Recently, on 25th April, 2019, The Guardian of UK reported, ‘With Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Kim Kardashian spotted in vintage wear, and its increasing availability on the high street, it could be the answer to sustainable shopping.’ Please note, vintage wear is second-hand clothing.
The world is taking note of the humungous negative ecological, social and economic costs of ‘fast fashion’ and moving towards what different people have called as sustainable or eco or slow or ethical fashion. I would like to call it as the rise of ‘happy fashion’, and we now need to make it the new style statement.
At the outset, I hate to break it to you, but there is no such thing as being 100 percent sustainable with fashion. The first reason being washing clothes already takes a toll on the environment through the use of water, electricity, and most laundry detergent is not eco-friendly. There are, however, many different ways of approaching the topic that one can learn from, to become more sustainable and decide where one stands.
What is Fast Fashion?
Fashion is, per definition, a phenomenon related to time: a popular style in a certain time and context. This also affects the perception of what is and should be made more ‘sustainable’ – if fashion should be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’, if it should be more exclusive or inclusive.
‘Fast fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world, next to big oil’, noted Eileen Fisher, a clothing industry magnate and a globally famous designer. Determining fashion footprint is tough due to the variety from one garment to the next. The obvious pollutants are the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates—but also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping.
Fast fashion refer to those clothes where the designs move from the catwalk quickly to capture current fashion trends, quickly moving from runway to store to consumer, and also to garbage. The emphasis here is on optimizing certain aspects of the supply chain for these trends to be designed and manufactured quickly and inexpensively, and obviously cheaply with synthetics or chemical dyes, etc, to allow the mainstream consumer to buy current clothing styles at a lower price.
Used by large brands Zara, C&A, Peacocks, Primark, Xcel Brands, and Topshop, etc, China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30 percent of world apparel exports. Retail revolution within the U.S. (example Wal-Mart, Target, Nike) and Western Europe has fuelled it, where companies no longer manufacture but rather contract out their production and have transformed themselves into key players in design, marketing, and logistics, introducing many new different product lines manufactured in foreign-owned factories in China and Bangladesh.
Fast fashion has a lot many challenges, including mass production of cotton. While Uzbekistan is an extreme example of how cotton farming can wreak havoc on the environment by guzzling huge amount of water, the negative impact of cotton agriculture is felt in other regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and the Rio Grande in the U.S. and Mexico. Dyes are creating a chemical Fukushima in Indonesia. The Citarum River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world, due to the hundreds of textile factories lining its shores.
As production and labour costs rise in China, the largest producer of clothing, clothing companies are moving to countries where manufacturing is cheaper; places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan and the Philippines, importing cotton from China and India. Fast fashion, poor infrastructure and poorer wages compounded to kill nearly 1135 workers in the Rana Plaza garment factory accident on April 24, 2013, and since then April 24 has been observed as Fashion Revolution Day world-over, calling for slow and sustainable fashion, and encouraging people to investigate and question the origin of their clothes, through a movement named #WhoMadeMyClothes. This hash tag resulted in 6.6m Google hits worldwide in 2015. Major international news publications and fashion magazines covered the FRD story, including British Vogue and Marie Claire.
Slow & Sustainable Fashion
The slow fashion or conscious fashion movement has arisen in opposition to fast fashion. Elizabeth L. Cline’s 2012 book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, was one of the first investigations into the human and environmental toll of fast fashion. She used the term ‘slow fashion’ first. Slow fashion is a fashion concept that reflects a perspective, which respects human living conditions, biological, cultural diversity and scarce global resources, and creates unique, personalized products. Slow fashion consists of durable products, traditional production techniques or design concepts that are season-less.
Organic cotton, a sustainable alternative for fabric, is grown in a way that uses methods and materials that lessen the impact on our environment. H&M is the largest buyer of organic cotton. Eileen Fisher’s company is already using 84 percent organic cotton, 68 percent organic linen, and is reducing water use and carbon emissions and working to make its supply chain sustainable by 2020.
Sustainable fashion is a part of the growing design philosophy and movement towards environmental and social sustainability. Sustainable fashion therefore belongs to, and is the responsibility of citizens, public sector and private sector.
Through the utilization of recycled material for the manufacturing of clothing, this provides an additional realm of economic world profit. Sustainable clothing provides a new market for additional job opportunities, continuous net flow of money in the economy, and the reduction of raw materials and virgin resources. Source reduction or reducing the use of raw materials and virgin resources can ultimately reduce carbon emissions during the manufacturing process as well as the resources and carbon emissions that are related to the transportation process. This also prevents the unsustainable usage of extracting materials from the Earth by making use of what has already been used (i.e. recycling).
