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India embraces sustainable fashion

Pandemic accelerates changing trends in style and substance

High fashion, low impact: Designer Anita Dongre's ethically produced creations have been worn by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Britain’s Duchess of Cambridge. (Courtesy of Anita Dongre)

NEW DELHI -- For India, designer Anita Dongre is the embodiment of sustainable fashion, from her commitment to working with artisans and sourcing ethically produced materials to her adoption of innovative and environmentally sensitive production processes.

"We have to realize that sustainability has to be at the heart of each of our actions," says Dongre, whose production company, House Of Anita Dongre, counts Hillary Clinton, Ivanka Trump and Britain's Duchess of Cambridge among its clients and is forecasting revenues of $130 million this year.

"The pandemic has come as a wake-up call for us to realign our goals collectively, aim for a more sustainable way of production and look at consumption with fresh eyes and new perspectives," she adds. "At our fashion house, every decision from manufacturing to the choice of lighting in the office factors in our progress towards carbon neutrality."

Dongre, a vegan and animal lover who received a humanitarian award in 2011 from the U.S. nongovernmental organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says HOAD limits the amount of fabric waste during manufacturing and recycles discarded textiles into handcrafted products through tie-ups with nonprofit organizations and female self-help groups.

The company's 11,000-sq.-meter headquarters, nestled in the hills of Navi Mumbai, near Mumbai, uses natural lighting, energy saving, water conservation and biodegradable packaging in line with guidelines developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a global clothing industry organization that campaigns for sustainable production.

Dongre calls the pandemic "a wake-up call for us to realign our goals collectively." (Courtesy of Anita Dongre)

The fashion industry has a long way to go to achieve the coalition's goals, however. Its shortcomings were graphically exposed by the 2017 U.K. documentary "RiverBlue," in which conservationist Mark Angelo showed how hazardous dyes and chemicals such as mercury and cadmium are being spewed into rivers by garment factories in China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the U.K. the U.S. and elsewhere. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that the fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions.

There has been progress, with a number of top international brands signing up to sustainable production. United Colors of Benetton has pledged to use entirely sustainable cotton by 2025, while British designer Stella McCartney is using fabrics made from ocean plastic, fishing nets, debris and bottles collected from beaches. VivoBarefoot, a global footwear brand, is sourcing leather from wild roaming cattle and sustainably produced tanned hides. The company is also incorporating natural yarns and materials like cork into its brand portfolio.

Sustainability is also making ground in India, where the local market is forecast to reach nearly $60 billion in revenues in 2022, making it the sixth-largest in the world after the U.K. and Germany, according to a recent FashionScope report from McKinsey & Company, a U.S.-based management consultancy.

A colorful Dongre design. (Courtesy of Anita Dongre)

Growing environmental concerns -- amplified by India's increasingly serious COVID-19 outbreak -- are pushing veteran Indian designers such as Rohit Bal, Ritu Kumar and Rajesh Pratap Singh to revive forgotten local weaves, empowering artisan communities and using earth-friendly fabrics. Delhi-based designer Gautam Gupta is working with natural handspun fabrics crafted from banana, bamboo, coffee beans and natural silks. And designer Aneeth Arora's new labels -- Pero Recycle and Pero Upcycle -- focus on environmental conservation.

Guwahati-based designer Nandini Baruva, who owns the Kirameki label, is working with banana, pineapple and jute fabrics, as well as Eri silk, which is produced without killing silkworms. She says her collections draw from the roots of nature.

"Around the tiny weaving hamlets of my home state, Assam, handwoven natural fibers are commonly used. Every house has a loom. Such fashion -- more lifestyle for us -- keeps the environment safe and has a trickle-down effect on the weaving and associated communities too," the young designer says.

Even the biggest Indian fashion houses are considering strategies to factor in ecology as a key driver, including the use of newer, more eco-friendly technologies, materials and production methods such as hemp from the Bombay Hemp Co.

