The Price of Sustainability

Tags

, , , , , ,

Published: The Voice of Fashion, June 13, 2019

Working for the sustainability industry may be a noble choice but it is an ongoing struggle for those who must also make it commercially viable

Screen Shot 2019-06-14 at 3.35.42 PM

A label or company that offers sustainable products or services has many challenges in a consumer world that is still unclear about the need for sustainability. These include agreeable pricing, finding suitable collaborators, marrying retail expectations with sustainable production cycles, raising awareness, and through it all, making ends meet.

Here Mumbai-based founders of Chindi, Nadiya Paar and Verandah, who are trying to make a difference with their entrepreneurial ventures on how they negotiate the odds.

 

Chindi

The Pricing Bubble

An enterprise driven by sustainability has to deal with the lack of awareness about what goes into creating a sustainable product, and consequently, the rationale behind its higher price point. Chindi, a social enterprise that recycles textile waste into luxury accessories handmade by low-income craftswomen in India, finds that sustainability is still a niche space. Says founder Tanushri Shukla, “It’s also difficult to compete with fast fashion brands who have changed customers’ perception of how much products should rightfully cost.” This renders the retail of sustainable products difficult, with the consumer unwilling to absorb the cost.

Therefore, such an enterprise may not always be profitable—and seeing this prevents other entrepreneurs from taking the leap. Also, there is no benefit from a funding standpoint—as Shukla points out, with social enterprises not being legal entities in India, they do not get the same benefits available to non-profit organisations.

On the other hand, Anjali Patel-Mehta, founder of resort label Verandah, finds that while the concept of a sustainably-made garment is not understood by many, it is being used as a marketing device. Thus, there is a blurring in the minds of a consumer.

Patel-Mehta struggles to replace her luxury staples like cotton and silk with more sustainable fabric alternatives which have the same texture but are not as taxing on the environment (cotton, for example, requires a great deal of water in its production). She also stresses the need for industry-certified sustainable vendors.

One of the biggest challenges faced by conscious designers is the slow and limited production cycles. Says Megha Kanera of Nadiya Paar, that specialises in handloom saris, “A big challenge is the pace of the ethical industry versus fashion cycles. A piece takes a great deal of effort to produce and stores want new products every four-six months.”

 

Verandah

The Impact of Change

Shukla feels that change doesn’t have to come from the customers as much as from non-sustainable brands making their money by flogging cheap products that exploit their labour force. She says, “They are the ones who have conditioned customers and their voice is loud—so that should be the first point of change. Customers, on their part, would benefit from building a sense of empathy and awareness about what goes into making and selling handmade, sustainable products.”

But as awareness slowly rises about the searing need for a sustainability conversation, more brands begin to buy into the philosophy, automatically increasing the scale, acceptance, and viability of the sustainability dialogue. For example, Verandah didn’t start out as a conscious label. Patel-Mehta says, “Initially we didn’t stress on sustainable textiles. As our awareness grew about the ‘true cost’ of fashion, we felt it imperative to have sustainable practices.” Today, Verandah’s RTW (ready-to-wear) lines speak the language of upcycling, azo-free dyes and mindful fabrics, while their eco-friendly swimwear line, launched this summer, mostly uses ECONYL® yarn, regenerated from waste materials.

 

Nadiya Paar

Making Sustainability Work

Shukla started Chindi in response to witnessing first-hand the vast quantities of tailoring waste dumped in Deonar (Mumbai), Asia’s largest landfill. Says Shukla on the motivation to keep going, “It is all on the belief that the work is making an impact. The word ‘chindi’ (which means thrift), which was once considered a negative thing, has now entered the daily parlance of designers.

She also points out that, “As social entrepreneurs, we cannot always measure our success in the same terms that a commercial entrepreneur does. Money may not always flow in, but the impact goes beyond money. We need to pay attention to our stories of change as much as our bank balances.”

Patel-Mehta, who believes she still has a long way to go, says, “I think success is in the efforts and goal-based approach by setting small metrics for your personal philosophy. There is no finish line.”

At the end of the day, the strongest impact is in building a mindful community. Kanera, who shares best practices—like the brand’s seed tags—with her fellow designers, puts it best when she says, “We share vendor or material detail with other labels who now use a similar concept. I also travel with fellow designers to craft hubs so we can give combined bigger orders to weavers to make it viable for them. We do not treat anyone as competition, rather as people working and walking in the same direction.”

The Myth and Reality of Sustainable Diamonds

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Published: The Voice of Fashion, June 5, 2019, World Environment Day
Images courtesy DPA and Diamond Foundry.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 5.52.59 PM

Exactly 20 years ago, Advertising Age (global media brand now called Ad Age) proclaimed the 1948 “Diamond Is Forever” De Beers (diamond mining company) advertisement as the slogan of the (last) century. This remains a testimony to the successful positioning of the diamond as a sparkling beacon of romantic love. But perhaps it is time to review the price we may be paying for it ecologically.

India is one of the largest markets globally in the purchase and manufacture of diamond jewellery, showing steady growth in popularity vis-à-vis traditional gold jewellery. And yet, there is a remarkable disinterest in the environmental effects of the diamond industry—perhaps due to lack of genuine information, inadequate media coverage and strong marketing by big diamond houses towards keeping the romance of diamonds alive.

The Impact of Diamond Mining

At the most basic level, traditional mining creates displacement of wildlife and vegetation. Often this leads to irreversible ecological damage, industrial and chemical waste, heavy water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and consumption of fossil fuels.

Globally, with the increasing popularity of ‘eco-friendly’ lab-grown diamonds, there has been a renewed interest in the sustainability of mining. Perhaps in response to that, on May 2, 2019, the Diamond Producers Association (DPA) released a commissioned report, ‘Total Clarity’, to evaluate the benefits of the mining industry. But can that be taken at face value? The DPA, formed in 2016, comprises seven companies including the De Beers Group, representing approximately 75per cent of the world’s rough diamond production.

Jean-Marc Lieberherr, the chief executive officer of the DPA admits, “On the environmental front, the impact is globally negative, like for any large-scale industrial activity. Today, 100per cent of the irreversible environmental costs associated with large-scale diamond mining by DPA members are linked to greenhouse gas emissions, which is equivalent to 160kg per polished carat.” The DPA report speaks of renewable energy, biodiversity programs, and land being reclaimed at the end of the mining cycle. But it is not as simple as putting the earth back into the ground—closure can take many years and several hundred million dollars.

Meanwhile, sustainability has to take environmental as well as socio-economic factors into consideration—after all, the $82 billion industry provides a livelihood for 10 million people worldwide (De Beers Group insight data 2017).

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 5.57.31 PM

Is Your Diamond Conflict-Free?

In a 2015 Time magazine (American weekly magazine) cover story, 34-year-old Max Rodriguez says, “I don’t want a symbol of our union to also be associated with chaos and controversy and pain.”

