Interview with Prama Bhardwaj, CEO and Founder of Mantis World

Tell us about family background – geography, culture, language, and religion.

I was born in Kenya to a family of Indian origin. My great grandfather moved from India to Kenya during British colonial times to work on the railways. My grandfather went back to India to study to become a Hindu pundit. He decided then with his best friend at school that when they grew up, their children would get married so that then they could be family. That’s how my parents got married. However in spite of his spiritual training my grandfather decided that commerce was his interest and started a textile business which my father then expanded across Africa. My family lived between Kenya and India but moved to the UK when I was 8 years old. I’ve spent most of my live since then in the UK – apart from a few periods of living in Switzerland and Zanzibar. So my culture and heritage has always been a mix – I feel Indian, Kenyan and British.

Tell us about your story – education, prior work, and so on?

As a teenager I became vegetarian and became passionate about animal rights – leafleting my school for “Chickens Lib” was a particularly memorable campaign.

At university I studied Economics & Government and went back to do a Master’s degree in Development Economics with a focus on Africa. My dream was to work in a large development organization such as the World Bank or the UN. I realized that dream with a short stint at UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and Development) in Geneva. Very quickly I became disillusioned with the waste and bureaucracy and returned to the UK.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

After my time in Geneva, my father asked me to join him in his business selling t-shirts that were made in his factory in Tanzania. I decided to give it a try and very quickly I was hooked. I saw myself the difference we made to the lives of thousands of people working in the Tanzanian factory and I realized that business was a much more powerful tool to help realize my goals than NGOs or public organization.

After two years I started my own company Mantis World. We never considered ourselves an ethical company as we took decent values for granted given my experience of our factory in Tanzania. It was only when I visited other factories that I realized decent values were not normal in this industry. That was when we realized the importance of talking about ethics and sustainability in textile manufacture.

What seems like the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

I think it’s the only way to do long term business.

Babybugz reversible organic hat

What is the importance of fair trade?

To me this is a confusing term as it is used in many ways – either as a description of how businesses work but also as a sort of “brand” of the FairTrade foundation. It’s very difficult to measure exactly what the impact is as a loose description. As a concept – of course it’s very important. We cannot be so desperate to get a good deal that we would be happy with exploitation of others to get it. We have to value people and the planet too.

What seems like the importance of a (relative to the country) living wage?

It’s important because it allows us to measure. It’s not easy to pay the living wage, but at least if you know what it is you can work towards it. As a company we make sure we are paying the London Living Wage as set by the Living Wage Foundation, which is higher than the Government-set living wage.

Recently our factory calculated the cost of living in Tanzania and by actually measuring the daily costs, the factory immediately increased wages. You can only manage what you measure!

What makes slow fashion better than fast fashion?

The price and delivery pressures of fast fashion can lead to abuses of human rights in factories and takes a huge environmental toll on resources. We need to value our resources – buy less, choose well, make it last (in the words of Vivienne Westwood)

The Pythagoreans, the Neoplatonists, Aristotle, and the Stoics, William Wilberforce, Baron Erskine created the ancient thought about animal rights. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, discussed the suffering of non-human animals. Peter Singer argues for non-human animal rights too. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and others work to support animals and work to enforce their rights. Some fashion manufacture processes violate animals’ rights. What is the importance of animal rights, especially in an ethical and sustainable fashion context?

Personally it’s a big issue for me. For this reason my company will not work with leather or animal products. From a broader perspective, as an industry we need to do a lot more to ensure animal rights. The Textile Exchange has created a Responsible Down Standard, Responsible Wool Standard and is working on a much needed Responsible Leather Standard. I hope these standards will help change how the fashion industry treats animals.

Climate change represents one of the biggest medium- to long-term threats to human survival in reasonable forms. The Government of Canada, NASA, the David Suzuki Foundation, The Royal Society, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and numerous others discuss this. Ethical and sustainable fashion relates to it. The reductions in hydrocarbon production from sustainable materials seem imperative sustain the further deterioration of the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the environment. What seems like the responsibilities of ethical and sustainable fashion companies in the prevention of climate catastrophe?

It’s not the responsibility of just ethical and sustainable fashion companies. It’s everyone’s responsibility!! What I found extremely interesting recently is that organic farming (not just of cotton, but all agriculture) can help reverse climate change by trapping carbon in the soil. So we might have our solutions already, we just need to implement them.