Liva, a brand under the Aditya Birla Group, uses clothing made from a biodegradable fiber derived from wood pulp. (Courtesy of Liva)

India's leading textile manufacturer and fashion retailer, Raymond Group, collaborated last year with Reliance Industries, a leading Indian conglomerate, to launch an eco-friendly range of fabrics called Ecovera, which are produced from recycled plastic bottles using biofuels and energy efficient processes.

Grasim, the flagship company of the Aditya Birla Group, another Indian conglomerate, has launched Liva-branded Viscose Staple Fiber. The man-made, biodegradable fiber is being positioned as a cotton replacement for apparel, home textiles, dress materials and knit wears. Producing 1 kg of cotton (equivalent to a T-shirt and a pair of jeans) requires 20,000 liters of water. Liva's viscose fiber is made from wood pulp, a renewable source.

Nelson Jaffery, head of design for Liva, says the rise of the conscious consumer is driving this trend. "According to our research during the lockdown, most consumers are seeking sustainable brands and buying slow fashion that is both durable in quantity and over time. There is enhanced mindfulness that fashion choices can be made more sustainable if we buy less but better, and choose fabrics that are earth-friendlier."

Realizing that cheap manufacturing comes with a formidable environmental price tag, Indian startups are also upping their sustainability game. Aslee, launched in 2018, primarily uses bamboo, hemp and native nettle fabrics to craft hemp and bamboo T-shirts as well antibacterial socks made from 70% bamboo. The pandemic saw the company launch biodegradable bamboo face masks to provide an alternative to the single-use disposable masks that add to environmental waste.

Aslee, launched in 2018, primarily uses bamboo, hemp and native nettle fabrics to create clothes as well as masks. (Courtesy of Aslee)

"Hemp is a great insulator as it stays cooler in summer and warmer in winter. We also use Himalayan native nettle, a plant found in parts of India and Nepal, to make scarves," says co-founder Nitij Singh. "Apart from reducing the carbon footprint, sustainable fabrics also support communities who are producing them. It's a win-win."

Organizers of Indian fashion events, often accused of wasteful spending and unnecessary theatrics, are also embracing change in a bid to become more responsible. Since 2012, the Lakme Fashion Week has been promoting Indian handlooms and textiles, reviving indigenous crafts and spotlighting artisans. Competitions are organized to encourage use of diverse sources of waste such as plastic.

"The reset button has been pressed and we've got to move with the times," says Sunil Sethi, chairman of the Fashion Design Council of India, a nonprofit industry body. "The fear and havoc brought on by COVID-19 is catalyzing an increased sensitivity towards the environment. It is giving us time to reflect, restructure and rebuild toward a future which asks us to be more conscious than ever before."

Aslee co-founders Nitij Singh, left, and Zoya Wahi. “Apart from reducing the carbon footprint," says Singh, "sustainable fabrics also support communities who are producing them. It’s a win-win.” (Courtesy of Aslee)

During the pandemic, the FDCI launched the concept of "phygital" fashion events, which fused physical and digital elements. "This novel concept will do away with the need for 30 to 40 models to walk opulent ramps, each costing thousands of dollars, which are then dismantled post-event. We're investing in technology, such as visual effects, as well as new ideas to see how we can become more sustainable in all spheres. This will not only curtail expenditure but will also help us tread lighter on earth," Sethi adds.

The online market for secondhand clothes, shoes and accessories has been booming during the pandemic. Though market analysts say it is too early to gauge the size of this market in India, they expect the segment to grow.

"As millennials, we can make a huge difference by focusing on a greener wardrobe and buying fewer but value-driven classics that will endure through time and trends. We're learning to be more mindful of what we buy, use and discard, keeping in mind the damage caused to our planet. Because, quite simply, there really is no Planet B," says Tanisha Saxena, 20, who owns an online sustainable brand store.

Retailers say millennial customers are far more invested in the health of the planet than their parents, and are in turn propelling a shift toward conscientious consumption. This is now changing in fashion trends. "A crisis of this magnitude will get consumers to rethink and reprioritize their fashion consumption to make it less conspicuous and more responsive towards society as well as the environment. This can only be a good thing," says Dongre.

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