When we think of the environment or of various forms of industrial pollution, our focus instantly shifts to large-scale manufacturers and thermal power stations. The world of fashion rarely comes to mind. But it’s a fact that the fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter in the world, after oil. According to a report by the United States’ Energy Information Administration, 25% of the world’s chemicals are used for textile production, and around 10% of our global carbon emissions are produced by apparel and textile manufacturers. These are numbers that are seldom acknowledged by consumers of fashion, let alone by fashion designers and entrepreneurs sponsoring big brand names and businesses.

Tracing back the supply chain — from consumer to manufacturer — can help us understand the environmental risks a little better. The volume of total energy burned, all the way from extracting raw materials to international shipping and retail, is of course phenomenally high. (Also, the volume of natural resources required is significantly high: for instance, a small garment can take up to 5,000 gallons of water in its making.)The kind of toxic dyes usually used for rendering fabrics into different colours also takes its toll. Then, at last, we have to consider how old clothes and fabrics, with their non-biodegradable components, end up in landfill sites, compounding an already flawed production/consumption cycle.  

Models showcasing garments by designers (from left to right) Soham Dave, Shailesh Singhania, Jaya Bhatt, and Ruchi Tripathi & Tara Aslam.

But prospects are not as grim as they may sound, thanks to a small but growing minority of enlightened fashion designers doing their utmost to make amends by producing garments that are environment-friendly. These young designers are on a mission to make fashion more sustainable as well as more climate-conscious. Guardian 20 recently spoke to some such designers, who are based across Indian cities and are fast expanding their reach to global markets. 

Let’s begin with the Delhi-based designer duo Jaya Bhatt and Ruchi Tripathi, and their label Indigene. “The word ‘indigene’ comes from indigenous, meaning native or rooted in tradition, which is exactly what our label stands for. As a clothing label, we work with natural materials and traditional techniques, which were always sustainable and respectful to the environment. Techniques we use include natural dyeing and printing, recycling and reusing our fabric scrap to minimise wastage. We opt for hand-woven, hand-spun khadi fabric made on traditional pit-looms and hand-embroidered garments made by women artisans. It also promotes economic and social empowerment while they are able to work from their homes,” says Jaya Bhatt.

Bhatt’s partner Ruchi Tripathi believes that more players from the fashion industry now need to come forward and embrace similar production practices like Indigene’s. “The fashion industry is one of the largest contributors of waste to the environment,” Tripathi says. “The main reason being the fast changing trends and fast fashion brands that offer trendy yet cheap clothing every two months to their customers. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed by the industry. The fashion industry needs to realise the importance of recycling and move towards the use of sustainable and hand-made fabrics in a big way. The industry also needs to incorporate the use of safe dyes and environment-friendly means of production.” 

In India, there aren’t many natural dye houses available, which means that supply of eco-friendly raw materials is low. As a solution to this, more and more designers are turning away from chemicals to organic products, as well as to more labour-intensive and indigenous production methods, such as handicraft. Ahmadabad-based designer Soham Dave’s eponymous brand, since its inception in 2011, has celebrated the rootedness of Indian textiles in its collection. All his garments are hand-made. 

Talking about the materials used or production methods, Dave says, “From processing to finishing, we prefer to use naturally available techniques around us to treat our fabrics. The fabric is de-sized using harda fabric, washed at open pools, dried on sunlit fields and is manually printed by artisans, using hand-carved wooden blocks. The entire process, thus, eliminates electricity on which man has become overly dependent. I think moving back to our roots will help us become more environment-friendly. If we look back at the ancient ecosystem of India, mainly villages, our ancestors gave back to the nature much more than they took from it. The fibre was natural, fabrics were woven on handloom using human energy, and processed in natural elements in the absence of heavy chemicals and electricity.” 

But making an eco-friendly garment is by no means easy. “It comes as a challenge to the designers.  First of all, natural colours bleed. The washing process needs a lot of care. You never get the same tone or shade again. There is always a variation in the shade. The production itself is a challenge as it takes a long time to get hand-woven fabrics and natural colours. Sometimes the production process goes on for three-four months,” says another Ahmadabad-based designer Purvi Doshi, who decided to go for sustainable design five years back.

Designer Shailesh Singhania, whose foray into fashion happened due to his strong connection with the master weavers of his hometown Hyderabad, says, “Traditional Indian fashion is absolutely eco- friendly as we work with natural fibres like cotton and silk. And I intend to carry forward that ethos. Since I am committed to working with natural fibres, I don’t have a wide array of choices. I ensure that we use the best quality yarns and wherever possible, get hand-spun threads to generate employment. Again, as per sustainable choice, all my work is done by handloom weavers and never on power looms. Within this framework, I work on the weaves, colour combinations, patterns etc. to create these one-of-a-kind pieces.”

“Since the fashion industry is the biggest polluter after oil companies, it is safe to say that there is a complete lack of intent globally to tackle this situation. The huge business model that thrives on profitability at any cost needs a shift in focus. There is a plethora of steps that have to be taken urgently with a view to protecting the environment rather than generating profit.” 

Another popular fashion brand, which is all about chemical-free clothing, is Nature Alley. “I was looking for chemical-free clothing and could not find anywhere to shop for the same.  Natural dyed clothing was an idea that made sense. Thus was born Nature Alley,” says Tara Aslam, the founder of Nature Alley.

Aslam believes that making garments chemical-free can help address many of our other, but related, ecological problems.  “By being conscious of the carbon footprint we leave, fashion industry will be well served to use more handloom and hand-made textiles and techniques. Water pollutants can certainly be controlled.  We should be looking at these choices in every sphere of life to make this a green planet,” says Aslam.

Fast fashion, the fashion equivalent of fast food, is the main enemy of sustainability. With rising demand for cheap and quickly-produced garments, fast fashion is becoming the norm across the industry. Designer Soham Dave says, “The whole business model of fast fashion runs on easy disposability for which low price points are mandatory. To include sustainability, the profit hungry brands will have to completely reinvent, and reinvest in, their business model.”

According to Shailesh Singhania, “Since the fashion industry is the biggest polluter after oil companies, it is safe to say that there is a complete lack of intent globally to tackle this situation. The huge business model that thrives on profitability at any cost needs a shift in focus. There is a plethora of steps that have to be taken urgently with a view to protecting the environment rather than generating profit. We have to change the mindset of the unreal fast fashion pricing and educate the consumers on the merits of committing to fewer, trend free pieces. Again, the concept of recycling is ingrained in us and can come forward as long as we buy quality garments worth recycling.”

It’s also worth remembering that sustainability and profit margins are not mutually exclusive. “Many conscious customers are ready to pay a premium for an ethically made garment,” says designer Jaya Bhatt. Still, the industry needs to get together and make eco-friendly manufacturing methods more economically viable. “The cost of holding inventory and the real estate being so high, the fashion industry also falls into the same ‘high margin’ game.  However, unless there is a fair profit for all in the value chain, from the weaver to the customer, there can be no sustainability.  Certainly, innovation in clothes can and must happen. Recycling is certainly a possible solution,” says Tara Aslam of Nature Alley. 

1. The fabric is de-sized using harda fabric. 2. It is washed at open pools. 3. Dried on sunlit fields. 4. And then manually printed by artisans, using hand-carved wooden blocks. Photo: Soham Dave

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