Jewellery made of flowers and seeds. Shelves made of recycled plastic. Straws that decompose in earth. Bottles that do not fill up the landfill. Sustainability in fashion has been a buzzword for the past few years.
“But what exactly do we mean by sustainability? Are we talking about not producing unnecessary collections which are just fast fashion? Fashion which doesn’t have any great textile background? Or something where the waste is minimal,” asks designer Ritu Kumar.
She is ready to point out that India is a non-conformist when it comes to what the western world calls sustainable. “We have always been against creating waste, and have reused and recycled our clothes. If a saree border falls off, you put it on another one instead of throwing it away. We have recycled gold on the borders. So when we talk about sustainable fashion, we are not on the same page with the rest of the world,” she explains. Kumar, who has been using eco-friendly fabrics and vegetable dyes, showcased sarees made from organic soya fabric in this year’s FDCI x Lakme Fashion Week.
Meanwhile, Japan’s fashion retailer UNIQLO’s focus on sustainability is not just about using the right raw materials (it has been using recycled polyester material made from post-consumer PET bottles) but also looking at innovations that help it reduce environmental impacts. The brand claims that its BlueCycle technique—an enhanced washing process—reduces the amount of water used in the jeans finishing process, by up to 99% to get a worn-in, faded look. This is good news, considering a regular pair of jeans takes about 20,000 litres of water.
Sportswear player Asics, too, has been making strides in the direction of sustainability. For Earth Day, the brand has launched its “most environmentally sustainable range” yet. Five tonnes of textile waste has been recycled to create this new range which includes apparel as well as shoes.
“As almost half of the value chain carbon emissions come from the materials we use, shifting to sustainable materials is at the heart of our sustainability strategy to reduce environmental impacts. We’re working with a range of industry partners to help us switch to more sustainable materials and processes during manufacturing,” explains Rajat Khurana, managing director, ASICS India.
The brand periodically conducts life cycle assessments to investigate the environmental and social impacts of its products at each stage of its life cycle, from sourcing of materials all the way to recycling or disposal. It aims to switching 100% of the polyester used in its products to recycled polyester by 2030. In 2020, ASICS used a sustainable dyeing process called solution dyeing that uses less water and reduces carbon emissions compared with conventional methods.
Three-year-old startup Aslee is trying to build awareness about comfortable fabrics other than water-guzzling cotton, such as hemp, nettle and bamboo.
“The idea is to work with different plant fibres, sources across the country. And then see how we can grow the supply chain in a more sustainable manner. Cotton is a very thirsty plant, and you can sell it as organic cotton, but at the end of the day you are abusing one or the other resource. So, we are also careful about not over-committing and we are experimenting and getting better at it,” explains Zoya Wahi, co-founder of Aslee.
The challenge for Wahi is firstly to find the raw material supply. Creating awareness then is not just for the client base but also the vendors from whom Aslee can buy the materials from. For example, nettle comes with its own challenge of processing, where the thread is coarse and is so far being used mainly in handloom and not powerloom. For hemp, there are regulatory issues around the plant and fears associated with it.
“We have been going for pop-ups in farmer markets to both get feedback as well as use the platform to spread awareness. People buy. Most of them are repeat customers. But most people I see hardly care about sustainability. They are taken in by the novelty of wearing something made out of bamboo or hemp, but not because of the footprint it leaves. Creating that mindset would take much more work,” says Wahi.