A new direction for fashion’s eco-wagon

Saahra founder Saachi Bahl discusses sustainability and more at the recent #ConsciousEffort Design Show & Conclave hosted in Delhi
Attendees browsing through various stalls at the Design Show
Attendees browsing through various stalls at the Design Show

When striking up conversations about sustainability, a snatch often includes how Indian society has always stressed living in tandem with nature. However, over the past two decades or so, the fashion industry here has taken up the driver’s seat to steer the narrative towards creating an eco-friendly value chain. There has been a slew of advocacy groups and businesses that have influenced behavioural changes in consumers.

Occupying this space is Saahra, a sustainability platform that bridges e-commerce and advocacy. The fifth edition of their #ConsciousEffort Design Show & Conclave was hosted at The Imperial, Delhi, on Saturday. The day started with a panel discussion led by powerhouse designer Anita Dongre and Yash Dongre—the duo delved into the business, opportunities, and challenges faced in building a sustainable fashion empire with crafts and community. They also hosted a sustainability and impact leadership session and an exhibition featuring 20 conscious labels such as Anju Modi, Péro, Akaaro, Nicobar, and others.

Creating a dialogue

When we met Saachi Bahl—the sustainability consultant who founded Saahra to create an “inclusive community”—on Saturday, we were curious about how her initiative is helping create a dialogue between the consumer and brands. The entrepreneur shared, “I honestly believe there will be no change in the fashion industry without engaging the consumer. The consumer is the person that drives trends and demand. The demand-supply balance is bent towards the consumer a lot more [than it is towards the brand]. So the onus of responsibility is more on the consumer than the producer. Yes, the producer has to think about how they can put the consumer in charge of knowing the back-end and value chain of their company. But, if the consumer starts demanding to know these, they can drive change and impact.”

The annual conclave Bahl hosts serves as a platform to include the consumer and the producer in similar conversations. She added, “The #ConsciousEffort conclave is perhaps the only retail/advocacy portal that exists [in India] where consumers can come to learn about sustainability. We take a circular view to sustainability and involve all stakeholders in fashion, right from the maker to the buyer.”

Leading the change

Five years into building this community, Saachi recalls having difficulty getting her foot in the door when explaining sustainability to the average consumer. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was instrumental in accelerating a consumer shift, with more people embracing eco-friendly ideologies and fashion. “With the pandemic, I have seen a shift in perceptions on how sustainability is imperative; it is no longer just an option,” said Bahl.

She continued, “I am happy to see more people engaging with the subject. I am proud that we have created something where we can cover three areas. We educate via the conclave. We engage via the things we do here. For example, today, we felicitated changemakers who won the #ConsciousEffort Clean-Tech Challenge this year. And, we empower people to make better decisions by introducing them to new designers that are making sustainable choices.”

Making a conscious choice

Sustainability is multi-faceted; the focus is not just on one but many areas—organic textiles, fair wages, emission-reduced production, eco-friendly packaging, upcycling, and so forth—and involves multiple stakeholders. We asked Bahl how she defines the all-inclusive term. “Sustainability is not linear. One cannot say that there are 10 tick boxes; it will vary for each brand. Some brands work with technology, which is a space I look at very closely. When working with brands, I also look at the certifications they have. That is one way we filter brands. But, we also need to understand that everything cannot be certified. A few slow brands have been working directly with clusters and weavers, using vegetable dyes, etc. Sustainability, for me, is an ethos. I genuinely believe it cannot be an exclusive phenomenon. It is an inclusive phenomenon. I encourage brands and people to do the best they can, and then when they know better, they must do better,” she pointed out.

Price vs intent

Another constant argument is that sustainable clothing is usually high-priced compared to fast fashion labels and is thus unaffordable. While buying (conscious) clothes, consumers do not realise the number of work hours and resources needed to create it. Addressing this, Bahl—she is the author of My Classic Closet, a book that explores how fashion is an integral part of constructing a person's identity—added, “People need to learn to buy less then. If a product is made in a better fashion, by using better-quality fabrics, with better work, you can’t compare it with another [not made similarly]. Yes, there will always be a price difference. But, consumers need to be encouraged to buy less.”

Time to follow suit

We steered the conversation to the latest move by the European Union that has proposed a sustainability-focused legislation, which hopes to make products more durable and recyclable by 2030. Can a similar set of frameworks be adopted in India? “I am all for it. It is important to filter greenwashing,” said Bahl, including, “At the same time, I am all for people making better choices. That could mean it starts as small as doing it even if not for the right reasons but to jump on the bandwagon, as long as they [the consumers] are doing something right and it becomes a trend for them to get better fabrics, certifications, etc.” We also asked her how greenwashing can be tackled in a country like India? “I genuinely feel we need independent agencies and bodies to certify. Government help is paramount in filtering greenwashing,” she said.

However, Bahl—her aim is to bring her passions of fashion and entrepreneurship together to create greater impact and have a better legacy—concluded, “As of today, I feel there is a lot of good work. I want to focus on the positives. Over the years, [there are] a number of conscious brands that have come up, the number of brands that have aligned themselves with this philosophy, and shifted their ways of operation. I still want to look at it in a very positive light rather than focus on greenwashing. I think every industry comes with its grey areas. But what is happening today in the Indian fashion industry, with more brands acknowledging that sustainability is the need of the hour, shifting their style of operation, and integrating it beyond CSR in their company ethos; I think it is a very welcoming change.”

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