Many businesses are evolving to respond to more socially conscious customers.  After the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers increasingly want to make the best purchasing decisions for themselves, for the people and the planet. The fast-growing consumer desire for sustainability - especially from the fashion industry - is increasing demand for radical transparency and solutions such as blockchain technology that allow brands to demonstrate that their products have been produced ethically and sustainably. Transparency holds brands accountable, leading to more ethical and sustainable industries.

How is this relevant to the Sri Lankan handloom industry?

For thirty years, my family has run Selyn Exporters (Pvt) Ltd, a fair trade guaranteed social enterprise which promotes handloom weaving and finished production and supports over 1000 rural artisans across Sri Lanka. At Selyn, we go out of our way to assist our network of local artisans with a business operational model set up to provide access to work and then with the Selyn Foundation providing the skills to stay at work; which are not mutually complementary for rural women. In summary, we have flexible working models which enable part-time and work from home possibilities and further encourage artisans to set up their own “business” by developing workshop infrastructure, upgrading design and technical skills, and ensuring a guaranteed flow of work. In addition, our members have access to services such as health camps, child-care facilities, life skills programs, and leadership and entrepreneurship training to support them to be holistically empowered. Following this model we have established many workshops in handloom villages in the rural outskirts of the North-western, Eastern and Southern provinces of Sri Lanka. In this way we hope not only to empower them financially but also create a way of life within which they are comfortable.  In view of this, I was honoured to share some of our practical experiences at UNESCO’s "2021 Sub-regional Meeting for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Safeguarding in South Asia" in September 2021.

As 2021 is the "International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development", the meeting was a valuable opportunity to explore the power of creative industries in building resilience. The global pandemic—a constant backdrop to the discussion—served as a focus of the discussion; having certainly tested the resilience of our sector in ways not previously imagined. Addressing the topic "Implementing Stable Virtuous Circle for IHC Marketing Route in line with Safeguarding ICH", I focused on the trajectory for Sri Lankan handloom and found it to be crucial that Sri Lankan handlooms are pitched to premium or even luxury markets, which value quality over mass quantity and speed. In addition and perhaps more innovatively, increasing the transparency of our production methods with the integration of blockchain technology into our supply chains will be a crucial step to allow us to better tell the Sri Lankan handloom story, addressing the ‘green-washing’ debate, and providing consumers with verifiable data to inform the purchase of a higher value textile. Global emerging trends support this hypothesis, as these premium markets and more conscious customers are now craving the stories of heritage and responsibility that fair trade and ethical brands can tell. This is an opportunity, for not just the Sri Lankan handloom industry but in my opinion, for many craft brands around the world.

Radical Transparency: Paving the Way

For those companies in control of their supply chains, especially those committed to fair trade and ethical trading practices, blockchain technology is the perfect tool to enabling radical transparency. With blockchain integrated from the point of sourcing to point of purchase - from fiber to fashion - with the swipe of a QR code, a consumer can now be fully aware of what goes into their product, and how it is made. Blockchain technology ensures that each point in the production process is recorded so that consumers can access independently verified, real-time, detailed metadata of what they want to know. And that’s not all. Consumers can input their own information to the QR code, whereafter if it is given to a friend or resold; it enables the needed circularity for the product.

For us in the handloom industry, this means openly sharing information about how, where, and by whom a product was made. This becomes more than a story-telling exercise, especially since this technology demands that we pay attention to people at all stages of the supply chain: who works for the brand, in what factories, under what conditions, are they safe, are they paid a living wage, how many hours do they work, do they have workers’ rights? It also demands that we be conscious of the waste we reject into the environment - into our forests and our seas and brings our attention to how we may be more carbon neutral as we maximise profit. It allows us to humanize our supply chains and spread the premiums gained fairly among all those involved in the process of taking a product to market. We work with people, artisans and craftsmen with decades of skill and experience. They are all part of the process, and our end consumer deserves to know what goes into weaving craft into apparel. The dignity of our craft has to be taken back to our weavers.

Of course, this is easier said than done and naturally brands who have already invested in fair trade/ethical trading and operating standards would find it easy to begin the process of integration. Most importantly, this process will require a shift in mindset, away from traditional business approaches of industry competition to one of collaboration and cooperation. For Sri Lankan handloom to thrive, effective partnerships are required across the sector. Shifting towards cocreation in handloom where all stakeholders enjoy recognition and economic gains, is the only way to protect and grow Sri Lanka’s handloom sector. This also holds true for the rest of its craft sector.

Selyn: Embracing Blockchain

Selyn is Sri Lanka's only fair-trade handloom company, and our vision is to promote a sustainable business model that grows and empowers the livelihoods of over a thousand women in the country. At 30 years of operations, we are committed to transforming our industry by encouraging full transparency of supply chains, integrating new production technologies, and revolutionizing the product we offer. We believe that our purpose-led business model will result in greater economic benefits, better meet sustainability goals, and restore pride and dignity amongst our artisans.  

We see a different future for the handloom sector. Having begun the process of integrating blockchain into our supply chain, we believe we can truly walk the talk and present to the world a truly authentic and responsible craft brand. Drawing on our fair-trade foundations and using our social enterprise credentials and with COVID19 accelerating our work, Selyn is repositioning its work in the handloom sector to address emerging market opportunities. Our aim is to leverage a commitment to ethical and sustainable practices combined with greater transparency, and ultimately carve out a unique niche for handloom as an important part of Sri Lanka’s intangible cultural heritage. And, we are working hard to bring the industry along with us. We believe that the enabling radical transparency into the handloom sector is an innovative step towards positioning Sri Lanka as an industry and global leader that combines technology and tradition to conquer sustainability.

About the author

Selyna Peiris is next generation lead and Director - Business Development at Selyn, Sri Lanka's only fair-trade handloom company and one of the country’s largest social enterprises. Selyn engages the traditional Sri Lankan community of handloom weavers in bringing products made of 100% cotton and infinite measures of skill and devotion. Founded in 1991 by Sandra Wanduragala, Selyn originated with 15 women in the village of Wanduragala in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka. Selyn now works with a network of over 1000 empowered artisans in rural Sri Lanka.