Shivam Punjya was researching women’s health in India when he discovered the beauty of hand-spun, hand-woven textiles. He learned that up to 90% of India’s garment factories are powered by women — some earning less than $1 a day.

As his studies of the culture and craft of women in India progressed, a devastating event exposed detrimental working conditions and an urgency for change in the textile industry. Rana Plaza, an eight-story garment factory located in the neighboring country of Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24, 2013 killing 1,137 workers. Eighty percent of its victims were women 18, 19 and 20 years of age. Devastated, Shivam knew something had to be done to avoid such a tragedy from happening again.

In 2013 Shivam founded behno, a fashion brand raising awareness of high-quality, “Made in India” textiles while practicing a standard of ethical making that provides fair wages, garment maker health and eco-consciousness. Produced at MSA Ethos, a garment factory in rural Gujarat, India, behno is designed by Ashley Austin of MUUSE and highly coveted by celebs like Emma Watson. Yet another vehicle for change, Shivam recently partnered up with photographer Dan Smith and filmmaker Kent Matthews to unveil “the less visible side of fashion” in an exhibition of stories called the Garment Worker Project which debuted this summer at Sotheby’s in New York City. We caught up with Shivam to learn more about “The behno Standard” and find out what’s in store for this exciting emerging brand.

Photo: behno

Photo: behno

How did you become involved in creating ethical, sustainable fashion?
Well, with behno as a design label, we started backwards. Setting up the back-end manufacturing side came before the design arm of behno. Anyways, I was doing my thesis research on women’s health in India for my Masters program at Duke, and I started to learn a lot about textiles weavers and the discrepancies in the trade at a fundamental level- between what they were producing and what they were earning. I started to dig deeper and started meeting with people governing the space and immersed myself into the textile and manufacturing world. While I was wrapping up my research and learning about textiles- both focusing on totally different subjects!- I heard of the devastating news of the Rana Plaza collapse, which shook up my world. I asked myself and everyone around me- mostly my family- how something like this could happen.

I kept talking about it and my family presented me a sort of ultimatum- either I made peace with the incident or jumped in and did something about.

So I jumped in. We did a lot of research to understand what garment workers look for and how the industry operates. We found strategic partners in Muni Seva Ashram (MSA), a nonprofit in rural Gujarat, which aides in all our social programming and an industry veteran of the manufacturing trade, who handles the back-end work at MSA Ethos.

How do you invest in your makers?
We try to invest in learning about our makers and addressing what they deem to be important in their lives. With years of research and understanding, we have “The behno Standard”, which is a guiding set of principles for us, so to speak. The Standard focuses on areas such as health, social mobility, family planning among others. We believe in a bottom-up approach when it comes to social programming; reacting to needs and wants rather than a predisposed agenda.

Photo: behno

Is the ethical fashion world collaborative or competitive?
Ethical fashion is such a collaborative space because the supply chain is massive and so convoluted. We encourage other brands to reach out to us, and we reach out all the time, to collaborate and utilize each others’ platforms. Since it’s challenging to impact change on every aspect of the supply chain singlehandedly, we rely on others who work on improving other aspects of the supply chain.

What do ethical fashion shoppers love most about your product?
The behno woman is urban, conscious, compassionate, of course, stylish, and caught up on the news. She’s current.

Behno bag

Photo: behno

What’s next in your brand’s journey?
We’re always looking to see how we can monument our impact further. As an emerging brand, it’s difficult at times to command the larger scale impact we want to have since our production volumes are growing.

I’m interested how we can work further with others to augment our impact and raise awareness on a larger scale.

I also think behno has the potential to become a lifestyle brand that penetrates into consumer life in ways beyond just ready-to-wear fashion. We’re working on some exciting other projects to do this.

Any advice for shoppers on how to shop smarter?
Buy less, but buy quality. Buy something you love that you’ll preserve. And always look into the brand’s back-end to see if they’re doing anything to impact their manufacturing practices.

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You can shop this ethical brand at behno.com.

Andrea Plell
Andrea Plell is a freelance writer, fashion consultant and artivist passionate about engaging a paradigm shift in the fashion industry. Bay Area-based, Andrea supports thoughtful designers who are making a difference in the world through Ecologique Fashion.