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Want to make fashion sustainable? Make it accessible, verifiable

Atul Bagai, head of the UN Environment Programme’s India office, on the path the fashion industry needs to take to really become green

An activist crashed the showcase of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere's Spring/Summer 2022 women's ready-to-wear collection for Louis Vuitton during the Paris Fashion Week on 5 October.
An activist crashed the showcase of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere's Spring/Summer 2022 women's ready-to-wear collection for Louis Vuitton during the Paris Fashion Week on 5 October. (REUTERS)

A few weeks ago, a closed-door roundtable was held to discuss Indian fashion industry’s impact on the environment. It involved representatives from the manufacturing sector, fashion brands and designers, officials from the Union government and the United Nations (UN).

The roundtable was facilitated by SU.RE (which stands for sustainable resolution), a project launched in 2019 by India’s apparel industry to work towards reducing its carbon emissions, increasing resource efficiency, tackling waste, managing water and creating a positive impact—in line with UN Sustainable Development Goal 12. SU.RE, with 16 signatory brands, was set up by The Clothing Manufacturers Association Of India, RISE Worldwide (Reliance Industries’ initiative in the sports and lifestyle business), and the UN, with the support of the Union ministry of textiles.

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Each brand has tried to quantify its sustainability targets. House of Anita Dongre, for instance, pledged that over 70% of its Global Desi clothing and 65% of AND clothing would use eco-friendly fabrics by 2025.

We spoke to Atul Bagai, head of the UN Environment Programme’s (Unep’s) India office, about whether the talk on global sustainability is more than just talk, and the path the fashion industry needs to take if it really wants to transition to a more sustainable mode. Edited excerpts:

Atul Bagai, head of the UN Environment Programme’s (Unep’s) India office
Atul Bagai, head of the UN Environment Programme’s (Unep’s) India office (Courtesy Unep)

Who’s the biggest culprit for this mess in the fashion world?

Fast fashion. Aspiration-based clothing has led to a rise in fast fashion, with so many seasonal launches and changes in trends leading to early disposals. Research has shown the use-phase (washing, drying, ironing) of clothing accounts for 20-40% of overall impact across indicators, including climate change and water footprint. While millennial consumers are more attentive to environment sustainability, studies have revealed a big gap between consumer intent and reality.

How can you really change consumer mindsets?

We have a long way to go, but there are certainly some ways to facilitate the transition. We can begin by educating consumers and engaging with them to shift mindsets towards more sustainable lifestyles. At Unep, we are trying to develop a global communication strategy to build demand and inspire action for a positive fashion future, by changing the dominant narrative of the sector from one of extraction, exploitation and disposable consumption, towards regeneration, equity and care.

But, at the same time, it is becoming clearer that making people aware of sustainability is not enough. You need to build a wider environment to ensure that sustainability is a viable and easily accessible option for consumers. And for that to happen you need coordinated actions by all stakeholders (government, industry, consumers) across regions, and changes at each stage in the value chain, involving players of all sizes and market segments to make fashion sustainable.

For instance, the underlying nature of the textile industry needs to change. That is, to evolve from an industry producing large volumes of essentially disposable items, to one producing valuable items that remain in use for a long period before being repurposed or recycled. Circularity requires new ways of doing business. We need to adopt new business models. Then the use of hazardous substances in textile processing has to be eliminated.

Resources have to be used much more effectively, with a shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources. Technical solutions like waterless dyeing have to be developed to address the high use of energy, chemicals and water in textile processing. We need to do all this and much more if we are seriously talking about transitioning.

There’s definitely a lot of conversation about sustainability. But as economies open up, we are also celebrating extravagance. Can these coexist?

There is sustainable fashion if the fashion industry (producers) and users (consumers) organise fashion based on responsible consumption and production principles in line with Sustainable Development Goal 12.

Over the years, the global textile industry has experienced increased consumption, manufacture and use of textile products, affecting the global climate, the quality of ecosystems and human health. Currently, over 300 million employees work along the textile value chain. The sector accounts for 2-8% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

There is a reason for hope, though. The industry, governments and organisations have started initiatives that increase circularity. Covid has helped highlight the urgency.

More brands are using terms like green, eco fabric, sustainable material. How can consumers be sure a brand is living up to its claims?

See, consumers today are much more aware of the fashion industry’s environmental impact. Internet searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019. According to a recent report by website The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Co. , 65% of consumers in developing economies are actively seeking sustainable fashion. This increased demand, of course, cannot translate into concrete behaviour change unless consumers are equipped with transparent information to understand which products are sustainable.

The greenwashing syndrome is a serious problem for sure, and it can be addressed by incorporating verification systems such as eco-marks and eco-certification. Some examples include the EU Ecolabel scheme; the HIGG Index that help businesses communicate to consumers on the environmental performance of a piece of garment or clothing.

We must, however, also consider that there are a plethora of standards and labels available in the market, which becomes an issue both for the industry (increasing cost of certification) as well as the consumer (increases confusion). According to research, consumers can only take more sustainable decisions if they are provided with accurate and reliable information. There is a need for more consumer education on sustainability labels and standards.

Traceability is a must. Product labels should be able to provide consumers with accurate information on the origin of items, their material, chemical content and the impact they are having on people and the planet. It is not only about buying more sustainable fashion but also about not buying, or washing in a different way, and keeping clothes for longer periods.

Another thing to remember, especially in the Indian context, is that sustainability is not a new concept we have invented recently. We can gain inspiration from our traditional handlooms that represent eco-friendly and slow fashion based on age-old weaving and natural dyeing traditions. We need to mainstream this knowledge of embedded sustainability, recyclability, even upcyclability.

Brands are introducing clothes made with recycled materials. On the other hand, there’s the trend of upcycling things. Which is a better option: recycling or upcycling?

The benefits of recycling and upcycling are already established. So there’s no either/or situation. It depends on case-to- case, to say whether upcycling or recycling is better. The benefits for both can be maximised by addressing changes across the value chain, including the type of materials we use, production system, consumption patterns, and take-back systems for upcycling or recycling. At the end of the day, we need to make a promise to ourselves that we need to make and consume clothes in a way that increases service life and post-use options.

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