NEW DELHI: ‘Conscious fashion’ began as a response to the atrocities hidden in the fashion industry, which tinged the garments we adorn with shame and guilt. The labels of our second skin became synonymous with exploitation, abuse and harassment.

A recognition of this exploitation birthed sincere activism - demanding revolutionary changes in the entire chain of sourcing, production and purchase.

In theory, the movement involves the preservation of craft through the sustenance of the artisans who weave traditional art, stories and experiences into the garment with a sense of modernity. It pushes for employment of the individuals on the margins of society, and in turn, creates an imperative space for diversity.

While this sounds ideal, the reality is not very pleasing. Garment workers often have to migrate from rural spaces with no job security in order to work in dingy, little sweatshops where they are subjected to cruel and inhuman working conditions. In addition to long continuous working hours without breaks and receiving half of what the minimum wage is, they are also not provided protective gear required to work with harmful chemicals. Other issues such as a gender pay gap and the use of child labour in manufacturing garments compounds fashion’s problematic roots.

A recognition of these implicit exploitations is perhaps the first step toward an overhaul. A generation of designers and label and boutique owners are doing just that, attempting to build sustainability at each step.

“There is an assumption that because craft is so abundant in India, it should be cheap. This is how people from outside look at us when they come to India for inexpensive labour and also within the country. The perceived value of our craft makes us suffer. It’s the human touch which makes a difference and if we don’t look after our people it reflects in our garments”, says Karishma Shahani Khan, founder of Ka-Sha.

“I work with a specific cluster of artisans and there is no season I am not giving them work. In a country like India we need to have a common sense of our immediate resources, the farfetched economy and the impact you want to make on the environment is secondary, first we need to be sensitive to the environment where we are making our production.”, said Rina Singh, founder of Eka Clothing.

Shani Himanshu, Co – Founder, 11.11/eleven eleven clothing says, “Workshop spaces should be neutral for any hierarchy of staff members. It needs to be inspiring enough for creativity as well as for workers. More importantly, displacement of workers from rural areas to urban cities should be avoided; workshops should to be built nearer the home town of workers”. Adding on to it, Mia Marikowa, Co – founder says, Thinking of all the communities whose bodies and lands have been pillaged since the dawn of civilization is pretty alarming. Rather than considering not doing harm as a job well done - we need to think about how we are positively impacting the communities we work with.”

. Post consumer waste - courtesy of fast fashion brands has resulted in heavy landfill pollution. Whereas, every garment produced should be utilised in its maximum capacity and once it can’t be used any further, it should be decomposed in the least detrimental manner possible

“Sustainability is the balance between the environment, the economy and the ethics. The take-make-waste economy becomes profitable by selling more but garments are not so disposable. Our artisans are still struggling to make ends meet, after working for years with multinational brands. Garment production is making irreversible changes to our environment. 1.5 trillion Litres of water are used by the fashion industry every year. 342 million oil barrels are used every year to produce plastic based fibres every year. 70 million trees are cut down each year to make plant based fibre for our clothes. 57% of these garments end in landfills while 100% of these garments can be put to better use or can be recycled”, says Kriti Tula Co- founder of Doodlage.

We need to realise that “sustainability” is neither a trend nor a marketing tool, it’s a serious concern and honesty needs to be preserved while engaging with the concept.

“There are a lot of brands adapting the sustainability narrative without actually subscribing to the practices. What it does is then that it makes sustainability look too easy or too cheap. To understand this narrative, we first need to define what ‘unsustainable’ is because brands tend to pick one element say practicing natural dyes and then align themselves with sustainability but maybe they are not treating their crafts people well or maybe they are not practicing fair trade” says Bhaavya Goenka , Founder of Iro Iro Zero Waste against the bigger brands misusing the narrative.

“I believe that brands need to focus more on transparency, to be more open to provide the information that the consumers are looking for in order to allow them to decipher between whether a brand is conscious or not as well as focus on circularity in terms of raw materials, sourcing and packaging. When it comes to the consumers, it would be nice if they try to gain knowledge about various brands to differentiate between which brand is more conscious. Basically, looking beyond the product and asking questions about how it was made, what impact it has on the makers and how does affect the consumers,” says Ruchika Sachdeva, Founder of Bodice.

The frivolous lens with which fashion has been portrayed and perceived has led to the gravitation toward ‘trends’ and ‘fashion seasons’. There is a rigid idea of how fashion is supposed to look – loud, blingy and flamboyant. To trickle into this space with anti- fit cuts, earthy tones and minimal embellishments is a tough task. Trends change with the blink of an eye but conscious fashion cannot compete with that pace. It cannot work on a schedule because human labour cannot be dealt like machines.

Consumers need to start absorbing the idea of thoughtful purchase which means that every garment is an investment and not an impulse item meant to be worn once. Mend pieces that can be used or engage in fashion swaps i.e benefit for all exchanges where you can take actual usable pieces from someone else’s wardrobe in exchange for yours. Embrace pre-worn clothes, buy less but buy better.

Pay attention to the labels on your garment, read the claims, confirm them and then invest. These are the tangible extras that take you through the journey of an ensemble as well as give you an insight of the brand’s philosophy.

Creating versatile and desirable pieces of garments with the focus on functionality, longevity and transformational nature of the fabric is imperative. Garments need to be designed for disassembly so that components can be added or edited as per the requirements of styling and moreover constructing pieces that can be passed on for generations.

Working with responsibly produced fabrics, post cutting and stitching waste, defective pieces (which in case of mass production can be a single off- stitch directing it to the rejection pile) and reducing fabric manipulation are a few sensitive approaches towards the process.

“To me it would be amazing to see the supply chain information presented like we have ingredients written on a food can. How do you simplify for a customer who just wants to buy a piece of cloth, the multi faceted layers of their garments? A solution we can adopt is similar to how food has red and green dots to symbolise vegetarian and non- vegetarian items, we should have similar symbols for the claims a brand makes so that the customer looks at them and understands at an instance. To build the trust with our customers we also need to get third party certification. It’s like putting your money where your mouth is and getting licences to ease the trust of your brand”, suggests Apurva Kothari, Founder of No Nasties.

Suki Dusanj- Lenz, India Country head of Fashion Revolution puts forth her concerns, “I request Indian brands to reconsider their choice of fabric and after care entirely. Sustainable packaging and labelling must be thought through too. How sustainable are you if you ditch the plastic packaging when delivering online but replace it with micro file laden materials. It is mandatory that brands look after the people that they work with to create their garment which relates to our #whomademyclothes campaign and more so it is vital to know #whatsinmyclothes. Inform your customer about what mix of fabric your garment is made from - lift the veil on material and talk about it. Be committed to delivering an honest and transparent product, which is the first step to sustainability. I urge brands to communicate their truth and not feel pressured to squeeze prices at all costs to meet expectations. People over profit is a slogan that would be sustainable for brands to adopt. It is hight time to snap out of that fashion frenzy and develop a strong strategy for a sustainable future.”

For a better understanding of terms:

Conde Nast Sustainability Glossary-