"Main jaadugar hoon (I am a magician),” laughs Indra Kumari, adjusting her mask. She’s sitting on the floor of a 300 sq. ft design studio in south Delhi’s Greater Kailash neighbourhood, surrounded by heaps of small and large rags, sorted by colour. Reds, pinks, blues and blacks on the left. Whites, creams, yellows and off-whites on the right. Multicoloured, behind her. These will all turn into a rug in a week’s time, she says. As we chat, her fingers are busy winding the scraps across the white threads of a circular loom-like structure. Is that a repurposed cycle tyre? I ask. “Nahi, woh khelne waala nahi hota… (no, it’s meant for playing…).” “Hula hoop,” says Swati Soharia from the next room.
Soharia, who wants to be the “queen of upcycling” one day, is often called the kabadiwala (scrap dealer) of south Delhi. For the past three years, she has been running Katran (Hindi for fabric waste), an upcycling luxury fashion brand, from the same cramped studio. It’s here that she trains women from lower-income groups like 50-year-old Indra to create home décor, clothes and accessories with fabric waste—rejected garments, castoff cuttings, bales of unused material—sourced from export houses, manufacturing units, tailors, designers, even friendly neighbours.
Wearing a smart long jacket, which I later learn is a collage of her husband’s old blue and white striped shirts, and a bright black-green skirt knitted from discarded wool, Soharia, 31, apologises for her messy studio, a riot of scrap that resembles an abstract art installation. “Even in the upcycling world, this ‘hula-hoop loom’ is a fairly new concept. We upcycled it (the hula hoop) to make more circular (-shaped) items (like rugs, one of their hot-selling products) since there’s more demand now.”
2020 was a relatively good year for Katran, unlike many other fashion brands. The account books show that before the lockdown last March, there was a constant flow of orders from companies and general customers. During the lockdown, upcycled masks kept the brand afloat. As soon as restrictions were lifted, sales numbers returned to pre-covid-19 levels almost immediately. They do at least 10 B2B orders a month, with each including over 500 products, and over 10 online retail orders. Soharia is now looking at expansion: a bigger studio, a social media intern, an accountant. The possibilities bring an instant smile to her face.
For, since the day she walked into an export house seven years ago to report for her first job as a visual merchandiser and saw “pahads and pahads” (mountains) of discarded garments, she made it her life’s mission to move people from a “disposable mindset to a reuse mindset”. “It’s finally happening. People now realise luxury can be made using trash. That upcycling can’t be something ‘special’; it needs to be a way of life,” insists Soharia, who studied design at Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology. “It took a virus to bring the change but at least trash is no longer a dirty word in the fashion vocabulary.”
Soharia isn’t alone in believing in the power of “trash”. Owners of India-based upcycling luxury brands that deliver across the world are reporting an uptick in sales since lockdown restrictions eased, riding a shift in attitude towards fashion consumption. In a way, the impact of covid-19 has been such that it has made disposability unfashionable and upcycling—the art of remaking old clothes or turning a used fabric or what would otherwise end up sitting in a dump yard—into an object of desire, fashionable.
When the world was on pause in early 2020 due to the coronavirus, an avalanche of news about unprecedented losses amplified all that’s not right with the fashion industry—murky supply chain, exploitation of cheap labour and natural resources, stock overproduction. The information crowding our social media timelines was not new but it came at a time when the reader had a minute to spare to really understand how wasteful fashion was.
Management consulting firm McKinsey came out with a report, Fashion’s Digital Transformation: Now Or Never, in May, estimating the value of excess inventory from global spring/summer 2020 collections at close to €160 billion ( ₹14.9 trillion)—double average levels—owing to a sharp fall in sales. This was a major cause of worry: Would it be burnt, reused or sent to a landfill? Soon, however, high-end labels like Balenciaga, Marni and Coach returned to the drawing table, exploring ways to reuse materials. Miu Miu announced an Upcycled collection, which included dresses refashioned from antique pieces sourced from vintage shops and markets. Popular fast fashion labels like Zara and H&M began working more actively on upcycled materials. Bloggers and influencers started promoting DIY videos of turning trash into fashion.
“Trashion” was suddenly in. And, if experts are to be believed, it is here to stay.
“It has to be,” believes Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, a not-for-profit that works to further the business of fashion and ensure its sustainable growth. “Sustainability has been a buzzword for years but now it has to be the core part of the business strategy. Your consumer now wants to buy a brand that’s transparent about its sustainability practices. Every day, a new report comes up with the same finding: the young consumer wants to know the values of their brands,” he says, adding: “Yes, it’s difficult to pivot (to sustainable practices) but we have to, our resources are drying up. Fashion can no longer be about show and throw.”
Pivoting to more sustainable practices, from sourcing and fair wages to energy use and packaging, might be the need of the hour, but it’s not easy when you are an old, established brand. “A hundred per cent sustainability is definitely not possible at the moment because the entire production and sales cycles will have to be changed. But the movement has started,” says Palak Shah, the chief executive of handloom luxury label Ekaya, which has recently started offering products made with fabric scrap. “You can no longer just say you are transparent, you have to show it. I think that’s a shift which started after the pandemic. And people are ready to pay for upcycled or recycled products, even if they come at a cost, because they look good. The behind-the-scenes story is an added bonus.”
