Interview with Ashutosh Deshpande, CEO of Chetna Organic

June 16, 2010

Chetna Organic is the Shop for Change certified producer organization that is supplying the cotton to AND for its new fair trade line.  We spoke with Chetna’s CEO, Ashutosh Deshpande, to learn a little more about Chetna, fair trade, and the importance of the AND partnership.

1. Tell us a little bit about Chetna Organic.

The Chetna Organic and Fair Trade Cotton Intervention Program was started in 2004 as an attempt to promote ecologically friendly farming practices and at the same time make farming a sustainable occupation for small and marginal farmers in India. The program started with 240 small and marginal cotton farmers in the Telangana belt (Andhra Pradesh) and Vidarbha (Maharashtra) – both areas are notorious for numerous farmer suicides. The aim was to create an ecologically and socially responsible supply chain which involved – i) promotion of organic and fair trade cotton production amongst farmers, ii) finding intermediaries (such as spinning mills, garmenting units, etc.) keen to be socially responsible, and iii) linking them to brands in Europe and the US. The basic idea behind the program was not charity but to create a business practice and environment that will ensure sustainable livelihoods for farmers. Today, Chetna is working with 5500 small and marginal cotton farmers spread across Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa.

2. Who are the farmers that grow the cotton found in AND’s new Shop for Change line?

The cotton for AND’s Shop for Change line came from Chetna farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. These are small and marginal farmers, with a land size of 1-2 acres. The farmers are federated into cooperatives that work on the aggregation, quality check and dispatch to gins.  The cotton is then sold to AND by Chetna Organic Agriculture Producer Co Ltd, a completely farmer owned trading company.

3. How has the partnership with AND impacted Chetna Organic?

While Chetna’s key focus has been on Western markets, we realize that there is a large untapped market potential closer to home. When the entire world, from consumer to luxury brands, is looking at India due to the fast rising prosperity of its consumer class, why should a social context wait? The efforts of Shop for Change and a major brand like AND play a pivotal role. We believe AND’s participation could be the trigger for taking the fair trade movement forward in India.

4. What are the biggest benefits of fair trade for the farmers in Chetna Organic?

I think the benefits to farmers under fair trade are dual – tangible and intangible.  On the tangible side –the fair trade premium fills a very necessary gap of finance availability at the community level , which will help them make their occupation and lives better. As a fair trade organization, Chetna provides a variety of services that can be divided into four parts: first, we work on institution building, which means developing the cooperative where collective sales happen.  Second, we work on marketing the cotton, aggregating, processing, and selling it at a good price for the farmers.  Third, a lot of technical extension happens, such as training on water resources management, pest control, and crop protection.  Finally, we work on advocacy, especially with local government.

I think an equally large (albeit intangible) benefit is the coming together of communities. The very principles of fair trade are rooted in cooperation and collective action. Fair trade marketing has forced farmer communities to come together, discuss their problems, understand their rights and responsibilities and ultimately realize the power of a collective effort towards a common goal. This is what will sustain the farmers in the future, in any crop they grow. So I think the benefits of collectivism is probably the biggest benefit of fair trade.

5. What do you envision for the future of fair trade in India?

Fair trade is new to India. But the social ethos of the Indian consumer is fast changing. As prosperity increases, the Indian consumer is willing to look beyond price towards the concept and association behind a product. We see this clearly in the buying trend, where a brand ambassador or overall brand image of a product largely influences a buying decision. Indians are increasingly well read, and I think the impact of their actions on the environment and society, along with their keenness to associate with a social cause, is encouraging for the fair trade concept.

We believe that with continuous efforts, fair trade will grow in India. What it needs is good communication and leaders (brands) who can take the change to their customers.

6. What is your message to companies that are trying to decide whether or not they should partner with Shop for Change and source fair trade cotton for their products?

I think fair trade is no longer a fad but is slowly influencing the very way people make purchasing decisions worldwide. Indians, increasingly exposed to global events and trends, are very likely to pick this up too. Already we see Indian youth associating with campaigns such as Jaago Re, AIDS awareness, etc. Similarly, we have seen Indians taking to organic and pesticide free food, due to the obvious health and ecological benefits.

These are quite positive signs. Awareness of fair trade is all about awareness of the society and environment around you and wanting to do something for it. If the above instances are some indicators, we believe people will increasingly ask questions about where their produce comes from. That is when retailers and brands have to be ready to answer them. By associating with fair trade, brands have an opportunity to lead the movement and forge a change. To quote an example – we are currently discussing a partnership with a very large retailer that is increasingly realizing the need to look at its sourcing.  It wants to build environmental and social sustainability into its model in order to lead the trend, before the trend takes over.

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3 Responses to “Interview with Ashutosh Deshpande, CEO of Chetna Organic”

  1. […] the film project is complete.  But for some insight into Ashutosh’s work, have a look at this earlier post.  More soon from Orissa… Posted by shopforchange Filed in Uncategorized Leave a […]

  2. […] After a week translating interviews with Shop for Change certified cotton farmers from Chetna Organic I asked Arti to reflect on her experience.  Here’s what she […]

  3. Where can i get the fair made organic cotton fabric for a small fair collection by mother earth?

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