Break for sustainable fashion in India on the horizon as pollution, wastage concerns rise
Fashion is a fashionable cause. Pantone has named Illuminating (bright yellow) and Ultimate Gray as its 2021 Colour(s) of the Year, but the soul of fashion is turning Green. Sustainable fashion is the accelerating trend in the world of pret and couture, as ethical lifestyles in eating, building, living, travelling, motoring and shopping hint at making the world a guilt-free place. One truck capacity of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second somewhere in the world, according to the Isle of Wight-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation that is pushing fashion to move to a circular economy.
The fashion industry’s annual production is 400 billion square metre of textiles leading to cutting room floor waste of 60 billion square metre. In the present pandemic-mutating world, crippled by global warming and deprivation, and where fashion and lifestyle choices directly affect the environment, sustainability isn’t just a bandwagon for trendy consumers to thumb a lift. It is a personal choice that involves protecting the environment, pursuing and reviving dying traditions and lost legacies while also helping thousands of artisans rendered jobless by the coronavirus contagion.
A variety of young Indian neo-fashion pioneers are breaking the boundaries of conventional creative imagination by using local and exotic materials like beeswax, watch parts, coconut accessories, cross-national techniques, employing exquisite but obscure traditions like rural tile-making and producing customised avant garde natural designs to take Indian design to the next level.
Just like a cheeseburger, fast fashion is quick and novel, appealing but unhealthy for both the body and the environment. The world over, many fashion giants are moving away to the circular fashion economy whose three main traits are: (1) The same garments must be worn more and used more, (2) Creating apparel with safer renewable materials, thereby junking nonrenewable ones, and (3) Reinventing and refashioning old garments while recovering the textiles and fibres.
As a production-based country, India is directly impacted by overproduction that leads to excessive consumption of chemicals, pollution of water resources, unequal standards of living and product waste. While the West has realised the importance of conscious consumption, India is yet to accept that its rich textile, motif and design heritage have the potential to lead the way for sustainable fashion. “If we do not start embracing sustainable fashion now, the future is grim,” warns designer Gautam Gupta, whose two-decade-old label has zero-waste philosophy. He uses only handspun, natural fabrics and dyes.
The leftover cloth goes into making buttons, tassels and potlis, and appliqué work. Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, avers, “The beautiful thing about our country is our heritage. Our past was the most sustainable form of living. People say India is a latecomer to the sustainability game but to be honest, we were already living it until fast fashion and life messed it up.” Nothing is 100 percent sustainable. Simplification is the key. Rina Singh launched Eka in 2011 with a singular view of creating minimal, comfortable clothes from biodegradable natural fabrics that would work across continents, seasons and ages. “Doing clothes is not confined to seasons. Something anybody can wear any time and a dress that represents India’s crafts language defines sustainability for me,” she says. Her studio employs solar energy, green water harvesting and responsible waste management. Sustainability isn’t just about wearing clothes made of organic cotton or cruelty-free Ahimsa silk. Old motifs and handicrafts would be revived, recreated and popularised. Local is global. How labels get their audience to respond to them determines their true value.
For instance, Aneeth Arora’s Pero, which recently won the Threads of Excellence Award presented by the Union Ministry of Textiles, is a proponent of upcycling, working with pure textiles and chemical-free dyes. Sustainability is timeless, it is versatile. For instance, a classic white shirt is a sustainable choice, vis-à-vis, say a crystal stud shoulder pad Mad Max-inspired shirt—a view supported by Rajesh Pratap Singh, whose eponymous label thrives on the philosophy of a timeless product being the first step towards sustainability, be it his white pin-tucked shirt, a pair of indigo khaki jeans or a lustrous kinkhab jacket. Since its launch, the label has been synonymous with proprietary scientific textile modulations that integrate handloom with high-tech methods.
Singh’s work with natural indigo, khadi denim, wool, metal yarn, ikat and cellulose fibres like Tencel is a masterclass in innovation. “While sustainability is not a new concept for brands, designers and manufacturers, the rise of the sustainable consumer is pushing brands to look at ethical alternatives through a unique prism,” says Kriti Tula of Doodlage. Sustainable design is not a new trend in India. Radhika Khaitan Mittal and Madhvi Khaitan Pittie’s WorkshopQ that reimagines junk; Anu Tandon Vieira’s furniture pieces that use discarded tyres—she refurbished the Udaipur palace; Mumbai ad film producer Jenny Pinto’s lights, home accessories and stationery handmade from waste fibres of banana, sisal, mulberry, pineapple and various river grasses; Prakash Mehrotra’s driftwood furniture; and Shreya Jain’s handcrafted and biodegradable appliqué and embroidered shams and hand-pleated silk bedspreads are pioneering examples of the trend.
