- Selyna Peiris on Sri Lanka’s craft industry and the future
By Naveed Rozais
The world of 30 years ago is immeasurably different from the world of today and not just because of Covid-19 and the latest of our national troubles. The last three decades have seen us reexamine how we live and work and take steps towards sustainable and ethical practices across the board. Some companies, in particular, have walked the talk since their inception, and of these, Selyn stands tall and proud.
Founded in 1991 by Attorney-at-Law Sandra Wanduragala in her garage with 15 women from her village of Wanduragala near Kurunegala, over the last three decades, Selyn has grown into one of our country’s top handicraft retail brands, our most significant social enterprise, and Sri Lanka’s only Fair Trade-certified handicrafts company – and this is to say nothing of its footprint outside Sri Lanka.
Last year saw Selyn officially cross the milestone of 30 years, and now, a year later, Brunch caught up with Selyn Business Development Manager Selyna Peiris (who is also Sandra’s daughter) on what this 30th year has brought Selyn and what their hopes for this new year are.
Selyna joined Selyn full-time in 2017 to lead its next generation. Selyna is also incidentally a qualified lawyer who specialised in women’s economic development and, over the years, has worked as an evaluator and policy specialist with international organisations as well as the Sri Lankan Government, and all of this, as well as Selyn’s enduring vision of growing and empowering communities, has only stood to strengthen the Selyn platform.
“When we celebrated 30 years, it was a troubled time, not just for Selyn, but for the country too,” Selyna reflected. “We set very ambitious goals for ourselves and the nicest thing about now celebrating 31 years is that we have achieved those goals, despite the continuing troubles and despite the status quo completely evolving every day.”
One key goal for Selyn entering 2022 (on top of its other consistent long-term goals) was integrating fashion and technology to amplify the message of Selyn’s social enterprise. Using blockchain technology (which is essentially a digital system, or ledger, that records information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change or hack once it has been stored), Selyn’s vision of a social business model allows it to tell its customers more about who has made its products and how.
This vision came to fruition with the launch of Selyn’s banana fibre bag, a design collaboration with Danish designer brand Nikolaj Storm and tech company Paper Tale and a stepping stone to greater transparency across fashion and retail. Essentially, through using blockchain technology (which is where Paper Tale comes in), with the scanning of a QR code a Selyn customer will be able to see who made the product they’re looking at, from the age and socioeconomic profile of an artisan to the wages they are paid (and if they have, in fact, been paid and when) to the environmental impact of that same product, from its carbon footprint to its material composition and how circular it is.
The technology is still in its early stages and with the banana fibre bag becoming available next spring, 2023 will see Selyn experimenting with how international customers react to this increased availability of information and how textiles and other products can be priced before the technology is expanded to the rest of its product ranges in stages.
“The fact that we managed to stick to our vision and achieve these milestones gives us hope, not just for us, but everyone we work with, and this was something I shared with our staff at our Christmas meetup; that they don’t have to worry, that we’re going to be around, that their careers are safe and secure, and that’s a great thing to be able to say,” Selyna said of wrapping up 2022.
The road to thirty (one)
Empowerment has always been at Selyn’s core, with Sandra Wanduragala starting Selyn as a means of empowering herself and the women around her. Coming from a background where she knew of the struggle of women in rural areas, Sandra understood the power of financial empowerment and this was what sparked the initial idea of Selyn; the opportunity to help others.
From the start, Selyn has been clear about what it stood for and that firmness of belief is what Selyna believes had allowed the brand to flourish. That and the fact that it has always been led by someone who can see the future and innovate while maintaining the brand’s values of fair trade and responsibility. “It’s not just about profit maximisation and getting ahead as a brand,” Selyna said, explaining what drives Selyn. “It’s about being part of a community and doing the right thing. It’s about going out of your way to do the right thing for the people who work with you.”
Early on (around 1995), Selyn carved a name for itself by importing handloom toys, one of the main reasons it has been able to gain financial independence and really focus on how it works and empower others. This was solidified in 2000 when Selyn became a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), all while based exclusively in Kurunegala. The year 2008 saw Selyn as a brand move into Colombo (as a brand from Kurunegala) and into retail proper, first setting up shop at Isipathana Mawatha, Colombo 5 and then on to Fife Road, which is where its core retail space and Colombo office is now set up.
The year 2015 saw the launch of Selyn Play, a concerted move to highlight Selyn as a producer of educational toys internationally, something it had been doing since 1995 but hadn’t been gaining the appropriate recognition for. The year 2020 saw Selyn take a bigger stand in retail with its ‘Love Local’ retail concept and 2021 saw the launch of Selyn Textiles, which is what forms the base of Selyn’s vision for the next few years, which is all about building high-value ethical products and is an evolution of Selyn’s unwavering commitment to empowering communities.
“The nice thing for me as a second generation coming into the business is that even though we have changed our product and process, we’ve never had to change the core of our business,” Selyna said of Selyn’s journey, noting that even with their newest project Selyn Textiles, this core commitment to empowering and growing communities had led them to several incredibly fruitful partnerships, even being looked at as a case study of fair trade supply and sustainable supply chains by the University of the Arts London.
So what is Selyn’s vision for 2023 (the short-term) and beyond? Consolidating on all its wins and building a stronger platform.
“The last few years have seen so much change. With Selyn Textiles, we’re focusing on the export sector and taking handlooms to the world and also on ‘Love Local’. The country needs dollars and so do we. I personally believe that we as exporters also need to grow the pie locally, because if we are going to stimulate the demand we need there is enough supply. We’ll be identifying people who can be part of our transparent supply chain to make exclusive products for people interested in handloom and craft.”
It will not be about Selyn carving the biggest market, because as Selyna says, it’s important to “grow the pie”. Selyn will not and should not solely shoulder the burden of creating textiles for the international market, but will be looking at growing Sri Lankan businesses to be able to meet that demand while maintaining quality and transparency.
“We can’t focus only on ourselves. We need to think about being bigger and better as a country. The garment industry needs to come together,” Selyna stressed, noting that as an industry on the periphery of the apparel industry, the craft industry needed to take a leaf out of the apparel industry’s playbook and work together to cater to international demand because the pie was indeed large enough to be shared comfortably. It is this model that Selyn will be working towards in 2023; taking Sri Lanka’s name to the world through its craft sector.
“We remain manufacturers despite the power we have,” Selyna said. “But Sri Lankan craft is a powerful story of history and pride. With blockchain technology comes radical transparency for brands to share their stories. We’re now changing how this story is told. There is an opportunity for the global south to say that this is the impact this product has on our communities and we’re going to spend this time consolidating how we can do that.”
Part of this is also looking at forming partnerships with educational institutions, think tanks, and organisations from around the world and this is something Selyna will be focusing on personally as well outside the Selyn umbrella with the Institute of Future Creations, a personal venture Selyna has co-founded with consultant and academic Prof. Robert Meeder.
“I think, after everything we’ve seen in the last two years, that Sri Lanka has an authentic, raw feeling that the world hasn’t yet seen. If we manage to share this to the world while meeting the demands of the ethical consumer, then we have a fantastic opportunity provided we can really get our supply chains sorted to meet the demand,” Selyna said of what she sees the future of the craft industry being.
“As long as we keep communities and the environment at the heart of what we do, the future is bright because that is what the world wants. They want ethical change and ethical craft. They want the correct thing to be done and we need to make use of that opportunity.”
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