Diamonds bought or sourced from big brands like Forevermark and De Beers come through structured channels. But 20 per cent of world diamond production by volume (Diamond Development Initiative or DDI data), is from the Artisanal and Small Scale Mining (ASM) of diamonds, 90 per cent of which operates informally and with little oversight.

Besides the endemic environmental damage, miners face difficult and occasionally hazardous working conditions, lack of access to fair market prices, and the use of diamonds as potential “currency” to finance rebel armies (Total Clarity report).

Decades after the 2006 political war thriller, Blood Diamond, which described the grim connection between diamond mining and the financing of conflicts, most believe that diamond mining has come a long way with the Kimberley Process, an international diamond certification system set up in 2003. And yet, as reports suggest, not only is the Kimberly process riddled with loopholes, it also doesn’t guard against human-rights abuses, unfair labour practices or unsafe mining conditions.

Innovations to Create Accountability

De Beers, in partnership with the DDI (that works to effect change in the ASM sector) launched GemFair in a pilot program last year in Sierra Leone (West Africa). It includes a digital app to track diamonds recovered by artisanal miners through the supply chain. Ian Smillie, chair of the DDI and founding participant in the creation of the Kimberley Process says, “GemFair undertakes to make an offer on all diamonds produced by these groups at fair market prices. It has shortened the pipeline and created a strong traceability mechanism.”

And after several years of trial and error, last month the DDI formally launched an innovative certification system, the Maendeleo Diamond Standards.

The Alternative To Mined Diamonds

Last year in November, a manmade diamond ring by San-Francisco (the US)-based Diamond Foundry and co-designed by Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, was auctioned for $461,250 at Sotheby’s (New-York-based auction house).

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 5.56.16 PMDiamond Foundry ring

The industry and the consumers may be polarised on manmade versus mined diamonds, but technology offers a choice. A diamond can be made in a lab, by replicating the same conditions that it takes to make a diamond over many years below the earth’s surface (HPTP—high pressure, high temperature) or by chemical vapour deposition (CVD). Today, it is possible to easily create a Type IIA diamond, which is like the ‘Koh-i-Noor’ (one of the largest cut diamonds in the world)—rare among mined diamonds.

A lab-grown diamond also needs to be responsible for labour practices and particularly, high levels of energy consumption, due to the extreme temperatures required to produce a diamond. Diamond Foundry, for instance, has been certified carbon neutral and their zero net carbon footprint includes their employees commuting to work.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 6.01.12 PM

Bringing a Diamond Back

Recycling diamonds makes a diamond’s journey last longer by resetting a stone in a modern design. Rough Polished (analytics firm) reports that an estimated $1 trillion worth of ‘used diamonds’ are locked away in private hands. The diamond industry, by virtue of the marketed emotions attached, thwarts the potential recycling of diamonds.

“Many of today’s younger consumers aren’t only open to alternatives, they are willing to pay a premium for products that have a low environmental impact or are socially responsible,” states a Morgan Stanley 2016 research report.

Lieberherr points out, “We are not perfect, no industry is—but we are working to be better.” As in most cases, blaming an industry is not the answer; rather it is in holding the stakeholders accountable. And as a consumer, demanding specifics to make informed decisions. After all, the critical step, as in all sustainability conversations, is to create a truly transparent supply chain.

 

Sustainable Indian Weddings. Really?

Tags

, , , , ,

Published: The Voice of Fashion, May 9, 2019, Opinion piece

More than 10 million weddings take place in India each year, but how many of them would ever be eco-friendly?

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 5.43.54 PM

Have you ever heard of a muted desi (local) celebration? Or, the words: “I am getting married, but it’s not really a big deal.” That’s not the way India rolls. The grand cinema of weddings is a metaphor for life. It tells the world that this is so big, that it cannot, will not, and should not fail. In this ode to matrimony lies the foreplay of the bride and bridegroom. They are made to feel so special—nothing is bigger than them at this moment, nothing can trump this card. Certainly not environmental concerns.

The Indian wedding market is estimated at approximately ₹33,000 crores, the world’s second-largest, after the US market; while growing at an estimated 20 per cent a year, the Hindu Business Line reported in 2017. The same article reports that an average Indian spends an estimated one-fifth of their wealth accumulated in a lifetime on weddings.

Weddings are largely—like most luxury purchases—what you want to communicate to the world about yourself. And as the Amazon Prime series Made in Heaven (2019) suggests, weddings are a societal farce, a suggestive discourse on tradition and morality that lends itself to deep hypocrisy. As the video documenter of these weddings, Kabir Basrai (played by Shashank Arora), asks in the show—why is this the biggest moment of a woman’s life? As if everything she is and has done leads up to this point? It’s who you are, as a person, sure, but particularly, it is your standing in society. Royal, regal, rich and very unsustainable.

According to a 2016 story published by Fashion United, a UK-based fashion industry network site, as per industry estimates, in the top 15 Indian cities people usually spend between two to 20 million rupees for three to five days of extensive celebrations, from mehendi, sangeet, haldi, baraat and pheras to bidai. The immense cost to the environment to generate the orchestra of the grand wedding, including but not limited to the intricate invitations, wasted food, elaborate décor including fountains, stages and mandaps, services flown down from various parts of the world, heavy use of non-biodegradable products including plastic (think of the many barely-consumed bottles of water) and fabric (synthetic and otherwise) drown sense and sensibility.

A great start would be for Indian parents to forget the number of weddings they may have attended and curate a guest list comprising a select few, while simultaneously restricting the affair to a single event. And in a fell sweep, reducing the burden of ‘the biggest party they would ever throw’.

If a host would dare to change the mindset that organic is not skimping on the finery, then sourcing local, bio-degradable elements or going au naturel and keeping it minimalistic would be de rigueur. Couples in America have been reported to be open to second-hand garments and opting for no-paper-or-plastic and zero-waste catering. For the invitations, choosing recycled or seed paper, or sending e-vites. Perhaps one could give up gold-silver-and-bone-china gifts in favour of an eco-friendly registry (or accept donations to a charitable or sustainable organisation) and mindful favours.

The Fashion United article also suggested that the average clothing budget for an Indian wedding is $375,500 (₹26,257,197) and up to 80per cent of a designer’s business comes from bridal couture. In 2017 The Economic Times, a business daily, reported that weddings could save costs by renting outfits and jewellery. The most ethical and sustainable option for jewellery is vintage or heirloom, even if redesigned and updated in style. After all, ethically-made jewellery from lab-grown diamonds and recycled metal are better alternatives than new jewels, which bear the burden of mining.

Perhaps wearing a sari that is not brand new to even your own offspring’s wedding would make a statement—that the environment and their future on this planet matter.

