September 2020

Sustainability through everyday fashion and lifestyle choices

An international trade specialist by profession and an entrepreneur at heart, Rupa Ganguli (MSc Textile Management 2001) has literally travelled the world of textiles and fashion in her career.

Rupa was 17 when she set up her first business, creating and selling contemporary fashion out of left-over pieces of fabric she sourced in the wholesale market in Mumbai. Now – having studied textiles, management and international trade, and having worked with the likes of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization – she is the CEO and Founder of inclusivetrade.com, connecting artisan brands with consumers who want to make ethical and sustainable lifestyle choices.

We caught up with Rupa about her passion for making sustainability part of our everyday and her life as a serial entrepreneur before she hosted our Leeds Alumni Voices 2020 online event in September.

Start by telling us about your business and what drove you to establish it? 

Rupa: Inclusivetrade.com is a platform that connects artisans and independent brands – whose beautiful products have a positive impact on society and the environment – with consumers and businesses who want to make ethical and sustainable lifestyle choices. Every product is linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and every purchase has a distinct positive impact.

Having worked for years as a trade and development specialist with the United Nations office, the International Trade Centre in Geneva, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and various government and non-government agencies, I had the opportunity to work in the field across the world in parts of South, Central and East Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. I was able to work hands-on within factories and small artisan businesses across the textiles and clothing chain and experience the amazing work first-hand.

I soon realised how wonderful these businesses were and the positive impact they were having in their communities and on the environment. There are consumers and people across the world wanting to purchase ethically made products and wanting beautiful unique things. and It felt like there had to be a simple way to tell their stories of the places doing exactly that and to make their products available. What’s more, the majority of these wonderful products are made by women or the process is led by women. Having always been passionate about bringing more women-led products and businesses forward, I was driven to establish a platform which brought together this amazing community of like-minded producers and consumers. And so Inclusive Trade was born.

One of the objectives of your business is to support sustainability through lifestyle – how can we as consumers do this in our everyday lives? 

Rupa: We often say that the fashion industry isn’t responsible enough, or that government regulations aren’t strong enough in terms of ethical standards, or that the big brands and retailers push prices down.

However, a lot of that could be solved if we as consumers started making choices that meant we actually live an ethical lifestyle. If we keep buying the cheapest product and want large discounts on absolutely everything and are happy to pay less for a t-shirt than a cup of coffee, the cycle of unfair practises will continue forever.

Making small and meaningful choices will go a long way. For example, ask where the product came from. If there is no label (as that is not mandatory across the EU) ask the question. Today, it is really easy to connect through social media and other routes to get to the seller or the brand. Be less wasteful, don’t buy more than you will use.

Buy less, buy responsibly!

Talk to us about how your passion for fashion first developed? 

Rupa: I grew up in Mumbai, India. I have always been surrounded by a lot of textiles and colour. On my walk to university from the train station, I had to walk past a few fabric markets and in fact one of my shortcuts took me through one of the largest wholesale fabric markets there was at the time. I came across amazing fabrics each day and soon started buying pieces and leftover bits of inventory from the wholesale traders and started creating some outfits to wear to uni!

At the time we did not have a large retail sector in India and getting fashionable products that were affordable and easy to access for university students was not easy. My hobby soon grew into a small business as my friends started asking me for pieces. A local newspaper then covered my work and one thing led to another, until and soon I was stocking some of my pieces in a local friend's local store.

I learnt a lot in that wholesale market over the three years and was very fortunate to have several well-wishers and mentors who helped me and taught me along the way. This passion soon developed into a need to explore the world of fashion and textiles and so I applied and got into India’s premier school for fashion technology (The National Institute of Fashion Technology - Nift) in Delhi, where I studied Textile Design and Development at postgraduate level. I then applied and won a study visit scholarship to the UK and France over a summer to learn more and to visit several schools. I was amazed at what the University of Leeds and its School for Textiles had to offer. This led me to apply for the MSc programme at the University of Leeds! I was very fortunate to have been awarded the Leeds - India Scholarship that year which made it all possible!

You came to Leeds to study MSc Textile Management and graduated in 2001 – tell us about your time in Yorkshire? 

Rupa: Leeds was an amazing time in my life! It opened a world of opportunity and laid the very first steps towards my future role at the UN as well as within the fashion industry in New York.

