Inside Oshadi: The Collective Building a Regenerative Fashion Supply Chain in Rural India

Image: Women tend to the cotton on Oshadi’s farm, Credit: Ashish Chandra for Oshadi / Christy Dawn

Oshadi is a seed-to-stitch supply chain initiative, based around a regenerative cotton farm in the village of Erode, Tamil Nadu. Beatrice Murray-Nag speaks to founder Nishanth Chopra about how the collective looks to ancient Indian traditons to solve today’s social problems, and why he believes re-ruralisation is the future of fashion manufacturing.

“I have this habit of like, running, you know?” smiles Nishanth Chopra, as he finally pauses for a breath, interrupting his stream of consciousness as he tells me how Oshadi came to be. “I don’t walk and look at things.”

If there’s one thing about Chopra that becomes clear as we speak, then this is definitely it. Although perhaps intended as a form of self-criticism, his tendency to think one step ahead manifests in his style of working too. Established as a contemporary womenswear label in 2015, over the years the project has evolved into an artisan collective and textile supplier. Based in the village of Erode in the Tamil Nadu state of India, it now houses an entire seed-to-stitch supply chain in which fibres are farmed, spun, naturally dyed, woven and sewn all within a ten-kilometre radius. The collective works with local craftspeople, supporting the village economy by employing the artisans on their own terms. 

The way in which Oshadi has completely shifted the paradigms of the textile value chain in favour of a rural, regenerative solution is surely a testament to its founder’s sense of initiative. “I think a lot of times there are always solutions, but they never come true because people never try,” Chopra admits, his own impulsiveness a refreshing antidote to the fashion industry’s outdated ways of working. “They just never get it done.”

Images: Inside Oshadi’s weaving studio, Credit: Oshadi / Weeding on the regenerative cotton farm, Credit: Ashish Chandra for Christy Dawn

Coupled with Chopra’s own creative thinking, the idea for Oshadi came from a deep understanding around fabric manufacturing in his home country. Having grown up in the textile epicentre of Erode, the effects of the industry have long manifested in his surrounding environment, through polluted rivers, cancer and infertility. However, the ultimate insight into textile manufacturing came from working in his family-owned factory on his return from university. “I realised that this whole way of doing things is not sustainable,” he explains.

Fear of losing custom to competitors made the family resistant to approach the issues in their supply chain, but in Chopra’s books, abiding by existing ways of working is simply a barrier to progression. “Just because all the factories are doing one single thing doesn’t mean it’s right,” he expresses. “Humans always find their set ways and they get stuck into a system, thinking that the system is the right way to do things. But as soon as I came in, I just realised everything was wrong, from the pollution, to how people are treated without respect. I thought that if I were to set up my own thing, I could establish the moral conduct of the place, especially if it was something small.”

Images: Generations of family wisdom in action on the regenerative cotton farm, Credit: Ashish Chandra for Oshadi / Christy Dawn

The drive to do things differently led to Oshadi’s conception. And true to form, what started out as a small-scale contemporary clothing project set Chopra’s mind running, one step at a time, through the stages of the fashion supply chain. From designing his first in-house collection with a fresh-out-of-Central-Saint-Martins Richard Malone, to today supplying seed-to-stitch textiles to the likes of Christy Dawn, Maggie Marilyn and Story MFG, Chopra’s journey saw him gradually overturn each individual process that goes into the production of a garment. 

“As things went on, I got really involved with how every single thing was made,” he tells me, referring to the exploitations that he uncovered at every stage. “I realised the entire textile supply chain is built on modern day slavery. People are not being paid well for spinning, they are not being paid well for weaving, and they are not being paid well for sewing.” 

Yet for everything India’s textile industry was doing badly, the country’s heritage and history offered a solution. “When I started thinking about every single thing that was wrong, I coincidently always found something was right. Instead of sourcing or ordering materials from people, I set up my own weaving studio. We started working on the weaves, and then I realised it’s not just the weaves, it’s the dyes as well which are toxic and are polluting the rivers. We started natural dyeing, which is an ancient Indian tradition, and I was lucky to discover that.”

