Sustainability is undoubtedly the most pressing issue of our time, as is evident from the many climate emergencies declared in the last five years. Documentaries like The True Cost and Minimalism not only outline fashion’s outrageous impact on the planet and its inhumane treatment of people, but also illustrate how we are a huge part of the problem. From Hollywood’s A-listers ditching brand new gowns on the red carpet in favour of vintage and upcycled garments, to environmental protests at London Fashion Week, people worldwide have begun caring about the impact their actions are having on the planet.
Still, there is a huge gap between the number of people aware of and willing to engage in sustainable practices, and those who are actually doing so. Business of Fashion has reported that internet searches for “sustainable fashion” grew threefold between 2016 and 2019. There is knowledge out there, but it is not translating to a shift in consumer behaviour. Some common reasons for this include the ease of overconsumption; the image of sustainable fashion as being boring; and the reluctance to pay a premium because everyone is conditioned to fashion being inexpensive.
Historically, India has been oriented towards sustainable and eco-conscious practices. Traditional weaving and the use of natural fabrics, an ethos of hand-me-downs or turning old clothes into mops, and timeless garments that age well (e.g., the sari) have all been key contributors. Excessive consumption and fast fashion are fairly new problems, fuelled by increased buying power, the globalisation of brands, and trends trickling down to India faster than ever before. Even Stella McCartney says she is not perfect when it comes to sustainability, because it is a complex web of difficult challenges. But every first step will amount to something significant eventually. Today, a plethora of designers, brands, start-ups, and independent activists are tackling the issue head-on, in a variety of ways.
Anita Dongre has been at the forefront of the movement, with the aim of creating India’s first sustainable fashion house. Winner of Business of Fashion’s 2018 Woolmark Prize, Ruchika Sachdeva debuted Bodice Studio as Lakme’s Gen Next Designer. Sustainability is an effortless extension of Bodice’s core value: to empower Indian artisans and explore immense heritage craft talent in the country. Ka-Sha by Karishma Sahani-Khan, Brown Boy by Prateek Kayan, Asmita Marwa’s eponymous label, and No Nasties founded by Apoorva Kothari, are all shining examples of India’s disruptive sustainable fashion industry.
For those of you aiming for ways to be more Earth-friendly, buying less but buying better is the best way to start. Koi offers foundational pieces that we often wear out and replenish carelessly. When we think about a basic white or black tee, longevity is not a factor, and also the reason we look for cheaper price tags. Koi wants to make quality wardrobe essentials that will stay in your closet and normalise repeating your basics. “We don’t work with printed fabrics, only solids and separates, so everything is easy to repeat,” explains Shikha Haladker, the founder. Shikha sources second-hand, recycled cotton from Tirupur. The fabric can comfortably take up to forty washes, and will not leak colour even on the first wash. The garment-making process, too, is lean and ethical. Once the designing and pattern-making are completed, prints are made for all sizes. Only when they receive an order, the garment is finally made in the required size.
Shikha’s main goal right now is to continue exploring fabrics made by diverting landfill waste. She has identified one supplier who makes denim from plastic PET bottles, which has inspired her to start a menswear line. The unwillingness to pay premiums that enable brands to engage in fair trade practices, remains an issue. Koi keeps its prices quite low to address this and get people to warm up to sustainable living. “Once people start seeing how good it is for mankind and the planet, they will make bigger changes. We just want to help people get started,” Shikha reflects.
Working with locals and having a fully traceable supply chain are two infallible ways to be environmentally conscious. For as long as she can remember, sustainability has been personal for Mallika Reddy. Mallika leveraged her background as an architect and her strong grasp of design earned through corporate experience, to launch her futuristic, avant-garde fashion label, Cancelled Plans. Fashion’s provocative nature and its ability to reach the masses prompted her to quit her job at a design innovation startup, and spend the year researching the intersection of sustainability, technology, and design. The fact that hundreds of kilos of top-quality pharmaceutical packaging waste inspired Mallika to create apparel out of unconventional materials has us really excited about the future of this brand!
At the heart of Cancelled Plans lie sustainability, circular fashion, and transparency; the aesthetic ranges from streetwear to upscale urban. So far, their collections have used textiles engineered from aluminium foil (blister packs), latex (rejected condoms), socks, and plastic waste. Since their launch at London Design Week in September 2019, followed by a showcase at Lakme Fashion Week’s Circular Design Week, Cancelled Plans has cemented its position as an emerging label to look out for.
Mallika graduated from the University of Southern California with a Bachelor’s degree in architecture, with a minor in cinema and entrepreneurship. While architecture coursework gave her in-depth insights into sustainable materials and design, it was her minor that lay the groundwork for Cancelled Plans. If you are looking for the “where did you get that?” garment that’s sustainable as well, Cancelled Plans is your answer. “It is undoubtedly a fashion-first brand, with the lynchpin being, using what will end up in landfills and oceans,” she says.
The making of the fabrics, too, is a story embedded in fair trade values. Mallika is actively working to improve the quality of life of local weavers and craftsmen, and empowering them not only through employment but also intellectual stimulation. “It is a matter of pride for them to be able to turn waste into wearable fabrics. It sounds futuristic, but it is actually quite primitive,” she assures us. Non-hazardous waste is segregated and collected from factories, taken to a small group of specialist weavers who devise the pattern, assess the skills required, and assign it to commercial weavers in small towns and villages. After a prototype is approved, it is tested for durability, burst strength, wash and care, and produced in small batches. No chemical dyes are used, hence garments and accessories are offered only in the natural colour of the material. However, socks and coloured condoms are potential sources of hues. “My embroiders and tailors are really the ones championing this cause,” Mallika beams.
