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Indian Women & Sustainability: Can a Tale As Old as Time Match Up Fast Fashion?

Sustainability isn’t just a utilitarian concept ingrained in Indian women, but a perpetual metaphor for life.

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It begins with selecting a T-shirt one size larger than required from the time we’re toddlers. As I fail to understand the rationale, I enquire about her refusal to buy it in my original size to which my mother chimes, “This way you’ll be able to wear it longer.”

“You love it right?” she then implores reassuringly to which I nod a Yes. Compassionately, she holds my cheeks and says, “If you ardently admire something, you try and keep it for as long as you can. With one size larger you’ll be able to wear your new favorite piece for a longer duration and then your younger sister would be able to wear it too,” and then makes her way to the billing counter, confident in her persuasive abilities.

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Sustainable Practices in Indian Households

I wear that T-shirt for years at outdoor events—birthdays, gatherings and family functions. When the silhouette withers, my mother asks me to wear it at home. When I outgrow the garment, it becomes my sister’s night dress after which it takes the role of a cleaning duster.

The element of feasibility has always been an undercurrent in her behavior for ages, since the time ‘Sustainability’ wasn’t a buzzword or a resounding hashtag.

The conversation around 'Fashion'—The billion dollar industry's role in fuelling climate change has skyrocketed in recent times. While the internet witnesses banshee screams around recycling and reuse, Indian households possess a perennial fondness for it—an endearment that is passed onto generations. 

I asked my mother about the oldest saree her wardrobe homes. She gets ecstatic and tells me she has several. “The magenta one that you love on me, that’s from 1994, the year I got married."

She then showcases her twenty-year-old sarees—A Royal Blue Bandhej, a Pink Silk with Purple undertones, and a Black Cotton with motifs embossed throughout.

When asked about the tricks she uses to preserve, she says “Every fifteen-twenty days, I do the folds again. During rains, I delight them with sunlight whenever possible, along with occasional dry cleaning, of course. That’s all, no rocket science. It’s catharsis to take care of them, they are beloved.”

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A Legacy of Choices

This attribute of sustainability spawns generations and is visible in daily deeds our mothers and grandmothers indulge in. I remember asking my grandmother for a saree of hers for my “Bookstagram photography” once.

She gave me the one I chose after glancing at her colossal collection of six yards of pure grace, with some over thirty years of age. The moment I was done with that shoot, it wasn’t even seconds when she picked her saree up from the venue, folded it neatly, and kept it back in her wardrobe while I laid down on my bed lazily, my props and accessories—a mess.

One reason why preservation is deeply rooted is the fact that the pieces they buy are timeless and trend-proof. In Indian women, consciousness along with slow consumption comes pre-programmed.

They do not conform to trends, but attain pieces which can be heralded timeless. No wonder their wardrobe is filled with the silhouettes like Silks, Kanjeevarams, and Cottons. Even if it is over 20 years, they can be donned exuding the synonymous regality they attributed when they were brand new.

For Indian women, limited shelf life is an abstruse passage, they never wish to comprehend, and longevity is, of course, deeply rooted in them.

Care Is the Cure

But pieces standing the test of time don't come in isolation but entail the ‘caring’ attribute very well. After all, if not kept well, anything is bound to wither promptly.

It’s not just the Indian households with sustainability delving into them. It starts with ancient history books, and continues to the streets till today. Take the Art of Rafoo for instance, a karigari our mothers are well familiar with. In this extremely fine technique, the thread of a fabric is pulled and threaded in a way that stitch is nearly invisible. It doesn’t just blend in the fabric, it becomes the fabric. The craft which isn’t as popular as it once was stems from the fact that our culture has been subconsciously sustainable.

“If you buy things for a longer period of time, a small tear does not stagnate it, and it does not mean you ditch it. Fabrics for us are like a lover’s embrace. If life gives us infinite chances to frame it the way we will too, why can’t we do that with our beloved fabric," Maa says.

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Fashion’s Tryst With Sustainability

No industry tries to promulgate Sustainability as fiercely as the Fashion Industry. While the loud voices dominate the forum, Indian women stay the unsung heroes of it. They recycle, and reuse, and after years when the garment is withered beyond limits, it then becomes dusting fabric and shifts from our wardrobes to the cleaning closet. Pretty perfume bottles, shampoo containers, and gift boxes are nowhere reused like in an Indian household.

