When you witness the words ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Luxury’ adjacently, one cannot help but perceive it as an oxymoron or an existential anomaly. For ages we have identified high fashion with luxury, exclusivity, exquisite couture, glam and the red carpet that the concept of making it sustainable or eco-friendly brings up the image of Gandhi sitting by his spinning wheel, making Khadi couture to showcase on his slender female companions.
Luxury brands undoubtedly produce some fantastic high end products and apparel that feature in everyone’s wish list and the inflating purchasing power is leading to increased consumerism of the same. In 2015, a groundbreaking documentary “The True Cost” chronicled the adversities created by the fashion industry on the environmental and human rights front, following which Emma Watson sashayed down the red carpet in the 2016 Met Gala wearing an eco-conscious and sustainably tailored Calvin Klein dress. Although it could be construed as a business gimmick, it is a welcome change, hopefully here to stay.
The treacherous affairs of the fashion industry commissioning various human right violations, environmental degradation and precious resource consumption/wastage ensuing in the process of manufacturing high end products or services by luxury brands is the core concern of this article.
‘Luxury’ could be acceptably defined as something that is expensive and not an absolute necessity and the unique selling point of the luxury brands is the apex quality of the product and usually the rarity in its availability. The end products or services are exorbitantly priced in order to cater to an elite clientele while depleting the resources and labour of the working class, without a care to replenish the same. The various violations can be testified with a peek into the supply chain or as an aftermath of consumerism.
The emerging ‘eco-conscious consumer’ trend has propelled luxury and fast fashion brands to smarten their business strategy by revaluating their supply chain and ensuring the resources are ethically procured. Swedish fast fashion giant H&M unveiled the line “H&M Conscious” made of sustainable fabrics substantiated with a sustainability report warranting that their workers had good working conditions and adequate wages. It also envisages the positive actions taken by the brand, across the world to be more responsible and green. The brand also initiated a recycle movement to reinvent old fabric and popularize vintage fashion. The introduction of CSR initiatives has helped companies project a humane façade; however that doesn’t mitigate the incidental harm caused in the production process.
Focusing primarily on the ecological harm caused by the luxury and fast fashion brands (like Zara, Pantaloons, etc.), there are two suggestions that this article would like to drive home: “Buy clean label” and “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” As cliché as it may sound, the luxury and fast fashion industry thrive on their apparel being used for a single gala dinner party or until the next season collection is announced. The awareness of buying clean label products guaranteeing ethical sourcing of raw materials must be spread. Along with purchase of such products the consumer must devise ways of multi-purpose use and be conscious about its recyclable nature.
An article on Eco-Watch quoted Eileen Fisher, (a clothing industry magnate of Manhattan) calling the fashion industry as the “second largest polluter in the world”, second only to oil. All the same, what can be substantiated is the industry’s awful contribution to carbon footprint. Fashion is a complicated business with intricate and vastly intertwined supply chains of production, raw material sources, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment.
An overview indicates that the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic colourants used in dyeing and the stockpile of waste discarded clothing generates are primary pollutants but the imprudent amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping are to also be accounted for as indicators for gauging environmental harm. The international environmental watchdog Greenpeace, under its initiative ‘Detox Catwalk’ urged clothing companies to stop using the chemicals alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEOs), phthalates and per fluorinated chemicals (PFCs); since Phthalates used particularly in plastic printed images like those on printed T-shirts, have been linked to all sorts of health problems like asthma and lowered IQ. PFCs are used in stain-resistant clothing and have been associated with thyroid damage. Greenpeace conducted an analysis on fashion brands which promised to be conscious about their production processes, and revealed that most of the big players like Giorgio Armani, LVMH Group, Gap. Inc., etc., were unwilling to neither change their toxic production practices nor take responsibility for the same.
It is public knowledge that cotton is a water thirsty crop and almost 40% of our clothes are made of it. While only 2.4 percent of the world’s (India being one of the largest cotton growers) cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides. Organic cotton which is preferred by eco-friendly designers consumes almost a whopping 5,000 gallons of water to be made into a T-shirt and pair of jeans. On the other hand, to use synthetic fibers which are less water-intensive impels to concoct a dump yard of non-biodegradable waste. Either way the water pollution caused from the effluents of chemical dyes used on either of these fabrics yields to the conclusion that the problem is here to stay and can be mitigated only through consumer awareness and effective laws banning the use of certain harmful dyes and manufacturing processes.
The other important issue to be considered is the transparency in supply chain which can prove that the company has not sourced its primal materials at the cost of child labour, bonded labour, etc. Reports exposing dreadful working conditions of textile mill workers in India have surfaced time and again, and the fast fashion giants from developed countries outsource their manufacturing to countries that provide cheap labour. The worst part is that retailers like H&M and Zara have a thriving market in India from which they sources raw materials and labour while India is clinching the title for being a patron of the highest modern age slaves. It is pertinent to ensure that the companies, who source labour from India, declare that they are not abetting such human right violations and the best way to be a conscious consumer is to purchase products which are locally produced ensuring that local industries and craftsmen are supported while minimizing the pollution caused by transporting consignments of apparel through ships, etc.
The deplorable state of Indonesia’s Citarum River, owing to the textile boom since the 1990’s is evidence of the worst case scenario that is lurking around the corner if these industries are not placed under stringent pollution control norms. In a recent judgment awarded by an Indonesian Court in Sumedang, West Java the judge decided to suspend, cancel and revoke government decrees that legalize pollution. It was evidenced that permits had been given without fully considering the environmental impacts that the chemical discharge into the tributary of the river Citarum (which is also one of the most polluted water bodies in the world) can cause.
Conclusively, it can be said that assuaging one harmful leg of the fashion industry leads to another equally disastrous arm exposed. Being present to the “dirty laundry” we spawn, there are small things one can do on a daily basis to be a more eco-conscious shopper or consumer of luxury and fast fashion products. Good clothes are necessary for various reasons, but one can contribute to saving the planet by reusing, purchasing locally produced clothes, wearing fabric that is dyed with vegetable dyes and reconsidering the urge to go on a shopping spree without a dire need to purchase.
India doesn’t suffer from a dearth of eco-conscious designers who are revolutionizing the fashion industry with their traditional designs, desi fabrics and vegetable dyes. If one can spend time flipping the apparel’s label (not just check the discount/price) while shopping in Westside next time, they can make a conscious decision to buy only the label where the manufacture takes place in India and made of a more eco-friendly fabric and colour.
Disclaimer: The article doesn’t advocate the purchase of used/ second-hand clothes sold on beach cliffs for ₹50, but simply seeks to instil a sense of complacence in one’s existing wardrobe.
-Article contributed by Swetha Janakiraman.