While the lack of knowledge about the heavy carbon footprint of celebrations plays a role in choices being made, one could argue that in India particularly, the environment would not be a factor in the decisions. Also, as suggested by Viswanathan Raghunathan in Games Indians Play: Why We Are the Way We Are, socially, Indians are not primed to think about the greater good versus the private need. Savings, loans and investments are considered for education, marriage and health, and among certain income groups, marriage trumps all the others. If only marriage could be evaluated as a meaningful relationship with a person and the environment we live in—low-key, natural and organic, subtle and meaningful, like life and love should be—perhaps we could visualise an eco-friendly wedding in India. Until then, the industry just grows in the most unsustainable fashion.

Riding Up A Storm: Polo Players of Manipur

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Published: Elle Magazine, March 2019
Photographs: Ashish Shah

Manipur’s growing polo sisterhood has put the birthplace of the sport back on the global map—and may well revive the endangered local pony too….

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 5.12.19 PM

On a hill around Heingang village, on the outskirts of Imphal, there is a pony shrine to Lord Marjing, the god of polo, where the Meitei (the majority ethnic group of Manipur) come to worship, and where the local polo players go to light candles before a game. There is mystical energy at the shrine as prayers are offered to Sanamahi, the patron god of every Meitei household, who created the Samadon Ayangba—a fast and fierce pony with wings.

The legendary Manipuri Pony is symbolic of a culture that has struggled in many ways to ride forward. L Somi Roy, the grandson of Manipur’s former monarch Maharaja Churachandra, left Manipur for USA in the ’80s and on his return two decades later, found the pony listlessly ambling the streets of Imphal feeding on plastic. Despite its mythological and historical importance, the semi-feral animal’s grazing areas were lost due to negligent urbanisation. Today, the Manipuri Pony is an endangered species with an estimated population of fewer than 500.

Roy, who is a conservationist and a custodian of culture, realised that the only way to keep the pony alive would be to help build up Sagol Kangjei (Manipuri polo) by bringing international attention to it. Manipur is considered the birthplace of modern polo—the British later exported the sport to the rest of the world. Mapal Kangjeibung polo ground, situated in the heart of Imphal and surrounded by urban buildings, is one of the oldest extant grounds in the world. It dates to the early 17th century, with references that go back to the first century AD during the reign of King Kangba.

As polo has been male-dominated in Manipur, female players were seriously lagging in the sport due to lack of opportunity and direction. That changed with Roy’s initiatives. Drawing upon his contacts at the United States Polo Association (USPA) in 2013, Roy, along with his US partner Ed Armstrong, began inviting women’s polo teams from abroad to hold a local tournament in Imphal.

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 5.12.51 PM

And thus began the Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament, India’s only international women’s polo tournament, in 2016, in partnership with Roy’s Polo Yatra (an enterprise for women’s polo in India), the USPA, and Manipur Tourism, with only one visiting team: USA. The annual tournament has grown exponentially since then. The recently-concluded season in January this year had four foreign teams—USA, Canada, Kenya and Argentina—along with the Indian Polo Association (IPA) team with the support of Manipur Tourism, Incredible India, and the Bombay Stock Exchange. It was produced by Polo Yatra and organised by the All Manipur Polo Association. In testimony to its growing global standing, Argentina put together a tournament called the Manipur Cup in 2018, where the winners of the 13 participating teams came to play in Manipur.

Daughters Of The Polo God (2018), an award-winning documentary film on the female polo players of Manipur, which had its India premiere on the opening night of the tournament, perfectly captures the spirit on the ground. Roopa Barua, the film’s director, says, “I had only heard stories of civil unrest, terrorists and army atrocities in Manipur. But when I went to Imphal for the tournament in 2016, I saw that women’s polo was a growing story—the symbiotic relationship between women’s polo and the endangered Manipuri Pony was a very unique concept.”

Roy points out, “Women have been at the forefront of change in Manipur—they are entirely fearless.” Three-fourths of the country’s female polo players come from the state. It has 26 polo clubs, many of which have women players (two of these clubs are even owned by women), with over 30 women players and five women’s teams in Imphal alone. Fifty-four-year-old Thoudam Thoinu Devi exemplifies the term “boss lady”: she owns the Chingkhei Humba Polo Club, which now has over 80 horses that belong to its members. Her niece, 23-year-old Thoudam Tanna, who was named Best Manipuri Player in this tournament, is as formidable on the field as her aunt is off it. “She was nobody in that world—less than 15 years old, she came in her old clothes—and yet she won first prize at the equestrian games,” says a proud Thoinu about her niece in Daughters….

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 5.12.35 PM

The local polo players hail from humble backgrounds—in Manipur, polo isn’t linked to economic status and the players don’t necessarily own their horses. Khundongbam Habe, at 35, the oldest local player this season, sells vegetables to pay the bills. “Maintaining ponies is very difficult and expensive. The polo association contributes to their care, but there are hurdles, like the lack of grazing grounds and the decreasing number of ponies,” she says. An untrained pony could cost INR 50,000, while trained animals could range from anywhere between one lakh and three lakh rupees. And then there is the burden of gender inequality—the players describe how the men’s teams have many more facilities and are also sent for equestrian jumping and national games, while the women’s teams are not.

On January 17, at the opening ceremony of the polo tournament, 18 local and international artistes performed with a range of instruments including the Manipuri pena and the guitar in sweet synergy. It is symbolic of the camaraderie displayed by the local and international teams on and off the ground. Anna Winslow Palacios, from Team USA, who was in Manipur for the second time, was impressed with the improvement in the play of the local girls—they drew with Kenya and lost to Argentina by just two goals. At the insistence of Ricardo Mihanovich of the Federation Of International Polo and Ed Armstrong of Team USA, they received the first Most Improved Team award from Polo Yatra. Palacios says, “They are all so passionate and willing to learn—like sponges, absorbing all that we had to offer. On the field, they were right there with the top players.”

The Manipuri women players are self-trained—they don’t abide strictly by fixed international or Indian rules of polo. And the Manipuri Pony, unlike a thoroughbred, is no longer ideal for modern polo—it is small, even if it is swift and lithe. Delhi-based Monica Saxena, the captain of the IPA, says, “The horse is 80 per cent of the game. The challenge is that the Manipuri girls only learn and play on the local horses, but I see great potential in them. With proper coaching, they can beat any international team.”

Some of the foreign players take time off before the matches to teach the Manipuri players, often with the help of translators, as not all the local players speak English. And as recently as November 2018, The Tata Trust company, at Roy’s initiative, formed a centre in Imphal where 20 local players were inducted to undergo training. Mriganka Singh, from team IPA, says, “I have lived and played in Delhi, where there are very few women polo players and no tournaments like this that allow you to improve your game. Polo in Delhi is very competitive; my polo experience in Manipur with players of all ages, from 14- to 50-years-old—was unique and a reminder of the reason for my passion for the sport.”