Images: Oshadi’s seed-to-stitch Pre-Fall 2020 collection, Modelled by Aditi Joshi, Styled by Kanika Karvinkop, Credit: Ashish Chandra for Oshadi / Drying turmeric ready for natual dyeing, Credit: Oshadi

The natural next step was to go back to the root – or more aptly, the seed. India is unique in the way it can facilitate the textile supply chain quite literally from end to end, but the toll that the industry takes on the country starts with the planting of the fibres themselves. Ongoing research into the links between pesticide use for farming with cancer and suicide rates in cotton-growing regions has brought the darker side of fashion agriculture to the surface and for once, organic isn’t the answer. With only a tiny percentage of all cotton grown around the world thought to be genuinely pesticide-free, the amount of organic cotton currently offered on the Indian market currently jusy doesn’t add up, suggesting the GOTS certification is being exploited. 

As with every step of his journey so far, Chopra’s dissatisfaction with the industry fuelled his next phase of innovation. “We knew we needed to start looking the farming too,” he remembers. “I know a farm seems very different to a womenswear collection, but I thought, let’s do it. Let’s see how it works out. And no matter what happens, even if it’s one acre, at least we played our role in sorting this out.”

His inspiration arrived in the form of a podcast interview with Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed: a movement setting out to redefine the relationship between our clothes and the land by developing regional and regenerative fibre systems. The Fibershed concept struck a clear chord with Oshadi’s own initiative, thanks to its similarities with India’s traditional manufacturing methods. “I really wanted to explore ancient Indian farming techniques because they’ve always been regenerative,” he explains. “Regenerative is a very new term for the fashion industry, or for all the industries. But even before the Green Revolution back in the day, India has always been about that.”

“I constantly visited farms when I was growing up,” he continues, “and so I went back and interviewed so many gurus… farmers who’ve been practicing things for a long time. Then I had this big database of how to do things, so when we started the farm, we started exploring every aspect. You filter things out; it’s like, ‘Is this working? No, it’s not. On to the next. On to the next. On to the next one.’ You keep going and then you start creating a system. We started with five acres. Next month, it will have grown into a sixty-acre farm. And I think early next year, like early 2021, I think we will have about 200 acres that we are working on.”

Image: Harvesting the first yield of regenerative cotton, Credit: Ashish Chandra for Oshadi

The farm is now the heart of the Oshadi collective; an agricultural epicentre where everything from cotton for spinning to indigo for natural dyeing is grown. The whole project an astounding embodiment of Burgess’ Fibershed ethos, proving that rebuilding regional manufacturing systems to regenerate our soil health has the potential to start a new phase for fashion, in which our clothing is not only sustainable, but actively has a positive impact on both people and planet. 

Perhaps the most enthralling aspect of the Oshadi initiative is its potential to be completely self-sufficient, empowering the farmers and artisans by offering them a way of working true to their own terms and capacity. “We have a place for sewing, spinning, weaving, natural dyeing,” Chopra explains. “But everything is completely decentralised, so we don’t control how things are done. I’m trying to create something which controls itself.”

The idea is to replicate the Erode model, creating a network of independent Fibershed collectives in which every production process is done by artisans within few kilometres of a central regenerative farm. “It’s a sort of re-ruralisation, where you support the village economy and so that the village people don’t have to go out into urban cities and work as modern-day slaves far away from their family,” he explains.

Images: Harvesting the cotton, Credit: Ashish Chandra for Oshadi / Sorting the first yield, Credit: Oshadi

“What we really want is to create a circular, village-based, sustainable, self-sufficient economy. Everything is done within the village, and we create this model which everyone around the world could follow. We create this system, so people can move away from the current conventional textile supply chain to a new way of looking things. I hope that what we do would make it easier for a lot of other brands and a lot of other suppliers to replicate.”

The way the collective works is enough to spark one of those rare moments of pure optimism as to the future of clothing production. The project is unique in that by basing the supply chain on rural wisdom and craftsmanship, each fabric or design tells a story of those who helped to make it a reality. It’s a blueprint for a fairer future, based on uncovering the value of each pair of hands in the fashion supply chain, engineering each stage of the production as an opportunity to regenerate and empower. But perhaps more than anything, it’s an alternative – a way in which though collaboration and replication, the textile economy could actually be rewritten to bring about positive change.

As for Chopra, his own aspirations are nothing less than to alter the axis on which the textile industry revolves. “People always thought the world was flat,” he smiles, confidently. “And then one day somebody came in and said that it was round, and everything else became false. Currently the supply chain is flat, it’s linear, and everyone thinks that’s right. We need to make it round, so that everything can come full circle.” 

“I hope we are perceived as a solution,” he finishes, “…or even just a possibility.”