your goods don’t come at the cost of someone else’s life quality. Furthermore, if you work with the right suppliers, you can help to support positive effects along your production line instead of just taking. It’s important that businesses support fair trade. No life is worth more or less than any other and by producing with fair trade, you acknowledge and support that fact. You can then help your customers to have more insight into where their purchases come from, how they are made and the suppliers (people!) behind the products they buy. The true cost of buying cheap goes far beyond the quality of a throwaway product.  

Have you seen a rise in other companies embracing the circular economy in New Zealand?

Absolutely! We’re not sure if it’s because we’re more involved in the circular economy than when we started five years ago, or whether there are more and more businesses now embracing it. However, it certainly seems to be on the rise and it’s a really important cycle. Whether you’re a social enterprise solving a problem (Satisfy Food Rescue, Kaibosh, Misprint, The Formary, Ethique), a give-back model (Fix & Fogg, Paper Rain, Addington Coffee Co-op), or a company choosing to use more sustainable alternatives (Paper Rain, Organic Dynamic, Allbirds) every bit makes a difference. Every story adds to a movement, which is designed to have a positive social and environmental effect. It’s not hard to donate a portion of your profits to support causes, or replace imported products with recycled or locally produced materials. We realise it’s more expensive and we can’t do it all, but what is the long-term cost of not trying?

What’s in store for Paper Rain Project in 2018?

This year, we have changed up our business model from a one shop stop, to a pop-up and online model. This literally means that Wills and I will be moving around the country with versions of our store. This gives us the opportunity to meet our customers face to face and in turn, for them to have direct access to the founders, one of the artists and the main producer of our team. We are so passionate about what we do, although it’s hard sometimes – we really believe in it. Each product is so story rich, so having done this for five years now, it’s a great opportunity for us to share directly with our customers. We are super lucky to have the brilliant Hannah and Ailie back at our HQ making sure things are still running on track while we are away. We are currently rolling out wholesale options for most of our products so are excited to begin to work with a number of select stockists around the country (if you’re interested, please get in touch!)

Are there any new products you want to roll out?

Yep! We’re excited to be releasing a few new things at the Ponsonby Central Store: an entirely new t-shirt shape which we have been working on for a while! We have a new t-shirt collab with Sean Duffel, which is in support of the Wildlife Hospital in Dunedin. We’re trialling a fair trade, organic hoodie which we love! Also – we have a new kids tee with Studio Soph, as well as a range of hemp tote bags. Oh! and of course, new one-of-one guest artist skateboard artworks. Later in the year we will release a new range of rideable boards from locally grown hard woods – more on that soon!

Are there more pop-up stores on the horizon? How did your Auckland one go at the end of last year?

Next up: we’re at Ponsonby Central again from April 30 – May 13, next week! Followed by a Wellington pop up from June 1st – mid-July. We’d like to have shorter stints in Christchurch and Queenstown this year, as well as one more in Auckland before a Picton Summer. We’re also aiming for Melbourne next February so there’s lots on the horizon! The pop-up at Ponsonby last year was great. We really enjoyed it and it seemed to have a great response, which has been one of the factors for the shift in business direction.

Why is a pop-up store your choice of business model for the bigger cities?

We want to have a genuine one-on-one connection with the people purchasing things from us – and people who are just interested in what we’re trying to do! Over the years, it’s become less common to ever get direct access to makers. As well as being a co-founder, Wills is our board shaper/screen printer and furniture maker while I manage/market/design and paint (among other things). We love sharing about our production and the stories of our suppliers, artists and collaborators so it’s a win-win. In terms of location, we’re based on a cherry orchard in Marlborough and having a store in Picton is completely seasonal. Our region is full in Summer and empty in Winter. It’s just not feasible for us to have a store year-round. The pop-up model allows us to have concentrated production and management time mixed with dedicated face to face customer time, whilst also allowing our online customers to see and feel the products in person. In short, we want more connection, accessibility and people engaged with Paper Rain!

Will you keep running your store in Picton?

Not in Winter, but we’re hoping to be back in the same spot this Summer! We do love it here!

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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