Q+A: Indonesian community enterprises partner to realize U.N. development goals through fashion

Ikat produced with natural dyes by Watubo on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Photo credit: Watubo
24 May 2018

JAKARTA, Indonesia (Landscape News) — While the fashion industry is often blamed for wasting natural ecosystems and human lives for corporate profit, it also has great potential for realizing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when run on a different mindset. Among Indonesian fashion enterprises making the stand for sustainability are Noesa, a Jakarta-based online retailer of natural dye ikat accessories, and Watubo, Noesa’s Flores-based vendor of ikat, traditional resist-dyed woven cloth.

Noesa was founded in 2013 by graphic designers Cendy Mirnaz and Annisa Hendrato after an island holiday in the village of Watublapi, Flores (some 2,000 km east) lead to a partnership for reviving the local ikat culture in a youth-driven, environmentally friendly business. Today, Noesa sells trendy bags, hats, camera straps and Watublapi ikat tours through social media.

In 2014, Rosvita Sensiana of Watublapi formed Watubo as a cooperative for weavers under 50 who produce handwoven cotton ikat, resist-dyed in local plant extracts. In addition to supplying ikat for Noesa’s products, Watubo also produces apparel under its own label, runs a collective organic plantation, and operates the Orinila homestay which hosts tours to introduce visitors to Watublapi’s traditions in sustainable ikat and environmental conservation.

Cendy Mirnaz (CM), CEO of Noesa, and Rosvita Sensiana (RS), founder of Watubo, spoke to Landscape News about the realization of the SDGs, 17 anti-poverty targets to be met by 2030 established by the United Nations in 2015, through their business partnership in sustainable fashion.

Q: In what ways are your businesses committed to sustainable development in the fashion industry?

CM: By designing and creating an online market for products derived from artisan-made, natural-dyed ikat, Noesa promotes a safe work environment with no health hazards for women, low environmental impact, the conservation of local plants which are important to the ikat culture, and the regeneration of young ikat weavers.

RS: Watubo was established to fulfill four purposes. Firstly, Watubo provides economic opportunities for Watublapi youth through the creation of value-added products that respond to the market’s demand with our local cultural and natural resources. Secondly, Watubo is a cultural space that unites our elders and youth in the common goal of reviving our ancestors’ knowledge and values through the stories behind our ikat. Thirdly, Watubo is also a creative space where our youth are free to develop their experimental creations and exchange knowledge with natural dyers from other cultures or knowledge backgrounds. Finally, Watubo is a conservation initiative for local plants such as cotton and noni, which are important for sustaining our production and profitability.

Q: Fast fashion is typically known for being an environmentally hostile industry with its high water footprint and generation of toxic waste. As a sustainable fashion enterprise, what do you do differently?

CM: Our exclusive use of natural dyes means longer production timelines, but then the point of slow fashion is to refrain from rushing and make room to enjoy the process. It also encourages our partners to make use of and conserve their readily available natural resources, by facilitating their access to markets that make these economic activities sustainable. And while plastic is still difficult to eliminate entirely in the shipment of materials, we reduce it whenever we can, such as by delivering Noesa products to customers in reusable cloth pouches.

RS: We keep our production chain short. Our collective plantation and members’ family gardens in Watublapi grow 30 percent of the cotton used for Watubo production. We make up the rest by procuring unbleached cotton threads from Surabaya. Our dyes are 100 percent Watublapi grown: indigo, noni, turmeric, hummingbird trees and star gooseberry. As a color fixation agent we add loba, the leaves of a Symplocos tree species endemic to Ende (about four hours’ drive west from Watublapi). Access to (fresh) water in Flores is difficult, so to produce Watubo cloths we only use rainwater tanked up during the rainy season. The waste generated from our production is organic and returned to our gardens as compost.

Q: SDGs manifested in your businesses include those addressing Decent Work and Economic Growth, Innovation, Sustainable Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Stronger Institutions. How do you describe Noesa’s and Watubo’s roles in making these happen?