The pricing is reasonable, varying from a few thousand rupees to around Rs 2 lakh. A hundred more new labels could be declaring their arrival in the ‘sustainable fashion and lifestyle’ space—the marketing catchphrase in vogue. Some noted labels listed here explain the mantra of sustainability through their work. We take a note of not just what’s on offer in their shop fronts but also their evaluation of sustainable fashion, so that a discerning audience gauges it is all about prolonging use, reducing excessive consumption, indulging in indigenous craftsmanship, giving back to nature, reimagining, reusing and recycling. Maybe more…
Founder Mahima Gujral Wadhwa
Signature Sui (needle). Clothing with a green heart
Backstory As a young fashion graduate whose first job was with Dior, Wadhwa preferred to shop for high-street brands. “It was mindless consumption! My eyes opened to the mistakes I was making just to be ‘trendy’,” she confesses. She enrolled for a short course on sustainability during her post-graduation in Italy.
Process Wadhwa realised that sustainable or slow fashion was perceived as ‘boring’, ‘earthy’ and ‘anti-fit’. “I knew that beautiful clothes could be crafted using better fabrics, slower processes and a green ethos.” Her products are inspired by Nature, made respecting the planet and the artisans who make them, and the community that wears them. She will repair old garments to extend their life span.
Inspiration From ‘no one will understand what conscious fashion means’ or ‘the consumer is not aware’, the fashionpreneur noticed that many other houses are walking the same path as she. If you are shopping sustainable you’ve already lit the conscious side of your mind, is her motto.
Collections Flora extravagance is evident in the dreamy hand-woven wool dress, hibiscusy off-the-shoulder Tencel tops, summer monster trousers, leafy bookmarks, daisy headbands etc. Their tribute to Covid-19 fight is a range of masks—sunflower masks, the souk mask, flower power mask and more. Coming soon are ‘Tropical Sunshine’ summer 2020 and ‘Wildflower’ winter 2020 edit.
Viewpoint “We must be conscious of what we buy, right from the story it tells. It is a win not only for the buyers but for the weavers, block printers, craft makers, vendors who contribute to the cause.”
Founder Nitika Sonkhiya
Signature Most products are made of bamboo, coconut shell and coir with coconut leading the passion count. Its bamboo makeup-removing wipes can be reused up to 200 times.
Process Reuses coconut shells to make fashionable home décor products. It has developed a cork yoga mat that makes a great alternative to the chemical PVC mats.
Conversation starters Coconut shell smoothie bowl, bamboo reusable cutlery kit, Ayurvedic pure handmade copper water bottle with honeycomb design. Bestsellers are personal care products such as organic neem wood combs, bamboo toothbrushes, cork yoga sets. Pencils and pens made of plantable seed paper. Some popular accessories are freshwater Keishi pearl earrings, recycled pearl earrings. An interesting innovation is using beeswax in the making of the brand’s Beesless food wrap. Mesh bag made with organic cotton.
New collections Fashion crafts made of Kauna grass (water reed), jute and coconut shell bags.
Price point: Rs 690 to Rs 1,990
Founder Kriti Tula
Backstory In 2014, Kriti began to collect fabric waste from factories around Delhi. Rejected for minor flaws, there were panels large enough to be stitched back together. The bootstrapped firm’s SOP is to handle one problem at a time and carefully curate their small supply chain.
Process Artisans doodle on their pieces to fix a defect. The doodles are modules to start conversations and raise awareness among consumers about alternatives to fast fashion. Buyers shouldn’t have to compromise on style to consume consciously. Result: short, well-finished limited edition collections that save tonnes of fabric from landfills and down-cycling. The label makes season-free clothes with low-impact raw material, and provides better wages for artisans.
Plus Go to the website to get recipes and formulas for zero waste winter skincare and gift ideas like reusable Japanese furoshiki fabric, upcycled masks, zip wallets, fully recycled notebooks.
Collections Doodlage X Harago uses cultural craftsmanship and ancient textile techniques such as block printing in Bagru, fine count handlooms of West Bengal, lungis and handloom denim from Tamil Nadu and heavier handwoven fabrics from Rajasthan. Read khadi bedspread shorts, ikat string pants, Jetson jumpsuit and virasat shirt with one button closure. Each piece is exclusive and made only on order. Delivery time is 10-14 days. New in are a Yui pink dress, denim member jacket, Gail pants, Nika wraps and more.
