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The Sisyphean Idea Of Sustainability In Fashion

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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? 

A look from Gucci Women’s Pre-Fall 2017. A fur coat accessorised with a Blind For Love handbag. (Photo: Vogue)

Is Luxury Fashion Commitment Phobic? 

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:

Okay, But What About Fast Fashion? 

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. 

Nooooope… I Still Think Fast Fashion Is Evil 

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?

This Is Why We Should Depend On Ethnic Wear

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

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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: 

The numbers here indicate the shades of indigo that can be achieved during the traditional dyeing process. (Photo: Graham Keegan)

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. 

So I Can’t Even Wear Desi Clothes Anymore? 

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. 

indian handloom
Handloom. Source: Noah Seelam/Getty

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

So Why Is Sustainability In Fashion Sisyphean? 

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?

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Source: Nani Puspasari/Flickr.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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