The Brundtland Commission Report described the need for sustainability. In that, we, the human species, need to meet the “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” for long-term sustainability. Does this seem correct to you?

I completely agree. At the moment it feels like we are stealing from our children.

How can ethical and sustainable fashion contribute to the long-term sustainable future for the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the environment?

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition invented The Higg Index. It assesses some products’ sustainability throughout the products’ lifecycle. The European Outdoor Group and the Outdoor Industry Association developed an index of products’ impacts on the environment throughout their lifecycle, the Eco Index. Large regions with serious attempts to implement standards and quantitative analysis of sustainability of products throughout their lifecycle. What seem like the importance of quality tests, or metrics, such as these and others?
Metrics are really important. None of them are perfect, but we have to start somewhere. Again we can only manage what we measure.

Mantis Kids range

The Ethical Fashion Forum developed the Ethical Policy Framework. An ethical policy framework tool for those devoted to enactment of ethical and sustainable purchases, production, and business decisions. What do services such as these perform for the public, consumers, producers, and businesspeople?

There is never one answer or one way to conduct business more ethically. So it’s not the only way, but I do love the work of the Ethical Fashion Forum. We have been supporters and partners for a long time and they are usually the first port of call for fashion companies and start-ups wanting to know how to be more sustainable. They have a wealth of knowledge and expertise.

Who are personal heroes, or heroines, within the ethical and sustainable fashion world for you?

Katharine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood, the team at Patagonia.

What is Mantis World?

A supplier of “blank” apparel to the imprintables industry. We manufacture ethically made fashion basics for men, women, children and babies. Holding stock in the UK, we are able to offer fast delivery of our garments across Europe, ready for other companies to personalize with their logos or designs – all with no minimum order quantity. We hope this allows other companies to buy sustainable garments easily.

What inspired the title of the organization?

I was trying to find an African creature that was not yet trademarked. I accidentally mixed up a praying mantis (nasty creature) with a stick insect (harmless creature). Oops!

What are some of its feature products?

In general, our customers love our “Well Made” clothing; using the best quality fabrics and cuts, made responsibly with more sustainable fibres than ever. We’re well-known for our brand Babybugz, the biggest range of babywear within our industry. Our premium, retail-style Superstar collection has been a success story since its introduction in 2011. And this year, we’re very excited about the launch of ONE, our new gender-neutral range.

What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products?

Cotton mostly, some cotton/polyester blends and Tencel®.
Water use in production is an issue. What is the importance of reducing excess water use in the production of fashion?

Water consumption is a big issue in fashion. The highest uses of water come in growing fibre, manufacturing process and post-consumer laundry. Using rain-fed instead of irrigated cotton, using better dyeing processes and minimizing dyeing, washing less are all ways of reducing water consumption. Biggest effect would come from just buying less stuff!

The Triple Bottom Line defines three performance dimensions: the social, environmental, and commercial/financial. In contradistinction to the standard commercial/financial analysis alone, the Triple Bottom Line incorporates environmental and social performance too. Why should ethical and sustainable (and other) fashion designers and companies include the Triple Bottom Line analysis in individual and business performance?

It’s the only way to measure a business’ performance so that decisions are made not only with financial profit in mind. If we value our planet and humanity (and I think most of us do!) then we have to make at least a start in measuring the Triple Bottle Line.

There have been large tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires (2012). How do tragedies shed light on work conditions in garment factories?

Big press interest ensures large companies become more committed to improving working conditions. It should not take tragedies like Rana Plaza to make that happen, but I think it acted as a big wakeup call and catalyst for action.

The Gender Inequality Index (GII) relates to the empowerment of women, gender equality, and international women’s rights. The progress for gender equity is positive. Regressive forces exist in explicit and implicit forms. What seem like some of the explicit and implicit forms observed in personal and professional life to you?

We could write many books about this! Progress on the empowerment of women does continue but not at the rate as I would like to see – certainly not in some cultures. However, the more strong positive female role models there are I would hope to see progress accelerate.

Mantis Organic Crop Top

Any women’s rights activist or campaigner hero for you?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michelle Obama and my aunt.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

Seeing the industry get better. Being inspired by and inspiring others.

Any other work at this time?

Launching a new sustainable fashion brand which I’m very excited about called Re.Sustain

Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, you?

Best to email or engage with us on social media

What philosophy makes most sense of life to you?

It’ll be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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