In 2019, in the United Kingdom, members of parliament recommended the introduction of extended producer responsibility on clothing. Take away the fancy terminology and nomenclature, and Indian Women have been doing it for years.

As much as Millennials and Gen Zs are cemented to play a prominent part in Fast Fashion, I’d like to believe that the element of preserving and buying things ensuring longevity is still entailed.

After all, 62 percent of Gen Z consumers, those who were born after 1995, prefer to buy from sustainable brands, according to a recent survey.

This belief was reinforced in me as I went shopping with my sister one day at H&M. There, we saw a design similar to the viral micro Miu Miu Skirt in the brown shade which enticed both of us, me as a fashion journalist, and her as a fashion Creator.

“Buy it for me as a present”, she said, chuckling to which I willingly agreed. After trying that however, in almost four to five sizes, she wasn’t satisfied enough to buy.

“What’s the problem?”, I asked to which she said, “It’s good for photos and content, but it’s certainly not wearable on streets here.” I tried to persuade her to buy that for a quick reel and OOTD video. It might go viral, you know, I kept saying, but she refrained from buying that skirt and said, “I am not spending that much money on a piece of clothing if I cannot wear it again and again for years to come.”

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Fashion Industry’s Repurposing Mantra

Now while the entire world seems to fit sustainability into glossy sheets, Indian women have yet again decided to let their tangible actions, and not mere words do the talking.

Phirlo, which translates to (buy it again), is one such initiative which panders overconsumption by incorporating the three R’s– Reuse, Recycle, and Resale.

Designer Kriti Tula’s latest venture welcomes all consumers to send their old clothes to the brand– the design house then aggregates, recycles, and sells what can be sold again.

Walking the same discourse, ​​London-based entrepreneur Aashni Shah, who runs Aashni + Co – a luxury, multi-designer boutique and online shopping space, recently launched Revivify, a platform for pre-owned South Asian fashion.

As per a latest Mckinsey’s report, business-led innovation is necessary to fill the empowerment and sustainability goals. Ventures like Phirlo not only demonstrate the iconic vision of Indian women but are a promissory reminder that sustainability goals might come true if such moves are made.

Fashion Influencers like Komal Pandey with their “Catfish” videos promulgate sustainability as an ordinance with a contemporary narrative that resonates with their Gen-Z and Millennial audiences. Wearing one garment in a myriad of ways, Pandey transforms a top into ten different ways for her 1.8 Million Instagram followers.

Shortly after this video of hers went viral, there were over 3500 videos with hashtag #catfishwithkomal, with fashion connoisseurs weaving sartorial tales of ‘repurpose.’ On the surface what looks like just another internet trend, in actuality, is a deeply rooted tale of “Reuse and Recycle”, just with a tinge of sass.

Though the approach is different, the attribute stays identical, ‘Consciousness’.

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Sustainability: A Recurring Metaphor

This ethos has also been stemming from Indian Women Designers alike. Designer Anamika Khanna says, “We’re producing pieces that don’t have a timeline attached. I want to create pieces you take out after 25 years and style up and re-wear. That is my idea of sustainability. Somewhere consciously done and somewhere automatically.”

Though not familiar with the emerging trend of sustainable wears, our mothers have been the purveyors of it for generations, and with it the harbingers of other desirable attributes as well. ‘Patience’, for instance, and ‘Pre-crastination’.

How many times do we throw our clothes on the bedding, lie down and scroll, when we know it would take us less than five minutes to fold and keep our garments in our closets?

We have been culturally sustainable since forever, and yet our cultural sustainability is nowhere to be seen when conversation on sustainability in fashion dominates. In a way, sustainability isn’t just a utilitarian concept ingrained in Indian women, but a perpetual metaphor for so many things in life.

A scar, for instance, isn't a reason enough to discard, and if well preserved, “Old, always stays New.”

(Pulkit is a Freelance Journalist and currently head the Fashion Vertical for a Digital Site, The National Bulletin.)

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Topics:  Indian women   sustainability 

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