Sustainability is the latest buzzword across all sectors and the world of fashion is not far behind. Words like ‘going ethical’, ‘organic’, ‘conscious’ and ‘slow’ may complement the word ‘sustainable’ but these words are an omnipresent phenomenon on runways, streets and fashion brands. As a catchphrase, it has given rise to eco-friendly movements and activists propagating brands and collections or production processes, creating a unique selling proposition to consumers.
But is sustainable fashion feasible? Is it a tangible change to follow, especially for creators and consumers in future? The reality could be far from what we think.
Blame it on our lifestyle to adopt fast fashion, or creators using processing techniques like digital printing, cheap labour methods and machines for mass production, the sector needs more to call itself a pure, clean and green industry.
“Sustainability is a utopian thought,” says veteran fashion designer Anju Modi, “Indeed, it is the buzzword and very few people know or follow the emotion of sustainability. It is pure when it sustains itself ecologically, and does not heavily destroy the order of the planet. For instance, vegetable dyeing is a beautiful technique but has certain irregularities of shape and forms when printed in a pattern. Also when we need volumes, we put these designs in digital printing methods to mass produce,” says Modi.
Handcrafted products don’t use fossil fuel, but that does not mean all practices are green. “A once-nascent conversation about sustainability has evolved into a full-scale priority, more so because fashion, especially handloom textile, is a central part of our future,” says author Archana Shah, who has been reviving and collaborating with textile artistes for over 40 years.
She says indigenous fibres made from milkweed in the northeast grow in the wild but the process to cultivate and procure may not be large scale when compared to many other fibres. “Every Indian state is known for different fibres—silk, cotton, hemp, banana, pineapple, milkweed—and some people are reviving old fibres like lotus and bamboo, as these are stronger and softer than the contemporary fibres. But we also need to see the process of production, whether it causes pollution, what is the energy required to convert into a fibre… we cannot look at all this in isolation,” says Shah, whose book Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices talks about how handcrafted production is inherently eco-friendly yet employs more hands and still is not an organised sector.
Much has been done to create awareness to use Indian fabrics and work with craftsmen to create design language. The use of natural dyes is another step towards reducing the pollution that the fashion and textile industry is known to cause in the environment. But curator and textile revivalist Lavina Baldota feels whatever is good for the environment is good for the body, since it is made of the five elements.
“Going back to traditional practices has always been a challenge but we are able to push boundaries,” says Baldota, stating Telangana as the best example to revive an old ‘Telia Rumal’ design for her curated show titled ‘Sutr Santati’ in New Delhi, which has 99 different motifs done in ikat weaves, not using the mercerised cotton, which is currently being used, but the handspun cotton yarn. Another one is Hyderabad-based textile designer Gaurang Shah, who did pichwai painting in patan patola, a one-of-a-kind piece, because in patan, the patola ikat is done as repeated patterns. But doing a pichwai in natural dyes is a huge step and leads to promoting ikat in a different art form.
“Of course you cannot mass produce sustainability. Handlooms are not easy to afford or weave and even wear. One should be okay with imperfection if adopting handloom-wear. The colours are naturalised, so they fade. It’s a different sensibility. I’m seeing the concept of circular economy and sustainability grow in youngsters as they are keen to learn and mostly moving away from fast fashion and promoting slow consumerism. They want to know who has made their fabric. They believe in the value of buying less, buying good. These are the conversations one should encourage, rather than just talk of sustainability,” says Baldota.
Sometimes the affordability factor is an issue. “Limited editions may not be affordable, sometimes we convert a watered-down version of a design into a luxury prêt or ready-to-wear collection so that it can reach the upper class and the masses. We also utilise homegrown weavers to create patterns and designs. This may not be produced in masses but in return the artisans earn a livelihood. It serves the purpose of the community as well as the consumer,” says Modi, who feels an all-sustainable world is about sustaining all these values and the craftsmen work so that it’s a win-win for all.
However, Indians and their sensibilities are closer to their traditional roots and most know how to recycle products unlike in the West who buy today and discard tomorrow. When people say start wearing sustainable clothing, it means one has to stop using fast fashion or synthetic fashion which is equally bad for the country and the heritage. Hence, the idea of preservation and recycling is embedded in the country, says fashion designer Ritu Kumar.
“Ours is the only country that has patronage for crafts. It hasn’t gone into museums. We must not stop to support and market the traditional crafts and practices, a major reason why many craftsmen have abandoned their crafts. Throwing or not recycling is a Western concept. That’s not being sustainable. We create patch work sarees or cut old designs to make a new one, so sustainability in totality may not be possible but we as Indians have inherited habits which support the concept. A kantha stitch will have some element of synthetic material or be tailored into a dress with a machine, so it’s a myth to say that the world can become purely sustainable,” says Kumar.
But what does it take to make traditional crafts and textiles mainstream? “If we keep on using them in an eclectic way, there is enough demand created, we can give more work to the artisans, get the craft done and so economic development can happen in the region,” says Modi.
She gives an example of khadi, which was not a glam fabric but has over the years taken centrestage. “It lasts long. If you want to preserve the product and hand it over to the next generation, like the dori work of Kashmir, it can be worn for years. Though it may turn out to be expensive, it gives value for money for a longer time. In fact, workers and labourers doing such jobs need not rush to the city but can get work from home and teach techniques to the next generations. A similar adoption and acceptance have to be done for other handlooms and handicrafts,” says Modi, who takes 200-odd hours to make a couture outfit and feels slow living and slow fashion are sustainable, even more relevant after the pandemic.