In 1962, the book Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson started it all. The ‘sustainable development’ term was coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Report. United Nations conference on Environment and Development in 1992, popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit, ‘green issues’ (as they were called at the time) made their way into fashion and textiles publications. Sustainability calls for an urgent need to place environmental, social, and ethical improvements on management’s agenda. The goal of sustainable fashion is to increase the value of local production and products, to prolong the lifecycle of materials, to increase the value of timeless garments, to reduce the amount of waste, and to reduce the harm to the environment. It also attacks the greed for more, the basis of modern era consumerism, and calls for fulfilling need with quality products, as against greed to have more with low quality cheaper but severely harmful clothes.
Anti-fashion movement and its manifesto was also conceived as a part of the sustainable fashion movement through #BoFVoices: Talk by Li Edelkoort (Lidewiz). She said that pure sustainable fashion is unviable, but let us move towards clothing and industrial fashion design for masses, not individual designs for catwalk with limited textile knowledge, but better priced, less volume, lower consumption. Design and marketing can together, through serial ads campaign, and consumers as ambassadors ahead.
So, an organization has come up named FashionRevolution.org. And it has produced Fashion Transparency Index 2019 which focuses on the answer to #WhoMadeMyClothes. It calls for Transparency TO Accountability TO Change. Those companies who scored above 61 percent on transparency are Adidas, Reebok, Patagonia, Esprit, and H&M. None scored above 71 percent.
Adopting ‘Happy’ Fashion
For consumers, it involves thinking about what you buy, knowing which philosophies you are supporting through your purchases. Tell stories digitally and make them viral. Fashion branding should take less the fashion show route, more the fashion talk route around sustainability and responsible buying. Another super sustainable solution is vintage clothing or buy second-hand, because the pieces already exist, so you are saving the entire negative impact of production. Buying high quality second-hand or vintage pieces is the best way to go, if your budget allows it.
Use and propagate organic cotton as it saves us from pesticides and is better for the health and land of the farmers, and also protects wildlife. Organic is always better, however fabrics like tencel, lensing, and hemp offer comparable qualities and need less water for production. This entails a battle against genetically modified BT cotton which has taken Indian cotton farming by storm, sadly with political backing.
It must also be noted that the Khadi and Village Industries Commission of India (KVIC) defines khadi as cloth that ‘is hand-woven using hand-spun thread’. However, many a time, factory-made cloth is passed off as khadi. Customers are fooled, since the texture of this fake cloth is rough, which most mistakenly think is the way to gauge for khadi. KVIC had issued notices to more than 300 institutions and local khadi bhandars for passing off mill-made cloth as khadi. A series of cases are on the ethnic clothes and accessory giant Fabindia also for using mill-made fabric and calling it khadi.
So, happy fashion of tomorrow needs to focus on the 3R’s of the environment– Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, and the 3 legs of sustainability namely economics, ecology, and social equity, using natural and organic fibres as much as possible, not harming animals.
Sustainable Brands and Northeast India
Like everywhere across the nation, more and more designers are taking the ‘sustainable route’. Even in the Northeast, there are sustainable labels founded by environment conscious designers that hope to provide fashion conscious people in the region with an option of quality alternatives to fast fashion.
Well-known designer from Meghalaya, Daniel Syiem has been vocal about promoting ethical fashion. His collections makes use of ‘Ryndia silk’ also known as ‘Eri silk’ in Assam, which is one of the rare silk that is extracted from cocoons without killing the silkworm. Not only that, he wanted to give back to society so he works with weavers from Ri-Bhoi who were starting to abandon the traditional practice of weaving. He doesn’t believe in middlemen and works with the weavers directly. He also makes use of vegetable dyes in his garments. Daniel is not the only one from Meghalaya fighting for sustainable fashion.
Iba Mallai, the designer behind KINIHO, is also quite particular about using organic fabric. ‘I feel it’s my purpose and my responsibility to do what I’m doing now, to give back what I have taken. I always wanted to do something that is beneficial not only to me, but also socially and environmentally. My deep rooted love for nature was one of the reasons why I started Kiniho.’
