Cozy Up in Punjammies for the Holidays

by Professor Dennis Shaughnessy

We have a wonderful student here at NU working with a local partner to help improve the lives of children of prostitutes in the red-light district near Pune, India. Her commitment to these children is deeply felt, humbly offered, and very inspiring.

This student’s work led me to a previously unfamiliar benefit corporation working in the space of human trafficking and slavery in India, and specifically providing living wage work for poor women recently freed from slavery as sex workers. India is reported to have more than 14 million people living in slavery, mostly women and children, amounting to nearly half of the world total.

The company is called Sudara (sudara.com), and their headline product is called “Punjammies”.The founder and CEO of Sudara is Shannon Keith, an American who started Sudara after visiting a red-light district in India and feeling driven to build a business that could lead to change for the exploited women she encountered. As Keith so articulately captures in her 2015 TEDTalk, instead of running away from the horror and outrage of trafficking, she ran towards it and passionately embraced the possibility of a solution.

“Punjammies” (women’s pajamas) marketed on Sudara’s website are made by previously trafficked Indian women using traditional designs, with the proceeds from the sale of these pajamas dedicated to “job creation and skills training for young women at high risk for or survivors of human trafficking”. Sudara manages four sewing centers that employ up to 300 poor women impacted by sex trafficking, at an above fair trade wage. The women learn transferrable employment skills while also receiving medical treatment and counselling, through partnerships with local NGOs.

Sudara does not directly engage in efforts to free sex workers, but instead works with NGOs who courageously free women trapped in brothels as indentured sex workers. Many of these exploited women have young children who live with them in the brothel, but don’t regularly attend school or have access to medical care. By freeing a woman her children are also released into a life of possibility.

My first reaction to learning about Sudara was extremely positive. Sudara’s mission is to serve trafficked and exploited women, and their children, through offering living wage work, education, job training, medical care, counselling and other support services. Most of the services are provided through partnerships with local non-profits, while Sudara focuses on its for profit business of marketing and selling the garments that these women sew. Sudara’s sewing centers are the very antithesis of most textile factories in developing countries, where workers are paid very little while working excessive hours in unsafe conditions.

And yet Sudara appears to have more than its share of social critics. The models on the Sudara website are largely women of privilege, goes one criticism. The designs are part of treasured Indian culture and should not be “appropriated” by Westerners for profit, another. And finally, the idea of selling products made by marginalized and at-risk women as a “feel good” consumer trend (ethical branding) fails to recognize the root causes of poverty, disempowerment and exploitation of women in India and the systemic changes needed to address these conditions.

On one hand, these criticisms seem to be well intentioned. On the other, having for years taught cases on the corrupt and deeply damaging supply chain for fashion, especially fast fashion, an alternative model for grassroots garment production in which workers are paid a living wage and profits are dedicated to assisting exploited women in achieving a better life appears to be an admirable mission worthy of our support.

Sudara is clearly driven by the motivation to free women and their children from the sex trade by offering a broad set of interventions, including at the center a sustainable living wage job. Keith’s hybrid model offers both a for profit manufacturing and retail business that generates sustainable income for these women, and a non-profit foundation that provides housing, education and training, access to affordable credit and consulting for micro-enterprise development.

After a very helpful review with students from many fields of study and from diverse backgrounds, I continue to believe despite the critics that Sudara and Shannon Keith are doing the right thing and driving positive social change. The privilege, cultural appropriation and anti- profit criticisms are sometimes valid ones with traditional business models that declare “social impact” as a goal, but not in this case. This is clearly a business with a passionate founder, an important social impact mission, an innovative business model and a financially sustainable strategy. Going forward, additional progress in transparency and impact measurement and evaluation would strengthen the enterprise and improve its impact.

As you search for holiday gifts this year, I encourage you to consider Sudara’s Punjammies. A gift of freedom, compassion and empowerment.