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India: From organic cotton to an opportunity for 300 young women

In the spirit of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato si' and following the teachings of the “Poor man of Assisi”, the Franciscan nuns serving in India’s Tamil Nadu state are spearheading an activity to help young Indian women without work, with particular attention to those with disabilities. "Assisi Garments" is a textile company that combines tradition, innovation and environmental protection, focusing on 100% organic cotton.

By Igor Traboni

It was 1994 when some Franciscan nuns in India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which alone has more inhabitants than Italy, thought of starting an activity to help young girls without work, with particular attention to those affected by various disabilities, especially people who are deaf.

The nuns decided that the proceeds would then be used not only to expand that business, but also to support other charitable works. And, they reckoned, what in India could be better than working with cotton to provide work? No sooner said than done: the sisters set up a company, which today employs about 300 girls compared to the initial one-hundred.

The business’ name is inextricably linked to its Franciscan origins: "Assisi Apparel" is in fact the name of the company, which three years later became "Assisi Garments", specializing in handmade cotton garments.

These products coming from Tamil Nadu, and are all of excellent workmanship. Slowly, the business/charity managed to carve out a larger and larger niche in the fair trade of Italian stores, thanks in particular to "Altromercato" and "altraQualità", which distribute them.

File photo of Catholic women at Mass
File photo of Catholic women at Mass

To the young women who work with "Assisi Garments" and who also hail from the nearby state of Kerala, where there exists a sizable Catholic population, the Franciscan nuns provide room and board, as well as a good monthly salary, social security coverage, and continuing education courses.

The overall goal is to improve the products, always with the utmost attention to remaining organic, but also to make them more attractive on international markets, ranging from the Americas to various European countries.

The profits from sales are used for various charitable works, in particular for a clinic for cancer patients (locally caused mainly by the use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture), but also for a hospice, an orphanage, a center for AIDS patients, assistance to lepers, and education, including a school for the blind.

However, all this would not be possible without the final link in the chain that starts from those warehouses in southern India: fair trade.

Many of the young women hail from Kerala
Many of the young women hail from Kerala

In these nearly 30 years of activity, "Assisi Garments" has also succeeded in the further enterprise of combining tradition, innovation, and environmental protection, creating a 100% organic cotton chain.

Today, it finds its method reflected in the teachings of Pope Francis' Laudato si', from responding to the cry of the earth and the poor to pushing for alternate ways of understanding the economy; and, from adopting an alternative lifestyle to education and creating an ecological awareness and new job opportunities.

"Assisi Garments" represents something unique in the field of the textile industry, with an integrated supply chain that goes from the cotton seedling to the finished product. The result is 100% organic cotton, therefore, with all the necessary certifications, so as to contribute in a responsible way to the preservation of the environment, a not-insignificant element even in India.

On the other hand, GOTS, The Global Organic Textile Standard, the body that issues the certifications, takes into account a whole series of parameters: obviously the ecological ones, but also the purely productive and social ones of the entire supply chain. These include cotton harvesting, spinning, cutting, dyeing, along with the regulation of materials and processes that can be used in the transformation of cotton or other organic fibers.

"Assisi Garments", for example, does not use dyes in which heavy metals or formaldehyde are present, so as not to arouse allergies in buyers.

05 October 2021, 08:54