Fair trade clothing made using age-old Indian traditions
When she was young, Shari Keller and her family often visited some friends who lived in India. There, Keller encountered the bright vegetable dyes and hand-block printing on traditional clothing from Bagru, a city in the Jaipur district.These artisanal methods, she would learn, dated back to the 14th century.
Hand-block printing involves carving a pattern into a block of wood, which is dipped in a plant-based dye and then repeatedly placed on cloth to create patterned clothing.
“It’s an age-old technique in India, and it gives people jobs,” says Keller.
When she grew older, she decided to make fashion her career, but she wanted to create a different approach to the fashion business—one that didn’t rely on the sweatshops and child labor common in the corporate fashion system.
So Keller, along with her husband, Mark Keller, started Mehera Shaw in 1999, a fair trade business that sells women’s clothing made by Jaipur artisans in India, using the traditional Basru dying and block-printing methods she fell in love with as a child.
Mehera Shaw’s target audience women averaging 30 years or older who have an “artistic” view, says Keller.
“It’s more a mindset and lifestyle. It’s really for a discerning, conscious customer who loves color and life and wants their clothing choices to reflect who they are,” she says.
Mehera Shaw clothes, accessories, and homewares are all handmade from natural materials—including “peace” silk (where the silk worm isn’t harmed), hand-loomed cotton, and GOTS-certified organic cotton—and dyed with low-impact, azo-free dyes.
Even though the company makes beautiful products, where Keller aims to make the biggest difference is through the workers. Unlike big retailers that care more about the product than the people, Keller decided to focus on the people first, knowing that with the right workers, a great product would inevitably result.
The company belongs to the Fair Trade Federation, a trade association whose members are committed to upholding fair trade criteria in all aspects of business. It also belongs to the World Fair Trade Organization, which verifies member compliance with fair trade principles. Mehera Shaw employees are paid living-wage salaries with benefits, as well as allotted days off. In contrast to companies like Gap, H&M, and Walmart, which labor-rights organizations have regularly criticized for doing business with South Asian supplier factories that mistreat and abuse workers, Mehera Shaw provides its employees with a fair and healthy atmosphere.
“The people come first,” Keller says.“They always have and always will.”
To further that mission, in 2007, Keller founded the Meher Road Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people in India build artisan skills and create sustainable endeavors. The foundation strives to work in tandem with Mehera Shaw by sharing a focus on textiles and fair labor in the projects it pursues. The foundation’s current project is teaching poor urban women how to make upcycled fashion accessories and homewares from the leftover scraps in the Mehera Shaw factory, giving themselves a source of income.
Overall, Mehera Shaw strives to create “slow fashion,” which differs from the “fast fashion” people buy in department stores, or cheap clothing that generally lasts for a year before it tears or goes out of style.
“We’re not trying to do fast fashion or whatever’s trendy.We want to make pieces that are lasting,” says Keller.“Our point is that quality, good design, comfort, and good ethics are all part of a great piece of clothing and what make our brand more sustainable.”