The fashion industry has had a devastating impact on the environment. It remains the second-largest polluting industry in the world. As per a 2018 report published in the Nature Climate Change journal, “The total greenhouse gas emission from textile production is 1.2 billion tonnes per year. By some estimates, sector emissions are expected to rise by more than 60% by 2030.” It is thus impossible to tackle climate change without creating a sustainable fashion industry.

But we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. According to a survey conducted by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “Global clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, and this has happened because of the quicker turnaround of styles, decreasing price, and more production, which is called fast-fashion.”

The damage wrought on the environment by this industry has only been exacerbated, and its rate accelerated, by the proponents of fast fashion.

Yet the general awareness levels have increased around the world. Various movements concerning climate change have made people more aware of the negative contribution fashion houses, manufacturers and regulators have made in this context. The outlook of the average consumer is changing. People no longer just see value in terms of the old matrices related to product quality, design and branding; they consider a brand from a broader perspective that takes into account innovation, environmental awareness and social responsibility. YouGov’s recent survey reveals 83% consumers in India consider sustainability when buying fashion items.

From Kriti Tula’s Doodlage collection.

However, this did not happen overnight. It has an interesting background. When 1,100 garment workers died in Bangladesh in 2013 due to poor infrastructure, it mounted moral pressure on big brands to take accountability for working conditions in their factories. Later on, many big names, including Hennes & Mauritz AB, Inditex SA (which owns Zara) PVH Corp. (owner of brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) teamed up with IndustriALL Global Union to ensure better working conditions and push for industry-level wage agreements through collective bargaining. But these initiatives are still not showing results on the ground.

When the luxury brand Burberry burned $40 million worth of its old stock, to make room for its fresh line of products and to keep brand value intact, it faced huge backlash, which forced many other brands to refrain from overstocking. Global awareness around climate change is promoting sustainability through fashion shows, media interactions and academic conferences. The Global Fashion Agenda, a leadership forum for industry collaboration on the issue of sustainability in fashion publishes various reports and organises events for creating a consensus around sustainability. As per a report received by Guardian 20, so far 94 international brands have signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, which aims to accelerate transformation of the fashion industry into a sustainable one.

In India, the awareness of sustainability is increasing among consumers. Since India is one of the fastest growing fashion markets in the world, it is high time the fashion industry became responsible here as well. Manufacturers are now adopting sustainable practices to produce garments. Small brands in the garment industry are taking the lead to create products employing eco-friendly ways. Akira Ming, Doodlage and YarnGlory, I Was A Sari, Brown Boy are some of the brands that were created environmentally conscious alternatives to fast fashion.

Stefano Funari, founder of I Was A Sari, an upcycle fashion label that won the Circular Design Challenge Award 2019, talked about his brand’s zero-waste approach. He said, “We utilise pre- and post-consumer waste stock, including seat belts and dead stock embroidery materials to craft contemporary garments and accessories. I Was A Sari, as a label, is committed to zero-waste. It’s an opportunity to work with material and give it a new life in terms of functionality and aesthetics.”

These brands are not afraid of innovation and of risking commercial viability. Divya Ahluwalia, founder of Akira Ming, a sustainable fashion label for women, said, “Unlike regular silk, we use a fabric called Ahimsa silk. As opposed to commercial silk, Ahimsa silk is produced in a way that avoids harming or killing of silkworms. We are certain of its authenticity since we source it directly from its original makers who also hold a patent for Ahimsa silk. The silk is dyed using sustainably harvested gum arabica crystals with water-based binders.”

For these brands, sustainability is the USP, but it is not as easy as it might seem to market these products. Kriti Tula, co-founder of Doodlage, a lifestyle brand upcycling industrial scraps, talked about the challenges of establishing a sustainable brand. She said, “We face many challenges, like creating a supply chain for sourcing fabric waste consciously, working to build a scalable business model, producing and packaging all products, and then communicating to an audience which has just been introduced to cheap fast fashion, the need to consume quality, not quantity.”

Big fashion labels have a huge financial resource base and loyal consumers. This creates a huge roadblock for smaller brands and startups, which generally lack funds. Hence, raising funds to sustain and scale eco-fashion in India has been a big challenge for Tula.

Another challenge these sustainable brands face has to do with high production costs that make their products more expensive than those of competitive fast-fashion labels. According to Stefano Funari, designs that are made sustainably are so restricted in nature because of production constraints and raw material costs. Nevertheless, these brands have created a new wave in the fashion industry. They are challenging the establishment with their eco-friendly innovations. It is not just about social responsibility; it is also about safeguarding the future of the fashion industry by adapting to new demands and challenges.