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Published: The Voice of Fashion, July 23, 2018
(Additional media added to this post.)

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Is it surprising that a country with more vegetarians than the rest of the world put together isn’t a prime market for cruelty-free fashion? Perhaps not. In India, being vegetarian in diet and branded in lifestyle has equal social footing. Genuine leather and silk, and branded goods that use these products are de rigueur. After all, India is the largest consumer and the second largest producer of pure silk in the world.

Pure silk made by boiling silkworms to extract thread; genuine leather, suede and fur made from animal skin including those of endangered species; natural or cultured pearls extracted by prying open and inserting irritants into live oyster shells; pillows and jackets that use plucked bird feathers; products made with red dye that comes from crushing cochineal beetles; testing of beauty products on live animals are among the regular items that cause harm to living beings on their journey to us. While deep followers of religious texts like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism describe ahimsa, the concept of ‘non-violence against all life forms’, as open to interpretation and customarily linked to what is ingested rather than worn.

Western culture has opened up the dialogue on vegetarianism or veganism as secular-ethical choices that trickle to every aspect of one’s life. Musician and PETA supporter, Prince, famously said, “Compassion is an action word with no boundaries,” and refused a fan who tried to give him a leather coat during a concert, saying, “Please do not kill a cow so I can wear a coat!”

In India, the deeply entrenched class system has filtered into the post-liberalisation lifestyle as well. Gandhian beliefs are relics to an increasingly brand-conscious society that draws self-worth from icons of status. Hyderabad-based Kusuma Rajaiah, who holds a patent for eco-friendly mulberry ahimsa silk—silk made without harming pupae—states that while his business has grown from 2 lacs per annum to 1 crore per annum in less than two decades, nearly all of his ahimsa silk fabric is produced for export. It may not be within the local psychology to accept the shift, after all, pure silk, due to its natural sheen and texture, has always been considered to be a symbol of royalty, and, historically, was used primarily by the upper classes. So what chance do ‘cheap’ artificial materials have? Faux fur, made from cellulose or synthetic fibers; pleather (polyurethane); ultrasuede, made from vegan microfiber; or vegan silk, made from synthetic, bamboo or man-made yarn, may not always match up to the ‘real’ thing.

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Pervasively, Indian shopping choices are linked to value. Indians would not be willing to pay top rupee for something not ‘genuine’ and to get high-quality artificial goods and designs can become pricey. Says Sugandh Agrawal of New York-based vegan brand, Gunas, who has spent eight years researching the sweet spot between a viable price point and enduring fabric, “No one wants to pay good money for durable leather alternatives, and the cheaper alternatives peel off. Besides, it is not a priority to invest in a vegan bag.” The starting price for a Gunas shoulder bag is $100 and can go up to $250. Stella McCartney, the world’s first ‘vegetarian’ luxury brand (2001) has nailed style as well as gone deep with the materials. For example, their Falabella Go backpack is created using recycled polyester fabric made from ocean plastic and costs $935.

Vanity and status may play a prominent role, but the most consequential factors in making this decision are simply awareness and deep conditioning, along with the non-existent need to question or defy tradition and rituals. Gurgaon-based professional, Zeal Sharma, who is a Certified Main Street Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, finds with people she coaches and speaks to, that people don’t realise how they may be a part of an industry that has commercialised the exploitation of animals. Many people believe that leather goods come from dead animals, and they don’t question bone china crockery or down feather duvets, despite the self-evident names. “Leather isn’t a by-product. It is the most important co-product of the meat industry. In India, where most of the world’s leather comes from, cows often march hundreds of miles in extreme dust and heat to slaughter, without a single drop of water or food. Workers break cows’ tails and rub chilli pepper into their eyes in order to force them to keep on walking after they have collapsed from exhaustion,” says Stella McCartney in a video for PETA.

“Lack of awareness coupled with hidden facts and our inherent naïveté that ‘good’ companies would do the ‘right’ thing have led to an increase of these products. Moreover, they are easily accessible and now we are habituated to them,” is Sharma’s experience. Eventually, it boils down to change and the will to do so. While PETA India’s website lists approved vegan fashion labels, and even talks about vegan weddings in India, evidently demand follows supply. As Gunas waits to find an Indian partner to launch in the founder’s home country, Agrawal notes that even her extended family hesitates to make the leap. Perhaps it will take a celebrity ‘Gandhian’ fashion icon to set the bag rolling on this concept.