Building better futures for the next generation: what does sustainability mean at Khushi Kantha?

Building better futures for the next generation: what does sustainability mean at Khushi Kantha?

Khushi Kantha (‘Happy Blanket’) is proud to be a social enterprise.
We’ve chosen this model, rather than operating as a charity, because we passionately believe that it is the most effective, sustainable approach to achieving our goal of building better futures for the next generation.
We see sustainability as multi-dimensional:
We aim to create opportunities for mothers use their existing skills and draw on their cultural heritage to earn sustainable incomes – by which we mean that the incomes are ongoing, enabling them to provide for their children with dignity, month in and month out.
From my fourteen years of experience in the international development sector, I know that for positive change to be sustainable, you need to go beyond the individual household level – Khushi Kantha aims to strengthen the fabric of the communities we’re partnering with, by investing our profits in initiatives that will benefit the wider community.
Our children will inherit the earth – and we want to pass it down to them in the best state possible, by creating our sustainable, multi-purpose baby blankets using circular production principles. We’re reworking the traditional ‘kantha’ technique of turning old cotton saris into ultra-soft, multi-layered baby blankets to meet global hygiene and safety standards, while retaining the principles of reclaim-repurpose-reuse, and bringing the rich handmade textiles tradition of Bangladesh to a wider audience. Khushi kantha is collaborating with sustainably-minded members of the garments industry to breathe new life into ‘deadstock’ cotton fabric, by using it for the inside layers of our blankets.

Our blankets rework the Bengali kantha tradition to meet global hygiene and safety standards, while retaining the circular principles of reclaim-repurpose-reuse.
As a social enterprise, every decision we make is driven by our social and environmental mission.
For example:

How much should we pay the Bangladeshi mothers we’re partnering with to make the blankets?

As a social enterprise, Khushi Kantha creates opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity.

My instinct is ‘as much as possible’, based on what customers will pay, and factoring in all the other costs.

But having lived and worked in Bangladesh on and off for over a decade, I’m also conscious that offering wages that are ‘too high’ compared to local rates could create all sorts of problems within the communities we’ll be partnering with, especially given that a) we can only offer opportunities to a small number of mothers as we start out, and b) we are at such an early stage in our journey, which means that we’re not yet confident of ongoing market demand.

The last thing I want to do is build expectations that we will not be able to meet.

“A living wage, recognized by the UN as a human right, is a wage that is sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for a worker and their family. It should be earned in a standard work-week of no more than 48 hours, and must include enough to pay for food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing and some discretionary earnings, including savings for unexpected events.”

(Source: Labour behind the Label: A living wage is a human right)

There is various guidance available on what constitutes a ‘living wage’, as opposed to a legal ‘minimum wage’, which tends to be a lot lower  – the Labour behind the Label article provides a helpful explanation of the difference, with illustrative examples from a range of countries.

The amount clearly varies, depending on whether you live in a city or a village, and figures go out of date quickly – Bangladesh’s annual inflation rate has been consistently about 5% over the past few years.

This article provides a detailed breakdown of the figures, based on this calculation method, but the data is from 2016.

Ultimately, I am listening to and take advice from my colleagues based in North-West Bangladesh, where our stitchers live, who understand the local community dynamics much better than I do.

We’re working together to figure out the ‘living wage’ in the communities we’re partnering with, based on current living costs (housing, food, health insurance, education-related costs etc.) and using this as a starting point.

Once Khushi Kantha hopefully starts to generate revenue, we’ll be able to add benefits like childcare, sick pay, and a loan scheme for those who would like to use what they’ve learnt through partnering with us to start their own businesses, or need access to capital for other reasons. We’ll approach this in line with the mothers’ own priorities – we’ll start with what’s most important to them and build up from there.

One of the key things I have learned over the past twelve years of working with Bangladeshi women living below the poverty line is that predictability of income is vital. The more confident you are of the sustainability of income, the more sense it makes to send a child to school, rather than being forced to send them to work – and it’s those kinds of decisions that will really break the inter-generational transmission of poverty.

Mini Ara – one of the mothers we’re partnering with – and her son Amanullah


Should we pay a piece rate or a daily rate?

It’s not just a question of how much to pay – we also need to figure out how the payment system should work.

Ultimately, we’d love to become able to employ the mothers on a proper annual salary – but we’re not there yet.

If we start off by paying a piece rate, should we still pay if the blankets don’t meet the quality standards required for us to be able to sell them? Again, my first thought would be ‘yes’, because of course we want to establish supportive relationships.

But the mothers we’re partnering with need to be able to rely on the incomes they’ll be earning through Khushi Kantha – and if our business model isn’t sustainable, this isn’t going to be possible.

I’ve had insightful conversations on this topic with inspiring women who have set up successful social enterprises partnering with collectives of female artisans (I’m quickly learning that the world of female social entrepreneurs is a very generous and supportive one!) The general consensus is that establishing an effective quality control system in place is a journey you take together.

Who should decide on the designs?

Khushi Kantha blankets represent a cultural fusion, combining traditional Bengali ‘kantha’ stitching and animal motifs with geometric patterns and a contemporary colour palette.

Our designs are based on the original collection of blankets that inspired the idea for Khushi Kantha, which were loving handmade for my half-British, half-Bangladeshi daughters by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, with support from the wider community. We’re focusing on those that our target customer research is revealing to be the most popular.

But if Khushi Kantha is all about artisanal craft and empowering women – shouldn’t we be giving the talented mothers stitching the blankets free rein when it comes to designing the embroidery patterns?

For now, my feeling is ‘no’ – we should focus on ‘giving the people what they want’. I’ve seen various well-meaning initiatives fail to gain traction because there was insufficient demand for the products they’re selling. I’m trying to come up with the product that lots of people will want to buy – on its own merit, rather than as a ‘pity purchase.’

Our goal is to build better futures for the next generation – and to do that, we need to be able to sell the blankets at a scale that will create opportunities for the mothers we’re partnering with to earn sustainable incomes.

But when it comes to determining how to re-invest the profits we will hopefully start to generate, I will 100% be guided by the mothers. I’ll be able to draw on my extensive experience in community development to design a collective decision-making process.

Our approach to impact measurement will also be participatory. Like sustainability, ’empowerment’ is a complex, multi-dimensional concept. We’ll working with the mothers we’re partnering with to understand what ’empowerment’ means to them as individuals, to their families, and to the wider communities they live, and use this understanding to build a measurement framework that focuses on the priorities of those at the centre of our social enterprise mission.


What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

And what do you think of the way we’re approaching these ethical questions?


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