Perhaps coming full circle the foot of the shrine to Lord Marjing is a 200-acre piece of land sanctioned for a pony preserve. “While saving the pony is an ongoing struggle, we have a policy in place, and it is declared an endangered breed,” says Roy. During the tournament, there was a pony preservation conference held at Manipur University, where the participation of players from the international teams further underscored the global concern for this breed’s conservation.

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 5.13.53 PM

Meanwhile, fresh out of the tournament where their team gave their more-experienced opponents a run for their money, Tanna and 20-year-old Victoria Oinam and Neelu RK are on a high that their eventual loss hasn’t dampened. Says Tanna’s sister, Thoudam Sanajaobi, also a state polo player, as she sits out and cheers herself hoarse while her sister plays this season, “I dream of going to other places to play polo.” They turn to look at the foreign players, with wistfulness and the uncynical hope of youth, awaiting a time when they may celebrate the Manipuri Pony and its sporting tradition by riding beyond borders.

A Stitch In Time: The Weaver of Manipur

Tags

, , , , ,

Published: Elle Magazine, March 2019
Photograph: Ashish Shah

The 70-year-old Padma Shri awardee, Langpoklakpam Subadani Devi, is championing Manipuri weaves and weavers and is nowhere close to done

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 4.02.19 PM

The deep lines on Langpoklakpam Subadani Devi’s face deepen when she smiles, suffusing her drawing room in Imphal, Manipur, with a warmth that the meiphu (coal burners) at our feet only complement. Subadani, a weaver, entrepreneur and former primary school teacher, is the recipient of the Padma Shri award (2018), the Sant Kabir Award (2011) and the National Award (1993) for her contribution to the field of art, weaving and handlooms.

Clad in a phanek (the traditional wrap skirt) with a shawl that is gracefully pinned with her latest award, Subadani looks on as her husband, Langpoklakpam Ibopishak Singh, enthusiastically brings out a thick dossier of her achievements. Subadani, he says proudly, has skillfully created modern versions of ancient designs. Her creativity is evident in those like the embroidered India map pattern or the Sha-Nga (half animal, half fish) motif woven onto cloth. Some of these textiles are now on display at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Bharat Nagar, New Delhi.

Weaving, which she learnt from her mother and aunt, started out as a hobby for Subadani, at age 10. She left her job as a teacher when she got married, and a few years later in 1983, she roped in other young women to form the Nongdol Lairembi Weavers’ Co-operative Society in Imphal. It requires registering over 100 people to form such a cooperative—a feat that Subadani managed to pull off at the time. The society began with 15 looms, and today, three decades later, that number has grown five-fold.

The women in the cooperative, after completing their daily chores, weave to provide additional income for their households. Subadani provides the raw materials and designs, and buys the finished products from them. A cupboard in her extended drawing room serves as a makeshift storefront for the textiles. Bright colours, muga (silks) and heavily starched cottons and blends, make for beautiful traditional stoles, dupattas, half-saris (which the locals team with a phanek) and saris. Each piece can take weeks to craft, and on average, only two pieces are made in a month, with saris taking even longer.

She has, with her entrepreneurial instinct, organically increased the reach of the local weaver. Besides the garments sold in her home, they also reach local and state-level markets, like the annual Manipur Sangai Festival (a large-scale showcase of local culture, tradition and handicrafts). Over time, she has also developed inroads into national exhibitions and export fairs around the country.

Besides a hands-on approach to keeping Manipuri designs and textiles alive, Subadani also campaigns for systemic support for them. In 2008, she served as an evaluator at the Textile Meeting in Imphal, where she petitioned for the inclusion of the centuries-old Wangkhei phee (a sheet design of white cotton, originally made in muslin), Shaphee Lanphee (a traditional black and red textile embroidered with religious motifs) and Moirang phee (a woven border design originating in Moirang) in the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act.

While there is a strong will to create a success story for Manipuri weaving, Subadani and her cooperative say they are struggling to find a way. A lack of funding is the crux of their problems; working with a limited budget, and not seeing the reach of government schemes makes it difficult to expand. And even though, as Gautam Vazirani, strategist and curator, sustainable fashion at IMG Reliance’s Lakmé Fashion Week points out, the textile industry in the north-east has the highest concentration of handlooms in the country—over 53 per cent, with more than 50 per cent of India’s weavers living here—it is fraught with challenges, including poor supply chain management, due in part to the difficult local terrain and remoteness of weaving communities.

And yet, Subadani, who now walks with a limp because of years spent at the loom, is hopeful. “I want to do more for the local weavers, establish more centres and teach them what I know, so that I may help them achieve all that I have achieved.” The loom, deeply symbolic of how far she has come and what she is still trying to achieve, holds pride of place in her home. Perhaps her vision for the future, despite its challenges, is not lofty considering her single-minded focus.

The Warp & The Weft

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Published: Taj Magazine, Volume 2, 2018-19

India’s once vibrant and sustainable textile ecosystem may have receded with the drifts of social, economic and political change. A new vigour brought about by a revivified contemporary aesthetic may yet turn the tide, says Sitanshi Talati-Parikh.

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 12.52.30 PM

The rich texture of thousands of years of Indian culture seeps in like a natural, yet permanent dye in its fabric and woven traditions. It is a symbolic thread that connects the nation in its diversity; perhaps a striking case where tradition marks culture, where craft describes history and where colours speak of the passage of time —of lives lived and memories created.

Weaves, threadwork and textile decoration, among other indigenous crafts spin yarns —even if coloured with the emotions of the artisans — describing the local life. Influenced deeply by the local socio-economic-political environment, but also linked to moments of celebration, like festivals and weddings. The craft, in some cases, has been a rite of passage: a woman decorates her own trousseau that becomes a part of the dowry she takes with her when she gets married.

While over centuries, communities have survived because of their traditional crafts, these have faced erosion in many ways. As Gautam Vazirani, strategist and curator — sustainable fashion at IMG Reliance/ Lakmé Fashion Week, points out, “Many of our local techniques have changed in the last few decades in terms of authenticity of practice, either at the raw material level or in the original process, or in the woven design approach. Only true craft connoisseurs and historians can highlight the state of many languishing crafts today.”

Shefalee Vasudev, the editor of The Voice of Fashion, a digital destination that explores the intersection of fashion and culture, finds that while there are crafts slipping away from us for varied reasons, perhaps not everything needs to be sustained simply because it once existed. She says, “It has to be seen what can be produced, created and have a sense of utilitarian as well as aesthetic value in the contemporary arts and crafts scenario and then sustained or revived.”

The Changing Colours of Dyes

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 12.49.32 PM

Until the late 19th century, the art of natural dyeing—using natural sources like plants, insects or shellfish—thrived in the Indian subcontinent. Indigo (derived from the indigofera flowering plant) lends itself to the fantastical peacock-plume tones of the country. In the 19th century, Bengal was the world’s main source of indigo. The advent of aniline dyes in 1856 by British scientist William Henry Perkin, and their spread to colonial countries, led to post-independence India no longer retaining its tradition of natural dyes with the exception of a few rural communities.

