A pink tote bag made using fabric derived from plastic Solo cups

Born in Hopkins, Taara Projects makes eco-responsible and ethical clothing

Shanthi Ramakrishna didn’t seek to change the world, just his pants.

Every year Ramakrishna and his family travel from their home in Orlando, Florida to Bengaluru, India to visit relatives. On one such trip, in 2018, Ramakrishna, then a high school student, wasted her one-way flight time sketching pants she wanted to have made in India, convinced her relatives could help her connect with tailors. places to get there.

Legend: Shanthi Ramakrishna, founder of Taara Projects

“We found organic, raw, naturally dyed cotton at a craft market near my grandmother’s house,” she says. To sew the pants, she turned to a family tailor shop happy to be paid a decent wage for the work. In the end, she returned home with a suitcase full of colorful drawstring pants, some of which she sold to classmates to raise money for local charities.

Her custom pants accompanied her to Baltimore the following year when she joined JHU as a political science major. But as she grew more aware of the exploitation and environmental degradation of much of the global apparel trade, she began to look at them differently. Could the pants do any good? She approached the campus chapter of Enactus, an international charity that helps students engage in social entrepreneurship, and then formed the sewn-item social enterprise Taara Projects, which now includes seven other students from first cycle. She also received funding from the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ Social Innovation Lab, where she was a member of the 2020-2021 cohort.

In the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, “taara” means “star”, says Ramakrishna. “We want to be a point of light for a craftsman threatened with poverty,” she says. “Our mission is to provide economic empowerment to craftspeople seeking a living wage, while maintaining an end-to-end supply chain that is entirely environmentally conscious.”

Seven JHU students pose for a photo

Legend: The Taara Projects team fall 2021

Image credit: Taara Projects

Everything was starting to fall into place when the pandemic hit. The campus closed and his team dispersed. So they got creative.

“We were able to scale and successfully partner through virtual meetings and orchestrate our very first product launch in April 2021,” she says. His pants were back, this time made in partnership with sustainable fashion brand Zy-lk in Chennai, India, where the tailors – a group that includes migrants and deaf and deaf people – are paid fair wages. The cotton fabric is “recycled recycled stock”, which means that it was not used by a large company and was otherwise destined for landfill. “We give it new life and prevent it from contributing to the insane amount of fabric waste the fashion industry produces,” she says. The series of 120 pants sold out in a few weeks.

The student-run startup is a bright spot in an industry often mired in abuse. Despite frequent promises from some of the biggest fashion brands to do better with their workforce, millions of global garment workers are trapped in poverty, working long hours in sweatshop-like conditions. . A recent study by The Industry We Want, a non-profit alliance of garment industry players, found that garment and footwear workers in more than a dozen key producing countries report at home, on average, about half the salary needed to achieve a decent standard of living. .

For Ramakrishna’s next venture, she’s partnered with another Hopkins-born social enterprise, The New Norm, which recycles plastics into fabric. “We had established our supply chain in India, but we really wanted to give back, even in a small way, to the Baltimore community that has supported us so much throughout the journey,” she says.

Lauren Choi, Founder and CEO of New Norm, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2020 with a degree in Materials Science and Engineering. Around the same time Ramakrishna was making his first pants, Choi learned that China was no longer accepting American plastic waste for recycling. Since the United States lacks the infrastructure for significant household recycling, she knew that meant more plastic destined for landfills, incinerators, or the environment. In response, she designed and built an extraction machine in her garage that turns Solo cups — yes, the ubiquitous receptacles that fill trash cans after parties — into usable yarn. She named the resulting fabric family “Rogue,” and because of the red and white cups, there’s only one color option: pink.

“I worked on this throughout my senior year as a proof of concept and started a cup collection program on the Homewood campus that got a lot of student attention” , Choi said. Choi has since left his garage to work with several North Carolina-based labs and research centers that are part of the Manufacturing and Textile Innovation Network.

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Their joint project is a tote bag using New Norm’s range of Almarae fabrics made from recycled ocean plastic and plastic waste from coastal communities. The bags are sewn by a third partner, the women-owned Belvidere Terrace Atelier in Baltimore, a small business that employs apprentice seamstresses from Cavanagh House, a nonprofit that helps people gain financial stability through to vocational training.

Sustainability is a priority throughout the process. The bags were created using a zero-waste model, Choi says. “A lot of fabric is wasted in the fashion industry. Between 30% and 45% of a yard of fabric can be thrown away, depending on the cut and sew method.” The totes, on the other hand, have been laid out to be cut to maximize the use of fabric.

As Choi’s company aims to make the use of sustainable fabrics in the fashion world the new norm, she gladly seeks additional partnerships. “We’re in early talks with some really big brands that I think could be an opportunity for us to grow,” she says. Meanwhile, Taara Projects Spring 22 release was a cotton shirt designed by Ramakrishna, sewn in India by Zy-lk. The Doubledutch store near the Homewood campus now carries the products.

This shirt was Ramakrishna’s last product as a student on the Homewood campus. Soon, some of his pants and shirts will be packed in a suitcase bound for Italy, where Ramakrishna will pursue a master’s degree at the Bologna campus of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It’s safe to say that Italians know a thing or two about fashion.

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