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Packaging with Purpose
In the beautiful city of Mysore, in the state of Karnataka, India, there is a building abuzz with the sounds of humming sewing machines, Indian pop music and laughter and chatter from over 60 women as they go about their day’s business. This is Re-Wrap: a non-profit cooperative helping marginalized women gain financial stability and create a better livelihood for themselves and their families. The organization was founded in 2002 by a woman named Janjri Trevedi, as a way to empower communities struggling towards economic gain. She is a most remarkable, thoughtful and gracious woman, with great ambition and vision. Re-Wrap was her brainchild a decade ago as a sustainable business opportunity with potential to impact communities in a positive way. The managing director of the Mysore factory is named Mr. CS Menon, who has over 25 years experience in the textiles industry. LUSH purchases canvas tote bags from Re-Wrap, as well as the organic cotton Knot-Wrap scarves we use as our alternative to paper gift wrap. In January of 2012, several LUSH employees had the opportunity to travel to Mysore to meet with Janjri and Menon, to see Re-Wrap in action and learn more about the organization and its potential for future business. Unbelievably, I was one of them—and now I have the honor of sharing a bit of Re-Wrap’s story here.
We arrived in Mysore after a 5-hour drive from Bangalore with just enough time for a quick fresh-up before dinner with Re-Wrap’s Founder, Janjri, and her husband, Jamon, as well as Menon and his family. They had graciously offered to take our group out to dinner, to welcome us to Mysore. It’s a city with many sights and attractions, the major one being the former palace of the Maharaja—an opulent structure with a scale that boggles the mind. The grounds alone are massive and the buildings themselves are equally epic. On our way to dinner, Menon took us past it—on Saturdays and Sundays the palace is lit up from 7-7:30pm with over 1 million light bulbs lining every nook and cranny. You can imagine the Electrical Parade at Disneyland and then multiply that image a few thousand times. It’s truly a sight that took our breath away and we were very grateful to have arrived in time for that and not mid-week when we would have missed it.
Our meal was a chance to get acquainted and also share a bit of our personal experiences. We lingered for several hours, enjoying four courses of delicious Indian food and finally, coffee served in the style common in South India. Very latte-like, it is strong coffee mixed with warm milk, poured back and forth in a container before serving so it becomes very frothy and creamy and absolutely delicious. Dessert was out of this world—a ball of sponge cake soaked in sweet syrup was served with vanilla ice cream and a garnish of grated, cooked carrots seasoned with sugar and cardamom. I had never had anything like it, and found the flavors extraordinary together. Finally, after the last drops of our delicious coffee were finished, we meandered back to our hotel—full, happy and excited for what was in store the next day.
Menon picked us up from the Hotel Ginger early Monday morning as we got our bearings in Mysore. Driving across the city, we saw literally thousands of people doing dozens of things. Horns blared all around us, a common custom of Indian driving, we learned, and motorbikes whizzed around the car like hummingbirds in a garden. Buses lurched towards us, and auto-rickshaws materialized and disappeared all around us. Finally, with much excitement, we pulled into the driveway of the compound Re-Wrap is situated in. The building and grounds are owned by a kind-hearted doctor who rents space to Re-Wrap as well as several other organizations—a tiny organic spice shop & bookstore, and a school for specialized trades are a few other businesses. We ascended the stairs into Re-Wrap’s area and were immediately greeted by Janjri and the backdrop of the buzzing business they do in that space.
The room we entered was large and spacious enough to hold rows and rows of sewing machines. Warm sunshine pours in through the windows, creating a very open feel to the space. Outside, in the palm trees and along the fences, you can catch a glimpse of monkeys bobbing along, looking for food or mischief, perhaps. Inside, Indian pop music plays all day long, and the women chat and sing along with the music. They are divided into two parts of the space: one for trainees, and the other for the fully trained. It’s a very cheerful atmosphere and the camaraderie is evident. Every woman employed at Re-Wrap has a story, but the common tie is a need for empowerment and self-sufficiency. Some are single mothers; others are married to abusive alcoholics…the reasons range as much as the color spectrum of their beautiful saris. Whatever the case, Re-Wrap has given them purpose in the present and hope for the future.
The organization started with 18 women 10 years ago, and has grown to over 60 in that time. A major contributor to their growth has been LUSH’s Knot-Wrap sales! The importance of this could not be emphasized enough to us—in 2011, LUSH was the #1 client for Re-Wrap, followed by Daunt Books and Harvey Nichols, both UK Retailers who sell Re-Wrap-made canvas totes.