While fabric sustainability, fully traceable supply chains, and local production are cornerstones for many fashion businesses, Karishma Sehgal is showing us how great ideas ensue when you just decide to stop shopping. The Baksa Project is Karishma’s admirable initiative to encourage people to preserve, reinvent, and recycle their old clothes by giving them a new look. Getting creative with responsible fashion, Karishma is cleverly confronting the issue by abstaining from making more clothes. “We really don’t need another fashion brand,” she says. Instead, Karishma mends, upcycles, jazzes up your existing outfits with patchwork, embroidery, or anything funky you want to have sewn. She can transform a boring, old jacket into another garment of your choice. A fashion graduate from the Pearl Academy, Karishma had her phase of indulgent hauls from the likes of Zara and Mango. She soon learned the grim reality of fast fashion and realised something had to be done.
To avid clothing collectors, or those with a maximalist personal style, Karishma has one thing to say confidently: you do not have to give up your aesthetic to be sustainable. Instead of throwing a garment away, either reconstruct it yourself or reach out to Karishma to see how it can be spruced up. This is the essence of vintage, and the more you do it, the more confident you become about restoring and holding on to one-of-a-kind clothing. Karishma also holds workshops where she teaches techniques like patchwork and embroidery to enable you to DIY. “It is not a for-profit mission at all, and I’m happy that I am privileged to be able to do something unselfish,” she reflects.
The food, beauty, and wellness industries succeeded in rebranding organic as sexy and aspirational, having convinced loads of people that it is a part of self-care. Perhaps that’s one thing that the fashion-verse lacks: convincing people that when it comes to fibres, organic is better than synthetic. Another big problem pertinent to India is the glorification of cotton, which is actually detrimental to the environment. Hemp could be the Indian fashion industry’s answer to both those things. Hemis, a homegrown brand founded by Prashansa, Karthik, and Varun, is engaging customers in a new and radical narrative featuring hemp fabrication. “Hemp looks like linen, but you really have to try it, and touch it to know just how beautiful it is. It ages well, nourishes the soil it grows in, is naturally UV-resistant, anti-microbial and breathable, and far better than cotton as it is not a demanding crop to cultivate,” Prashansa shares. Hemp is also unbelievably good for the skin, makes you sweat less, and is completely biodegradable. Hemis is making big strides by offering an assortment which, alongside apparel, includes footwear, home decor, stationery, nutrition, and personal care products.
Their biggest challenge in making garments with what is known as the king of fabrics, is the stereotypical confusion of hemp with cannabis. The taboo is strong enough to turn people away. However, hemp is a non-psychoactive super plant, and contains less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis. On the flip side, it is a guaranteed conversation starter, where the team gets to instill awareness in those who are curious. This began with their own families. Together with the usual blouses and trousers, Prashansa also made a hemp sari for her mother-in-law, which is a whole new level of progressive. Above all else, she believes Hemis has given them an opportunity to innovate, educate, collaborate, and mitigate climate change all at the same time. In addition to the direct-to-consumer brand, they also supply raw materials via their sister brand, Hemp Republic, to other small- and medium-size businesses.
Hand skills and ingenuity still don’t seem to get the appreciation they deserve in India. People are constantly comparing prices of handwoven garments to those made possible by power loom. Meanwhile, handmade textiles continue to be in demand across the world. Hermes, Burberry, Christian Louboutin and Gucci are all known to source fabrics from India. “Artisanal textiles from South India are in demand all over the world, but why are our weavers not benefiting monetarily from it?” asks Chethana Anumolu, a handloom advocate and founder and designer at Notch Above Creations. Her contribution to the sustainable movement comes in the form of empowering local artisans and weavers, relevant now more than ever. Chethana has seen first-hand that the slow fashion approach she takes doesn’t always work. “It takes my weavers about three months for 60 meters of fabric to be converted into garments, which obviously means it will cost more.” At pop-ups and exhibitions she has had countless experiences where she had to defend her pricing.
However, since 2016, Chethana has seen people’s mindsets evolve. “Nowadays I have more conversations about the authenticity, organic aspects, and ethical parts of my clothes – the kind I prefer anyway,” she says. What has personally worked for Chethana is to be loyal to one or two brands at most. “It’s not possible to buy every single thing a brand offers, so brand loyalty is a gateway to buying less,” she adds. This approach seems to have trickled down to her customers, as many of them are regulars, often placing custom orders once every few months. According to Chethana, the main reason behind this is that once people get a feel for the quality and fabric, mass-manufactured apparel starts losing its appeal. She hears very frequently that people overwear her clothes, which is a great problem to have. “My mother’s saris are all easily over 25 years old, and I have taken a page from her book. I really hope Notch Above Creations pieces get handed down generations,” she remarks.
The collaborative nature of eco-fashion pioneers in India is a reigning theme across all the stories featured here. Mallika, Shikha, Karishma, Prashansa, and Chethana all feel like the camaraderie is very strong between like-minded entrepreneurs. They are in constant touch with their respective eco-acquaintances, via Whatsapp and social media, to make sure there is continued progress in sustainability. Each of them has also graciously accepted that, along with designing, building a brand, and selling, they will always be responsible for educating anyone they engage with. It is almost as if new forces of fashion are coming together as a collective Captain Planet, and we, the Planeteers, must join the movement. - Namrata