The Plagues of Fashion: An Indian Perspective
THIS WEEK IS FASHION REVOLUTION WEEK—A TIME THAT MARKS THE SIXTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RANA PLAZA FACTORY COLLAPSE, WHICH KILLED 1,138 PEOPLE AND INJURED MANY MORE. FASHION REVOLUTION WEEK NOT ONLY HONORS THOSE IMPACTED BY THE EVENTS, BUT ALSO SERVES AS A TIME TO DEMAND GREATER TRANSPARENCY IN THE FASHION SUPPLY CHAIN AND THINK ABOUT WHO ACTUALLY MAKES THE CLOTHING WE ALL WEAR. NOT JUST A LABEL CONTRIBUTOR RINI BANKHWAL BRINGS A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE TO THE MANY TOPICS THAT COLOR THE WEEK'S DISCUSSIONS.
Today clothing goes beyond necessity for a vast socio-economic segment of the society. Shopping for clothes is a leisure activity and the demand for clothing is projected to increase at 2% per year and the number of times clothes are actually worn has dropped by a third compared to the early 2000s. India’s much talked about retail explosion is still a relatively new phenomenon and largely urban.
It’s 2019 and your clothes are getting intimidatingly smarter. If you’ve shopped for clothes anytime between 2008 and 2019, you would have noticed that your clothes come with new-age labels such as sustainable, eco-friendly, recycled, upcycled, handmade, handcrafted, and many more. (And then of course, there are the gender neutral and binary). And many of your smart clothes also come with price tags and, you know, it’s all got to do something with the environment. You love the idea of this proactive and woke fashion industry pushing its creative boundaries to care for the planet. Correct me if I am wrong, you go to H&M and you see this beautiful ‘cashmere’ coat at a spectacular bargain price calling out at you. But you resist the temptation of buying it and you move on—because you know that for something really cheap someone, somewhere is paying the price. If that sounds like you, then my work here is going to be a cakewalk.
The dichotomy of the consumer behaviour is reflective of today’s fashion industry and is one of the biggest gaps that advocates of sustainability aim to bridge. On one hand there are brands producing large quantities of garments at really low cost by marginalising the garment workers (H&M itself has an inventory surplus in 2018 of $4.3 billion, something, its representatives said, they would tackle by reducing the prices of the garments and opening more stores.) On the other hand there is a slew of progressive, impact-oriented brands like Everlane and closer home No Nasties, Doodlage and Korra, who are implementing principles of sustainability and circular economy, albeit with price points that lend them to cater to a niche audience.
India’s much-talked about retail explosion is still a relatively new phenomenon, and largely urban. For years, Indians relied on traditional wear and domestic brands for their wardrobes. Of late, the likes of Zara, American Eagle, H&M etc. have brought in much more options to a growing audience with high disposable incomes and changing tastes in big cities. Within India itself, per capita expense on clothing has increased due to more options entering the market and e-commerce driving accessibility to tier-two cities. (In 2015, per capita apparel consumption in India was just 45 dollars (Rs 2,894), compared to 172 dollars (Rs 11,063) in China. By 2025, India’s per capita spend is expected to jump to 123 dollars (Rs 7,911) but it will not be catching up with the rest of the world anytime soon, primarily because it continues to be a price conscious market.)
The problems of the above are aplenty. Greenhouse gas is being emitted throughout the fashion value chain, from agriculture and production to the use and disposal of textiles. If the industry stays on its current trajectory, emissions from textile production will globally rise by more than 60% by 2030, according to Ellen Macarthur Foundation. Fashion was created with the notion “take, make, and dispose”. Cheaper clothing means cheaper raw materials like polyester which are non-biodegradable and non-renewable, effectively lying around in landfills for centuries. So we are burning both ends of the candle.
The global fashion industry is a major job creator, one that employs 60 million people along its value chain, with almost 85% of the these workers being women. According to an Amnesty International survey conducted for female garment workers in Bengaluru, 60% of 148 surveyed garment workers reported facing verbal, physical or sexual violence at their workplaces and the conditions under which they work are not those which individuals in white collar work take for granted. A few thousand kilometers away in New Delhi, good samaritans are bringing some of these issues to light. The Good Business Lab, a non-profit set under the aegis of Shahi exports aims to improve the lives of low-income workers by proving, through rigorous economic research, that better social welfare for workers can deliver measurable financial returns to businesses. If profit aiming manufacturing companies are able to establish a link, through used-case scenarios, between worker welfare and financial returns, workers will not need to make trade offs between making a living and their health.
In an industry that has a larger motive to induce change, many businesses are are still profiting either in revenue or visibility by sheer green-washing. If I was to be very honest, I’ve read the word ‘sustainable’ in the the vision statement of many brands and startups who are far from understanding the meaning of the term let alone implement it. Such establishments will continue to exist and you, the consumer, needs to better understand how sustainability works.
Sustainability in the fashion industry, is a spectrum, one which aims to make the industry more inclusive, fair and positively impactful towards environmental and socio-economic issues.
And mind you, these need to go beyond ideologies and towards actions. It takes a lot for brands to create a truly sustainable value chain and in all practicality an absolute is hard to achieve. Brands tend to achieve them in multiple ways: reworking on the raw materials, by using water, energy and chemical effectively and reducing their carbon print, by being an inclusive and fairtrade organisation that has a better wage system, by aiming to reduce wastage or even better designing wastage out of the supply chain by using principles of circular economy. A brand’s sustainability goals may a permutation of any of the aforementioned, but the true nature of the spectrum is to gradually move towards achieving all the goals; one that the world is slowly drifting towards.