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Sustainable Luxury – The Green Carpet Style Statement

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.

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Courtesy: Harvard Business Review

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[1].

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[2].

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.

[1] http://ecowatch.com/2015/07/22/green-clothing/

[2] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/detox-textile-Indonesia-pollution-court-victory/blog/56615/

-Article contributed by Swetha Janakiraman.

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Ignoring our own, the Kadars

Guest post by Neha Miriam Kurian

More than eighteen years have passed since the Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project was granted sanction originally in 1998. Three times environmental clearance was granted; two times it was set aside by the High Court of Kerala on various grounds, inter alia that the public hearing was not conducted. The third time, the High Court disposed off the matter noting that the latest clearance dated 18.07.2007 had expired. But just like many other politically charged projects, the project refuses to die! In October last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests breathed life into the expired clearance and granted an extension of another 5 years from 18.07.2012; again without a Public Hearing.

The Project Proponent, the Kerala State Electricity Board is now again promoting this 163 MW project which is estimated to sink 104 hectares of pristine rain forests, on the grounds that the environmental clearances had been set aside by the High Court two times on mere procedural issues. A Public Hearing, as envisaged under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 is not merely a procedural issue. Further the Kadar tribes who are the ‘public’ in that area also have vested community rights in the area under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forests Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), which enables them to reject the project if deemed fit. In their own right, the Kadars have also been consistently opposing the project from the beginning and have been agitating their rights through the High Court of Kerala. Even as the Ministry of Forests and Environment has shelved their 2014 circular to reduce the powers of the Gram Sabha under the FRA, after facing sharp criticism from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the clearance now granted to the Athirappilly project throws light on the manner in which the environmental clearance has now been extended illegally, ignoring the need for mandatory clearance from the Oorukoottam/ Gram Sabha under the Forest Rights Act.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Vested Community Forest Rights

The Athirappilly Hydro power project is proposed in one of the most eco-sensitive areas in the world, the Chalakkudy River Basin. The 80 km stretch of the Chalakkudy, upstream of the present project site already has 6 dams and is declared by the UNEP as one among the 8 ‘Hottest Hot Spots’ of the world, because of its high presence of endemic species alongwith a 70-75% habitat loss. Nine settlements of the primitive Kadar tribes referred to as Oorukoottams reside in this region, the Vazhachal forest division. Of these, there are communities which are currently residing both 400 m downstream of the Athirappilly waterfalls as well as within the submergence zone. The Kadars are one of the oldest of our indigenous populations and mainly live off the land as hunter-gatherers; study reports show that 89% of the Kadars in this area live off this ecosystem, collecting non- timber forest products and selling them mainly to the Ayurveda industry.

In May 2014 the Kadars living in the Vazhachal area were granted recognition under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forests Rights) Act, 2006 as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. The Gram Sabhas were granted Community Forest Rights titles over an approximate area of 40,000 hectares in the Vazhachal division. Such forest rights include the right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use. An extension of this right includes the condition that any diversion of forest land in such area can be allowed by the Central Government only if it is recommended by the Gram Sabha. But let alone such recommendation, not even a public hearing to consider the views of the Kadars has ever been conducted for the Athirappilly project.

It is also most significant to note that the Environmental Clearances granted to the Athirappilly Project was struck down by the Kerala High Court first two times on the very ground that a public hearing as per the Environmental Notification, 2006, had not been conducted. The third time when the clearance was granted in 2007, the incumbent environment minister Jairam Ramesh issued a show cause notice to the project proponent raising many issues, including the rights of the Kadar tribes, under the FRA. The project was thereafter referred to the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under Dr. Madhav Gadgil. The only committee which conducted detailed consultations with various stakeholders including the primitive Kadar tribes, it rejected the project in toto, stating it would cause irreparable damage to the biodiversity as well as the Kadars. It concluded that the project would not only lead to displacement of the 2 Kadar settlements falling within the project site but also the other 7 which are dependent upon the River. The Kasturirangan committee appointed thereafter, however did not address the issues of Kadars. But it did raise serious apprehensions about the viability of the project and the availability of water, considering that the River was already heavily dammed. It recommended a re-evaluation of the ecological flow of the river, to enable the governments to make a reasoned decision about the feasibility of the project. However months later, without an environmental impact study or even a re-evaluation as suggested, the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF granted an ‘extension’ of the expired clearance, stating without any apparent reason that no Kadars would be affected by the project.

“The beauty of the falls”

The Athirappilly Hydro Power Project, if implemented will cause unprecedented damage to one of the richest ecosystems of the world as well as a group of people who have committed themselves to protect it. This has been studied and concluded by none other than government appointed expert bodies, both the Gadgil and the Kasturirangan Committees. Further the FRA is a landmark legislation in that it recognized the need for protection of our indigenous populations as an intrinsic part of protection of our forests. Through the forces of democracy it sought to empower them in a system which till then had been alien to them.

The KSEB and now the Kerala government is promoting the project stating the project is ‘green’ and that there is enough water to maintain the ‘beauty of the waterfall’. This speaks volumes about the skewered understanding we have of riverine ecology. Studies and reports all over the world show how major hydro power projects have entirely changed the structure of the river, reducing the downstream to mere trickles and how entire stretches of River have often become dead, incapable of supporting life. A river like the Chalakkudy is a living, organic, dynamic being which supports millions of organisms, majority of them not even discovered by man, in an ecosystem that is self-sustaining. Furthermore it supports one of our most vulnerable ancient populations.  By ignoring the livelihoods of the Kadar tribes and more importantly the ecosystem, and by mobilising public sentiment on the ‘beauty of the waterfall’ alone, the Project Proponent and the Government is looking at the issue through an anthropocentric prism and inducing us also to do the same.

Other aspects also offer a bone of contention, such as the generation potential of the project, as well as the legality of an environmental clearance that was revived some three years after its validity had expired. However finally it all comes down to the question whether we need a project which admittedly will cause much irreparable damage. Once lost, this mind blowing ecosystem cannot be recreated. This is exactly what the precautionary principle, accepted as law of the land begs us to acknowledge. It remains to be seen what may happen as a result of the current Writ Petition filed by the Kadars pending before the Hon’ble High Court. But with the present State Government also endorsing the project, it currently looks like this project may have many more lives to live.

Neha Miriam Kurian, a former NUALSian is an Advocate who practices before the National Green Tribunal. The article has been prepared by her on the basis of inputs from Dr. Latha Anantha, River Research Centre, Thrissur.

 

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