Fast fashion may be cheap but it is costing someone, somewhere. ‘Fast fashion is when mass production manufacturers find the cheapest way to quickly copy the latest designs to sell fast. It is always trendy but cheap. Fast fashion may be cheap, because someone is paying for its cost; mostly in the form of cheap labour wages, life threatening working conditions, and cheap production processes without any preventive measures in place.’ She also shares that even though sustainable fashion is being talked about, there is a lot more that needs to be done. ‘I would say that only selected people have access to this knowledge, but what about the rest? To see the change, we should create more awareness and we are all responsible for that.’
In Manipur, designer Richana Khumanthem is doing her bit to promote handloom through her label ‘ Khumanthem’. The label believes in telling a story through garments and each of their pieces is unique. She works hand-in-hand with local women weavers and wants to preserve traditional motifs of the community.
Another designer who is well-known for promoting everything sustainable and eco-friendly is Omi Gurung from Sikkim. He owns the Green Gangtok – Eco Boutique in Gangtok that sells all kinds of apparel, accessories and artefact. The amazing thing about this boutique is that every product is either upcycled or made with natural organic and ethically sourced materials. He not only promotes eco-consciousness through his brand, but he also speaks at events and workshops where he explains how to make recycled and upcycled everyday items. The silver lining here is that there are many other designers in the region as well who are also working hard to promote organic and hand-woven fabric. Now, it becomes our duty to read, research and encourage the right labels with the right ethics.
It is a given that choosing to take a stand on environmental sustainability and ethical manufacturing practices will require serious dedication, but the effort will eventually put you into contact with amazing craftspeople, dedicated manufacturers, and people around the globe who care about the future of our planet.
Goals of Sustainable Fashion
Reduce: Consumers need to drastically reduce the number of many cheap clothes and have better quality, eco-friendly and expensive lesser clothes (at comparable costs finally).
Reuse: Only around 20 percent of clothing is recycled or reused, huge amounts of fashion product end up as waste in landfills or is incinerated. The average American throws away nearly 70 pounds of clothing per year. This is affecting China and India too.
Recycle: The limited range of recycled materials available reflects the market dominance of cheap virgin fibres and the lack of technological innovation in the recycling industry, which can be harnessed to create new value chain of older clothes.
Upcycle: Upcycling creates something new and better from the old or used or disposed clothes. Upcycling aims at the development of products truly sustainable, affordable, innovative and creative. For example, downcycling produces cleaning rags from worn T-shirts, whereas upcycling recreates the shirts into a value-added product like unique handmade braided rug. Example – RECLAIM brand by Orsola de Castro
Starting a Sustainable Brand
If you make sustainable, ecology and fair wages to labour as priorities, you’re going to spend more as consumer and you’re going to charge more as a seller. There are ways to partly compensate for these high costs by making innovative changes to the standard business model (for example, selling directly to the consumer.
Even with referrals, the only way to guarantee that the garments you brand and sell are being manufactured in a clean, safe, ethical facility is to see it for yourself. In other words, you’re going to have to travel (a lot), meet with manufacturers personally (a lot), and get a firm agreement that the facility you inspected will be the actual facility used to source your materials. Though you may have found a manufacturer you are happy with, you still must pay attention to every link in your supply chain. When sourcing Polos, T-shirts, and denim, you will find that there are multiple companies in the supply chain. One that purchases the cotton and then knits the fabric, another that dyes the fabric, a third that washes the fabric, then the company that manufactures the product (cutting, sewing and assembly), and all in the chain must ensure a commitment to healthy environmental and sustainable practices.
One can make arguments for and against the actual sustainability of each material that is utilized in clothing. For instance, many of the natural fibers, though biodegradable, utilize unhealthy pesticides, some an excess amount of water, and others require significant chemical processes to create the fiber. Then, there is polyester, and nylon manufactured exclusively from non-renewable, petroleum-based products that wear out quickly but won’t biodegrade for centuries; yet, they can be recycled and even repurposed. It is better to gradually move towards a better fabric, which is the basis of the garments we wear.
Ensuring fair wages supports education and directly improves worker’s quality of life. Also, garment transport puts out a huge amount of C02, which can be reduced by minimizing the distances during production. So the eco-system of fashion must encourage local production.
Indian Sustainable Brands You Should Know
- No Nasties
- House of Wandering Silk
- Ba No Batwo
- Brown Boy
- Paromita Banerjee
- Do You Speak Green?
- Maati Crafts
- Anita Dongre Grassroot
- Love The World Today