Weaving 30 Years Forward
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
It is often said that great success is the result of small beginnings. This is especially true for Selyn; Sri Lanka’s only fair-trade certified handloom company. One of the biggest social enterprises in Sri Lanka, Selyn began in 1991, founded by Sandra Wanduragala with only 15 women in her home garage, located in the village of Wanduragala, Kurunegala. Today, 30 years later, Selyn works with a network of over 1,000 empowered local artisans, catering to both local and international clientele and consumers.
Selyn recently held a press conference in celebration of their 30 year journey where they also announced their plans for the next 30 years to come with their ‘New 30’ campaign.
Handloom textiles have been an iconic part of Sri Lankan culture for thousands of years and exists today as a living cultural heritage. The local handloom tradition is one that has stood the test of time while picking up a few international flavours along the years as a result of Sri Lanka having traded with other ancient civilisations thousands of years ago. Today, the ancient tradition is kept alive by the women of Sri Lanka, far from the bustling cities and out in the countryside.
Many such women hail from families that may often deal with financial struggles and are not always economically independent. For many, handloom may be a cottage industry that brings in very little financial benefit to the family in contrast to the time consuming and complicated craftsmanship required to produce high quality handloom products.
These and a list of other circumstances have resulted in a lack of enthusiasm among members of the younger generation to take up the craft, leaving an ageing population with no way to pass down their expertise.
However, beyond our borders lies a market that values the artistry and craftsmanship of handloom, that wishes to support sustainable brands that contribute to the livelihood of the artisans and make a positive social impact.
Selyn was established by Wanduragala with the vision to breathe new life to the art and give value to the dedication and skills of Sri Lanka’s handloom artisans.
As such, Selyn follows the principles of fair trade and operates as a sustainable social enterprise focused on uplifting the livelihood of rural women and men through providing new opportunities for employment while keeping alive the local handloom traditions of Sri Lanka.
“When I started Selyn in November 1991, Selyna was only a small child,” recalled Founder Sandra Wandurugala. I embarked on a journey I didn’t know about at all. I didn’t know about any designs, I didn’t know how to weave, I never knew there was a businesswoman living in me.
“The only thing I knew was that I did this, if I committed myself to this, I would create a livelihood for the women who were around us.”
She recalled the bad economic state of the families in the village and her talks with the Export Development Board on how the handloom industry had the potential to be a strong contender to enriching rural economies.
“I took up the challenge not knowing what I was doing, and learnt as I pursued this vision.”
However, Sandra’s journey wasn’t without assistance. She shared that her brother Hillary was a tremendous support in Sandra’s journey.
“I am the visionary kind of person and he’s the practical person,” she commented.
Looking back at Selyn’s 30 years, Sandra shared some key aspects that had been instrumental to their success and longevity.
“The first is having strong innovation, research and development processes,” she said while commenting on how Selyn adapted the use of handloom fabrics for new purposes such as toys, adjusting fabrics to the taste of their overseas consumers and constantly coming up with new designs.
The second was the ability to be “true to ourselves,” Sandra explained.
“Everyone asked me ‘why handlooms’ when we started. I said that I believe in it, I love it, and I enjoyed seeing how the women engaged in it.
“I really believed that we could make a difference and also be proud of our own heritage. Because it’s part of our culture, heritage and identity.”
Staying true to the Sri Lankan identity and embracing it was something we clearly observed that Sandra believed deep within herself. She commented that as we embrace this rich, traditional identity, “that is where we become different from others.”
She continued, explaining the third was being true to the people, sharing love and genuine intent to enrich their lives.
These three qualities in culmination have led Selyn to become one of the biggest Sri Lankan brands that not only contributes to the economy, but also enriches the lives of its employees as well.
Selyn and fair trade
Joining the conference was none other than former CEO of the World Fair Trade Organisation and well-wisher Erinch Sahan, speaking on the positive impact Selyn has made in the global context.
“I actually personally visited Selyn a few years ago in my prior capacity as Chief Executive of the World Fair Trade Organisation. It was one of the most memorable trips of my time,” he shared, congratulating Selyn for their years of resilience and commitment to enriching lives.
Contrasting the degenerative model of business found in modern-fast fashion, that seeps the Earth’s resources and pollutes, Erinch explained why Selyn and other fair trade certified organisations matter.
“Not only that, we see artisans, craftsmen and workers in this mainstream industry are themselves struggling financially, often struggling to get by, acquire the very basics in life. They are unseen, anonymised, and are often unknown inputs in a long and hard to trace journey.”
“But there is an alternative that is worth celebrating,” he continued. “And Selyn embodies this alternative to the world. I have seen that it has worked to reverse this degenerative business model of inequality and destruction that so much of the global fashion industry is a part of.”
“The use of natural fibres, natural dyes, water treatment processes, the artisanal handloom production, the upcycling and recycling it’s a part of, the partnerships with other purpose led social enterprise models,” Erinch observed all held Selyn in stark contrast to the global fashion industry as it is today.
“I saw firsthand when I was in Sri Lanka, just how they have adopted production and trading practices irrespective of convenience or market reward because they are mission-led, because they put people and planet first.”
Erinch also commended Selyn’s dedication to continue reinventing itself, adopting new business processes and technology while having an uncompromising focus on social and ecological benefit while remaining a thriving enterprise that has their entrepreneurial spirit aflame.
The ‘New 30’
All this and more culminate in Selyn’s ‘New 30’ campaign, as it announces the use of new technology and practices to increase its presence as a global contender and be more accountable as a business.
Speaking more about what lies in the future for Selyn was Director Business Development and next generation lead at Selyn, Selyna Peiris.
Explaining the increased attention by the younger generation towards ethical brands that are more socially accountable and have minimal impact to the environment. “We have been ready for 30 years to meet this trend,” Selyna shared while explaining the potential Selyn has to cater to this increasing demand.
“I think Sri Lanka has a number of success stories much like Selyn, and we have a lot to contribute. The time is now for Sri Lankan brands to realise that we have potential in the global market.”
This ties in well with Selyn’s vision for the next thirty years.
“We’ve been planning this since last year,” Selyna shared while revealing a snippet on the roadmap planned for the near future.
She shared plans to follow a market oriented approach, repositioning of the handloom brand.
“This is all underway with our Vision 2030 plan,” she continued.
“We also are creating Selyn Textiles, a new business vertical focused on business to business operation, positioned for the premium market as an ethical manufacturer for luxury brands.”
Selyna also spoke of integrating Blockchain Technology into the production process. “A lot of interest has been surrounding the potential applications of the technology in the apparel sector, making Selyn more accountable and transparent in how we operate,” she added.
“All projects have already begun in addition to continuing all the retail and trade brands that we operate today.”
Selyna also spoke of interest in looking into converting Selyn into a community-owned company, making it truly a brand of the people. Although this is further off in the roadmap Selyn has in plan for the next three decades, both Selyna and Sandra shared excitement towards the possibility of Selyn truly being a brand of the hands that have sustained the handloom industry.
“This is what we have to do as responsible businesses. We have to keep pushing that limit, and this is something that we are committed to as a local company in the global arena. Selyn is going to take on the challenge of bringing our own brand into the world, and this is something we are very proud to do in the new 30. We hope we can inspire other SMEs and people in the crafts sector to take the journey that we have.
My mother started with nothing. We started with nothing, and that is a huge inspirational story to show to all of Sri Lanka that can inspire the rest of our country that you can start and with the correct innovation, belief with the correct purpose you can succeed”.