Once upon a time, if you did an online search for a “sustainable fashion brand” in India, only a handful would show up. Now every other brand markets itself as “green”, “slow”, “eco”, “organic”, or any buzzy term that sings the tune of sustainability. At the time of writing this, my inbox has seen, in a day, PR pitches for a “sustainable” leather shoe brand (oxymoron?), “environment conscious” T-shirts (2,700 litres of water make one tee) and “vegan” skincare lotions (available in three different sizes of plastic bottles). Besides the approaching World Environment Day (5 June), the other reason for the constant “hellos” from “green-esque” brands is that for the past few years the one thing people can’t stop talking about—and something that has gained more traction in the pandemic era—is sustainability.
That’s good. The latest data shows global warming could cross the limit of a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperature, set as a control target, in the next five years. A Nature Climate Change study, published earlier this week, blames climate change for one in three heat-related deaths globally.
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Given that the fashion industry is the world’s biggest polluter after the oil industry, it’s good to see more brands are finally talking about being more conscious of the earth. But this begets two questions to begin with.
One, do we understand what sustainability entails? Two, how do we know brands are not “greenwashing”? It could well be that in order to sound woke, they are not being completely honest—whether it’s about their supply chains, the chemical dyes or the welfare of karigars (artisans). Or that they are not even aware of the entire cycle that sustainability would entail. When I ask “green” brands about the sustainability of their supply chains (a huge challenge), the answers often fall somewhere between “we would like to believe (that they are clean)” and “it’s way too expensive to get into the nitty-gritty”.
Lack of transparency, especially in India, makes it almost impossible to know if that zari karigar in a remote Uttar Pradesh village was paid a full wage for the kurta being sold for over ₹1 lakh online. As customers, we too aren’t willing to invest even 10 minutes to ask or learn about a “green” brand’s sustainable practices but will cheerfully fork out over ₹10,000 for that white shirt made with water-guzzling recycled cotton.
Over the past few months, I have taken the question of what sustainability entails to some of the global voices on the subject in fashion. The answer was as simple as it was complex. Eva Kruse, former chief executive of the Global Fashion Agenda, believes there are three aspects to sustainability—environmental (how fabrics are made and recycled), social (labour rights) and ethical (animal welfare). So does Fashion Revolution’s Orsola de Castro, who insists a dignified life for daily wagers means they should be “paid by the piece, not by the hour”.
When it comes to making fashion cleaner, they all offer just one solution: Produce less. That would also imply not encouraging consumption. But this does not seem to be a question most brands have even begun to grapple with.
Some brands are making garments by recycling or upcycling tonnes of plastic, polyester, nylon or cotton—but also coming out with collections every three-four months. If a brand is offering clothes on sale, whether it is to clear stock or donate 10% of product sales for covid-19 relief, it’s still encouraging consumption.
The pandemic hasn’t been easy on any industry, including fashion, and being sustainable definitely doesn’t come cheap, especially if you are a young label. At the end of the day, brands aim to turn a profit. But in this climate, when the industry needs to figure out the best way forward to fight the biggest crisis we are seeing, just being woke is not the answer. Today’s customer, who is ready to shell out extra money to be more responsible, deserves, at the very least, an honest brand. To start with.