Revival movements in the 1970s by social reformer and freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and in the 1990s by activist and advocate for craft and natural dyes, Ruby Ghuznavi, initiated the change. But the discovery in 2009 by Dr Himadri Debnath, deputy director of the Botanical Survey of India in Kolkata, of a unique 15-volume set (with 3,500 samples) of Specimens of Fabrics Dyed with Indian Dyes, compiled by British Victorian dyer Thomas Wardle, and believed to have been lost, was pathbreaking to understanding the rich history of natural dyes in India.

Today, conscious designers are willing to pick up the mantle once more. Kolkata-based Maku has brought back the splendour of natural indigo, and brands like Delhi-based 11.11/eleven eleven and Ahmedabad-based Soham Dave only use natural dyes; while Colours of Nature (Auroville) collaborated with Levi’s to launch the first truly organic 511 jeans made with organic indigo dye and local cotton yarn in 2013.

The Art of Fabric Decoration

In contemporary times, industrialised, machine-made versions have largely replaced India’s traditional, rich and varied embroidery forms. The art was popular during the Mughal empire, and Indian floral motifs have influenced British embroidery, including the popular paisley shawls. Colonial demand subsequently led to mass-production and reduction of the handcrafted process which could take months.

Not restricted to garments, forms of embroidery appear on wallhangings, home furnishings, fashion accessories and textiles. Mostly inspired by nature and local life, prints and thread-work would create patterns in vibrant colours often embellished with zari (precious gold or silver thread-work) or varak (precious gold or silver foiling). Genuine varak printing on fabric is very rare today and reportedly there are only two artisans in Jaipur who still practice the art.

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 12.49.23 PM

As handmade items are reclaimed as new embodiments of luxury, and local runways are reviving many of the handcrafted techniques, many of these old decorative textile styles have been lost forever—like the Tanjore paintings on fabric using precious materials, which have inspired many offshoots but are no longer available in their original form. The Kodali Karuppura saris, created in a small town in Tamil Nadu, mainly for the Thanjavur nobility, have, Vasudev points out, completely vanished. The hand-painted and naturally-dyed textile flourished under the patronage of the Maratha rulers of Tanjore—today, a few samples can be seen in museums in India and abroad.

While designers like Kolkata-based Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Mumbai-based Anita Dongre have taken up the mantle of India’s embroidery tradition—Dongre has found a way to contemporarise it with brocade dresses and traditional embroidery on western silhouettes—the local craft has also found glamour on international runways. Belgian couturier Dries van Noten has had an embroidery workshop in Kolkata since 1987, while brands like Valentino, Gucci, Givenchy, Balmain, Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior, among many others, work with Mumbai-based trade embroidery companies to this day.

The gara style of embroidery on traditional Parsi saris had been losing popularity and been replaced by machine-made versions—due in part to the diminishing Parsi community and the painstaking process—until there was a renewed interest in the form, along with its use on accessories and the modernizing efforts by designers like Ashdeen Lilaowala. Even as insurgency hit the supply of local craft, Srinagarand-Delhi-based Kashmir Loom by Asaf Ali and Jenny Housego has, successfully contemporized their traditional handwork on cashmere shawls, by incorporating global colours and designs with the age-old techniques, in what they state is, “Preserving heritage while fostering its progress.”

The art of Kalamkari (drawing with a pen) includes stories and mythological tales told on fabric using natural dyes. Kolkata-based designer, Divya Sheth, brings back nature-inspired kalamkari work on her runway pieces.

Sheth says of the experience, “I have had the chance to witness the joy and ease with which the artisans create their masterpieces. The ladies start painting once they complete their daily chores.”

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 12.50.03 PM

Handloom Tales

With minister of textiles, Smriti Irani, throwing her support behind Indian handlooms, and the shutterbugs catching the likes of Indian cinema veterans Kangana Ranaut, Sonam Kapoor and Vidya Balan in handloom saris, one accepts that the loom is in focus again and this time, not with the elements that defined the ‘Khadi’ look.

The charkha, or the handloom spinning wheel has a strong symbolic element: while it suggests economic empowerment, it is also an element of the country’s freedom struggle representing self-sufficiency, as well as unity and alliance—it forms the crux between an ecosystem of farmers, weavers, distributors, and consumers.

Among the nomads of Ladakh or in the hills of Kashmir, life and the act of weaving are deeply linked. For instance, in Ladakh, the woven cloth is linked to the birth of a child, where the warp (representing the man) and the weft (the woman) in harmony lead to the creation of new life. And yet, there is a long way to go for the new lease of life of the handloom garment.

Today, Indian artisans are facing a tremendous challenge from the advent of the power loom and machine-made garments. For instance, much of the famous Kota Doria textile in Kota, Rajasthan, is being woven without the real sari (that was a signature material) and the fabric itself is being made in power loom and not in the traditional handloom (for commercial reasons). However, as Vazirani points out, Craftmark’s initiative with Kota Women Weavers is in the process of reviving traditional weaving techniques with genuine materials.

Tribal textiles have been impacted, and consequently the local economy. Vazirani, who has worked extensively in the north-eastern region of India, points out that there has been a shift to acrylic yarns and fabric for weaving instead of cotton, silk and wool yarns, with a mutation of woven designs due to changes in cultural, economic and environmental conditions.

Vasudev brings up techniques that may be lost, like the painstaking Dakmanda weave of the Garo tribe in Meghalaya. Even as the industry in the North East has the highest concentration of handlooms in the country—over 53 percent of looms and more than 50 percent of the weavers live in this region—it is fraught with challenges including poor supply chain management.

Vazirani says, “There is a good opportunity to address the challenges and find sustainable solutions through the Action Plan on North-East India Report—an initiative in partnership with the United Nations in India and IMG Reliance—for the mainstream industry.” And as handloom hits the runway, one may also credit the persistent and long-standing efforts of conscious designers.

For instance, designers like New Delhi-based Rajesh Pratap Singh revert to the old traditional techniques—setting up the loom to make the garment and weaving it from the start. In fact, when Singh’s looms are empty, he uses it to make saris to ensure sustainability not only of craft and thread but also of the iconic garment. Designers like Delhi-based David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore of label Abraham & Thakore and Rahul Misra; as well as labels like Bodice, which won the 2017/18 International Woolmark prize for womenswear, and Raw Mango are among the many designers adopting handmade textiles and handcrafted garments. Misra’s motto is clear on his website: “My objective is to create jobs which help people in their own villages, I take work to them rather than calling them to work for me. If villages are stronger you will have a stronger country, a stronger nation, and a stronger world.”

