How I turned an insult into a mission


Until a few years ago, there were two contexts in which Indians (and specifically Bombayites) used the word “chindi” — one was to describe a miser, as in, “don’t be so chindi, pay your share!” and the other was to describe bits of waste fabric left over by tailors, as in, “sweep up this chindi and toss it in the garbage!”

Definition of “chindi” on Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com)

Chindi was clearly not a very nice word. A flat out insult, even. And that’s exactly why I decided to name my social enterprise “Chindi”.

Portrait of chindi in a tailor’s shop, by photographer MumbaiPaused

Chindi uses textile waste from tailoring units, garment manufacturers, and design houses to create one-of-a-kind pieces. Our products are handmade by low-income craftswomen from Mankhurd, Mumbai, and help support their livelihoods along with preventing this so-called waste from entering landfills.

Chindi was named to reclaim the meaning of this word and show how being a little bit careful and, I suppose, a wee bit “miserly” can be a good thing in a world drowning in its own waste.

Life cycle of a Chindi product — waste leftover during the garment manufacturing process is cut into yarn, which is knitted or crocheted into one-of-a-kind products.

Since I started Chindi two years ago, I’ve been delighted to see that the word has crept into the parlance of the fashion and lifestyle industry. Brands like FabIndia, Okhai, and Pero, all synonymous with sustainable and handmade designs, many of whom have been using textile waste to make products ranging from furniture to jewellery, are now proudly declaring that they use “chindi” in their pieces. From a cost-cutting measure to be hidden from the customer, it’s become something to celebrate and even enhance the value of their brand.

In our early days, we often had customers ask us, quizzically, “Why should I pay so much for something made with garbage?” We would simply smile and happily tell our tale of textile waste, upcycling, and sustainability. And we don’t field so many of these questions anymore. In fact, we now stock our products in stores like ReMade in India set up exclusively to showcase and sell upcycled products made of “garbage”. The change has been quick and remarkable.

Chindi is not just an organisation but a mission. Cleaning up the fashion industry by upcycling textile waste is at the core of what we do — and we’re proud to call ourselves the housekeepers of fashion! The fashion industry is, shockingly enough, the second most polluting industry in the world. We’ve done our small bit over the past two years by keeping nearly 100 tonnes of textile waste out of landfills, transforming them instead into functional and well-designed accessories, homeware, and jewellery.

The impact on our small community of craftswomen has been simple but meaningful.

Sarita’s husband could not afford the high fees needed to send their daughter to an English medium school. Combined with her income from Chindi, they’ve now been able to do this.

Sunaina laughed as she told us how, for the very first time in her life, she could tell her husband she was busy working! A simple statement with a profound meaning for her self esteem.

The fashion industry is perhaps the only global scale industry that still legally employs human slaves — garment workers in countries like Bangladesh and India who are underpaid and forced to work in sweatshops in deplorable conditions. This used to be a well-kept secret, but no more after the Rana Plaza collapse and the release of the documentary, The True Cost, which uncovered the ugly face of this glamorous industry. With our small group of craftswomen, we’re doing our little bit to change how design houses treat their human capital.

But simply buying a Chindi product isn’t where the story ends nor where the problem is solved. It’s not just about a few organisations or entrepreneurs making a living off upcycling, it’s about creating a culture of conscious consumers and creators. After all, every social revolution begins as an individual revolution.

We want to show how easy it is for each individual person to upcycle at home and make their own Chindi pieces. So when people come up to us and ask, “Can I buy some chindi yarn from you?” we instead show them how easy it is to turn their own old clothes into yarn. In the future, Chindi aims to be a completely “open source” organisation. Our product designs and patterns will be freely available to copy and make. Our yarn and techniques will be openly shared for anyone to follow. Our craftswomen will become teachers, happy to share their skills with anyone who wishes to learn.

We dream of a world where upcycling is so de rigueur that we don’t even need to exist as a brand!

This is the main difference between what makes us a social enterprise versus just another enterprise — our ultimate goal is to go out of business because the problem we’re trying to solve no longer exists. We’ve built our own redundancy into our model and this is what makes us excited to come to work everyday!

We’ve transformed the meaning of the word “chindi” and now we’re setting our eyes on making more people champions of the chindi lifestyle. Chindi’s not just a word, and certainly not an insult. To us, it’s a movement. Join us, won’t you?

This piece is also published on our Medium blog.


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