Viewpoint “While it’s not easy to achieve a holistic sustainable label, we need to think about the planet and people over profits.”
Founder Abhisek Basak
Signature Hand-sculpted objet d’art, art jewellery, home décor collectibles and men’s accessories. Discarded vintage watch parts, machine parts, lamps and radios are sourced and turned into beautiful, versatile, functional items. The products tell stories, evoke nostalgia and travel back and forth in time. Exquisite craftsmanship, intricate handwork and an attention to detail with a keenness for restored artefacts make each product a conversation starter.
Backstory Basak conceived Absynthe Design in 2010 to take his hobby of designing products and jewellery seriously.
Process Absynthe’s jewellery is made from 95 percent recycled materials using non-traditional objects such as old watch parts, machine parts, dead insect wings, skulls and bones, broken pieces of furniture, curios and so on. “Our creations should stoke your curiosity and inspire you to imagine beyond the ordinary. People love to unravel the layers of creative details.”
New collections The designer has a watch parts obsession going by many of the products such as cuff links, rings, lapel clips, tie pins, USB sticks, gadgets and exquisitely engraved writing instruments. Everything is made on order. Coming soon—watches made from vintage watch parts and reimagined radios that are more than about just music.
Conversation piece Typewriter table lamp
Viewpoint “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We then consciously adjust our functioning to keep reducing consumables. Considering we consume more than this planet can replenish, the question should not be of ‘if’ or ‘how’ but a decision of ‘let us’.”
Founder Emily Chakraborty
Signature Saris, jewellery, shoes, meenakari earrings, blue pottery neckpieces, accessories and home décor items made by master artists, tell stories of India.
Backstory Emily is a traveller at heart who explored India in the last 25 years, fell in love with its arts and crafts. Her mission is to revive its heritage across the urban landscape so that India rediscovers its love for handmade organic products such as the 150-year-old art form from Tamil Nadu of baking Athangudi tiles, and dabu work with phetiya prints from Akola hamlet situated between Chittorgarh and Udaipur.
Process Handcrafted products are made using natural materials and techniques while creating constant work and growth for artisans and operating a sustainable venture. Kaisori employs 30 clusters across India with over 500 artisans in West Bengal, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, covering more than 25 types of crafts ranging across textile, accessories, wellness, home décor and art curios.
Core mantra “Simplify choices, share knowledge and support artisanal-led initiatives to create a healthier ecosystem while upholding an organic lifestyle, patron involvement and to value authenticity.”
New collections Capsule collections are launched every few months. Coming up now are ajrakh and bagh specials.
Viewpoint Sustainability is a lifestyle choice.
Founder Vidhi Rastogi
Signature Artisanal Lucknowi chikankari, resham chikankari, zardozi, kaamdani, Nui Shibori. Heritage embroidery crafts on handwoven fabrics. Conceptual motif art collection in chikankari that celebrates Awadh and its history.
Backstory She quit a corporate career to be the creative head of the ethical heritage craft-based label. Her grouse: “The West popularised ‘Use & Throw’ and ‘Cheap & Best’ consumerism at a time when Indian fashion was rooted in sustainability.” Now, she holds Khayal-e-Meiraas events that share stories, organises interactive online sessions (Chat with Meiraas) and answers questions related to legacy fashion. Highpoint was Breakfast with Ruskin Bond, a reading of the Mussoorie writer’s Rain in the Mountains. Guitar chanderi, Veena mulmul and Tiger mulmul are a unique take of the whole nine yards. The brand has incorporated Shibori, the Japanese art of tie and dye in saris.
Process Working with master artisans in Lucknow, Rastogi aims to attract consumers by educating them on the evolution of legacy crafts and motifs. Minimalism is celebrated with fine chikankari, since maximal chikankari has extremely few buyers and is unsustainable. Rastogi’s artisanal chikankari label introduced embroidery on handwoven fabrics to incorporate sustainable fashion in each garment.
Revelation While social media is a vast information juggernaut, it has unfortunately opened a Pandora’s box of half-baked knowledge. Lifestyle choices are now reduced to marketing hashtags.
New collections Ancient motifs on contemporary silhouettes with natural dyes. Apparel made of Ahimsa silk and linen.
Pause moment Finding an ancient motif of Queen Victoria’s crown in an abandoned chikankari factory.
Viewpoint “We can’t advise people ‘do not buy’, when India’s burgeoning population is dependent on consumption.” Neither can we promote mindless purchasing just because the product is handmade. This will turn slow fashion into fast fashion.