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 12.51.47 PM

The Frugality of Fashion

An intrinsic part of indigenous craft used to be the considered use of materials. Cyclical production was a part of the natural ethos of the communities, as what was made was in direct relation to demand. In India, such thrift is not new: saris and dupattas are used in the manner in which they come off the loom, while designs like ponchos and kalidar clothes are constructed keeping the wastage of fabric to a minimum.

And yet, today, approximately 120 billion square metres of fabric end up as waste in India, China and Bangladesh alone, not including garment rejections during quality checks. Knowing this, Delhi-based Kriti Tula of label Doodlage says she upcycles up to 600 kilograms of waste fabric every month. Designers like Karishma Shahani Khan, the founder of Pune-based label Ka-Sha, in her ‘Heart to Haat’ ideology works with her own scrap and that of industry friends’ material in footwear, stuffed toys, embroidery, patchwork, macramé and bags.

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 12.51.38 PM

The State of Workers

While sustainability in terms of keeping craft and knowledge and enterprise alive is important—we are constantly reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” A year-long research project called the Garment Worker Diaries that included field study in Bengaluru, India, reported on the sorry state of the garment workers; mostly women.

Long hours, being forced to do more work than their allotted quota, lower pay and verbal abuse were unveiled in the report. In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh—which housed five garment factories supplying global brands—saw the death of 1138 people while 2500 were injured, which should be a sufficient wake-up call for the fashion industry.

Today, designers are reportedly making attempts to work directly with cooperatives, like Mumbai-based brand Kishmish with NGO Kala Swaraj and designer Samant Chauhan for the cause of master weavers in his native Bhagalpur, in Bihar. Reportedly, Gaurang Shah works with over 700 weavers across India and The Goodloom by GOCOOP enables a direct connection between handloom cooperatives and artisans. There is a growing, if nascent, push towards better labour and environmental standards and more transparent supply chains, with the advent of global organizations like Fashion Revolution in India.

Demand and Supply

Vasudev points out that the general awareness of what sustainability in fashion means is very poor, and it slants merely towards that which is organic and natural. She believes that to say India is realigning itself towards sustainability would be a premature remark because the masses are not aligned with it. “The sustainability manifestos are lost; they have to be brought together and pushed in a contemporary format and I do not see that happening very much, even as the sustainability argument is staggered with clued-in fashion designers and manufacturers,” says Vasudev.

While it hasn’t reached mainstream consumption, consciousness is growing among a certain audience, as awareness continues to increase. Niche retailers like Paper Boat Collective in Goa, Toile in Mumbai and pan-India brands like Good Earth Sustain and Nicobar make attempts in individual ways to be mindful— in choice of products, materials and packaging. The Auroville market in Pondicherry supports a sustainable ethic—supply and demand work in tandem with mindfully crafted goods versus mass-produced ones.

And so, we may hope that more people begin to lean towards what Vazirani strives for: “An awakening and appreciation of the wealth we have in our country in terms of our artisans and the beautiful textiles that they are capable of weaving without any luxury facilities or formal education. An understanding of who we are, when we say Indian fashion, and establishing our own independent sense of style. It is feeling of pride in wearing the Khadi shirt, or the handwoven Indigo-dyed dress, or the Dabu hand-printed saree instead of a Western high-street outfit. Nowhere in the world can we get access to the luxury of genuine handmade as we still do in India.”

We can also work toward a socially conscious and sustainable fashion ethic so that Indian fashion undergoes a shift towards what Vazirani calls a “fashion consciousness—where what you wear makes a commitment to a higher ideal beyond its hanger value or glamour.”

Link to PDF of the story. The Warp and the Weft – Taj Magazine 2019

Christie’s: The Modern Connoisseur, The Art of the Sari

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Event: Christie’s India evening discussion on The Modern Connoisseur: The Art of the Sari
November 27, 2018, at Christie’s Mumbai

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had the opportunity to share the stage with Mumbai-based conscious designer Anavila Misra who has risen to rapid popularity over her linen saris (among other linen garments). She uses a mix of natural dyes, undyed fabric and AZO-free chemical dyes. The linen fabric is hand-woven and made by local artisans.

At the invite of Sonal Singh, head of Christie’s India, I led a conversation with Anavila, talking about the sari as a modern garment and linen as a fabric. Tracing the history of the garment, to its modern space today, Anavila spoke about its relevance and its evolution.

We touched upon topics that included:

  • The fabric of India—is it subtler today? In colour, embroidery and aesthetic?
  • The story behind Anavila’s love affair with linen.
  • How has linen changed the perception of fall and drape? Technically and symbolically with respect to silhouettes.
  • Is the modern Indian garment or textile more sustainable? What does that mean?
  • The significance of the sari in India and how we may bring the sari back to daily use from occasion-led wear.

Video coming soon. Watch this space.

Man-made diamonds—soon in a store near you

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Published: Mint Lounge, Saturday, December 1 edition

Created diamonds may lack the story and romance of mined ones, but they are sustainable

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 10.52.58 AMThe (Red) Diamond by the Diamond Foundry

On 5 December, The (Red) Diamond, a man-made all-diamond ring with no metal, will be auctioned by Sotheby’s, expecting to raise between $150,000-250,000 (around ₹1-1.7 crore). While the solid sparkling block—which is expected to have an unprecedented 2,000-3,000 facets—has been created by the Diamond Foundry, a San Francisco-based start-up that counts actor Leonardo DiCaprio among its investors and is designed in part by Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, it is the auction house which lends authenticity to the hitherto contested diamond form.

Retail man-made or lab-grown diamonds came into unprecedented focus in May, when the De Beers Group—the once-monopolistic diamond-exploration, mining, retail, trading and industrial manufacturing company—introduced the lab-grown diamond brand, Lightbox, in the market. In a path-breaking move for the tightly controlled industry, De Beers, the world’s largest miner, has begun selling “above-ground” diamonds at $800 a carat (mined diamonds can cost anywhere from $1,000-20,000 per carat).

The myth of rarity

Lightbox has positioned lab-grown diamonds to be a “not rare” counterpart to mined diamonds, suggesting on their website that these are a fun, accessible form of diamonds for “lighter moods and lighter moments”. “We’re prosecco, not Champagne; street-style, not red carpet; for friends, not fiancées,” said Sally Morrison, chief marketing officer for Lightbox, as reported by Luxury Society, at the jewellery industry’s leading annual trade event JCK Las Vegas in July. David Johnson, head of strategic communications for the De Beers group, emphasizes, “Lightbox will only be a relatively small business for De Beers Group, running adjacent to our core business in natural diamonds.” And yet, their press release earlier this year stated that De Beers had enabled the construction of a $94 million facility in Oregon, USA, which, when fully functional, will produce upwards of 500,000 rough carats of lab-grown diamonds a year.

