Passage from India: pitfalls of container shipping from Kolkata

Indian Statues

The desire for printed jute shopping bags or reusable bags for life continues in popularity with many retailers, if given the choice, preferring to offer an ethical alternative to plastic. We are often asked why lead times on jute bags can be so long, and how a shipping container from India can take longer to get here to Britain than one from China? They’re good questions. I recently returned from India where I met with our partners and I learned about some of the pitfalls of container shipping. The actual shipping of our eco friendly bags is just one part of the whole process. But it’s frequently the most frustrating one, and to a large extent, one that’s completely out of our control.  To explain why, you need to understand a bit more about the region that Jute is grown in and where jute bags come from. This is our passage from India.

India is a wonderfully diverse and chaotic country, full of hard working people and businesses supplying a variety of goods around the world as well as to the burgeoning home market. There have been huge advances recently which are immediately apparent on arrival at Delhi’s modern International airport. It’s a far cry from the steamy, heaving, bewildering place I landed in on my first trip there 15 YEARS AGO. Move away from the high profile cities and you quickly find it’s a different story altogether. Investment is limited, infra-structure is crumbling, the streets are over-crowded with people and vehicles, and the simplest things that every business here would expect without a second thought, become a daily challenge.

Motorbike with four people on in India

For geographical and historical reasons the jute business in India is based in Kolkata (Calcutta to those of you from my generation) in West Bengal. Close to the border with Bangladesh and built on the mighty Ganges and its flood plains, it was where the East India Company built its base and established a port in the early days of British Colonialism. Originally the capital and administrative heart of India, these functions have long since moved to New Delhi, leaving behind a faded grandeur, a mightily impressive monument to Queen Victoria and the largest Cricket stadium in the world. Flying into Kolkata in the middle of the rainy season, I was struck by the lush vegetation, the amount of flooded fields, relative lack of high rise buildings, the huge number of palm trees and the numerous terracotta kiln chimneys as far as the eye could see. Landing at the shabby (not in a trendy way!) old terminal reminded me of my first trip to India all those years ago (although there is a “soon to be finished” new airport that has been 10 years in the building and promises to improve things significantly!). The drive from the airport to the city is equally chaotic, with traffic jams, pot holes, the constant blaring of horns, bicycles, motor bikes, cows, dogs, colourful Lorries, and rickshaws all vying for the same space. Getting anywhere takes hours. Many of the streets in Howrah, the factory area of the city, are so narrow that 40ft containers are banned. Even 20ft containers struggle to get in and have to be loaded at night to avoid blocking the streets still further.

Indian Taxi Dashboard

Bureaucracy, land ownership issues, a communist ruling party for many years, a lack of infra-structure, strong unions, political agitation, impossibly hot Summers, flooding, power cuts and a whole host of other issues have put the dampeners on Calcutta’s  development. International investment had all but disappeared, but with a recent change of ruling party there is a new hope that things may improve. A new container port is promised and this coupled with the new airport may well attract the much needed investment, but this will take years. What you have though is great factories making fantastic, hand crafted products at prices that are very competitive. And they are so happy to do business with you. Relationships with Indian suppliers are based on friendship and respect and unlike most parts of the world now, it is fun. We want to work with them and we know you love their products.

The problems we face with shipping from Kolkata make it pretty amazing that we do generally hit our lead times and you cannot imagine the background work that goes into achieving this.  We have to ring around to actually find an empty container in the first place due to a shortage, once found and loaded, it then has to be taken to the chaotic port of Kolkata.

pitfalls of container shipping

Kolkata is a river port and it cannot take large container vessels. It must rely on a fleet of somewhat unreliable, smaller, feeder vessels that ply erratically in and out of Kolkata moving the containers to larger ports such as Colombo and Singapore to meet ships on their way to Europe from the Far East.  These larger vessels can often be full and refuse to accept more cargo. Containers from Kolkata are then rolled over onto the next available vessel which can be a day later or in some cases five or six. Certain shipping lines are not interested in picking up the containers at all because Indian rates are lower than other countries are willing to pay along the route. We pay a premium on our containers just to get them on the vessels . Only once the container has successfully trans-shipped on to a large vessel bound for the UK can we give customers a delivery date with any degree of assurance.

In the meantime the simplest way to improve things is for us and you as our customer, to understand the issues and work around them. Often you have plenty of time to order your shopping bags and you’re aware of requirements well in advance. Why leave it until the last minute to place a jute order? Plan well ahead – we suggest 14-15 weeks – and you will save yourselves a lot of stress.  We work on the following average timetable for shopping bags orders.

  • 14 days while we take orders to fill the container
  • 35 days to make the bags
  • 7 days to load the container and get it through Kolkata port
  • 5 days for the feeder vessel to get to Colombo
  • 5 days trans-shipment time in Colombo
  • 16 days to reach UK port
  • 7 days to clear UK customs and delivery to our warehouse for unloading

That is a total of 89 days or 12 weeks 5 days. Some shipments are slightly quicker and others longer.

Buy into this and you will be rewarded with brilliant eco friendly bags at less than the cost of a pre-packed sandwich. The product is fantastic, the print quality amazing, the dedication of the huge number of people involved in making seemingly simple jute bags is invigorating, and they, like us,  take huge pride in seeing their products on sale and being used around the world. Making reusable bags to this quality is a painstaking process that cannot be rushed. Of course we understand that the world often does not work like this, so airfreight is always an option and this will cut the lead time down to seven or so weeks. There is a cost to this that works out around 80p per bag on a standard jute shopper but less on a cotton bag. We can also overprint standard shopping bags in the UK to hit deadlines but in doing this, you pay more and limit the design you can print. Any serious supplier of Jute and Juco bags will be based in the Kolkata region and will face the same problems as us, so be very wary of promises of short or guaranteed lead times! No one can beat the system whatever they claim.

Give us and yourselves enough time and get better prices and a better bag. It has your name on it after all so surely you want the best!

Visit if you’re interested in ordering printed jute bags.




There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Shipping India at 7:28 am

    I have been in the shipping to India industry for some time now and this is one of the most relevant, informative posts I’ve seen in the business. When I see an article with the words “20/40 ft container” and “India” it makes me smile.

  2. Michael Kusuplos at 6:35 pm

    Recommend this post it to all that are currently thinking about sourcing from India so that they can gain a true appreciation of the logistics “Process”.

    This article by Mr. Wilson was a real pleasure to read! Found myself nodding my head in agreement while remembering my first experiences in making shipments from India almost 20 years ago. Believe it or not, things have improved!

    • Andrew Wilson at 11:41 am

      Everyone in Kolkata is certainly working towards improving things because they understand how important it is to attract business and investment. Hopefully the new administration does make the investment in the port that they have promised!

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