Have you ever wondered where your outfits comes from? Are they made in factories or sweatshops? How much of the garments’ price make it to the artisans? And, what happens to discarded clothes? Clothing may be a basic need for human beings, but in the midst of a fast fashion culture, the industry has come to display serious consequences for the population and the planet.
As sustainable fashion offers a way out of the dilemma, offering clothing that is kind on our skin as much as the environment. And Indian designers are joining the movement.
Péro by Aneeth Arora, SS17. Image source: Sachin Soni/Facebook
Consider this: the fashion industry is the second-largest pollutant in the world, right behind oil. The cotton industry thrives on optimizing production with pesticides, and statistics have suggested that up to 20,000 litres of water can be consumed to produce a single pair of jeans. Add to that the effects of chemicals in synthetic clothing, diminishing crafts and toxic detergents, and we find ourselves in a vicious cycle of consumption and waste.
With consumers becoming more socially conscious, new-age Indian labels are spinning new yarns in design. Designers now incorporate fair-trade practices, recycling and upcycling, and collaborate with craftspersons in design to bring a sense of accountability in their creations.
The use of organic cotton and fabrics is emerging as one of the strongest means to counter the ill-effects of regular cotton and cheaper synthetic alternatives.
Organic childrenswear by Forty Red Bangles. Image source: Facebook
The label of 100% cotton is assurance enough to some, but cotton farming involves spraying the crops with ample doses of pesticide. After a round of factory processing, the final products in store don’t score much higher on the sustainability count than synthetics.
Organic cotton has become popular among many independent designers, such as Ramona Saboo’s Forty Red Bangles. Named after the chudas (red and white bangles) worn by brides in particular communities, it offers a range of organic clothing for adults and children. While designs are made in-house, the production is commissioned to varied NGOs and women’s self-help groups.
Ramona, who has previously worked in the community and economic development sector, says, “We encourage people to jump on the board the slow fashion movement and truly believe less is more. Don’t fill your wardrobe with high-end/cheap fashion—instead invest in thoughtfully put-together pieces made with sustainable practices. If we all do our own little bit to contribute to the slow fashion movement, then the impact will be far greater felt.
Bhu:sattva and No Nasties are among other brands that make use of organic clothing. When purchasing organic clothing, look for certifications and check the composition of fabrics—remember, pure cotton isn’t necessarily organic.
Waste remains one of the biggest concerns for sustainable design practitioners, as the clothing industry seeks to find ways to utilize the million tonnes of fabric discarded every year.
Designs from Doodlage’s AW17 collection. Image source: Facebook
According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, the year 2013 saw 15.1 million tons of textile waste being generated in 2013, a majority of which was discarded. Waste couture may sound like an exaggeration, but brands with the possibilities for reusing leftover and discarded fabrics are immense.
Take for instance Doodlage, whose creative director Kriti Tula uses dead stock and industrial waste with organic cotton and sustainable materials. In their AW16 collection, titled Hopscotch, the team used corn and banana fabric to substitute cotton and yarn made entirely from spinning rejects.
More recently, their new collection dedicated to wandering minds adheres to a similar philosophy. “Cloudwalker’s textures, very characteristically Doodlage, are created by patchwork, up-cycling small pieces of fabric and threads which would otherwise be discarded,” says the collection note.
Reaching a zero-waste level of production remains a major challenge, but brands use varied means to minimise waste. It is becoming common for designers to use leftover fabrics to create buttons, tassels and embellishments, or crafting them into .
The increasing emphasis on minimal waste leads almost naturally to the concept of recycling and upcycling.
The Reincarnations show at Lakme Fashion Week. Image source: Facebook
Contrary to what one might think, the two are not the same. Recycling refers to reuse, while upcycling is the process of turning discarded items into a product of great value. Enter brands like Doodlage, Ka-Sha by Karishma Shahani-Khan, Péro by Aneeth Arora and AM:IT by Amit Agarwal.
From denim to Adidas’ iconic Stan Smiths, Aneeth Arora has long been a promoter of upcycling and even launched a sub-brand dedicated to the method. Jewellery designer Advaeita Mathur who runs Studio Metallurgy has converted plumbing washers into jewellery while Amit Agarwal has constructed garments from discarded bindi sheets.
This year, Lakme Fashion Week, one of the country’s most successful industry events, dedicated an entire day to upcycling and sustainability. The Artisans’ Centre “Reincarnations Show” turned the spotlight on new and emerging brands—Jambudweep was a spectacle of products crafted from non-hazardous industrial waste while the Wandering Whites label showcased jewellery made from a mix of stones, brass, industrial waste and scrap. The brand I Was a Sari also showcased a variety of designs all made from recycled saris.
Whether they prefer recycling, upcycling, managing waste or crafting clothes in organic fabrics, these labels are firmly invested in empowering Indian craftspersons.
Image for representation. Source: Flickr
Take Upasana for instance, a homegrown Puducherry label. Designer Uma Prajapati doesn’t simply create sustainable clothing—including the use of organic cotton and handmade practices—but uses design for community development.
Some of the projects Upasana has undertaken include Kapas, an organic cotton project in Madurai, a weaving project in Varanasi and the well-known Tsunamika, a doll-making project that has rehabilitated the fisherwoman communities affected by the devastating 2004 tsunami.
Meghna Nayak, who runs the upcycling label LataSita in Kolkata, thinks that it is important for consumers to know where their clothes come from. Citing the #whomademyclothes campaign, she says, “A clear supply chain is the hallmark of ethical fashion.” According to her, an assembly-line approach to manufacturing clothes makes it impossible to track those behind the garment and also helps brands elude questions of responsible productions.
As distressing stories of dwindling craft clusters come into the news, design labels are coming to the aid of their karigars. Labels like No Nasties, Khara Kapas, Manala Apparel and Fair Konnect are among those that eschew factory and sweatshop cultures in favour of equal pay and better working conditions for their artisans.
The simple way forward is this: look for the story behind the outfit you want. Look for its maker and its site of production.
Image for representation. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Check certification and usage labels, research the brands and don’t fall for dubious claims. Meghna points out the number of brands that indulge in greenwashing — promoting a brand as eco-friendly and ethical while engaging in environmentally damaging business practices.
Sustainability comes with its own sets of challenges. From ensuring minimal carbon footprint to utilizing leftovers, there are many standards to be met. The use of organic materials and fair trade practices also make garments more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts. But in the long run, sustainable fashion breaks even by lasting longer—and getting better with wash and wear—and positive impacting artisans as well.
The attractions of fast fashion are undeniably strong, but one thing is becoming clear—slow and sustainable wins the race.
Featured image: Sachin Soni for Pero by Aneeth Arora