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Of late, sustainability has become a new dimension for industries worldwide. The burgeoning population and growing urbanization have put a stress on natural resources and its impact has percolated into all sectors including the fashion industry. Fashion design is among the biggest industries contributing to approximately 2% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A UN Environment study estimates that the fashion industry produces 20 percent of the global wastewater and accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. Another study titled ‘Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries’ by Qauntis estimates that more than 50% of emissions are produced from three stages namely dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation and fibre production. The study highlighted that in the absence of interventions, the apparel industry may lead to an estimated 49% increase in climate change impact by 2030. Such alarming statistics have sparked growing consciousness towards the environment among fashion aficionados and have led designers to ponder over the environmental implications of their fashion design worldwide.
Sustainable fashion designing refers to the philosophy and movement geared towards protecting the environment and promoting social responsibility. The goal of sustainable fashion design is to take into account the environmental and socio-economic implications of the design practices and create value for the entire community. This may be achieved through various measures such as prolonging the lifecycle of materials, increasing the value of local products, reducing the amount of waste, using natural resources judiciously and revamping production and consumption processes to minimize the adverse effects on the environment.
The origin of sustainable fashion design as a movement is entwined with that of the environmental movement. The concept of sustainable fashion design was popularized by two leading companies, Patagonia and ESPIRIT which commissioned research into the impact of the fibre used in their establishments. Both companies co-funded the first organic cotton conference held at California in 1991. It was in 1992 that ESPIRIT unveiled its first eco-collection conceptualized by head designer Lunda Grose.
The sustainable fashion ideas put forth by these companies continue to shape the ideas and inspire the fashion industry even today. The sustainable fashion ideas go beyond using organic fabric and dyes. The majority of the impact of any garment on sustainability relies on choices made at the design and development stage. A sustainable fashion designer should be able to foresee the impact of his design along the entire supply chain from production to packaging.
Here is a checklist for implementing sustainable fashion ideas.
Assess key outcomes in design and brief stage: This is the crucial stage to influence the lifetime environmental impact of the garments. A sustainable fashion designer should consider factors such as the amount of waste generated, various processes available to construct garment to minimize waste, ways to reduce labour costs through advanced processes such as 3D knitting.
Choose sustainable materials: The choice of the textile is critical to minimize wear and tear, stains and specialist cleaning. Ink and dyes used in manufacturing should be non-toxic, natural or vegetable-based. One may want to consider using the products which are certified as organic.
Minimize waste in the pattern stage: Use creativity and explore ways by which you can minimize waste such as off-cuts and end-of-roll. Reuse and recycle waste. Select the textiles depicting repeat pattern with no beginning or end to use the entire roll of fabric.
Deploy ethical garment manufacturing: It is equally important that manpower manufacturing the garments work under the ethical conditions. Use garment labels that convey information on garment use, care and recycling. This will educate consumers on the need to take into account the environmental implications while cleaning or discarding the garment.
Adopt evergreen concept: This concept implies that fashion design should be independent of temporary trends and can be worn across decades. Moreover, it should be perennial due to its quality and adaptability.
Reduce waste in packaging: Think about various ways you can package the product to use the material efficiently. One may consider collaborating with waste management companies to recycle packaging.
Any discussion on sustainable fashion designing would be incomplete without the mention of Stella McCartney who can be regarded as a pioneer of this concept. Her latest Spring Collection 2020 has made extensive use of organic cotton, recycled polyester, Econyl and hemp. Her creations, be it slit skirts with scalloped blouses or jumpsuits belted with rope, have put sustainability at the centrepiece of fashion design.
Indian designers too are gradually warming to the concept of sustainable fashion design. Be it reviving embroidery and handweaving techniques, setting up dedicated sustainable brands or adopting zero-waste philosophy, they have successfully debunked the myth of sustainable fashion ideas being ‘boring’ or ‘non -glamourous’. Anita Dongre, Monisha Jaisingh, Vaishali S, Swati Argade are among the top sustainable fashion designers in India. Anita Dongre is the only Indian designer to be a part of Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global alliance of retailers, brands, special activists and labour groups that provides members with the tools to assess the environmental implications of their activities. Focussing on the urban working women, her brand HOAD devised a comprehensive programme and mobilized resources to facilitate garment training to about 200 women. Today, she runs garment production units in five villages. She has even set up a philanthropic arm Anita Dongre Foundation which focusses on upskilling artisans thereby creating employment opportunities for them. Monisha Jaisingh is among the few sustainable fashion designers in India who have completely banned the use of plastic in their factories and substituted it with paper. Swati Argade has been widely acclaimed for her brand ‘Bhoomki’. From sourcing sustainable material, supporting the artisan community to partnering with fair trade-certified manufacturers, sustainability is embedded in her core philosophy. S Vaishali has successfully revived the traditional art of Indian weaving by collaborating with over 900 families of weavers.
However, the road ahead for sustainable fashion designers in India and worldwide is not as smooth as envisioned. Sustainable fashion designers often face challenges such as lack of awareness, the exorbitant cost of raw material, production challenges and many more. Here are some major challenges that sustainable fashion designers in India and worldwide are likely to encounter.
Trend driven industry: The fashion industry thrives on trends with products being modified or discarded frequently. This outpaces the advancements in technology used in implementing sustainable fashion ideas.
High cost of raw material: Exploring viable alternatives to conventional raw materials for shifting to sustainable clothing may pose a challenge for designers.
Production challenges: The process of fashion designing incurs waste from the conception stage to the packaging stage. It is difficult to limit waste even with the use of recyclable materials. Moreover, sustainable fashion ideas go beyond than merely using recyclable materials. It also implies that all employees must receive due compensation for their work; there should be minimum wastewater and much more. This calls for the overhaul of the conventional mode of production.
Lack of marketing guidance: A sustainable fashion designer may face the problem of marketing his products. There are few e-commerce portals that would like to highlight the product as sustainable. The designers who work with limited capital and financial backing would face difficulties in marketing their products due to their budget constraints. The conventional fashion of high volume and low- cost may pose stiff competition to sustainable fashion designers in India and worldwide.
India is estimated to become the sixth-largest apparel market by 2022. Hence, the fashion industry has a crucial role to play in fulfilling demand as well as generating employment while embracing sustainability. Leading fashion design houses need to shoulder the responsibility to adopt sustainability at all levels of the supply chain. It is heartening that several attempts have been made in this direction, both globally and in India. For instance: as per the mandate of the Copenhagen Fashion Week, all designers will be required to comply with 17 guidelines on sustainability such as using at least 50% certified organic, recycled or upcycled textiles in all collections, among others. In India, the government has launched an initiative called ‘Project SURE’ which lays down the framework to enable the industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase resource efficiency, minimize waste and water, and create positive social impact. The project has been endorsed by various leading apparel brands. Sustainable fashion designing entails a paradigm shift from the linear model to a circular model of the economy. This will not only enhance productivity, minimize waste, increase resource efficiency, generate consciousness towards the environment but also make our planet greener for future generations.
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