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That Old, Rustic Lehnga: Making Sustainable Fashion ‘Fashionable’

Sustainability is a cause that the fashion industry needs to work backwards on – it has to walk the talk.

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I remember when I was in college, I was passing through the street bazaar of Pushkar in Rajasthan with my parents and saw this gorgeous, old, used and rustic rose pink lehenga hanging in a kiosk. There was no way that I was going home without that beauty. Obviously, that gorgeousness became my favourite outfit for the coming wedding season. It was absolutely a hand-me-down piece that I then bought for Rs 1,200. The sense of it having been worn by unknown people added a mysterious element to it that I absolutely loved. Today, I thank God that it lasted longer with me instead of ending up in a landfill.

Sustainability works on the three basic principles, the three R’s: Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. The fashion industry, unfortunately, has not achieved much in this area despite all its high-profile discourse about innovation, environmental impact and responsible fashion.

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Fashion is still created out of non-biodegradable, petroleum-based synthetics, and most of this glamour on the runway ends up in a landfill. In that respect, fashion is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side are the synthetic, non-sustainable sin goods, and on the other side are animal skins. But then, like Coco Chanel said, “Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Fashion itself decides what to make fashionable.

Hermes flirted with us last June by posting pictures of three Birkin bags made of vegetables by artist Ben Denzer. Of course, those were nothing less than a visual treat.

Could the leaders of fashion innovate a vegetable faux leather to save the planet? They obviously can, and they most certainly must.

Some of them are making efforts to push sustainability though. In May 2020, two competing companies, Adidas and Allbirds, announced that they were joining forces to make a running shoe with 63% less carbon footprint, which would amount to 2.94kg CO2e per running shoe, to be precise.

This is in addition to shoe midsoles made of Sweetfoam, which is made of sugarcane, and uppers made from recycled polyester and natural tencel, a fibre developed from wood pulp. Lululemon is using Mylo, a mushroom-derived material to make yoga mats and two bags.

But the efforts are not enough. The fashion industry alone is responsible for 4% to 10% of overall global carbon emissions.

Can a 'Ministry of Sustainability' Help?

One of the major problems in reducing the environmental impact of companies is their lack of knowledge and control over supply chains. Companies are so entrenched in matters related to their positioning, sales and profits that they spend no time or effort on responsible or environmentally conscious business.

This, along with the lack of government controls, makes the fashion businesses absolutely inert to any responsibility towards the environment. There are no additional taxes or fines in the industry for the use of non-sustainable materials.

A Ministry of Sustainability would be one of the most important portfolios that the government needs to create today to define and enforce rules and regulations that can ensure an ecologically balanced habitat for future generations. The solution cannot be limited to treating the problem, it has to start by preventing it.

The fashion industry has an extremely significant role in reducing the impact of non-sustainable practices. Apparels and shoes have a tendency to accumulate, both with sellers and buyers. The economics of the fashion business does not take into account sustainability as a factor. Zara offers 24 collections in a year, while H&M refreshes its racks every week. High street fashion is all about fast fashion. Prices are cut down for people to be able to afford a new look too often and too soon.

As much as 40% of fashion retail is done on discounts and markdowns. The online model is even more explosive, the speed of buying is faster than ever before, and the costs of some of the products are dangerously tempting. No wonder then that three quarters of these clothes and shoes end up either getting burnt or in landfills.
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More People Should Embrace Thrifting

In that respect, high-end fashion has a more sustained life period. Also, this fast-paced buying and dumping of fashion is rather surprising, as most 'role models' of today don no more than a black or basic t-shirt and blue jeans.

The problem is in the awareness and the intent of the people selling and marketing fashion. Some brands have recycle bins in their stores for both clothes and empty lipsticks covers, but they are no more than sugar pills if you see the larger picture.

One of the concepts that are can help the mission of sustainability is thrifting.

It is definitely one of the ways to make sustainability trendy. Thrifting means shopping at thrift stores or garage sales to buy “gently” used items. The practice is becoming ‘cooler’, with bloggers and influencers promoting it widely and attractively. The gentrification of thrifting has helped clothes, shoes and accessories have a longer shelf-life, from the original seller to the landfill. Platforms like Depop and Poshmark have helped the cause of slow fashion through thrifting.

Fashion often champions various humanitarian causes. Sustainability is a cause that fashion needs to work backwards on. It needs to walk the talk and demonstrate the culture of genuine sustainability through its honest efforts. It owes that to every buyer.

(The author is an architect and represents Ralph Lauren Home, Fendi Casa and Bentley Home exclusively in India. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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