Aside from employment with a fair wage, the many other benefits provided to the women include health care coverage, a monthly bonus scheme for attendance, quantity and quality as well as exceeding quota. Lunch is provided every day, as well as two tea breaks and a banana snack (a very common treat in Mysore). The women are paid above the average wage, and have the opportunity to take work home—mostly Knot-Wraps, which are quick and easy for them to work on, and help supplement their monthly income by 80-90%! On top of this, there is a quarterly outing they all go on and bring their children, a big family affair. We watched some video Menon had taken of a recent outing to a beautiful 900-year-old temple about 2 hours outside of Mysore, and the pleasure the families took in the day was lovely to see.
After touring the premises, and meeting more of Re-Wrap’s staff, including the Master Pattern Cutter, we joined Janjri and Menon for a chat in his office. Over coconut water, sipped from straws straight from the chilled coconuts, we reviewed samples of new designs a few of the women came up with themselves. In preparation for the trip, Maria had asked Janjri and Menon to challenge the women to come up with an original design—and we were amazed at the creativity and skill shown in their offerings. Several really caught our eye and Maria, who looks after LUSH’s packaging buying in the UK, held onto the samples for the future. We also saw many other samples they had produced for other brands—mostly tote bags of every size and style imaginable. It was quite impressive to see this variety and the attention and skill put into each design. Above all, they are concerned with their client’s happiness with the product and put much care into the quality they produce.
Menon and Janjri took us to a beautiful, historic hotel for a lunch buffet we all enjoyed as well as more lively conversation. Then it was off to the markets! We were looking for ribbon samples, and the shopping experience was surreal. The marketplace is a labyrinth of narrow dirt roads with no stop signs or traffic signals. These tiny streets are brimming with pedestrians, motor bikes, trucks, vans, cars, bicycles, horse-drawn carts and livestock. Walking was quite hard simply because my attention was divided between the magical attractions on display, keeping out of the traffic, and avoiding heaping, steaming piles of dung on the ground. To say it was a circus for the senses is to tell you the understatement of the year.
The ribbon shop was a sight to see unto itself—shelves about twelve feet tall lined three walls of a storefront, and were filled top to bottom with every kind of ribbon one could imagine. Most are embroidered or embellished with sequins or metallic buttons, and I’ve never seen colors so rich as these. In front of the shelves are glass display cases, also packed to capacity, and all around the shop are boxes or just piles of ribbon. I imagined all of it tied together, wrapping the globe in one giant sparkly piece. It was jaw-dropping to see the variety, and our group spent quite some time as well as quite a few (hundred!) rupees each on meters of the fabulous designs.
Satisfied with ribbons, and still full from our delicious lunch, we went back to Re-Wrap for fresh coconut water, and more discussion about the work produced at Re-Wrap. Their day starts at 8:30am and ends at 5:30pm, so we were treated to the lovely sound of laughter and chatter as the women ended their days and headed home. Some walk, if they live nearby, and others take the bus, with fare paid by Re-Wrap.
The evening found us on another shopping excursion, this time totally personal, where we each stocked up on gifts to bring home. We met up with Janjri’s husband again and shared dinner at a humble local spot. It was the kind of place we probably would not have just wandered into on our own as tourists, but were quite lucky to have experienced with locals in the know. The house specialty was dosas—pancake-like flatbreads we ripped apart and picked up a bit of shredded coconut and almond meal with, then dipped into a delicious gravy and then coconut milk. Though admittedly I was dubious at first, the meal was absolutely outstanding and left us all feeling very full and happy. It was another memorable meal, providing a chance to get to know our hosts on more than just the business level.
What I came away from Mysore with was not just a more comprehensive understanding of Re-Wrap’s foundation and how LUSH supports that—but also a deep gratitude for the perspective travel and conversation can open. Our hosts were such genuine, welcoming people whose stories unhinged something in me, inspiring me to return home with a more open heart. After traveling so far, and being exposed to so much in a small timeframe, my heart swelled to leave so soon. Homeward bound, on the 5 hour drive back to Bangalore, then the flight to Dubai and another onto London, and finally, the last leg home to San Francisco, I reflected on my entire journey, and the continually unraveling gift of having this experience to share.