Ahead of their Spring 2018 collection, Italian fashion house Gucci announced that they were going fur-free. A behemoth brand known for their astrakhan coats and iconic fur mules making this commitment came as a surprise to many. Especially given that fashion as an industry has been notorious for dismissing the clarion call for sustainability.
But, what does sustainability mean? In today’s increasingly globalised world that runs on information and access, can there be a singular encompassing definition of sustainability? And if there is one, pray, what the hell is it?
In one word, no. If anything, luxury fashion houses know what commitment means. Creating, curating, presenting and executing multiple collections that invent while staying true to the ethos of the brand is a lot more hard work than it seems. The world likes to believe that fashion is frivolous, superficial, over the top, almost irrelevant to daily life. This is a fallacy.
Fashion, besides being a haven for the creation and artistic expression, is also an industry. It provides jobs and careers to millions. Just like the film industry or the automobile industry. Someone is creating, stitching and curating every item you wear. As a requirement, therefore, it is a commitment on the part of the fashion-hater that needs to show its substance, especially amid current dialogue on sustainability. Here’s one of the planet’s most iconic movie scenes to present that:
Lots about it.
First, it’s not the only section of fashion which needs your finger to be pointed at. Any industry functions on a simple principle: demand and supply. As far as fast fashion is concerned, there’s a lot to uncover. The call for shutting the way fast fashion functions currently puts millions of already vulnerable workers at further risk, creating a bigger inventory problem than what exists and hugely undermines the free hand(s) economies create.
Second, supposing fast fashion does, overnight, become this undefined, romantic sustainable set up: who takes responsibility for the jobs lost? Who will compensate for the unused fabric? Who will close the gaps between the assembly line and retail? These are real and crucial questions that must have concrete answers.
Third, yes, of course, fast fashion is bad for the earth. So are cars and aeroplanes. By blaming an intangible and distant industry, one ‘others’ the problem. This means that they remove their own participation and contribution to the issue, thus eradicating their responsibility in the chain of consumption.
Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labour activist, much like Miranda Priestly, holds that the garments in your closet tell a story. As a consumer, getting to that story is important. Without listening to that story, it is impossible that an informed dialogue be created.
Akter also strongly advocates that Bangladesh’s garment factories not be shut down, but that the consumer makes an effort to demand that their garment makers be paid and treated better.
And that you should. GHG emissions and water access are disparately affected by the omnipresence of fast fashion. What is not okay, however, is to blame only and only fast fashion. As with any business enterprise, there’s a whole structure behind what is immediately visible to you.
The thing is, fashion is not more evil than any other industry that is wreaking havoc on the earth. What is important to remember is that it takes more than simply saying, “That is bad,” to change the way things function. If statistics were the only basis of demanding change, there should have been fewer dowry deaths in India by now.
Additionally, the availability of an alternative is essential. Perhaps the post-Covid consumer will be a different breed, perhaps they won’t. Have you purchased anything on an online sale recently? Congrats – you may have inadvertently made sure that the workers at the bottom of the production line are receiving 50% less than they normally would.
The most marketable alternative to fast fashion is sustainable fashion. This brings me to another important aspect: affordability. Fast fashion is affordable to a giant mass of people, sustainable clothing not so much. Keeping this in mind, what are the larger sections of consumers supposed to do should they wish to switch to slow fashion?
Wrong. It is a huge misconception that just because a garment was made in India, it is automatically sustainable. Take, for example, the comeback indigo has made across ethnic wear brands.
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No. 5 – Many are of the mind that ‘handmade in India’ is synonymous with ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’. It’s a rhetoric we are hearing at alarming levels. India’s export market accounts for 128 Billion INR (1.8 billion USD) of the craft sector, it is a large driver and responsible for much wage inequality. Please do visit the bi-annual EPCH Indian Handicrafts and Gifts Fair to understand pricing and quantities. Most often, to remain competitive with other ‘manufacturing’ countries the lowest price wins. There is nothing sustainable about low wages. Yes, there are efforts towards sustainability in the luxury design industry, i.e most selling less than ~35 units/pieces, and this fraction needs to be contextualised in the larger picture. #AnIncompleteManifesto #MadeInIndia #BorderandFall #Textile #Garment #Design #Craft #India
Marketed widely as ‘traditional, beautiful and reinventing the ancient art of indigo dyeing‘, various shades of blue have overtaken millions of Indian wardrobes of late. Yet, the environmental cost of indigo dyeing remains virtually undiscovered.
Indigo as a dye is created in vats. In India, indigo vats are usually 10-11 feet deep and require to be treated with water regularly. Essentially, when the dye is created, cloth is dipped into the vat. After each dip, the cloth has to be washed with water, before it is dipped another time – till the desired shade is reached. Something like this:
Before we even hit the synthetic dye vs natural dye debate, let’s not forget that the water used to wash the dipped cloth and the dye is not used as fertiliser or as irrigation water. You guessed it, because it’s blue.
Here, it is important to note that the role of the consumer becomes paramount. It has been conditioned into us that all Indian things that have any semblance of history attached with it are authentic and sustainable. Not always.
A while ago, one indigo artisan a little outside Jaipur shared with me an interesting point on this count—that almost every element involved in indigo production is a chemical. What differentiates it is whether it is polluting or non-polluting.
The same incidentally, applies to arts like chikankari, mirror work, and phulkari. Most times, it is marketed as handmade and genuine, but it takes an aware consumer to turn over the garment and differentiate between a hand-stitch and a machine stitch.
You can. You can wear whatever you want actually. I’m only trying to tell you that as a consumer, you are not entirely helpless. You form the demand part of the demand and supply chain, and you’d be amazed at how businesses have this knack of listening to their customers when shit goes down.
In India specifically, the crafts sector is the second largest employer. Just like Bangladesh has the second largest number of garment factories, after China. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way that helped you sift between what was genuine and what wasn’t? Guess what, it exists! It’s called the Craftmark and you can read more about it here.
Because it refuses to hold an inclusive and responsible dialogue.
Without taking into stock what each stakeholder represents and brings to the table, the conversation is pointless. Having said that, fashion is not the only industry that is guilty of using ‘sustainability‘ as a buzzword.
This is where “think global, act local” can be used at its prime. Take Gandhi, for example. He made his own clothes from scratch – in a pioneering act that left political echoes and formed a blueprint for sustainability in a modern welfare state. What’s your idea?