While Shah admits following “green” practices is not easy since the “present system works on the make-more, sell-more model”, changes can be made at a local level. “We can start by ensuring steady pay to workers. These small changes also help.”
A scrap of gold
There’s no official data available detailing the rise in demand for trashion, but textile firms are reporting an upswing. In Tamil Nadu, the yarn bowl of India, Srihari Balakrishnan, the managing director of KG Fabriks Ltd, one of India’s leading textile companies, says fabric scrap has become “the new gold”.
After the lockdown, he explains, there has been a 10% increase in global demand for recycled and discarded materials from India. Export data from the Indian Texpreneurs Federation, an apex body of textile mills in Tamil Nadu, shows a rise in sales of all kinds of fabric: from ₹6,187 crore in August to ₹7,260 crore in December. A recycled coloured fibre that used to cost ₹30 per kilogram pre-lockdown is now ₹60. “(Designer) brands across the world are returning their cutting waste and asking us (the Indian textile industry) to convert it into yarn so that they can reuse it,” he explains. “Many are asking for fabric waste. The textile industry might be the one which will help India come out of the economic crisis.”
It’s a big claim to make, but Balakrishnan, the director of the federation, has his reasons. The biggest one is the deteriorating relationship of nations with China, once a top global supplier for textiles. Much of the demand has now shifted to India, he claims, basing his assessment on “what he’s seeing on the ground”. “There’s also Cambodia, but India is bigger.”
R.K. Sachdeva, who owns a fabric printing company in Uttar Pradesh’s Greater Noida industrial area, is surprised by the sudden surge in demand for his discarded material, something he has witnessed for the first time in his 40-year career. It has doubled post-lockdown, he says. “We generate about 500kg of waste each month and it’s selling like hot cakes. (Fashion) students, designers, small boutiques—all want more scrap.”
The magic in mess
The $1.5 trillion fashion industry has long been an environmental disaster. So massive is the pace and volume of production that 30% of what’s produced around the world never hits shelves, ending up in landfills instead. This waste costs the global economy over $400 billion every year, says a 2019 World Economic Forum report. To put that in perspective, the cost to end global poverty, according to experts, is $175 billion per year for 20 years.
What’s more, reports suggest, the annual contribution of the global fashion industry to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is 8-10%, more than the shipping and aviation industries combined. To mitigate climate change, fashion needs to cut its emissions to 1.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, as suggested by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018. The industry is, however, set to overshoot its target by almost twofold, with emissions of 2.1 billion tonnes in 2030, shows last year’s Fashion On Climate report by McKinsey and Global Fashion Agenda, the sustainable advocacy organisation.
The other clues to what’s wrong with fashion waste can be found in the ink-stained rivers of Bangladesh (the industry is responsible for 20% of global wastewater), the sweatshops of India and Cambodia and the shores of East Africa, filled with unwanted clothing from the West.
These were the reasons Delhi’s Kriti Tula, 32, started Doodlage in 2012. An upcycling label that uses three types of waste—post-production, post-consumer and defective garments—the label offers clothes, home decor and accessories. Since lockdown restrictions were lifted, Tula says, her brand has seen a 1.8-time rise in sales. She doesn’t give numbers.
She agrees the pandemic has accelerated the shift to trashion but maintains the conversation really picked up around 2017. “Millennials, who have had the kind of exposure to global markets different from previous generations, have now become the adult consumers. Conversations around upcycling have become consolidated in a big way in the last three-four years,” says Tula. Most of her clients are in the 25-45 age group.
Tula, who completed her master’s in design management from the London College of Fashion, was also introduced to the wasteful side of fashion early in her career. “Industry practices work in such a way that large amounts of fabric are discarded for relatively minute errors. But what most people don’t see is the wastage of natural resources that happens in the process as well,” she says. Bales of a blue-coloured material, for instance, will be discarded owing to a 0.1% difference in the shade required. Garments with tiny holes that can be mended are thrown, as are those with seams open.
She set up her label with the aim of using up all such waste. “This aim has taken us in new directions. We recycle whatever fabric waste we generate into paper, which is used tirectiono make our stationery collection as well as our packaging,” she explains. Her label has also expanded from patchwork to newer designs using recycled fabrics. “Recycling has been part of our family cultures for generations. We have all worn hand-me-downs at some point in our lives. This is about bringing the spirit of thrift and preservation to our fashion choices.”
For years, the go-to solution for the growing trash issues has been recycling, or the process for degrading material, from plastic to pineapple, for reuse. KG Fabriks set up a recycling plant in the 1980s, becoming one of the first companies in India to do so. At that time, Balakrishnan recalls, waste wasn’t as big a problem as it is today. “It was more of a novel item then. Now, recycling has become the preferred choice of many brands.”
Adidas has been a torch-bearer of sorts. The German shoemaker, which recently launched a collection of Stan Smiths made with recycled polyester and rubber, has been consistent in its effort to address the waste problem, even setting a goal to transition completely to recycled polyester made with plastic heading for the ocean or landfills. “The world has a problem. With pollution. With plastic waste. As a major sportswear manufacturer, we are part of this problem,” an Adidas spokesperson told me. “But we are working hard to make it right.”
