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It's just a T-shirt, but it's also 3,000 litres of water

A new initiative by The ReFashion Hub, in collaboration with seven artists, draws attention to the fashion industry's wastage problem

Detail from a work by Sonali Bhasin.
Detail from a work by Sonali Bhasin. (Sonali Bhasin and The ReFashion Hub)

The next time you pick up a new T-shirt while idly browsing a store, or drop it into your online shopping cart simply because you fancy a spot of retail therapy, remind yourself of these statistics: one cotton tee takes 3,000 litres of water to make. Pair it with a denim jacket, and you are adding another 7,500 litres. Taken together, this is the amount of water one person needs to consume in six years.

But if numbers are not your thing, perhaps the graphics that recently created by a group of seven artists to raise public awareness about water usage by fashion industry will jolt you into remembering the impact of your impulse purchase.

Presented by The ReFashion Hub, a collective that works on wastewater re-usage in the textile industry and climate change mitigation, the initiative is meant to especially draw in younger consumers of fast fashion in India. The artists have been commissioned to create classic slogan-heavy T-shirt art to drive home their point.

All the participants—Priyanka Paul, Aditi Mali, Manasi Deshpande, Mehek Malhotra, Vinu Joseph, Param Sahib and Sonali Bhasin—are well-known on social media for their satirical and quirky takes on current affairs. Starting 10 February, each of them is posting artwork that address the problems of fast fashion head-on, in their distinctive styles.

Art by Aditi Mali
Art by Aditi Mali (Aditi Mali and The ReFashion Hub)

"The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of water contamination around the world,” says Divya Thomas of The ReFashion Hub. “That number will double by 2050 if we don’t act now.” The collective, she explains, is interested in “building equity” for multiple stakeholders involved in the retail chain. The idea is to use art, followed by public video projects in the coming weeks, to make the typical consumer pause and ponder the choices they are making—as well as think of the changes they wish to bring about.

If Mali uses cartoonish cuteness to drive home the message, Sahib’s take is darker, yet intensely relatable. Malhotra’s poster art is grimly scary, with a devastating few lines inscribed on it.

“We are not asking the consumer to stop buying altogether,” says Thomas, “but hopefully they will consider getting a bamboo shirt, rather than a cotton one.” Ethical fashion may cost more than the faster variety, but Thomas believes the Indian consumer is now willing to pay more. And it’s no longer only a question of spending on quality alone.

By putting their money where it truly matters, the conscientious consumer is also going to do the right thing by making a correct lifestyle choice—one that affects not only the health of the planet but also the lives of the workers who produce our clothes.

Art by Param Sahib
Art by Param Sahib (Param Sahib and The ReFashion Hub)

The India Sustainability Report 2020, presented by media portal The Voice of Fashion (TVoF), pointed out some startling facts last year. Based on a survey of 900 respondents across income groups, ages and educational backgrounds from a few major Indian cities, the report found that 57% were aware of the concept of sustainable fashion, though only 6% were interested in upcycling their old clothes.

Apart from such contradictory impulses and emerging trends, both positive and negative, the TVoF survey raised fundamental questions about the definition of sustainability—which cannot stop with the material reality of the products, but must take into account labour conditions, the nature of energy used to produce textiles, packaging, supply, distribution, recycling, and so on.

The ReFashion Hub is going to pursue enquiries into these aspects of the industry in its ongoing campaign. In the coming days, it will be also launching the Fashion Forward Fellowship, India’s first fashion fellowship focusing on water stewardship, in collaboration with YWater, a research-based impact foundation.

The five-week fellowship is open to apparel, footwear, and accessory designers, with the deadline for the application being 15 February. The fellows, chosen by industry experts Nonita Kalra, Parmesh Shahani and Akshay Tyagi, will be awarded a grant of 1 lakh to develop “a sustainable capsule collection”.

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