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PM Modi’s push for sustainable clothing: Why India can’t move away from fast fashion

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PM Modi’s push for sustainable clothing: Why India can’t move away from fast fashion

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a blue vest made of recycled plastic bottles in Parliament last week. By doing so, he was trying to make sustainable clothing a conscious choice that needs to be made in everyday life to save the environment. Unfortunately, much talk of sustainable clothing in India continues to be an elite concern, confined to some designer labels and hand-crafted ingenuity. For the vast majority, fashion is still about fast-produced retail wear, an aspiration to be “with it,” affordability and brands than about making conscientious choices about our future in a resource-starved planet.

For example, the polymer company that made Modi’s vest out of fibres and yarn from crushed and melted PET bottles, has been around for 14 years. Founded by an IITian, this clothing line is yet to enter the mass market or even establish brand recall. Yet, its production process saves at least 90 per cent water and 50 per cent energy when compared with traditional methods. Globally, the fashion industry causes 10 per cent of total carbon emissions and is a big pollutant. Worse, its yield of harmful greenhouse gases is projected to grow more than 50 per cent by 2030. The industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water annually. Our National Climate Change Journal (2018) lists textile manufacturing as one of the most polluting sectors of the economy, emitting 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. According to Levi Strauss, 3,781 litres of water are used during the production and use phase of one pair of its jeans while 33.4 kg of carbon dioxide is created throughout its lifetime. This includes growing cotton, processing denim and washing at home. Then there is the issue of waste, chemicals leaching into the water and non-biodegradable leftovers piled up in landfills.

In fact, India’s primary challenge is that green wear doesn’t come cheap, confining it to the category of designer labels or high fashion. That’s because sustainable fashion still doesn’t sit easily on economics. It is not only about setting up a zero-carbon production and supply chain, it is also about including fair trade and ethical practices for labour, nurturing artisanship, recycling and upcycling every bit of sequin, all of which raises production costs. Challenges abound, beginning with the procurement of sustainable raw materials. Organic cotton, handlooms, even recycled fibres, polyesters or deadstock cost higher as do technical interventions needed to minimise water wastage, emissions, effluents and organic dyes. Scaling the business becomes a bigger challenge given the huge demand. Besides, maintaining a circular economy of fashion — which involves recycling, waste management and geometric cutting machines to reduce fabric waste — involves sophisticated technological processes, an indulgence at best by big fashion houses, who, like Stella McCartney, have developed a sub-brand.

Fashion trends move rapidly with seasons and the pret market (mass production of designer wear). This creates the need for fast fashion, involving mass production lines, cheap labour and quick turnarounds. In India, the e-commerce boom and wide smartphone connectivity mean it is speedier to do so, setting off a cultural phenomenon called urbanisation, acquisitive consumption behaviour being its most reliable index. With India’s consumer demographics becoming younger , under 25, fashion and appearance consciousness will dictate buying behaviour. A McKinsey report has already predicted the number of online fashion shoppers in India to reach 500 million by 2030. Globally, too, fast fashion has driven the perception of clothing as a disposable item and a seasonal indulgence rather than a durable good. Data shows that in the last 20 years, the number of clothes bought has doubled from 50 billion garments to 100 billion.

What about industry cred? Even in the West, that’s a tough call. Copenhagen fashion week is the only one which is laying down sustainability requirements for designers this year. The major fashion weeks are still far from firming them up. The European Union is just about testing digital passports on its sustainable clothing brands, where shoppers can scan the code on the label and access the item’s journey, from source to the consumer, tracking its water usage and carbon emissions.

In India, this kind of circularity has a long way to go. One retail fashion experiment by the Aditya Birla group, which uses natural cellulose fabric, is just that — an experiment. One of India’s most successful pret designers, Anita Dongre, runs an eco-sustainable label called Grassroots but that is no match for her mainline mass brands.

Without incentives in the fashion industry, rationalisation of the cost structure, and most importantly, legitimate endorsement by Bollywood and sports ambassadors, sustainable fashion will continue to be an elite obsession, not a practical choice. At the end of the day, only IndianOil, a PSU, has decided to make the Modi vest a part of its staff uniform. Without a glitzy campaign to capture the national imagination, “green clothing” will be reduced to efforts of women’s cooperatives and NGOs while “re-use, recycle, renew or upcycle” will remain confined to individual efforts to make a legacy statement of family heirlooms. Social media posts and hashtags may just not be enough to change buying behaviour. But we do have the world’s best skilled labour, weavers, handcrafters, innovators and are also the world’s largest producer of organic cotton. Can we make it all come together to match shop-floor economics?

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