by Saffron Scott CERES Global intern
Australia is the second largest consumer of new textiles in the world. This mass consumption contributes to 500,000 tonnes of discarded clothing making its way into landfill every year.
Most of the clothing that’s being discarded is made of synthetic and petroleum-based materials, meaning they will take thousands of years to break down. The damage doesn’t stop there. When these materials break down they leach their toxic chemicals into the surrounding environment which can cause all kinds of health and environmental problems.
… So where does this clothing come from?
India is one of the world’s biggest textile and garment producers. In 2015, India’s textile and garment industry was recorded to be worth US$108.5 billion, and exports contributed to US$39.2 billion of this. This is why when I had the chance to learn more about sustainable fashion in India on one of CERES Global’s trips, I couldn’t say no.
Sustainable fashion and conscious consumerism is a personal interest for me. Before embarking on the trip I thought I would focus on the ethical manufacturing of garments, looking at the treatment of the workers and their working conditions. Throughout the trip however, my focus changed.
I realised that ethical and sustainable fashion is far more complex than just paying the workers a fair wage.
Our trip to India started off with a visit to Ankur Kala Women’s Centre in Kolkata, a social enterprise set up to empower women through training and employment. Ankur Kala is a sanctuary for women experiencing hardship, and allows them to regain confidence and independence through textile training. With this new found confidence, the women are able to live a fulfilled and quality life, and are able to feel they are a meaningful member of society. The women at the centre are employed to make crafts and textiles for the shop front that generate profits to continue running the centre. Through employment, the women are able to become economically independent which helps to end the cycle of poverty. Our visit to Ankur Kala made me realise the importance of social enterprises as a way to create real social change through empowerment and employment.
Brown Boy is a 100% vegan & fair trade clothing brand that also operates in Kolkata. They use only 100% certified organic cotton to make their clothing, and incorporate sequins made out of recycled plastic into their designs. Given the size of India, plastic use is at an all-time high. Recycling plastic to make into sequins is one way to divert it from the environment. By using 100% organic cotton, Brown Boy is not contributing to the degradation of the environment and biodiversity loss through the use of pesticides and herbicides. By using organic cotton the farmers and harvesters also avoid coming into contact with harmful chemicals, and avoid a range of associated health problems. Brown Boy is also experimenting with incorporating traditional weaving techniques into their contemporary designs. They acknowledge the rich history of textiles and weaving in India and are trying to preserve these traditional practices that are an integral part of Indian culture, while still creating a modern product.
Biome Conscious Fashion is another great brand in Kolkata that uses natural dyes and handwoven fabrics. The group attended a workshop with Namrata from Biome Conscious Fashion in Kolkata where we learnt about the importance of natural dyes and the impacts of chemical dyes on the environment.
When chemical dyes are used, they end up in waterways and streams, contaminating and polluting the surrounding environment as well as agriculture and aquaculture that relies on these waterways.
The use of chemical dyes can cause huge social and health problems in India that could otherwise be prevented with the use of natural dyes. Many people in India bathe and wash their clothes in rivers and streams, and when chemicals enter these waterways people are exposed to them. Without access to clean water for drinking and food preparation, this contaminated water is used instead. Health care is not always readily available in India, and many of health issues go untreated, forcing communities to live with preventable illnesses.
During our visit to Auroville there was a big focus on ‘slow’ fashion and conscious consumerism. We visited Upasana, a shop that incorporates hand weaving, organic and locally sourced cotton into their designs. Upasana aims to connect consumers with their clothing items, and tries to promote the stories behind each piece so that consumers can realise the effort that goes into each thoughtfully created garment. They believe that when people have an emotional connection to objects and items, they are more likely to value them. This focus on slow fashion aims to eliminate the idea of throw-away fashion, and promotes the longevity of existing pieces.
Upasana helps the consumer to realise that when we pay a low price for clothing items, someone or something else is ultimately paying a much higher price.
Upasana also has a range of reusable shopping bags to use as an alternative to plastic or disposable bags, which is a direct way of cutting down on plastic waste.
Sustainable fashion is more than just a worker’s wage. It’s more than simply using natural dyes and organic cotton. And it’s more than just ethical treatment of the garment makers. Sustainable fashion is complex and impacts whole communities. Sustainable fashion intersects and connects a range of environmental, social and economic issues to create the least amount of harm and promote consciousness when consuming.
Sustainable fashion brings back connections that people have to their garments, and acknowledges that every single choice we make has an impact on someone or something else.
The fashion industry affects everyone; we all wear clothes. It’s up to us to contribute to the fashion world in a positive and thoughtful way. Society, environment and the economy are all so intertwined in ways that we may not realise, and changes to the fashion industry can benefit everyone. The sustainable fashion trip in India opened my eyes to the complexity of the fashion industry, and made me realise some of the problems that are so deeply rooted into this particular industry.