Also the amount of plastic waste and the use of inferior dyes going in the landfill have to be calculated. Khadi as fabric lasted long, and one never bought 200 pairs of clothes, says Shah. “That’s what slow fashion is, where you buy less and the best. Yes, handlooms have a distinctive look and feel when compared to power looms. But we need all kinds of production, so it is not one against the other. Handlooms cannot dress the world. We need different kinds of fabric for different markets. Power looms can be less polluting in processes or using natural dyes. Handcrafted has human touch, so within a wardrobe people might have a variety of handcrafted scarf, a machine made T-shirt,” adds Shah.
While handcrafted production is inherently eco-friendly; it employs more hands and is not an organised sector. Still handcrafted products don’t use fossil fuel in the production but that does not mean all practices are green. Gradually, people are realising what is polluting land, food, and affecting children. Small yet important initiatives in villages are bringing changes to processes and thoughts.
For example, in the Himalayan region, where water is scarce, farmers have started using natural dyes so that the toxic waste water is chemical free and can be reused in farms to grow vegetables. In Kutch, a village has stopped the use of naphthol dyes, which is a hazardous chemical, instead introduced handmade dyes or installed effluent treatment plants for waste water, says Shah.
More brands, companies and consumers are adopting a sustainable approach to lifestyle, especially after the pandemic, where crafts and craftsmen are able to connect with consumers. There is a lot of awareness in the fashion world,at the same time giving support to small brands, startups and independent businesses through shopping online, feels Chennai-based Malavika Shivakumar, managing director of Vastrakala, a company that designs and manufactures high-quality hand embroidery.
“Social media has helped craftsmen to communicate with people and buyers. More and more people have understood the value of crafts especially in the pandemic. They realised the value of staying in an interdependent world. More youngsters are involved in sustainable practices and now involved in the fashion and textile sector. They are creating fabric, artworks from recycled fabrics and designers as well as the brands are quite supportive in the process,” says Shivakumar, who gives an example of artworks and wearables created from discarded cotton yarns, net, hand and machine quilting from tie and dye technique remind of the idea to ensure the survival and propagation of generations to come.
“There is still a need to be mindful of what is being left behind as a residue and imprint on this planet,” she says.
The biggest environmental hazard is that the fashion industry, one of the major polluting industries in the world, has made the production and distribution of the crops, fibres, and garments used in fashion contribute to divergent forms of environmental pollution, including water, air, and soil pollution.
While fast fashion refers to quick and affordable trends available to consumers, and the mass production combined with cheap labour makes clothes cheaper, the amount of waste produced is massive. If the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050, according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The foundation also reports that more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling.
Upcycling factory waste into short limited-edition collection benefits as it recycles post-consumer waste and post cutting scraps to new fabrics. Fashion creates waste across industries (logistics, animal farming, agriculture) and is not as disposable as we have been made to believe. A kilogram of cotton production, which is cultivated as part of the agricultural industry in India, uses more than 10,000 litres of fresh water. Cotton production uses 24% of the insecticides and 11% of the pesticides produced globally. Every time we consume fresh conventional cotton we use large quantities of water along with adding insecticides and pesticides which eventually seep into groundwater and waterways. About 70 million trees are cut every year to produce plant-based fibre for our clothes. Fashion uses 342 million oil barrels to make plastic based fabrics like polyester and nylon for our clothes.
Delhi-based Doodlage, a sustainable fashion brand that creates season-less well finished garments, upcycles waste to create accessories, soft furnishing products and paper to make packaging or stationery products. “Recycling or upcycling is the only way that allows us to use what already exists instead of using more natural resources to create fresh material. Working locally also reduces the carbon footprint of each product that travels back and forth between production, packaging, warehousing, quality checking before it reaches the store shelf or consumer,” says Kriti Tula, co-founder of Doodlage.
What the brand wastes is segregated and converted into accessories, soft furnishing products and paper to make packaging or stationery products. All pieces and fabrics are made with ethical production units and packaging is designed to be plastic free.
In fact, many couturiers have changed their design philosophy to make luxury buying sustainable. “To make a couture piece, we take months so that it lasts for years. Our patrons don’t buy us today and throw away a month and a year later,” says fashion designer JJ Valaya, whose brand JJV is accessible bridge-to-luxury line based on occasion wear with nearly 80% of the collection made using sustainable, eco-friendly fabrics with Tencel Luxe, and developed fabrics which are high on luxury and tenacity but at the same time eco-friendly.
Similarly, designer Tarun Tahiliani uses a lot of cottons in ready to wear, pure silks, handwoven, handloom. “We go for digital printing to minimise pollution. We teach our brides to re-style and re-wear their bridal wear. I don’t think sustainability in fashion is a fad as the world and planet are suffering. We are sadly victims of bad marketing and a lot of talk of sustainability in fashion is just an eyewash and brands jumping on to the bandwagon.”
Fashion designer duo Falguni and Shane Peacock, known for their luxury brands and collection, say sustainability is investing wisely in a garment that one is able to wear over and over again, in multiple styles and combinations, and always look fabulous. “Sustainability starts with small everyday steps towards responsible living. We try to give each garment a design language that will never go out of style and can be styled in multiple ways,” say the designer duo.