Levi’s too has been vocal about the problems that arise from creating jeans—it takes some 1,800 gallons to make a pair, and that’s before we get on to the toxic dyes that are hardly disposed of responsibly. Last year, the legacy brand launched what it claims to be its most sustainable jean—made with 60% organic cotton and Circulose, a material created by Swedish recycling textile technology startup Re:newcell that includes 20% sustainably sourced viscose and 20% recycled denim.
Using recycled materials, however, won’t clean up the mess. It may turn the spotlight on the issue of waste but doesn’t really address it, says Timo Rissanen, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. “The world is running extremely low on resources,” warns Rissanen, a leading expert on sustainable fashion who has spent 17 years trying to find solutions for the trash the industry has generated over decades.
“Recycling allows you to use only a limited number of times, while upcycling helps you turn waste into products that can be used again and again, keeping them out of landfills,” he explains in a Zoom call. Our final aim, he says, should be to produce less. “That’s the challenge and the solution. Till then, upcycling can help.”
Upcycling might be recycling’s greener cousin but isn’t designing only with scraps, which come in several shades, prints and designs, restricting? For Soharia, that’s actually the fun part. “No product is ever the same. A red patch here, a green string there. Every piece has a story to tell, which is what most young shoppers want today—something different.”
The problem, she and Tula point out, are the constant queries about why their products, which on average fall in the ₹300-15,000 bracket, are so expensive when they are made of waste? “Our clothes are priced higher than many fast fashion choices widely available. But there is a good reason for that. A lot of effort and labour goes into repurposing, repairing and, ultimately, upcycling what we receive into our end product,” points out Tula.
Another hurdle is the way Indians look at waste. While many young, mindful shoppers are becoming comfortable with the idea of owning trashion, or even thrift or second-hand items, the older generation is still reluctant. Customers, for instance, continue to send Soharia bags full of old clothes that they want turned into a carpet or a dress. “Older people are not yet comfy with owning other people’s waste. It’s true that our parents are not really buying stuff any more; it’s us, and we are becoming conscious. But for a true change to happen, we need a collective attitude shift towards waste,” she says.
Ishrat Sahgal, 31, had to deal with a similar reluctance when she started Mishcat Co, a designer house that makes carpets using upcycled sari silk, in 2012. “There wasn’t much innovation in the housing space then. So, I thought of offering something unique. But often people would say: ‘We wear saris, how can we walk on them?’” recalls Sahgal, who divides her time between London and Delhi.
But this has changed. Over the past nine years, colourful carpets and dhurries costing upwards of ₹25,000, made by 30 artisans in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh with pieces discarded by sari weavers, have found a large customer base around the world. Post-lockdown, Mishcat Co has seen a 50% jump in sales, with 25-30 products sold each month—a rise Sahgal attributes to the work-from-home setup. “Since people are more at home, they are more invested in how their house looks. Even if they want luxury, they want something that’s mindful and meaningful.”
The circle of tradition
Chandigarh restaurateur Amarjit Khanna discovered the joy of upcycling in July. A regular shopper of trends, Khanna had an epiphany one sunny Tuesday morning while he was looking for a white shirt for an office Zoom call. “My cupboard had 10 (white shirts). That’s when I knew I had to stop,” says the 35-year-old. He gave away a quarter of his wardrobe to be upcycled into a blanket cover.
“It’s a strange circle, to be honest. First, we follow the Western trends. Then we realise something’s not right. And later we find out that our culture always had the answers. Even upcycling has been part of our life always. My clothes, when I was a kid, were worn by my (two) brothers. My mother still uses my torn T-shirts as the kitchen wipe,” he says. “Hand-me-down practice is so India.”
While that may be true, there’s a problem with this practice, something London-based Meghna Gupta points to. Over a decade ago, she directed Unravel, a film that documents how tonnes and tonnes of discarded garments from across the world were being dumped in India’s then biggest recycling hub, Panipat. “Recycling was a ‘dirty’ industry then,” Gupta says on the phone. “Of course, now it’s no longer the case. Recycling has become a need of the hour.” When I ask about her whether India’s hand-me-down culture can help it fight the piling fashion waste problem, she offers food for thought: “We give our clothes to family either because they are treasured or they are of no use to us, giving us an opportunity to buy new clothes. We are hoarders, and that’s definitely adding to the waste problem.”
The answer, she says, lies in producing less and consuming less. “Designers and brands alone can’t do it. We have to be actively involved in making better choices and asking the right questions.”
It doesn’t have to be a fashion fast, insists Rissanen. “It’s a mind switch…a constant awareness of the waste that can come out of your closet and how to upcycle. Only then change can happen.”
Indra Kumari is happy she started being part of the change 10 years ago. While she’s wrapping up for the day, she tells me in Hindi how she used to make wall hangings, toys and doormats for the home using her two children’s old, torn clothes. “I used to do it for fun...it was a different kind of a magic trick. Who knew it could become a way to save the world?”