At the end of 2019, the United Nations Environmental Assembly launched the UN Alliance of Sustainable Fashion with a mission “to halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion.” We know the facts: fashion is the second most polluting environment, a key contributor to climate change, and as one of the world’s largest employers, it is also known for mistreating its workforce; the list goes on. The main culprit for this being fast fashion (though labels like Zara and H&M are trying to improve their ways), the pandemic has only served to highlight these issues.
Fashion is a trade driven by commerce, cycles, and consumption--so to ask this industry to produce less clothes, or use pricier environmentally-friendly fabrics (which increase overheads) in a bid to be more sustainable, may not seem like a viable option for most, given the current financial strain. Yet if fashion does not change, colossal damage is inevitable.
The language of sustainability
Amit Aggarwal, a designer known for his use of upcycled and conscious fabrics, says, “Honestly, fashion can never be entirely sustainable since we create ensembles for purposes beyond basic needs. Anything that is created for a want is a luxury and will never be entirely sustainable at the core of it.”
Image Source: Instagram/amitaggarwalofficial
Mumbai-based label, Vaishali S, is known for experimentations with Indian textiles. Invited to showcase at the next edition of Paris Haute Couture, founder, Vaishali Shadangule, an advocate of sustainable fashion, says, “Sustainability is a word flung at us often without clarity and meaning. As more and more Indian consumers grow aware and wary of what they buy, it's time to demystify sustainability in the realm of fashion.” She believes in ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) definition of sustainability. “Environmental sustainability is extremely important. We are working at using different materials on one side, and at improving the growing of others on the other side (better usage of water in the cotton we use, better standards of recycling waters for the colours, etc.) In India, social sustainability is even more important, especially when you see how some clusters of weavers are squeezed by some ruthless middlemen. Likewise, the governance of sustainability is fundamental in balancing the interests of the different stakeholders.”
However, fashion’s use of the term sustainable can sometimes be ambiguous—it often means that clothes are made without causing unnecessary environmental damage..
Image Source: Instagram/vaishalisstudio
However, conscious fashion is the new buzzword, and this means being conscious of the environment and/or the people they work with. “I have always said that these words are being thrown around very callously because they seem to be trendy. I personally do not like to use any of these words to describe the ensembles we make. It is more important for me to actually do the work that ensures we are consistently innovating in design but while being compassionate to our ecosystem,” says Aggarwal.
What is in a label?
Sustainability begins at home, and just like the health conscious, the fashion conscious know how to read a label. This means, they know whether or not their favourite fashion brands are greenwashing them “We have to read the labels carefully, since very often brands’ names or broad “made of” don’t clearly state all the different raw materials involved in a garment. So self-education is key; knowing the processes that are behind each material can help us understand how materials that sound very ‘sustainable’ can, in fact, prove to be otherwise,” Shadangule explains. What we need to remember is that becoming sustainable is a work in progress, and there is nothing wrong with that. Rahul Mishra, a designer who has long spoken about fashion’s responsibility, says, “Sustainability being a vast topic, may hold different meanings for different people. It is a subjective, ongoing process, and trying to define it would be a huge disservice. I believe that fashion isn’t inherently against sustainability. From what we know of its evolution, it is the over-production of fashion goods that is unsustainable—which is a relatively new concept surfacing after the world wars and heavy industrialisation.”
Shop like our grandmothers
Being Indian puts us ahead of the game—we have always believed in slow fashion; in recycling our fashion pieces, and in buying fashion that lasts a lifetime. For example while the world is discovering the idea of upcycling fashion, it has a long tradition in India. The word kantha means rags in Sanskrit, and you can find references to the technique in the Vedic scriptures, making it one of the oldest forms of embroidery to originate from India. The repurposing of old saris, using the humble running stitch to layer together old textiles and transforming them into shawls and blankets, has been a time-honored respected artisanal craft. Often, these pieces were beautiful enough to be included in a bride’s trousseau, and kantha is now being rediscovered by Indian fashion. Says Mishra, “I believe that the tag, ‘slow’, amongst all others, resonates with our brand the best. I often think of myself as a slow designer that works with the slowest processes and techniques available to me. Intricately hand embroidered surfaces on handwoven fabrics ensure that we continue employing and empowering as many people as possible, at all times.” He suggests anyone looking to become more sustainable should take a slow approach to consumption. “For anyone wishing to start with sustainability in any capacity, comes in the universal motto of—reduce, reuse, and recycle. Beginning from our personal wardrobes and lifestyle choices to professional practices, we must consider ways to reduce our consumption of new products, reuse whatever resources that we could, and recycle. There is an emphasis on investing in longevity, durability, and versatility alongside aesthetics.”
Image Source: Instagram/rahulmishra_7
There is no question that the heart of the problem is our shopping habits. We are drowning the earth with clothes--the estimates of how many clothes end up on landfills are just shocking, and the toxins they produce are the main factor in making fashion the environment’s enemy. The more we demand, the more fashion will supply.