While on a trip to India for his thesis research in global health, Shivam Punjya was devastated after meeting all the underpaid textile workers hand-making, in terrible working conditions, the garments we wear. On April 24, 2013, shortly after Punjya’s return to the U.S., the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed due to poor infrastructure and faulty use of a commercial building, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring many others. “To me, that was the emotional hammer on the nail,” Punjya says. Shaken from the incident, he decided to create a womenswear label, behno, that ethically manufactures its clothing predominantly in India. In partnership with MSA, a non-profit foundation Punjya had been volunteering for since the age of 13, he built a factory in rural India to provide garment workers with a safe working environment and with hopes of igniting a revolution within the fashion industry.
Punjya recently became the U.S. coordinator for Fashion Revolution, a global movement and non-profit organization advocating for ethical and sustainable fashion and aiming to create radical and long-lasting change in the way our clothing is produced. In light of Rana Plaza, the organization is hosting Fashion Revolution Day on April 24 around the world, kicking off Fashion Revolution Week. In New York, Bond Collective, a company offering hospitality and design-driven coworking spaces, is hosting a panel and pop-up shop in participation with the organization and THR3EFOLD, a young fashion brokerage.
Ethical, sustainable, and eco-fashion are causes that are dear to Punjya’s heart, and he will continue paving the way for a new global standard with behno and Fashion Revolution.
Yasmin Ahram: It’s been four years since the Rana Plaza collapse. Do you think progress has been made in the industry?
Shivam Punjya: Yeah, I think things have changed tremendously. Now when you pick up a copy of WWD, every other day there’s something about sustainability and some sort of discussion happening around supply chain ethics. That industry conversation has definitely become very aggressive and is going somewhere. At a consumer level, we have organizations like Fashion Revolution that are getting millions of consumers to get involved on social media and change that dialogue slightly. So I think it’s happening and it’s happened quite quickly, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
YA: Could you tell me what Fashion Revolution does and what your role entails as country coordinator?
SP: Fashion Revolution’s goal is to really get people, citizens, to talk about where their clothes come from. It’s a global movement, and the idea is to start getting consumers to become conscious about what the brands they love and shop with are doing on the back-end of accountability and transparency purposes. Asking, “Who made my clothes?” and “Where do my clothes come from?” are questions companies don’t normally get asked. For Fashion Revolution week, the goal is to get as many people in different countries and cities to get involved, asking those questions. My role is to make sure all the events happening are going smoothly, to link people and bring like-minded people together to show at phenomenal panels.
YA: What does it mean to you to be a part of Fashion Revolution?
SP: It’s important to me because Fashion Revolution fundamentally tries to have the discussions that we initially wanted to have with our own consumers. It’s such a massive force and it allows me to be a part of a discussion that is difficult to have, but they’ve garnered such a phenomenal response on social media and you have so many influencers and citizens that take part. It humanizes this process even more for me, beyond just the garment workers but also these are people that are taking time out of their day to take a picture that want to be part of this conversation. It’s being part of the frontend of the conversation.
YA: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced with your ethical fashion brand, behno?
SP: The biggest challenge is ensuring the entire supply chain within the scope of the brand is conscious. Where do the buttons come from? Where does the thread come from? Every aspect is something so important. Manufacturing is one angle, but how do you look at the whole supply chain? And I think that’s challenging for a lot of people.
YA: You debuted the Garment Worker Project last year to share stories of some of your garment workers. Why do you think it’s important to show these people and share their stories?
SP: The industry seldom gives a face to the people who make what we love and it’s about recognizing that these clothes don’t just magically get made by machines. There’s a very human person behind every sewing machine that is doing something to the garment so that we can enjoy it. It’s about recognizing the supply chain, and garment workers are often times neglected in the fashion supply chain. When you look at some of the biggest atrocities happening in the garment industry, garment workers get squeezed in terms of dollar amount. In retrospect, what I’ve learned is that the fashion industry is a fantastic avenue to take a stab at impacting millions of people that work in the back end, and it could truly become a social entrepreneurial space.