CM: Before Noesa, young people in Watublapi were reluctant to take up ikat because dyeing was considered dirty, working with squishy potions like fermented indigo. The fact that indigo blue and noni red were the only two colours traditionally recognized didn’t help. So in 2014, Annisa and I stayed in Watublapi for three months to conduct experimental workshops on natural dyes, based on research we did on the Internet. As our Watubo partners discovered the many different colours local plants could produce, young people started finding ikat weaving attractive again. In addition to preserving their ancestral traditions through Watubo, young weavers find per-mission to experiment with contemporary creations in Noesa. The Noesa-Watubo partnership has also given birth to an economic ecosystem within the community. The Orinila homestay (which mostly hosts Noesa customers) provides additional income to Watubo members through the purchase of food ingredients from their gardens, and wages for the cooks and guides.

RS: Since partnering with Noesa, ikat weaving has become the most profitable profession in Watublapi. After reaping the income from weaving, many are reluctant to switch to something else. Thanks to the business system Noesa facilitated, it is now easier to get young people involved. Teenagers are welcome to join us for light craftmaking after school. When their goods are sold, they earn pocket money. Adults work office hours, weaving between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. We set reasonable targets: five large blankets per person per month, excluding small sashes. As ikat becomes associated with decent work, innovation and strong economic institution, we hope to encourage our youth to stay in Watublapi to run Watubo instead of finding work in faraway cities.

Q: What are some of the challenges of professionalizing a traditional vocation into a sustainable economic institution in today’s fashion industry? 

CM: Noesa is committed to positioning Watubo as an equal partner for sharing knowledge and business. This means committing time and resources to intentionally develop relationships with partnering communities, through multiple visits and live-ins. Our long-distance partnership and speaking different first languages adds another layer to this challenge. Another challenge is the fact that Noesa does business with weavers who, like artists, may be adamant about expressing personal creation in a particular way—which sometimes comes across as ignoring the client’s orders. We deal with this is by patiently bearing with the weavers’ experiment, allowing them to justify what they have done—even if it means making room for mistakes—and then walk them through our idea of working it out. A lot of Noesa’s time is used up on such interpersonal processes before we figure out products and procedures that work.

RS: Weaving for business has required us to adopt new mindsets. It has been hard in the beginning, but we are grateful for Noesa’s constant support in sharing their business knowledge with us. Fortunately, being a collective of young weavers, Watubo has transitioned well over the four years of our partnership with Noesa. Committing to production targets and anticipating potential orders means Watubo needs to plan ahead. We coordinate to ensure resist-dyed threads are in stock ahead of client orders.

Q: Traditional knowledge is a core value in both your brands. How does it educate Noesa’s customers to make more sustainable fashion choices, and how does it contribute to environmental sustainability in Watublapi? 

CM: The stories we tell through Noesa’s brand aim to share knowledge and appreciation for Watublapi’s ikat weaving processes, and raise awareness about the natural resources that go into our products. By familiarizing customers with the people, culture and natural landscapes we support through our business, we hope to educate our customers on the difference responsible consumption and production can make.

RS: Ikat weaving is sensitive to the natural environment. Temperature affects the quality of the fabric. Indigo can only ferment in cool, dark spaces. Therefore big trees are required to cool the air around the weaver’s workspaces and dyehouses. My culture believes that plants have living spirits, so plant parts for cloth production must be requested and treated with respect. Thanks to the plant’s generosity in giving up living parts, I have a livelihood. Likewise, I owe the plant healing nourishment. After harvesting roots on the left side of a noni tree, I cover it with compost from the dyehouse and mark it taboo for further harvesting. When the taboo is lifted the following year, new roots will have grown, and the tree’s old roots on the right side can be harvested. By fostering this respect for the environment, we maintain natural landscapes that are favourable for sustaining our cultural livelihoods.

Find out more about this topic at a digital summit – Fashion for the Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable Supply Chains and Green Job Opportunities for Youth and Women

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