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 maria at mcc

young women at MCC's packing unit

Mother's Commerce Company (MCC)

The Mother's Commerce Company makes all our incense products, the fragranced sachets, and our wooden items.

It is a small privately owned company set up nearly 40 years ago, specifically to counter unemployment among local women. The company now employs around 125 women.

MCC makes a happy change from conventional practice in the industry by paying good wages, ensuring good working conditions, and preventing child labour. These are the cornerstones of Fair Trade.

But in making our incense, we are given many more opportunities to increase our positive impact: through maximizing local employment, maximizing local profit, and by capacity building in India.

rolling incense conesAll The Mother’s (India) Fragrances incense is made in Puducherry (Pondicherry), in South India. Here’s a picture of women rolling incense cones in one of the units. All our products are made in-house, we do not use home workers, and we do not use sub-contractors.

There are many advantages to this way of working. The Mother’s India Fragrances incense is a highly complex product to make, and only by keeping it all under one roof, can its high quality be guaranteed. Important too is that, by ensuring that work is only done in the workshops, we can keep an eye on who does the work, for how long, and ensure decent working conditions.

This is one way in which our incense dramatically differs from conventional incense: Incense is a real home-working product, and most Indian incense sticks are rolled in the many poor villages that dot the country. In spite of all the progress made, there are still a lot of desperately poor people in India, who are willing to put in very long hours for very little reward. Often children are involved in rolling incense sticks at home.

By keeping all production in-house, The Mother’s (India) Fragrances make a happy change from these practices. Women who work for us are rewarded with a wage above the legal minimum and far higher than the industry’s average. They work 9 hours a day, with three breaks, in well-ventilated and spacious areas. If a woman wants to work for MCC, she has to provide her birth certificate, to prove that she is older than 16.

MCC employs nearly 130 people, and more than 95% of them are women. Over the last 10 years there has been a shift. We used to employ mainly younger women in the age group 16-23, but nowadays we employ many women who are older. Whatever their age, for women to bring home a good wage gives them a position of strength in the household. They become more involved in the household decisions and become far more independent. For the young women, it also means that they will marry at a later age.

Not only do the women who work for us earn a good wage, most of them also take part in the company’s savings scheme. This scheme allows them to save 10% of their income, and this amount is doubled by the company. The women receive the total amount saved as a lump sum, usually when they leave the company. Many younger women use this money for their dowry. We may not agree with the practice of dowry, but it allows the girls to marry a man with better prospects, a higher income, and they’ll be better of for it for the rest of their lives.

Another scheme that works very empowering is the bicycle scheme. It is meant to help those who live at some distance from the units to get to work in reasonable time. The bicycles are bought in bulk by the company, guaranteeing a good price, and the women pay for their bikes in 12 or 24 monthly (interest free) instalments. Owning a bike gives a woman great freedom, and the scheme is very popular. Below is a picture of a group of women who received their bikes in 2010. The brand? Ladybird!

ladybird bike project

In India, there are many, many people unemployed or underemployed. In this situation it is better to employ people than to use machines. In fact, our project was set up in the early ’70’s specifically to provide employment to local women. Employment generation is still at the heart of what we do, and for this reason the use of machines is minimized. In fact, there's only one machine to nearly 130 workers.

Not only do we avoid the use of machines, we specifically opt for labour intensive practices. This is one of the reasons why The Mother's (India) Fragrances incense is made by the 'masala method’. Dipping the incense would be much quicker and cheaper, but it would not generate so many jobs, and the incense would not be as good. This is also why hand-marbled packaging is used for our incense. Printed packaging would be much cheaper, but jobs would be lost, and the incense would not look nearly as nice. It is also why all the packaging is screen-printed by hand. Now this is a labour of love, and it is significantly more expensive than using a modern printing press, but we like jobs. (more about how the mother's fragrances incense is made...)

To further maximize our positive impact, all the work is done in India. The products come to us here in the UK, ready to be sold, and all we do here, is distribute it to our customers. This allows a lot of added value to be created in India. The packaging, printing and packing, all add to the number of people employed. The development of new products, design, the complex logistics of production, all demand a high skills level, and by keeping all these activities in India, we do not only increase the number of people employed, but also increase the quality of the employment.

Environmental issues in making incense are very diverse. We have for example not used sandalwood as an ingredient for our incense for a number of years. We do not use Chinese bamboo, instead opting for bamboo from Assam. We source the resin halmaddi only from sustainable plantations. We ship nearly all our products by sea freight rather than airfreight (although we do make exceptions for samples). In the last few years, we have reduced our use of plastic for packaging to nearly zero, and you may have seen some of our products packaged in local Tamil newspapers: environmentally friendly, and very authentic too!

sri aurobindo and the motherAll the work of MCC, is guided by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and a woman who is known as ‘The Mother’. In short, their teachings state that ‘All life is yoga’. That every activity and aspect of life can be made a means for one’s spiritual progress and for progress of humankind as a whole.

In practice it means that if you do something, do it as well as you possibly can, make is as good and beautiful as you can, and try to maximize the positive side effects of your actions. So for MCC, Fair Trade is not something that has come from a request by foreign buyers, on the contrary, it is firmly grounded in the company’s ethos.


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