De Beers, which pioneered the concept “real is rare”, has had the technology to make lab-created diamonds for three decades with their industrial manufacturing company Element Six. In fact, diamonds were first artificially created in the 1950s for industrial use by companies like General Electric. They have only recently become viable, through technology, to be used in fine jewellery. So what are lab-grown, man-made, created, cultured or above-ground diamonds? Intrinsically, they are exactly the same as a mined diamond. They are not fake—there is no chemical, visual or structural difference and they are both composed of incredibly pure crystal carbon as a single crystal. Depending on colour and size, it can take one-three months to create a lab-grown diamond, by simulating the conditions that it would take for a diamond to be formed naturally in earth. In fact, the July Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling, which dropped the word “natural” from the definition of a diamond, makes it impossible for them to be called anything other than a diamond anymore.

But they are not to be confused with substances like cubic zirconia, moissanite and Swarovski crystals, that are similar in appearance but differ completely in composition.

While mined and created diamonds are exactly the same, most consumers tend to believe what De Beers has conditioned us to consider—the rarity of a mined diamond, which is purely perception. A February 1982 article in The Atlantic, “Have you ever tried to sell a diamond?”, exposed the cartel-like control that De Beers has over demand and supply. With the heavy decline in diamond purchases in the early 20th century, De Beers, according to the article, devised a multi-fold global plan to increase demand via a carefully constructed perception of rarity (by controlling the supply), an illusion of price stability (by setting global standards) along with perpetuating the desirability of diamonds. In the 1940s, a well-orchestrated diamond advertising campaign—the iconic “A Diamond Is Forever”—literally saved the floundering diamond industry and popularized the sentiment that diamonds, with their assumed rarity and brilliance, are the true markers of romance.

With the influx of sparkling above-ground diamonds—which can be found mixed with and sold as mined diamonds—retailers in the US provide official, certified options of both diamonds to consumers. Will jewellers in other countries follow suit? Johnson insists, “Forevermark, a premium natural diamond brand, does not sell laboratory-grown diamond products, and will not do so in the future.” Large local retailers like Tanishq do not anticipate the market primed for change either. “I do not see man-made diamonds replacing mined diamonds,” says Sandeep Kulhalli, senior vice-president retail and marketing jewellery division, Tanishq. “They lack the story and romance, the mystery and rarity of diamonds that the industry has collectively and painstakingly built over 100 years.”

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 10.49.09 AM

Creating awareness

What may tip the scale in favour of man-made diamonds is that they are at least 30% cheaper—with further lower prices in the wholesale market. ALTR Created Diamonds, headed by the India-born-New-York-based Amish Shah, has been producing created diamond jewellery for US retailers—like the Warren Buffett-owned Borsheims and Helzberg. As they only grow type-II A diamonds (which are akin to the best-quality diamonds made of pure carbon, like the Kohinoor diamond), the gems boast an unparalleled sparkle. Moreover, with the size upgrade made possible by the pricing, they are finding favour in the international bridal (solitaire ring) market.

Companies like ALTR are betting on the “bigger and better” game. Shah believes that affordability of created diamonds is the main reason behind his retailers’ growing sales figures. He says, “The perception of the consumer has been built by years of exposure to mined diamonds. A created diamond is everything a diamond can be, but better.”

There’s also a question about sustainability. While mined-diamond companies argue about the fossil fuel consumption in producing above-ground diamonds, Diamond Foundry is a certified carbon neutral company, and Shah states that ALTR uses wind turbine energy and has provided jobs to more people as a result of the high demand. Mined diamonds may have withstood the stigma of unsustainable mining over decades, but consumers may no longer want to turn a blind eye to the potential risks of mined diamonds if there are other alternatives.

Shah is confident that consumer perception will change with awareness, particularly when they come in contact with a certified-created diamond, whereupon the illusion of difference vanishes. Kulhalli disagrees. “Consumers may set demand intensity, but retailers and manufacturers drive the supply and trends for precious jewellery with design-led offerings,” he says. “Change can only happen when large retailers take the gamble. Which retailer has the appetite to risk his current, thriving business to offer this option?”

Yet change may be around the corner as ALTR, which makes its diamonds in India, is geared up to enter the local market next year with its creations. Perhaps it will set the stage for thinking about luxury and investment as parallel paths. If you may not, in the future, be able to sell your diamonds at a profit, perhaps your version of the Kohinoor may be a better one to hold on to.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 10.48.54 AM

How can you make a diamond?

HPHT (high pressure, high temperature): By subjecting a genuine diamond “seed” to extreme pressure and temperature, simulating the organic process and conditions in which they are created below the earth’s surface.

CVD (chemical vapour deposition): Similar to 3D-printing, where carbon is layered on top of a genuine diamond “seed” in a vacuum chamber. This is a popular form of diamond creation for colourless diamonds, and can consistently produce type-II A diamonds.

Who Pays For Your Fashion?

Tags

, , ,

Published: The Voice of Fashion, November 13, 2018

The Garment Worker Diaries collected from data on the lives of those who make our clothes unveil harsh truths. 

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 4.19.50 PM
“Usha and her Indian counterparts reported far higher levels of verbal abuse in the workplace than did the women in Dhaka or Phnom Penh. And women in India consistently reported being forced to do more work than their allotted quota for the day.” This is from a documented report (available on workerdiaries.org), filed after a year-long research project from mid-2016 to mid-2017 called the Garment Worker Diaries (GWD) which collected data on the lives of garment workers in India, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Usha and the other workers in Bengaluru, which was where the study was conducted locally, work 48 hours a week or less—which is substantial, but far less than the women in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

The directors of the GWD write how hundreds of thousands of workers labour long hours in the hope of receiving minimum wage, which is set at $105 per month for India (roughly ₹7,600), and yet, labour-rights advocates say that workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India often receive less than the minimum wage. Even if they do receive the minimum wage, the advocates say, it may not be enough for workers who need to pay housing costs and provide themselves and their families with food, health care, and other necessities.

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 4.19.03 PM

The Real Picture

The GWD project was led by global non-profit organisations—Microfinance Opportunities in collaboration with Fashion Revolution—and supported by C&A Foundation, a global corporate foundation aiming to transform the fashion industry. Field researchers spent time with 180 garment workers in each of the three countries to learn the intimate details of their lives, including what they earn and buy, how they spend their time each day, and whether they experience any harassment, injuries, or suffer from pain while at the factory. An Indian research firm, which they had worked with before, Morsel, conducted all their fieldwork in India. According to the World Bank, India was the third largest exporter of clothing globally in terms of US dollars in 2015.

