The State of Sustainability In 2024
The State of Sustainability In 2024

It is a little more complicated than buying Cactus leather 

Culturally, "sustainability" stands as one of those buzzwords only elites have a complete understanding of, like caviar, haute couture, or equestrian. It was name-dropped heavily by an informed audience before the pandemic, almost as if living a sustainable life was kosher, cool, even bragworthy. It didn’t matter if you’re handloom cotton Rajesh Pratap Singh shirt was worn above 100 per cent polyester Zara pants. But you were supposedly doing your part. That was still seemingly better than where we are at today. With high fashion making a full-on comeback, sustainability isn’t as much of a talking point, and has been pushed way down the fashion lexicon—replaced by terminology like street culture, 80’s excess and non-basic basic. As long as you’re on trend; look rich and carry ‘it’ pieces; there’s no place for sustainability in your wardrobe. So, who’s to blame?  

  

According to a survey by Statista, an average Indian consumer will likely buy around 24 pieces of clothing in 2024. While both the apparel and the wearer will eventually end up underground, only one of them will organically decompose. What can be done? Can you achieve sustainability solely by consuming less? Can fashion really be truly sustainable? “Fashion, by its intrinsic nature, cannot be truly sustainable,” says renowned editor and consultant Kimi Dangor, who’s written many a good story spotlighting fashion sustainability. “To be truly sustainable, we have to stop buying clothes, repair and re-work what we already own, and even that would probably be just a drop in the ocean,” she says. What Dangor describes is something our culture already propagates. When looked through a micro-cultural lens, the sarees my grandmother wore when she was married were later sewn onto our pillow covers and blankets.  

 

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The great divide  

So, why does the talk about sustainability weigh so heavily on our conscience? “The conversation around it very often is lensed from a Western point of view,” says Ekta Rajani, leading stylist and champion of repeat dressing, who adds “that it was the more affluent countries, both in the east and the west, that grew so fast and consumed so much post-Industrial Revolution that consumerism and obsolete design became part of their capitalistic model of economics.” On average, Americans spend around $1,800 per year on clothing. In 2019, Americans purchased approximately 17 billion apparel units, while the Chinese purchased 40 billion apparel units in 2017, with a per capita clothing spend of $257, as per Fashion United, a B2B trend forecasting platform. This culture of over-consumption has spurred a counter-cultural movement toward more environmentally conscious spending, a movement in which India finds itself caught in the crossfire.   

  

Of course, there are many valid concerns with Indian fast fashion consumption as well, but not without smaller nuances. “Sustainability has more to do with equitability than equality,” shares Rajani. “If someone is making more money, they might own three cars. If someone is making less money, they may have a scooter. Life cannot be perfectly equal; there will always be differences. However, everyone should have a fair shot at life, like the tortoise and the hare. While they are not equal in speed, they both have their own lives and ecosystems. By measuring success solely as a race, one may win, and one may lose. But when considering the entire life cycle and ecosystem, both have beautiful lives with a fair chance at success.” It is social currency that clothes provide us, the most visually important part of your social being. You cannot ask an economically backward individual to refrain from buying polyester cargo pants and blended shirts from a fast fashion brand because that is their way of being seen as equal in a society where class and caste connotations still reign supreme. But does take the onus away from the elite folk already at the table to not push the narrative of sustainability? No, because they are the ones who can. Unfortunately, as things stand right now, sustainability does seem to be price-gated for the masses. Today, you have to pay more for traditional Khadi than what you did in the past. Similarly, governments and policymakers need to do their part, both on a macro and a micro level. For instance, the dry-cleaning industry is one of the most harmful to the environment in India, yet it remains largely unregulated. 

 

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Slow luxury  

On the flip side of things, as Dangor points out, research and development costs time and money. The more organically produced a garment is, the more expensive it becomes. Not to mention handlooms and sustainably produced fabrics cannot be mass-manufactured at an industrial scale. “Fast fashion giants like  Zara and H&M don't make clothes with handloom fabrics because the sheer scale of retail and handmade production capacity don't match. Internationally, sustainable labels have industry-specified checklists and certifications. In India, the certification process is lengthy and expensive, which puts the designers and the artisans in a conundrum if they should spend on them.” It is these subtle, smaller nuances where the conversation around sustainability finds itself in a Catch-22-sized corner.  

  

And while the masses wait for the trickle-down effect, things are already changing for the better. Take the pre-fall 2023 show for Christian Dior which took place in the backdrop of the Gateway of India in Mumbai, where the Parisian house’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s work put the focus on Rajasthani mirror-work embroidery and Mughal-era zari work, besides training the spotlight on local artisans, whose work is no less complex than what a global Atelier does. “Today In India, many designers are deeply involved with handloom clusters over extended periods. They prioritise building enduring relationships and structuring their entire brand around a singular vision. This strategy aims to provide sustained support and foster growth within the village, skill, or cluster for the long term,” shares Rajani.  

 

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Bringing it home  

Alternatively, consider Chamar Studio, a homegrown brand founded by activist Sudheer Rajbhar. In response to the 2015 governmental beef ban, which rendered many leather workers from Dalit and Muslim communities in India obsolete, the brand utilised recycled rubber material made from waste to craft products with a leather-like feel. Similarly, other homegrown brands like 11.11 / eleven eleven, use only natural dyes and indigenous cotton with heritage techniques such as hand spinning, handloom weaving, hand painting, miniature tie-dyeing, and quilting, to give back to the community. “It's important to understand that there were always brands, artisans, labels, and sustainability champions, who were working with sustainable weaves and fabrics,” adds Dangor. “It’s just our designer fraternity took a while to discover them as a mainstream fashion narrative.   

Today, as Dangor points out, “There is no narrow or by-the-book definition of sustainability in India. Each designer approaches it from their personal viewpoint or moral compass—for someone like Aneeth Arora [from Péro] sustainability is about using artisanal fabrics, reusing factory surplus and employing handmade crafts to provide livelihood. Rahul Mishra uses handmade techniques to empower the craft sector and promotes reverse migration so that his karigars can return to their homes and work from there instead of being displaced. While Pratap believes in creating timeless and quality garments that last, many contemporary labels like Akaro by Gaurav Jai Gupta, Anavila, Ka-Sha by Karishma Shahani Khan, 11.11/eleven eleven, Naushad Ali, Rina Singh of Eka and Kriti Tula of Doodlage are working on textile innovations, repurposing and zero waste strategies. Anita Dongre’s headquarters in Navi Mumbai are also housed in an eco-conscious building that is equipped to conserve energy and reduce carbon footprint.” 

 

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In effect, these are the silent purveyors of sustainability and have long been, without screaming it to the world or applying it to a singular collection to join the bandwagon of what’s trending in that moment in time. Sustainability for them isn’t a fleeting term. It’s intrinsic in their production practices, environmental impact, and the ethos behind the clothes, moving away from the “who wore whom” conversation. But is this enough for people to make note and ensure that sustainable dressing, or even living, isn’t meant to be a buzzword but a way of life. Designers are doing their part. What about you, dear buyer?   

 

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