Price point Rs 3,500 to Rs 1.5 lakh, depending on the work
Founder Amrita Giriraj
Signature Innovatively designed jewellery created using plant material and natural products. Hair accessories like the Hydrangea Juda Pin, Allium Mix Hair Slide/Comb, Coral Queen Anne’s lace Hair Slide/Comb. Baby Maidenhair Small Necklace, Azure Hydrangea Ring and Bluebell Moss vial celebrating the calendula flower that represent gratitude and affection.
Backstory In 2014 when Giriraj was graduating from Srishti College, Bengaluru, the class was instructed to create a sustainable business model for a local seashell artisan group in Kanyakumari. The idea was to take a seashell, cast it in its entirety and enhance its natural beauty.
Process Alankaara procures its raw materials from the local flower lady. Giriraj initially tried to use bio-resin in her work. It consumed too much electricity for polishing. Eventually, she found a UK supplier with an eco-stamp. Packaging uses corrugated boards that dissolve in water. The pouches are made with upcycled gada cloth from factories in Tirupur, and embroidered by nuns in a Kanyakumari convent.
Conversation piece Egyptian Starcluster (Pentas) Flower with Wormwood Leaves Ring. Ancient Egyptians believed the flower held the light to physical transformation.
Coming up A marine life project—collaboration with glass artists from Firozabad—to recreate the underwater reef using natural elements. Part of the profits will be donated to the Reef Foundation to protect marine life. Fossilised jewellery and accessories handcrafted in Madras with botanicals from across the world.
Viewpoint Mend, not replace, should be the mantra of sustainability. Give back.
Founder Gauri Malik
Signature Furniture made with recycled waste. The sustainability quotient of this ethical lifestyle and home décor brand’s products is derived from natural raw materials. Sirohi uses jute and cotton or upcycle waste from plastic and textile industrial trimmings woven into ropes to make the end product.
Backstory In 2008, Malik was wrapping up her post-graduation in Finance and Economics from the University of Warwick. Her research on the ‘success of microcredit provision’ led her to intern with a small NGO in Trujillo, Peru. “I needed to move out of my comfort zone to find similarities in unfamiliar territories,” says Malik, who wanted to apply the lessons to do something that would impact a change in India even in a small way. The birth of Skilled Samaritan was triggered by this want, which later led to the conception of Sirohi.
Process Skilled Samaritan’s initial project used solar energy to power up almost three villages and 10 schools in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Malik noticed the charpoys there were made from candy and chocolate wrappers. “We employed women from the same communities to apply their existing skill-sets of charpoy weaving.”
USP Customised handwoven creations to encourage consumption with consilience.
Viewpoint Concentrate on aesthetics, sustainability and functionality. People shouldn’t buy Sirohi products just because they’re handwoven by women artisans. The biggest tenet of sustainability is valuing quality and functionality over appeal or price to benefit both individuals and the environment.
Their Heat to Haat initiative aims at zero waste generation, while also recycling and upcycling materials to create practical products. All their pieces are created with natural fabric and dyes by skilled artisans.
Anavila Sindhu Misra, Anavila
Her experiments with the unwieldy fabric have made her homegrown label synonymous with organic drapes and fuss-free shapes. After working with natural yarn or handwoven textiles, she has added value to them using natural dyes and minimising waste.
Mia Morikawa and Shani Himanshu, 11.11/Eleven Eleven
With bandhni as their trademark, the label continues to experiment with clamp dyeing, block prints, mud resist and kalamkari traditions. Their zero-waste policy results in reclaimed accessories like bamboo backpacks, slip-ons, shoes, necklaces and notebooks.
Ruchika Sachdeva, Bodice
Apart from the all-natural yarns, handloom textiles and mill-made materials the label uses to make their creations, Sachdeva is passionate about biodegradability. LDPE bags are used for packaging. Coconut shell and wood buttons are fashioned from waste. They tie up with handloom facilities to make fabric from reused yarn and waste.
The decade-old sustainable luxury label employs exhaustive handmade techniques to empower craft sectors in places like West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Varanasi. A big proponent of reverse migration, the designer prides himself on aiding his craftspeople to return to their villages to work from their home.
The couture and diffusion label stands out for its experimentation with recycled polymer sheets—cutting, folding, moulding and freezing them into architectural shapes, adding discarded patola and Banarasi textiles in beautiful design.
Sustainable fashion has been breaking ground in India, as ethical consumption becomes a global lifestyle trend, creating a new breed of eco-designers. 2021 promises to be a rewarding ‘waste not, want not’ year.