Class of 2011 grads Samriddh Burman and Rewant Lokesh are swimming upstream. Their eco-conscious jute bag company, The Burlap People (TBP), is headquartered in Kolkata, India, a global epicenter of fast fashion—and the pollution, waste, and sweatshop conditions that the industry entails. But their decision to take a time-intensive, environmentally responsible approach to manufacturing goods is bucking local, cultural, and generational expectations to do things cheaper, faster, and in higher quantity. The result is not only a high-quality product that they feel good about, but also a platform to promote ethical choices and a community that celebrates and spreads their eco-conscious values.
Inspired by a Luther education
Lokesh and Burman grew up in India—Lokesh, a Davis United World College Scholar, in Mumbai and Burman in Kolkata. They met as business majors at Luther, where they shared classes and worked as co-managers at Oneota Market. They returned to India after graduating in 2011. Lokesh went on to earn an MBA in marketing, and Burman started working for the family business, Aarbur, which has been manufacturing jute bags for more than 40 years. But, he says, “I became really frustrated because it was difficult incorporating what I learned at Luther. In our classes, there was a lot of talk about sustainability and community-building and creativity. That was a major part of learning at Luther. The way things work in India is very different, and a lot of the things we learned in the classroom we couldn’t replicate back in Kolkata.”
Lokesh adds, “There’s a big focus in this industry on exporting and creating large numbers. And cost is always the biggest factor. It takes away the story of the product. That’s something we really learned at Luther: the story of the product is what makes it so exciting.”
The pair, along with master craftsman Nuruddin Mola and friend Karuna Parikh, who helped conceptualize the brand with Burman and who handles social media and PR, decided to start a business that truly reflected their ethos and that would, they hoped, resonate with like-minded people. If their nearly 23,000 Instagram followers are any indication, the TBP brand certainly resonates.
A platform to share values
Each TBP bag takes about two weeks to manufacture—by hand—which is an expensive endeavor. But TBP is able to trim costs through an advertising campaign built entirely through social media and word of mouth, and it’s proved surprisingly effective. TBP launched in December 2015. In June of 2016, they made and sold about 30 bags. By March of 2017, they’d done about $50,000 in revenue. Last year, they doubled that. They grew from a skeleton crew in a small shed to a picturesque building that houses 17 employees.
A lean advertising strategy has also given TBP the opportunity to grow slowly and cultivate a discerning, self-selecting fan base that really connects with the brand, which is of great importance to TBP since, as Lokesh says, “The brand turns out to be the people.”
Burman agrees: “It’s not about the bags; the bags are just a medium. We try to make people more conscious about their choices. If you’re spending money on something, it should bring actual value to you and your community and the world at large. We should be conscious about the impact our decisions have. That’s what we try to do through social media and the events we host and the pop-ups and markets we attend: engage with people and talk about things that are important.”
Of course, challenges come with the territory, but Burman and Lokesh consider them an opportunity to educate. Burman says, “Sometimes we get people, especially in India, who compare us to fast-fashion brands that make synthetic bags. They question our prices or just don’t get it. But when I explain to someone why something is priced this way or why it takes time, it helps reinforce it in our own heads. It balances things out.”
“We try to engage people about why this is the way it is,” Lokesh explains. “Integrity is something that was part of our upbringing and part of our Luther education, and now it’s a major part of our value system at TBP. It’s something we plan to maintain.”
Jute, which is used to make burlap, is one of the most sustainable plants in the world. It grows naturally on the banks of the Ganges River, needing little to no irrigation; it reaches maturity quickly; it requires little space; it enriches soil; every part of the plant can be used; and it biodegrades in just a few months.
The material TBP uses is colored with azo-free dyes and supplied by Fair Trade, non-GMO jute mills. Their leather is sourced from tanneries with certified environmentally friendly practices. In addition, TBP doesn’t use plastic and upcycles all scraps as smaller bags or pillow stuffing.