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Heads are turning to sustainable fashion in India

A post-pandemic consumer desire for ethically-produced clothing brands has spawned a raft of eco-conscious fashion labels in India. But a niche market is struggling to find its feet amid the fast fashion boom.

No Nasties sustainable fashion brand
Models for No Nasties, a sustainable fashion line based in Goa. The brand claims that each product a consumer buys is "planet positive", as trees are planted after every sale. Images:

India’s fashion industry is booming. The sector is projected to be worth $106 billion by 2026, fueled by e-commerce and a flood of international brands targeting India’s burgeoning middleclass. Meanwhile, the country’s textile and apparel exports have reached record heights this year. 

But as people splurge on clothes and the world’s second largest textile manufacturer ramps up production, the environmental impact of India’s fashion trade has started to turn heads. An estimated one million tonnes of textiles are thrown away in India every year, and the industry is one of the country’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

“There is a growing sense of ecological responsibility which drives people to make more planet-friendly choices,” says Aadya Singh, a fashion student from the University of Delhi. “Climate-friendly, green fashion was an alien concept a few years ago but now most reputed, international brands have labels which claim to be 100 per cent sustainability-driven. This reflects social change in the apparel sector as we see more brands embracing sustainability.”

Fashion industry experts say that the idea of eco-friendly fashion started to take hold in India around 2015, but took off in a big way around the time of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, as growing environmental awaress began to influence purchasing decisions. Consumers have become more conscientious and increasingly want to buy brands that are longer-lasting, higher quality and lower impact. Fashion entrepreneurs have responded by creating bespoke sustainability-minded clothing ranges.

Kriti Tula, co-founder of Doodlage, an online fashion line which uses factory waste and recycled material for their hand-made garments, says sustainable fashion means more than choosing the right material. “We started with upcycling waste discarded by factories. We used that material to create well-finished products, and saved tonnes of resources that go into creating virgin material. As we grew, we started looking at our packaging, we found partners who could give us recycled material, and we are now looking at creating a collection system for clothing and partnering with greener last-mile delivery partners,’’ she said. Her company also works with NGOs to find fair-wage factories.

Fashion is cheaper at scale. Most sustainable brands are still niche.

Kriti Tula, co-founder, Doodlage

Tula’s company scrutinises the entire production process to ensure it is credibly sustainable; from using natural materials like organic cotton, bamboo, linen to recycled polyester, to working with artisanal weavers to boost local employment and promote traditional crafts and techniques, some which have been losing their relevance. 

Neha Khabra is founder of Maati, an ethical fashion label based in Udaipur, Rajasthan, which takes its inspiration from local communities to produce skin-friendly clothing using natural products, woven by local craftsmen. “The raw materials we source are mostly organic cotton and natural fibres. We work with many weavers in West Bengal and Kutch, Gujarat. They use traditional, hand-run handlooms to weave cloth – an ancestral technique that has been passed down by at least 10 generations. We ensure that the printing techniques we use are chemical-free and we use natural dyes like turmeric,” she said.

No Nasties, a sustainable fashion line based in Goa, claims each product a consumer buys is “planet positive”, as trees are planted after every sale. The brand uses 100 per cent organic cotton, a local supply chain to save on water and carbon emissions and offsets unavoidable emissions through solar power, wind power and reforestation projects. “We would love to see a bigger effort from all businesses – not just sustainable brands – to minimise and offset the carbon footprint of their products. If every brand did this, if every purchase was planet-positive, we could flip consumerism on its head and make it a force for good,’’ says No Nasties founder Apurva Kothari. 

Sustainable fashion maybe on the rise in India, but the market is still very niche. “There are about 70 Indian brands in this sector right now. It’s still a small market and the price is usually a 20-30 per cent higher [than regular brands],’’ says Maati founder, Kabra.

Kriti Tula agrees. “Fashion is cheaper at scale. Most sustainable brands are still niche, as it is harder to achieve economies of scale. Sustainable fashion focuses on styles and classic pieces instead of fast-changing trends. They are more individualistic and focus on artisanal skills and well-finished products instead of making clothes to wear out faster. To make fashion sustainable scale, we all need to focus on buying better and buying less,’’ she said.

Kothari added that the future for sustainable fashion is all about transparency and accountability. “Where are the clothes produced? Who made them and what are they made of? What impact do they have on the climate?’’ said Kothari. 

Buyers, though, are not shy of spending more for an environment-friendly choice and accept sustainability as an emerging fashion statement. A June study by Bain, a consultancy, found that 62 per cent of Indian consumers are now more willing to spend more on sustainable items and sustainability ranks among the top-five purchasing criteria.

“I wasn’t aware that something like eco-friendly fashion even existed. Then a friend gifted me a handloom cotton sari from Kochi. The fabric was amazingly soft and when I contacted the seller, they said the fabric was made with sustainable, organic cotton with intricate, hand-woven thread work. Since then, I have been researching more sustainable brands and I am amazed at the number of options we have to pick from,’’ says Vrinda Mathur, an IT professional from Delhi.

A wide range of green products will be needed to woo Indian consumers with fattening wallets or else India’s clothing boom could put more landfills under pressure. Per capita expenditure on apparel in India is expected to grow from Rs 3,900 (US$48) in 2018 to Rs 6,400 (US$79) by 2023, according to a McKinsey report.

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