Leveraging Handlooms to achieve Sustainable Development Goals
Updated: Aug 18
The importance of cottage industries cannot be over-emphasised in developing and underdeveloped countries. In these countries, a significant population is rural and dependent on the informal economy to generate income. Workers in the informal economy are usually not recognised, licensed, regulated or otherwise protected under labour legislation and social protection systems.
An integral part of the informal economy in many of these countries, the handloom sector embodies the vision of Sustainable Development Goals because it involves minimal use of capital and power, environment-friendly production processes and allows flexibility to innovate and offer products as per market requirements. The handloom sector has been a silent contributor- the traditional and ancient industry addresses several issues and has been achievements many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, such as Goal 5: Gender Equality, Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities, Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production and Goal 13: Climate Action.
After agriculture, handloom weaving is one of the most significant economic activities in the country. The traditional handloom industry has withstood changing industrial environments like neo-liberalisation and globalisation. Even in the new market economy, appreciation for the art and demand for handloom products is ever-growing.
An age-old craft that has been passed down weaver families for generations, handloom weaving is a fundamental part of rural and semi-rural livelihoods. The entire handloom value chain from the production of raw material to the finishing touches of the end product is labour-intensive and employs a large chunk of the population. In the case of India, as per the Fourth All India Handloom Census 2019-2020, India has 35 lakh handloom workers and 31 lakh handloom worker households. The ideals of the handloom sector are very much aligned with the sustainable development goals, which promote sustained economic growth and encourage entrepreneurship and job creation in order to achieve the targets of Goal 8: decent work and productive employment for all men and women, by 2030. A home-based micro-enterprise, handloom weaving helps sustain the members of a handloom household. The handloom sector plays a vital role in the socio-economic development of the rural population by promoting entrepreneurship through self-employment opportunities to generate income and increasing the standard of living. By bolstering the rural economy, it also reduced migration from rural to urban regions.
The handloom sector empowers and promotes the social and economic inclusion of all, irrespective of caste, sex, religion or another status.
The industry has been creating action toward Goal 10: reducing inequalities. According to the Fourth All India Handloom Census, 14.3% of handloom worker households comprise of Scheduled Caste members, 19.1% are Scheduled Tribes members, and 33.6% are people from Other Backward Classes. Further, Handloom cooperatives facilitate political inclusion through collective action. Handloom and Khadi act as tools for social change by breaking the caste barriers and bringing people from different backgrounds on the same platform and giving them a dignified way of life.
In the wake of the global climate crisis, it has never been more critical than now to invest in environmentally sustainable means of production. Since they are operated manually, handlooms do not depend on fossil fuels or other energy sources.
The handloom sector has a low carbon footprint and can help achieve the objectives of Goal 13: Climate Action. Handlooms and
handloom products encourage sustainable fashion and inspire conscious consumerism. They provide an eco-conscious alternative to machine-made and mass-manufactured fast fashion products that thrive on careless consumerism. Handloom products are often more durable and last longer; they are passed down in families over generations and thus do not end up in landfills frequently. Since weaving is a meticulous and time-consuming activity, reasonable quantities of fabric are produced, and textile wastage is limited.
Thus, the sector has been helping the country achieve the aims of Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production that are a prerequisite for sustainable development and a green economy.
Handlooms and handloom products encourage sustainable fashion and inspire conscious consumerism. They provide an eco-conscious alternative to machine-made and mass-manufactured fast fashion products that thrive on careless consumerism. Handloom products are often more durable and last longer; they are passed down in families over generations and thus do not end up in landfills frequently. Since weaving is a meticulous and time-consuming activity, reasonable quantities of fabric are produced, and textile wastage is limited.
The United Nations Development Programme found that the Women’s participation in the labour force stood at 48 per cent in 2018, compared with 75 per cent for men. India’s women’s labour force participation as of 2019 stands at an abysmal 21 per cent. In India’s handloom sector, however, about 72% of workers involved both directly and indirectly are women. By virtue of handloom weaving being primarily a household activity, there is a high engagement of women in the sector in various capacities, especially in rural areas. Gender equality in the labour market is not an end in itself, still a key means to achieve broader human development goals, such as Goal 8: Gender Equality, which seeks to secure political, social and economic security for women.
The handloom sector directly addresses
women’s empowerment by making women self-reliant and financially independent. While the sector still has a long way to go in terms of the full-time employment of women, in both urban and rural areas, the female workforce participation rate in allied activities in this sector is twice as much higher than their male counterparts. Only While 36.5 % of the women are engaged in full-time weaving activities, while it a part-time endeavour for the rest. Weaving and allied activities release women from unpaid household jobs and help them join and remain in the paid labour force. Growth in women’s employment prospects depends upon the growth in employment opportunities in such sectors where male domination survives. Since women are limited to seeking work only in few areas, extension and value addition in these sectors is very crucial. (Mehrotra and Sinha, 2019). Thus, promoting the growth of the handloom sector, providing and strengthening incentives for women’s employment and participation in the sector is essential.
Boosting the handloom sector is not an end in itself, but a critical means to achieving broader Sustainable Development Goals, since the principles of handloom weaving and due to the nature of the handloom sector, it has been meeting the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals for decades. According to the 2019 UNESCAP report, India needs to spend 10% of its GDP to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. This financial estimate will be much lesser if sectors that produce SDG targets on their own are developed and uplifted.
One of India’s oldest industries, the handloom sector contributes to 6% of India’s GDP and accounts for 13% of exports. The demand and appreciation for handloom products are high in both domestic and international markets. Despite the massive demand of Indian handloom products, the sector has not been able to increase footfall in the global market as there has been a consistent decline in the exports during the last five years, mainly due to increased competition from neighbouring economies and the trade barriers for handloom products. Efforts to boost the economic growth of the handloom sector and help increase weavers’ income need to be scaled up to the world markets. Trade liberalisation and international supply chains and exchange networks have increased the global trade of textiles, including Indian handloom products. The World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Textiles and Clothing has led to an increase in international trade and the development of value chains. Free Trade Agreements can be favourable at regional and bilateral levels, as the mix of local production and foreign trade allows economies to experience faster growth while meeting the needs of its consumers. Furthermore, existing trade agreements regarding handlooms need to be revisited and investigated to prevent stagnation of exports and negotiations. For all it contributes to sustainable rural development and achieving Sustainable Development Goals, it only seems fair that the products of this sector receive concessions on the duty and cess levied against their exports. One of the constraints to address the trade barriers is ‘verifiable authenticity’ of the handloom products. A robust system can help India to negotiate better terms for handloom products there by increasing the market access.
95% of the world’s hand-woven fabrics are found in India, which is one of the very few countries produce them. The Columbian coffee or Australian wool(Wool mark) have been successfully branded, Indian Handloom products need to be branded and marketed more comprehensively to make consumers aware of the rich heritage of handloom weaving and of the intricate, tedious work that the weavers and allied workers put into the painstaking process of making a handloom product. India needs to leverage its handloom sector, which uplifts the rural economy to work towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal targets.
Mehrotra, Santosh, and Sharmistha Sinha. “Towards Higher Female Work Participation in India: What Can Be Done?” CSE Working Paper 2019- 02, Azim Premji University, Jan. 2019.