We’ve become so environmentally-focused that we often neglect our planet’s most valuable asset—humans. Eco-fashion brand behno is here to change that, to bring focus and proper treatment to workers that are too frequently overlooked. The brand’s DNA is entirely made up of care and nurturing, having founded itself based upon principles rather than an interest in design.
Sustainability in fashion has only recently become a buzz topic. Twenty years ago, very few consumers noticed whether or not their purchases made an impact on the world. As luxury brands like Stella McCartney began to bring focus to ethicality, the rest of the industry slowly started to follow suit. Designers and consumers alike are more focused on how their choices affect the environment, opting for more sustainable methods of production and eco-friendly materials.
But sustainability goes further than just the environment. Despite the stride the industry has been making in sustainability, the humanitarian angle is still rather overlooked. New York-based brand behno built itself around the concept of bettering the lives of those who create fashion.
In 2012, a young Master’s student went to India to conduct his thesis research in women’s health. Though Shivam Punjya’s research was focused around folic acid supplementation, his studies ultimately led him down a completely different route: founding behno. “I would never have passed [fashion] up but it also never would have come into my mind. I enjoyed it, but that was from a consuming standpoint,” Shivam explains.
Most of Shivam’s study participants were female textile weavers; he got to know these women very well, learning about everything from their family dynamics to their joys and struggles. At the time, he saw the problems within the Indian textile industry, but didn’t think much of it until after returning home to the US. While Shivam was home and writing his thesis, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers. This news shocked Shivam, not just because it was a tragedy, but because he had fostered a connection with and understanding of the lives of Indian garment workers. He knew their pains and now saw the extreme brevity of their struggles. He couldn’t get over this shock, until ultimately, his fathers told him, “Either you jump in and do something about it, or make peace with it.”
Shivam heeded their advice and realized that a career in health was not his calling—sustainable fashion was. He employed his family to help him launch a factory in Gujurat, India, along with a nonprofit partner, MSA. Shivam then founded behno, giving work to his factory.
The young entrepreneur might have started out as an “outsider” to the fashion world, but that never deterred him. “I think a diverse background gives me a fresh eye into an industry that’s very traditional,” he says. “Every person I’ve met in the industry has been so supportive and has defied the stereotype… I was told there would be a lot of mean people, but show me—where are they?” Shivam saw room for growth in the fashion industry, so he entered the industry to make some difference. “You kind of act like a double agent,” he explains. “You go into an industry with another focus, and you slowly implement it through.”
The factory, MSA Ethos, between its two locations, provides healthcare, clean water, childcare, transportation or transportation reimbursement, and up to twice the minimum wage of its area. The factory will even help some workers out with extra pay if they’re supporting large families and the base wage isn’t enough. Though these benefits are comparable to typical workers’ benefits in our country, they are out of the ordinary in the Indian garment working realm, where Shivam met women earning under $1 per day for 15 hours of work.
After the Rana Plaza factory collapse, some general, widespread changes came about across factories in India. “There is so much emphasis now around certifications focused on structure and I think that’s important,” Shivam says. “Having a safe building to work in is obvious, for me it’s a given. But I don’t think it’s enough. A lot of factories have certifications, but focusing on other parts of the business and not the workers. But they’re the people that are driving the business.”
However, behno and MSA Ethos have had some influence on other Indian garment factories. In addition to MSA Ethos, the brand partners with a few other factories for further production needs, and every factory the brand employs must agree to follow their benefits standards for workers. “We don’t expect any of our factories to have all of the aspects of the behno standard implemented right away, we think it’s a process.”
That being said, Shivam was moved by an experience working with a factory in Calcutta. When their partnership began, he and the behno team explained the changes that would have to come about to the factory’s owners, describing a timeline over a couple of years. When it came time to discuss bringing in healthcare, Shivam called the factory to start the conversation, only to learn that they’d already begun providing health insurance to their workers. Shivam explains that the factory owners had looked to what behno’s other factories were doing, realized that providing health insurance didn’t cost them too much, and decided to go ahead with it. Shivam tells, “It was just heartwarming. It’s a really small thing that we didn’t have to say, they just saw our behno standard and they implemented it for themselves. These factories are open to it, and they are slowly doing it.”
Shivam realizes that in order to make appropriate changes in the textile manufacturing industry, factories and brand executives must do more than just enforce changes they deem necessary. “It’s very important to keep [the workers] in the dialogue,” he says. “It’s not ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ it’s a community effort. Sometimes the initiatives that we think are important are things that they don’t even want.” He visits his manufacturing partners regularly to keep conversations fluid.
“For us to make an impact, we have to have business to give to our factories,” Shivam says. So, though behno had originally focused on ready-to-wear, they’ve slowly been shifting into an emphasis on accessories and outerwear. “Ready-to-wear is such a competitive landscape, and as a young brand, we have to be able to support our backend. So with handbags and accessories, it’s easier for us to keep our factories occupied.”
This logistical shift enforces the point that behno exists to improve the backend of the fashion supply chain. The label’s minimalist, clean-lined, and chic aesthetic is important as well, but the mission really is about doing its part in terms of ethicality. Shivam says, “I don’t think I’m entitled to better anything, but I can understand it and do my part.”
And it’s clear others are beginning to do their part. “There’s a lot of discussion now happening and a lot of people are reacting to it,” Shivam notices. “When I first started behno, nobody wanted to talk about it. In the last year and a half, the narrative has shifted so much.” From small startup brands to the luxury scene, fashion designers are paying more attention to sustainability. Even the British royals have begun promoting eco-fashion; behno was acknowledged by the Queen during London Fashion Week for its actions in commonwealth nations. “I think that the royal family has been behind sustainable initiatives recently and this was a step for them to stand behind sustainability and intra-collaborations within the commonwealth countries,” Shivam says.
Even in creating behno, Shivam has been overwhelmed with support for his mission. He tells, “I can’t take credit for it. It’s largely due to my family, the talented team I work with, the amazing people that I’ve come in contact with, and new people who see value in what we do and really support us, and I think that keeps me going. Behno is not a ‘Shivam project,’ it’s a lot of people coming together, really believing in something.”
Still, Shivam still sees plenty of room for growth within the industry, namely ethical fashion becoming a household conversation topic. “We don’t have the luxury of time,” he says. “The environment is deteriorating, I think the industry is the second largest polluter in the world behind oil. We have no time. I think we’re going to have to excel on that.”