Interview with Shivam Punjya of Behno

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

I am from California, born and raised. I miss the constant source of reasonable weather all the time! I have two moms, two dads, a brother and a sister. My moms are sisters married to a pair of brothers. I was brought up in a very cultural and culturally sensitive environment. Being American was important, but we were constantly encouraged to recognize our histories and where we came from. It was a super nurturing upbringing with all the love that surrounded us.

What is your personal story – education, prior work, and so on? How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

Well, I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad where I studied political economics and minored in global poverty, which led me to wanting to explore social entrepreneurship and global health. So, I matriculated at Duke to get my masters in global health. While I was doing my thesis research in India on women’s health, I came across textile weavers. I started to learn about their lives, their families, and the beautiful fabrics they were weaving. I noticed a discrepancy between what they were earning and the craft, but didn’t think much of at the time.

Once I was back and writing my thesis, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, where 1100 garment workers died, and it hit a nerve for me. How was this possible?! I started talking to my family about it profusely and my fathers told me: stop whining, either you jump in and do something about it or make peace with it. You’ll be miserable otherwise. So, we jumped in and partnered with a large nonprofit and an industry veteran to build MSA Ethos, our version of a holistic garment factory that implements “The Behno Standard” to look after garment workers more intimately.

How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?

Well, you know how it is; it’s impossible to always attribute specific experiences to a skill, but I think the aggregate of my marketing experiences, global health knowledge, and liking for fashion generally definitely aided in crafting what I imagined Behno to be. I think there must be thousands of inspiration points that I cannot even put a finger on that must have impacted me tremendously. Life is fluid!

What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

The fact that ethics are often an afterthought has always been bothersome for me; it should be the way business is conducted and done. But in an industry like fashion, where there are literally so many human touchpoints that are neglected makes ethics even more important. We have to start eyeing the backend and looking at our contribution – if it’s positive and great, keep it up and share best practices. If it’s suboptimal, no worries; let’s figure out how we can change our practices. But we have to acknowledge, accept, and act.

What is the importance of fair trade?

I think fair trade is so far removed for so many people because it seems distanced…Almost like a notion of a developing space. But if we look at our lives here – for example, in NYC, we want to ensure we’re being paid well, responsibly, and logically. Fair trade isn’t a concept that should be integrated in certain spaces.

Who is a personal hero or heroine within the ethical and sustainable fashion world for you?

Julie Gilhart. She’s such a powerful yet approachable force of knowledge and inspiration. She speaks on issues as they are, but always in the most encouraging tone. So, I am grateful to have had so many meaningful conversations with her.

What is Behno?

Behno is a womenswear label designed in NYC, but ethically manufactured in Asia, predominantly India.

What inspired the title of the organization?

Behno means ‘sisters’ in Hindi. In our partner garment factory, MSA Ethos, all the garment workers call female garment workers by their first names followed by the suffix of “behn”, which means sister. The plural form of ‘behn’, or sister, is ‘behno’, or sisters. Garment factories are collectives of people sharing varied experiences in the most singular way; it’s hard to describe.

What are some of its feature products?

We do RTW but are focusing heavily now on our handbags, which are sold exclusively online. Our goal is to make luxurious products attainable, so we don’t have a middleman for our bags.

What has been the greatest emotional struggle in business for you?

My learning curve was super steep, and there were volatile times when I was on the brink of questioning everything. Why did I jump into an industry that I have absolutely no idea about?! But then there those individuals you’ve met provide that source of encouragement that you need and it keeps you going. The volatility of the industry and the fact that every day is a mystery is sometimes challenging. But the impact the industry could have is monumental, so that’s a driving force.

What has been the greatest emotional struggle in personal life for you?

The people I’ve had the privilege of meeting and befriending. Seeing the most creative, wonderful, intelligent people interacting and finding massive common ground with the most business savvy, clever individuals is such a beautiful thing to witness unfold.

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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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