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Published: The Voice of Fashion, October 18, 2018

Is sustainable retail an oxymoron? We speak to five retailers to see how they weigh in.

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As the buzz around sustainable fashion grows, how many conversations involve that of the retailer? One of the key elements of the sustainable fashion conversation is to reduce the economy of excess and to encourage people to buy less. And therein lies the dichotomy—can a person who is necessarily driven by the bottom line, be motivated to make these choices?

Finding a Sustainable Retailer

And therefore, can there be a sustainable retailer or is it an oxymoron? Maithili Ahluwalia, founder of multi-brand fashion boutique in Mumbai, Bungalow Eight, points out that the day you are a retailer, your model is built around unsustainability because your basic premise is to sell as much as you can—whether it is season-less or handloom products. She says, “It is hard to say that you are sustainable unless you control the entire process from yarn to finished product. You could claim consciousness or partial sustainability but perhaps, ‘selling sustainable luxury’ is only valid when you have an in-built anti-consumerist ethic, control the entire supply chain and plough back resources into the ecosystem in a circular economy.”

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Bhagyashree Patwardhan, founder and creative director of slow-fashion boutique, Paper Boat Collective, Goa, which veers towards ‘natural’ over ‘sustainable’, believes that “sustainability’ and ‘organic’ are big words and as much as one tries, a hundred percent adherence to it as a retailer is difficult.”

Is there a point then to the dialogue on retail and sustainability? Simran Lal, co-founder of pan-India lifestyle brand Nicobar (and CEO of Good Earth), says, “We don’t claim to be sustainable because it is open to interpretation and there are so many parameters to it. We believe we are a conscious and mindful brand vis-a-vis a sustainable brand. We care about what, how and why we do things and are constantly reflecting on our actions.” And what about an anti-consumerist ethic? Lal says, “Although it does seem like a contradiction, at Nicobar, we have always wanted to encourage thoughtful consumption. Buy less, pay the right amount for the product so that the entire value chain is well taken care of—and thus the quality is superior, waste is less and that is, in my opinion, a conscious way of creating, retailing and consuming.”

Steps Taken

What is it that a conscious retailer can do? Pick the right kind of goods to stock, for one. Patwardhan states that Paper Boat Collective offers handmade products in natural materials, working with small designers, suppliers and manufacturers, who in turn work with smaller craftspeople or use resources that are sustainable. “This allows us a way to build a backend integrated towards sustainable and fair-trade practices.”

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Tina Tahiliani-Parikh, executive director, multi-brand boutique, Ensemble (Mumbai and Delhi) drives initiatives that are embedded in craft—“It is very important that we keep our craft and handloom movements alive in this country. We should not go the way of Japan, where the Kimono is relegated to a ceremonial garment. Ensemble is an active supporter of the handloom sari; and we, right from the start, support a lot of young designers whose raison d’etre is sustainable fashion.”

Toile, Paper Boat Collective and Nicobar have taken it a step further into elements like decor, packaging and materials, respectively. Farheen B Rahman, co-founder of eco-fashion store, Toile (Mumbai), says they use coir for their walls and have upcycled an old Singer machine as their billing counter; while Patwardhan uses recyclable packaging materials, less paper, natural cleaning products, hardly any plastic and also aims to be zero-waste.

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At Nicobar, Lal lists initiatives like offering timeless garments in organic cotton, going plastic-bottle free, reusing packing cartons multiple times and paperless invoicing. She says, “Through our collaborative cafe, NicoCaara, we have created a menu with fresh, chemical-free produce grown at the farm of our partners, Caara, or by supporting local artisanal suppliers who in turn, believe in practising and supporting sustainable businesses.”

The Challenges

Perhaps the strongest hit a committed retailer may take is on the bottom line. Rahman admits that the turnover is very different compared to fast fashion. She says, “It is a slow process. We have refused designers who differed in ideology even though their designs were good and saleable, and those who projected themselves as sustainable but were not.”

Lal is struggling with finding sustainable packaging materials that are “affordable and consistent for delicate and fragile products to be shipped.” She says, “We are currently experimenting with different types, and are willing to take a hit on our margins to make packaging more sustainable.”

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Parikh states that there has been only a marginal increase in consumer awareness towards sustainable fashion. She says, “It is a conversation. A first-time shopper may not buy into the sustainable philosophy immediately. But once they acquire a couple of garments and experience the longevity of the garment, or they are in the ecosystem, they begin to change their minds. It is a very gradual process.”

Creativity and Effort

A little creative effort goes a long way. Celebrating season-less attire, limited production with a curated and thoughtful supply chain, use of non-toxic and biodegradable materials, elimination of waste and being conscious of the carbon footprint. Maybe an upcycling or recycling station at the retail front.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of the American apparel and outdoor gear label Patagonia, reminds his customers in New-York-based publication, The Usual: “Think twice before you buy a product from us. Do you really need it or are you just bored and want to buy something?”

As is the case with a sustainable supply chain, this requires a willingness on the part of the retailer to buy into the philosophy, the knowledge that this is critical to our future and the acceptance that there will be, at least initially, a monetary fallback. And if the consumer isn’t demanding it, perhaps the onus lies on the retailer to open up a fresh dialogue to create a conscious consumer and a responsive demand.