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According to an extensive study by the World Economic Forum, around 85% of most textiles that are manufactured and produced each year are sent to the dumping ground. This statistic is hard hitting. Beneath the surface of this simple figure, however, lies a much deeper and more complex problem, one that is entrenched in the ways in which the fashion industry operates and the structure and functioning of our society at large. Fashion has long been the center of social exchange, glamour, cultural innovation, invention and experimentation. Heavily impacted by changing socio-cultural milieus, trends in fashion have been constantly evolving since the beginning of time. They have been a reflection of the society we inhabit as well as an influence on it. Today, however, as we feel the effects of global warming, environmental degradation and climate change, it has become more important than ever before to understand the implications of not just these fashion trends but our decisions as consumers and contributors to the growing fashion industry.
The History of Recycling in India
India as a country has always had an interesting relationship with textiles. Due to the significant social value that they have held across generations and eras, clothes are not frequently discarded. Instead, they are often recycled and adapted for both domestic and global markets. The recycling of textiles was, in fact, seen as a domestic craft in India until not too long ago. However, with the advent of globalisation, changes in consumer buying trends and the evolution of the fashion industry, this ancient practice of recycling and upcycling is no longer as common as it once was. The expansion and growth of urban spaces has brought about a different consumption culture - one where clothes don’t hold the sentimental value they once did. Fast fashion, which has witnessed incredible popularity in the last few years, has meant that apparels are bought and discarded in quick succession, thereby massively increasing waste production. In order to provide cheap and affordable clothes, many companies use materials that are detrimental to the environment. While the financial costs may have been reduced, there is another cost that is borne - by our ecological ecosystem. It is the need of the hour to rethink our choices, to pause and reflect and perhaps take a step back not only to basics but also to the very culture of recycling that has been practiced and encouraged for decades in our country.
Making an informed choice
The fashion industry is one of the largest production sectors and is only expanding with changing times. Its contribution to the growth and development of national economies across the world is undoubted. In India alone, the textiles and apparels industry made up 2.3% of the GDP of the country, 13% of the industrial production and 12% of export earnings (India Brand Equity Foundation). However, it’s contribution to the damages that the environment suffers is one that has often been overlooked. Clothing and textiles production leads to the release of 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year (Quartz). As brands, retail stores and organisations work to adapt to the new ‘normal’ of these pandemic times, there is an increasing need for them to also take into account and make space for the ramifications of their products on the ecosystem. The onus does not solely lie with the manufacturers and producers of our clothes. It is also equally, if not more, our responsibility as consumers, as citizens and as part of the larger ecosystem to better understand the effects of our decisions. This is the first and most essential step towards a more sustainable future in fashion.
In recent times there has been an increasing awareness about the consequences of our choices, particularly what we choose to consume and how we dispose of our products at an individual and societal level. The age we live in is both blessed and cursed by the one omnipresent influence in our life - social media. We scramble from trend to trend, trying our best to mimic the raging influencers in a bid to get a few hundred likes on our latest reel. We discard fashion items considered outdated and un-cool, while amassing a greater number of products fed to us by tantalizing algorithms that feed on insecurities for profit. However, on the other hand, it is through these very social media handles like Instagram and YouTube that concepts such as thrifting, eco-friendly small businesses and green fashion have been popularised and embraced by large sections of the population. The essentiality of sustainable living has caught the eye of the public sphere. The outcry following the most recent IPCC Change Report which blared the siren of “Code Red for Humanity” goes on to show how conscious and invested netizens are in the role they play in the fate of the world. Sustainability, however, when it comes to fashion and lifestyle choices in general, needs to be taken beyond simply a trending word. It needs to become a lived reality, a conscious decision taken each step of the way forward.
5 R’s of Sustainable Fashion
As consumers, we need to be cognizant of the crucial 5 R’s of fashion, which include Recycle, Repair, Reduce, Reinvent and Repurpose. Sustainable fashion requires us, as conscious citizens, to take into account a wide range of issues while purchasing any product. These encompass, but are not limited to, sustainable raw materials, ethical business practices and an inherent sense of transparency. The make-up of every garment decides how much harm it will cause to the environment once disposed of.
The very choice of the fabric has an impact on how the raw material is sourced, how it’s processed, does it need harsh chemicals to transform it into fiber and ultimately, does it easily decompose in the environment. The Sustainable Jungle, a media outlet with a clear mission, has curated an extensive list of sustainable fabrics which include natural and vegan fabrics such as organic cotton and hemp, semi-synthetic fabrics like apple leather and pinatex derived from pineapples, and even animal derived natural fabrics such as alpaca wool. The process of dyeing is equally significant. It is a grand misconception that all dyes are chemically composed. Turmeric, acacia, red sandalwood, henna, madder, lac dye, are well-known examples of materials other than fruits and vegetables for natural dyes. In the fashion business, small-scale businesses are coming up which rely on natural materials and hand-made processes to produce apparels and accessories. As consumers, it is vital that we not only encourage these smaller businesses by buying from them and promoting them but also applying these ideas to our everyday lives.
We often blame large MNCs and their deplorable working conditions as the root cause of all misery within the fashion sector, however, as consumers the power in our hands is a formidable force. Recently, numerous people have been seen propagating trans-seasonal clothes. This trend steers people away from impulsively buying something they might only be able to wear for a month in a year. Another point to note for consumers is to empower yourself. This not only implies staying up to date and well informed but also learning the basics such as mending your own clothes instead of discarding them for new ones, or using DIY techniques to give your old dress a brand new look. Keeping up with the trends doesn’t need to come at the cost of the environment.
One Step at a Time
Change does not come easily, it teeters in step by step. Knowing where and how the clothes we buy are produced and manufactured is perhaps most vital. Right from the kind of raw material that has been used to how waste production is disposed of, all the steps that are part of the creation of a single clothing item are equally essential. Sufficient research and wise decisions are, therefore, key. What consumers should look for is good quality, long lasting and easily decomposable clothing. The focus needs to shift. Today, less is more. Not only do we need to give what we buy a thought but it is also vital that we reduce the amount of products we purchase and consume, only buying what is necessary and required. Reusing and recycling is equally important. Whether it's donating old clothes, using DIY techniques to reuse products or simply disposing of these in eco-friendly ways, each small step, each seemingly insignificant initiative counts.
Change, of course, starts with the right kind of education. Equipping the youth of tomorrow with not only the knowledge and awareness of their surroundings but also the skills and aptitude to design equitable solutions to the problems we face as a society is imperative. Creating a new generation of fashion designers, who are conscious, empathetic, ethical and innovative is the need of the hour. With the kind of multi-disciplinary learning, hands-on approach to problem solving and a practical outlook that colleges are now espousing in their pedagogy, the future looks bright, one where we can live in harmony with our surroundings, one where the impacts of our decisions do not weigh heavily on the environment that nurtures us.
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