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Can Indian fashion ace the sustainability challenge?

A recent report points out 40% of Indian consumers buy only from eco-friendly platforms but sustainability remains a hazy concept for many

(above) A ‘karigar’ working in Rahul Mishra’s atelier; and Anita Dongre with artisans of the NGO Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).
(above) A ‘karigar’ working in Rahul Mishra’s atelier; and Anita Dongre with artisans of the NGO Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

When was the last time you bought a piece of clothing and wondered about the people involved in making it? Consumers of fast fashion, accustomed to purchasing at a click or while casually browsing at chain stores, seldom bother with such questions. Yet even the most mechanized processes of clothes production involve the human hand to a certain degree—if only to operate the machines.

Now add to this the question of sourcing materials, the labour of the artisans who work on the clothes, the cost of transporting the finished products, the packages in which these finally reach the customer, and fast fashion no longer feels as innocuous as its name suggests.

To enforce rules to make the fashion industry compliant with the best global practices of sustainable production and consumption is a daunting challenge— even more so in an unorganized market like India. Along with China and Bangladesh, India ranks high as a manufacturing hub, in spite of its faltering standards in work conditions. The scene may be gradually changing for the better, though.

India Sustainability Report 2020: Science And Sentiment, a white paper produced by fashion media platform The Voice of Fashion (TVoF), gives a sense of the broad picture. Based on a survey conducted with over 900 participants, selected on the basis of an online questionnaire across social and economic classes from five cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Ahmedabad), the findings reveal fascinating trends, both from the consumer end and from the perspective of the companies. The respondents, aged 18-60, were equally distributed across genders.

“The frequency with which the word sustainability is being used in conversations about fashion these days is staggering," says Shefalee Vasudev, editor of TVoF. “We wanted to understand where the consumer stands vis-à-vis it. Do Hindi-speaking buyers know the concept? Are customers at chain stores like Pantaloons and Shoppers Stop aware that these retailers comply with sustainability requirements in their operations?"

Sustainability is an often misused, or lazily invoked, term. Most buyers have at best a piecemeal understanding of it. For instance, although 57% of the respondents were aware of sustainable fashion, only 18% agreed that the fashion industry is a major contributor to global pollution. For some, sustainability was synonymous with Khadi; for others, it came with the handloom tag. In reality, it is an umbrella that includes several aspects of production, like ethical sourcing of materials, workers’ welfare, packaging, energy utilization and waste management.

The second part of the report is a qualitative survey in which the sustainability officers (or others holding equivalent roles) from 17 leading companies across India explain the steps followed by their labels to conduct business ethically. The initial outreach was to over 30 brands, Vasudev says, but several major players, such as Sabyasachi, Bata, Raymond and Nykaa, either did not respond or declined to participate. On the other hand, companies like Forest Essentials and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL) were more than forthcoming with their inputs.

Buyers’ choice

While the average consumer of mainstream retail fashion may not be cognisant of sustainability, the younger millennials are far more aware of the term. About 83% of buyers aged 18-24 said they used cloth bags for shopping, while 40% in the same demographic claimed they buy clothes, accessories and lifestyle products from brands that follow responsible practices.

And yet only 6% of the respondents were interested in upcycling or recycling their old clothes to make other usable products. Roughly 22% said they could not repeat a garment or accessory several times, even if it were in a decent condition, while 36% confessed that they bought new clothes to make a positive impression on their peers and social circles.

Such contradictions abound elsewhere in the survey too. About 41% of the middle-class buyers who are not environment-conscious showed interest in knowing who made their clothes and where. In contrast, only 31% of the elite buyers, who come from economically privileged backgrounds and are mindful of the environmental costs of the industry, were interested in the same information. On the brighter side, however, 44% of the respondents across age groups, segments and cities expressed interest in knowing if child labour had been used in the factories manufacturing their clothes.

Maker’s Inc

For the major players in mainstream retail and luxury boutique markets in India, the concept of sustainable fashion is more or less standard, as the qualitative survey implies, though not everybody is on the same page.

For a company like Fabindia, for instance, founded in the 1960s to promote India’s rich diversity of craft traditions, gender equality remains a moot point, with nearly 45% of its supply base linked to work done by women. Workers’ welfare, which includes health insurance, fair wages, hygienic work conditions and other benefits, is also central to the ethos of brands like péro, Rahul Mishra, The House of Anita Dongre and Raw Mango, among others. As it should be, sustainability is not only tied to environment but also to broader questions of social justice.

Almost all the 17 businesses that participated in the qualitative survey unanimously advocate water harvesting, the use of solar power and effective waste management, from disposing of effluents to getting rid of scraps.

For denim manufacturer Spykar—the material being one of the worst pollutants in the industry—the challenges are steeper. But Sanjay Vakharia, the chief executive officer of the company, is not only hopeful of reducing hazardous chemicals used in the production process but also keen on cutting down packaging waste by introducing projects like “Half Bag", which uses half the amount of paper required to pack a pair of jeans into a regular bag.

The reduction of packaging material, as well as the quest for cleaner alternatives, is an abiding theme and an ongoing process. From using close to 30 bits and bobs to pack a shirt—cardboards, pins, plastic clips, and so on—ABFRL is now down to four. This is indeed a significant victory for sustainable choices by every reckoning. The future of India’s fashion industry is going to depend on the adoption of several such steps, big and small.

A ‘karigar’ working in Rahul Mishra’s atelier; and Anita Dongre with artisans of the NGO Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).
A ‘karigar’ working in Rahul Mishra’s atelier; and Anita Dongre with artisans of the NGO Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

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