Guy Stuart, executive director at Microfinance Opportunities, who led the project, found that there were no great surprises, but there were some patterns that emerged. Of the three locations studied, the Bengaluru workers, who live along Mysore Road, worked disciplined hours: 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. But, they “regularly reported being insulted and humiliated by their supervisors”, says the report. The workers made monthly contributions into the state health insurance and pension systems. Despite ostensibly having health insurance the workers ended up paying for health care out of their own pockets at private clinics because the public clinics were not accessible. Sarah Ditty, head of policy at Fashion Revolution, says, “We were very surprised by the precarious nature of garment workers’ financial livelihoods in all three regions studied. Clearly, their wages are not enough to cover any big, unplanned costs, and they really do appear to live teetering on the edge of poverty and debt.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 4.19.34 PM

Empowerment Through Information

The outcome they hope for, after this intensive study, is that clothing companies, consumers, factory owners, and policymakers will be able to use the insights identified to understand how the decisions they make affect a garment worker’s condition. This is where Fashion Revolution steps in: to get the data in front of change-makers who can influence the global clothing supply chain, the regulatory environment, and the social protections available to garment workers. Stuart says, “I strongly believe that good information can make a difference in how people view the world and promote social justice. Furthermore, we know the power of the financial diaries in showing how people manage to make ends meet.”

Post the GWD report and blog, Fashion Revolution’s aim is to increase transparency to make informed shopping choices through credible data. They have released case studies, a magazine called ‘Money, Fashion, Power’, a three-part podcast series called “Who Made My Clothes?” and an automated email tool where consumers can send a message to their favourite brands asking them to give garment workers more of a voice.

Eventually, it boils down to impact. Says Ditty, “Tens of thousands of people worldwide have listened to the podcast and read the magazine; thousands of people have used the automated email tool. Some brands have taken the time to provide thoughtful responses about what they’re doing to ensure that garment workers are able to raise concerns about their pay and working conditions.” She states that the GWD data portal is being used as an educational tool in a number of fashion and business universities and is being closely studied by fashion brands and retailers who are using it to have a deeper understanding of the day-to-day reality of the workers in their supply chains. Ditty concludes, “While it’s difficult to tell exactly how this will impact brands’ practices, we know that brands are certainly taking the results of the study seriously.”

As the study tries to humanize these garment workers, can we identify what drives them to continue working the way they do? Says Stuart: “The common thread is simple: they are working hard and earning as much as they can for the sake of their children. They want their children to have a better life and are trying to get them as much education as possible to achieve this.” A lofty aim, on less-than-minimum wage.

Is Sustainable Fashion Affordable?

Tags

, , , , , ,

Published: The Voice of Fashion, November 8, 2018

Breaking through the misconceptions and myths about the cost of a sustainable garment, what are the practical considerations for a greener wardrobe?

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.03.34 PM

Between the tempting bait of fast fashion price tags and the cost burden of a sustainable garment, a shopper is less likely to make the environmentally-friendly choice. Add to that, are things like accessibility and post-purchase care of a sustainable garment. “Wearing it would in itself be a chore and something that needs planning. It’s not quick and easy,” says marketing professional Shaista Vaishnav. Inspired by a talk by strategist and curator, sustainable fashion at IMG Reliance/Lakmè Fashion Week, Gautam Vazirani, Vaishnav has been trying to turn her wardrobe green.

A sustainable garment would necessarily cost more than a fast-fashion garment because it nurtures the supply chain—from using eco-sensitive materials to non-chemical dyes, from handcrafted elements to providing artisans with fair wages. Even storing waste fabric to be reused later adds to the cost of the garment. The only way fast-fashion companies can sell clothes at the rock-bottom rates they do is by cutting corners elsewhere. Mass-produced garments with cheap synthetic fabrics and harsh chemical dyes are placing an irreversible burden on the planet, and the lack of fair wages and decent working conditions for garment workers has become a chronic concern in manufacturing countries like India, China, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.04.34 PM

A Sustainable Philosophy
Perhaps because of these vast considerations, Deepshikha Khanna, head of apparel at Good Earth Sustain, is of the belief that choosing ‘sustainable’ is more about buying into the philosophy than it is about buying a product. When you understand why it costs so much—the time and effort that went into making that garment—then you are aware of its post-purchase care. Adds Khanna, “People commonly believed that sustainable fashion isn’t stylish, it is rustic. This has changed. Some of the softest sustainable fabrics like Khadi muslin are setting trends all over the globe today.”

Philosophy it may be, but Vazirani takes it a step further, suggesting that sustainable fashion—especially that which is made in India—is not merely fashion, it is akin to a work of art. He says, “If someone who is buying a hand-spun, hand-woven or hand-dyed/printed outfit were to understand the level of work that goes into making it by the artisans and their families, they would never be able to tighten their purse strings. It will also be difficult to discard the pieces or have the constant desire to keep buying new. You start looking at your wardrobe as a custodian of culture, heritage and sheer dexterity of human skills. You will accept the price, as it is not just an expensive tag or brand that you are paying for, but respect for someone’s labour.”

Perhaps for that reason, despite the range of fair-trade, organic garments abroad, Vaishnav finds the choices to be more in India. “I realised that I would rather spend ₹5,000 on a garment and have 12-15 good pieces, than buying five easily-spotted fast-fashion pieces for that price.” And that is what design consultant and stylist, Ekta Rajani suggests: “Excessive consumption can be replaced by considered consumption.”

Worthy Investment
Rajani’s Instagram posts are captioned with details of the number of times a garment has been worn. She says, “I like the term, ‘something old, something new’, where two pieces may be old, but one might be new.” Swapping clothes is also a great way to keep the wardrobe fresh. Mumbai witnessed its first-ever clothes swap on October 6 with 130 items swapped in six hours. Says Dhawal Mane, Global Fashion Exchange Ambassador for India, “Wardrobes are underutilized—swaps encourage extending the useful life of the apparel.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.09.03 PM

Aneeth Arora, founder of slow-fashion brand, péro, feels that offering two garments in one is another way to think about sustainability. The designer says, “With slow or upcycled fashion, the piece itself may appear to be expensive, but by investing in one good piece as opposed to multiple fast-fashion pieces, your overall expense is reduced.” She points out that a reversible jacket may itself be more expensive than a fast-fashion jacket, but the quality with which it is produced as well as the fact that it is reversible allows for longevity and multiple wears or looks.

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.04.57 PM

Rajani finds ways to think creatively about her wardrobe. “With old products, you need to be a little bit more imaginative. For instance, figuring out how to wear the same trouser in five different ways: with a skirt, shirt, tunic, sneakers or heels. The beauty of the times we live in is that there are no rules. If you like a look, you can figure out—by taking a couple of extra steps—how to achieve it with what you already have in your closet. Even if you buy trendy pieces, buy them of better quality, so they last.”

While the change needs to extend from demand to supply, it must also come from within. Arora finds that people are becoming more conscious about what they are buying and at what price. But, as Vazirani points out, “Sustainable fashion cannot be equated with price, it’s real value is the impact a consumer can have on human lives through their purchase.”