When we think of pollution, we envision huge factories pumping out smoke from tall chimneys, cars spewing exhaust, garbage on the streets and oil spills in the ocean. The last thing we think about is the tank-top we purchased yesterday at a throw-away price.
Many of us are surprised to learn that the garment industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, second only to the oil refining industry. Manufacture of clothing involves a lengthy process which includes growth or procurement of raw material, textile production, dyeing, cutting, stitching, packaging, shipping, and finally, disposal. At each of these stages, the scale of destruction and waste generated is staggering. But nothing hurts as much as the sheer wastage of water – which gets flushed back into waterways laden with bleaches, chemicals and dyes.
Surely there have to be alternatives to create clothing without destroying the planet! Here’s where sustainable fashion comes in.
In response to growing consumer demand for transparency and ecological responsibility, a few designers started prioritising sustainability. Gradually, the momentum grew. Movies like “The True Cost,” hit home and raised even more awareness. Fast-fashion giants like H&M, Zara, Primark, Mango, quick to realise the tide was turning, launched sustainable fashion lines, bringing eco-fashion mainstream. Today, everyone wants in. Whether this commitment to sustainability is just lip-service, an attempt to whitewash images tarnished by rampant use of sweatshops, or is indeed making a difference, remains to be seen for as long as these fashion houses continue unsustainable practices in their other lines, they defeat the purpose.
Sustainable fashion is more than just a buzz word. It is now a way of life for designers who embrace this concept, and is governed by a concern for the environment and a desire to give back. A business can be said to be sustainable when it uses fabrics made from natural sources such as organic cotton, silk, bamboo and wool, provides fair pay and decent working conditions to labourers, reduces wastage, recycles and/or encourages local distribution.
Eco-friendly raw materials
“I started Brown Boy a few years ago after I quit my banking job in NYC. Fashion has always interested me, but once I saw how unethical the industry was – the desire to bring change was what drove me to take the tough road to be an ethical and sustainable brand,” says Prateek Kayan, Founder/CEO, of Brown Boy, which uses only organic cotton in it’s entire range.
Why organic cotton? Although natural, cotton isn’t always the eco-friendly fabric we believe it to be. It requires copious use of pesticides, and entire fields are liberally sprayed with toxic chemicals to get rid of the pests. This turns the soil toxic, and when our soil turns toxic, we all pay the price.
The fashion industry is notorious for the amount of waste generated, and initiatives to conserve resources and recycle are at the heart of many sustainable fashion brands. Karishma Shahani from KaSha says, “We have a zero waste policy within our studio which means that every thing we make and any remnants left post-production are utilised back in products by way of weaving, knitting, embroidery and other such techniques.”
Nike too, has up-cycled over two billion plastic bottles by converting them into polyester clothing, thus keeping them out of the landfill. In the early nineties, the sportswear brand came under fire when poor working conditions in their factories came to light. They were subjected to massive consumer protests and calls for boycott. Nike since made many changes to its supply chain model. Today, it is one of the world’s most sustainable companies. Read about their sustainability story here.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the year 2013, which killed what was first believed to be 70 workers (the numbers steadily rose, and crossed a staggering thousand), generated global headlines, and the terrible conditions the people who make what we call fast fashion, or trendy, cheap clothing work under, became glaringly obvious. The hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes trended on twitter, and angry consumers demanded greater transparency into the working conditions of the people who made their garments. Now fair trade practices are a firm focus of sustainable fashion and manufactures often combine their business with causes close to their heart, such as employing and empowering women weavers, or aiding in the economic advancement of an entire community or village.
One of the fundamental ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to purchase locally produced garments, thus minimising the negative impact transportation has on the environment. “I source fabrics locally, get the garments made locally, and sell locally,” declares Divya Kumar, Wardrobe Artisan at Earthistic. Divya, staunch in her desire to leave a better world for her daughter, doesn’t use chemical colours either. “I colour all my clothes with natural dyes such as turmeric and pomegranate. For me, sustainability means more than a concern for the environment, It also means caring about the community. I have personally visited the weavers I source from, and have seen that they work in good conditions, are paid fair wages.”
The role of the consumer
The onus of sustainability does not rest on the shoulders of manufacturers alone. We, as consumers, have a large role to play and need to make conscious choices. “We need to think about where these clothes come from and how we would dispose of them, before we remove our wallets,” feels Karishma.
Patagonia, one of the initial proponents of sustainable fashion, created waves with their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertisement in the early 1990s, through which they encouraged consumers to avoid purchasing items unless really required.
We need to remember that it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt, and 7000 litres to produce one pair of jeans. Our resources may seem limitless, but the reality is, this constant desire to possess more and more is taking its toll, and the results are clear to see. Let us do our bit for the environment by bypassing that sale and not getting tempted by low prices.
- Buy LESS and buy sustainable, selecting fabrics with care.
- Avoid sequins
- Repeat our outfits often and donate or recycle when we’re done
- Select quality over quantity – slow fashion over fast fashion
For, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “There is enough for everyone’s need, not for everyone’s greed.”
This article was featured in the Deccan Herald on April 20, 2018.