I have always loved the touch of fabric on my skin and how the warp and weft feel on my fingertips. Although I could never afford to own the finer ones, I would at least get to assess the expensive garments drape my body for a brief minute under the all-reality baring harsh halogen lights of the trial rooms. Sadly, the pandemic has robbed me of the only way I could experience luxury in a brick and mortar store.
As a faithful observer of the ever-evolving landscape of fashion; I have followed ‘sustainability’ as a practice for years now. Understanding that our delicate ecosystem is on the verge of collapse and our impulsive consumption habits are contributing to the impending ecological doom has never been more important. According to the UN Environment, “the fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions,” two major issues that need to be immediately addressed.
However, the very concept of sustainable fashion has personally been a conflict of interest. The conscious shopper in me is in a constant moral loggerhead with my financially unstable self which makes me question its viability. Of course, ethically sourced and produced products with negligible environmental impact come with a heavier price tag than the regular fast fashion commodities. But if the urban middle class of a developing country cannot afford to make environmentally conscious decisions, how sustainable is our existing sustainability model afterall?
Is sustainable fashion rooted in elitism?
The more I try to make sustainable choices in life, the harder I struggle to make it economically feasible with my meagre income. My society validates me and my worth based on how presentable I am, which obligates me to look my best. I and a million women my age are then pushed to consume products that aren’t sustainably manufactured but are the only ones available to us. Half my life I have worn the trendiest of tops, dresses, and blouses as cheap as ₹100 (£1.05) bought off local flea markets and I cannot fathom the hazardous practices these supply chains involve.
Not only does our low disposable incomes make it difficult for us to afford sustainable products and brands, it deepens the pre-existing menace of class disparity in our society. With an average income of 1900 USD, the conscious fashion industry keeps about 80% of the total Indian population at bay from actually practicing it. So even the most educated and aware are unable to make significant changes and have to go back to consuming fast and affordable fashion.
The history of demand, supply, and the disadvantaged
India is one of the oldest and the most prominent producers of fabrics and textiles in the whole world. However, having been placed at the lowest rung on the socio-economic ladder from colonial times to modern-day capitalist world economy means that we cannot afford what we produce. So for centuries the rich around the world have nourished themselves with the latest and the best of commodities but by the time they could trickle down to the masses enough damage had already been done.
Both BoF and The New York Times have done eye opening pieces on how luxury brands like Prada, Christian Dior, and Saint Laurent, among others, use scores of ateliers and export houses in India that employ our highly skilled artisans in dangerous work environments that are not legally bound to follow any labour rights or safety guidelines. When a miniscule Indian label People Tree accused luxury giant Dior of plagiarising one of its block print designs, we knew this wasn’t the first of the many cases of outright copyright violation by such large fashion conglomerates. It makes us question who is keeping a tab of such breach of ethics and legalities in a sea full of conscious fashion preachers?
No matter how damaging and unethical the fast fashion business model is, it’s the ‘accessibility’ factor that makes it so global in its reach. The worst part is that even the most ill-reputed brands of this category — Zara and H&M aren’t truly ‘affordable’ for the people of third world countries like mine. I support the need to replace animal leather and fur with vegan and faux substitutes but in all honesty, I’ve not been privileged enough to own either anyway. Does that make me a pseudo activist or have we been propagating the need for a sustainable lifestyle to the wrong target group?
Sustainable: The lifestyle of the poor
Of course, sustainable and ethical fashion means more than just buying brands that fall under the conscious umbrella. It includes an overall change in the pattern of consumerism, increasing use of organic raw materials, green production practices, terminating the behemoth cycles of trends and seasons, and adopting a ‘less is more’ approach. However, the irony here is that in households like mine, upcycling and recycling aren’t sustainable practices that are purposely made, it is just how the disadvantaged survive. Less isn’t more in our case, less is simply adequate because we haven’t been privy to more.
Younger siblings inevitably inherit the wardrobe of the older ones’ primarily because it saves money. So what could potentially be ‘heirloom’ for the rich are just ‘hand-me-downs’ for the poor. The present whitewashed conscious fashion model has a lot in common with a kombucha drinking, yoga asana performing, white woman who only shops vintage Guccis off thrift stores and preaches DIY — they are both entitled, privileged, and are extremely impractical.
How to bring sustainability to the mainstream
The new wave of sustainable fashion has to focus more on transforming the entire consumer psychology to buy less and use more. Only when we’re taught to differentiate our ‘wants’ from ‘needs’ and retract ourselves from the vicious retail cycle can we reduce demands and therefore, lessen supply. Rather than singularly propagating the concept of spending more on fewer high quality products, we should teach the future generations to take care of what we own and use them longer, irrespective of their class differences and spending capacities.
For sustainability to metamorphose into a whole lifestyle, the taboo around fashion being seen as an elite phenomenon has to be destroyed. If brands don’t make ethical clothing for every rung on the socioeconomic ladder, the class division will never not cease to exist. Rather than throwing around the term “sustainable fashion” as a marketing buzzword, we should focus on it from an environmental and labour-friendly perspective. Options of recycling, thrift and vintage shopping, renting or swapping have to be brought to the mainstream and not practiced inside a bubble.
The rise of an ethical consciousness
Labour rights are human rights. Fair wages and a healthy work space for the workers of garment manufacturing industries need stringent regularisation both by independent, conglomerates, and government bodies. If not completely sustainable in its approach, every fashion label should adopt circular fashion practices — make use of their scrap fabrics, refurbish their unsold inventory, and reduce wastage. ‘Kindly crafted’ should be more than just a simple quote printed on the tags of their merchandising.
With the new normal enforced by the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent economic slowdown, it is imperative for the fashion industry to adopt more sustainable means and rethink their business models for the long haul. As long as there is class division in society, there will always be luxury and cheap fashion on both ends of the spectrum. However, these opposing industries have to co-exist and share the responsibility of undoing the damage already done to our precious environment. For it doesn’t matter which socio-economic strata you and I belong to, we have an obligation to save my planet.