The University's amazing facilities allowed me to explore various areas and that was where I developed my interest in international trade in textiles. I was able to ask questions and get a lots of different perspectives on things.

I connected with students from not just the UK but from around the world. I enjoyed the amazing humour and warm heartedness of the Yorkshire people. There were so many things I loved, whether it was walking down to grab a bargain in the Kirkgate market or getting an ice lolly at the Student Union, or just enjoying some window shopping down the Arcades while walking back after my shift at GAP. Not to forget the sumptuous kebab from the little kebab shop across from the Parkinsons steps!

I had also lived in a little town called Bebington, Merseyside in the Wirral years ago as a child when I was five and I had the amazing opportunity to go and rediscover some of the earliest memories and reconnect with some of our neighbours from way back.

How have you used your postgraduate qualification to help you as an entrepreneur since graduating? 

Rupa: My postgrad qualification has literally been pivotal in entering the world of business, trade and development.

Having worked on a dissertation and thesis focussed on business planning and trade for a fashion company, I was able to use this during my very first interview highlighting the real issues faced while setting up a company in the textiles value chain.

While this was especially important during my early years in the world of work when I often referred back to my thesis to get some inspiration, I still find this useful TODAY 20 years on! The advice and supervision I had through the year at Leeds, especially during and for my dissertation, has helped me in my career and I have become recognised for my thorough understanding of research across value chains. My work focussing on analysing businesses, connecting brands and looking at sustainable impact stems from my ability to analyse and work through a research problem while linking it to real tangible industry outcomes, a skill I developed during my thesis.

As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to other people considering setting up a business, particularly at this challenging time? 

Rupa: There are many things I would say and would love to chat with anyone thinking of starting a business today. But here are some of my top 5 tips:

  1. Do your research and groundwork; know your competitors, what your proposition is, why it stands out and who you are targeting. While this may sound like a business school class, it is actually super helpful in being confident and having clarity in what you want to do and why!

  2. Be strong! Don’t give up at the first sign of trouble. Think creatively, take a break, meditate, walk, run, do anything you need to, but come back to the issue and think again. It is a hard time now especially as there are several complicated issues in the world. However, with challenges come opportunities! Sometimes you need to see the same issue from a different angle to find the solution, but don’t give up if you believe in something! Back yourself to win!

  3. Find friends and family who can be helpful and supportive. It is absolutely critical to have people who you can speak with and trust! They don’t need to be able to solve your problems, but they are just there to provide support and be there for you. It is really important to keep talking and to not bottle it up. Some days can be harder than others, so really find your honest sounding board! Having a good old cry or a vent is what you need sometimes!

  4. Enjoy every win and, no matter how small it may seem, mark it as a successful step. It is said success begets success; it really is true. With a positive mindset, you are more likely to hit the next success because you are opening yourself up and being more productive and receptive. So enjoy each win!

  5. Collaborate. Find good partners and collaborators. It is hard to do things alone, especially as a start-up where you are on your own a lot. It is really important to find other businesses, people, start-ups and organisations (big and small) who have similar or complimentary needs and mandates. For example, a university has great infrastructure and facilities and perhaps you need to do some experiments in your business. Start having conversations about what could be feasible with people there. Or perhaps you need to get raw materials from another country but don’t have the funds nor the capacity to hire someone there to organise things. Perhaps a good idea would be to connect with another business there who need input from your location, and collaborate with them to find a way you can both benefit! Of course, connecting and becoming part of communities and groups both online and offline would be helpful. But do be careful about how much time you spend connecting and choose your partners and collaborators carefully!

When I set up my first business in Mumbai aged 17, I also learnt three main lessons I’d like to share with you about business:

  • If you want to do something, just go out there and try it out! There is nothing wrong with making mistakes. You always learn something along the way.
  • If you have questions, just ask. There is no silly question and the worst thing would be that people would say no or that they don’t know. You learn either way!
  • Making money at the age of 17 was great but at the same time, with it came responsibility and thinking about how to make it go for longer and how to use it. I learnt and taught myself some simple accounting to manage my money which I then used towards my expenses when I came to the UK.

Rupa’s Leeds Alumni Voices event - 'Sustainability through everyday fashion and lifestyle choices', took place in September 2020.

To watch it back, click here.