At the end of the day, it's only the people and the planet that will matter. The day will come when whatever is not sustainable, may not be seen as fashionable at all. It's in industry's own interest that 'people' and 'planet' are inscribed in bottom lines, writes Subir Ghosh.

News about solar and wind energy have been making headlines over the past few months. And not because renewable energy is a focus area of the current government in India, but because it's a need-based practice that is fast catching on at the global level. There are reports of cities meeting most of their energy demands through solar/ wind energy, and there are examples of governments making a push for renewable energy at the policy level. It is not that climate change has suddenly become the top priority for governments - for the concerns over forests, water, pollution and rights of local communities, among other things, are still far from being addressed. But it is a starting point nonetheless, and the change is palpable.

Everyone is making a rush to setting up solar units not because everyone else is doing it, but because many have understood that it is the best way of doing things. And soon, it might well be the only way of doing things. Better late than never, as many would argue. Yet, this is a relatively new phenomenon - one that has gained currency only in the last four or five years.

Around the same time, another term was doing the rounds: 'sustainable fashion'. The term, when it raised its head sometime in the second half of the first decade of this millennium, was dismissed as more of a fad. Many thought it would fade away as style often does. Only, it didn't.

It was captured by The Guardian which published an article on its website that ran a thread through feminism, furs, workers' rights and renewable energy. The bigger picture it presented was that of sustainable fashion. The first story was the feminist T-shirt scandal. High street brand Whistles, fashion magazine Elle and feminist group The Fawcett Society were caught in a scandal after the Mail on Sunday alleged that their collaborative 'This is what a Feminist looks like' T-shirts were made in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning only 62p an hour.

The second was of a shopper who found a label stitched into her Primark dress: "Forced to work exhausting hours". It wasn't a hoax, for more labels were found. Soon, the long lost voices of the Bangladeshi workers drowned the faint cries of denial from Primark. The third was a feature that pointed out that from fibres that convert sunlight into electrical energy, to uploading your kinetic energy to a green energy bank, the worlds of fashion and technology are merging. Last, footage shot secretly by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) showed live rabbits tied by their front and back paws being plucked raw. The outcry led several high profile brands like H&M, Esprit, C&A and New Look to suspend production of angora products.


SG: Are you working closely with any industry body? If so, can you share details?

AJ: We collaborate closely with like minded organisations in the sustainability field and have proactively partnered with them in setting up an Organic and Fair Cotton Secretariat to champion concerns around sustainable cotton in India.

SG: How can cleaning up the supply chain in the industry benefit one and all?

AJ: Having a clean, ethical and sustainable supply chain would not only have a benefit for the workers and farmers who would be able to earn an income with dignity, security and freedom, and would also have the capacity to plan for their future and the future of their families. It would benefit the textile-apparel industry in India by raising their reputation and reducing their risks. Furthermore, it could become a USP to promote that all textiles and apparels are made with a higher standard of social compliance which is independently verifiable. Finally, for consumers - they would get an assurance that the fashion and products that they are supporting/buying are in line with their belief systems and not based on exploitation of a fellow human being's desperation.

Yes, one swallow does not make a summer; but there are more swallows around now with every passing moment, and summer is as good as being here.

People and planet

These are early days still, and no all-encompassing definition is widely agreed upon. The Wikipedia entry on the subject, however, is an indicator: "Sustainable fashion is a part of the growing design philosophy and trend of sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of environmentalism and social responsibility." Another way of putting it across is by describing the term as something that embodies both eco-fashion and ethical fashion. There may be a lack of consensus, but the concerns are clear: environmental sourcing and manufacture of materials, reduction of carbon footprint, and safety of consumers and workers. The two keywords being 'people' and 'planet'.

The two words came into the limelight with the release of the Brundtland Commission's report in 1987 and the subsequent Rio Summit of June 1992. Sometime in the 1990s, Vogue wrote about environmental trends in fashion. In 2001, British fashion designer Stella McCartney, who does not use leather or fur in her designs, launched her own fashion house under her name in a joint venture with Gucci Group (now Kering) and showed her first collection in Paris. A few years later came EDUN, a fashion brand founded by Irish activist Ali Hewson and her musician husband Bono in 2005 to promote trade in Africa by sourcing production throughout the continent. In 2009, EDUN became part of the LVMH group. Meanwhile, sometime in between (in 2004), the first Ethical Fashion Show was organised in Paris.

In May 2007, Vogue touched the issue once again, arguing that sustainable fashion appeared not to be a short-term trend but one which could last multiple seasons. There was a reason for this insight. Earlier, the fashion world would support environmental causes through charity. But now, fashion designers were introducing eco-conscious methods at the source itself through the use of environment-friendly materials and socially responsible methods of production.

The trend, a rising one in fact, has been there to witness. The New York Fashion Week launched its first Eco Fashion Week in 2009, and the first official sustainable-fashion show at London Fashion Week (LFW) was held in 2010. High street fashion label H&M soon launched its Conscious Collection. The company works to limit its water use, donates garments to charities, and aims to use organic materials. It was increasingly obvious that the fad, once shrugged off, would soon be a movement. This was evident at the LFW in 2013. In 2005, less than 5 per cent of the designers had been sustainable fashion brands, but at the 2013 fashion show, almost a third of designers were eco-focused. Not a tectonic shift, but a shift nevertheless.


In May 2012, the world's largest summit on fashion sustainability was held in Copenhagen, where more than 1,000 key stakeholders from the industry discussed the necessity of making the fashion industry sustainable. The Copenhagen Fashion Summit has since then become one of the most important events for the fashion industry. The same year, in July, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) launched the Higg Index; a self-assessment standard designed to measure and promotes sustainable supply chains in the apparel and footwear industries. Founded in 2011, the SAC is an international non-profit organisation whose members include brands producing apparel or footwear, retailers, industry affiliates and trade associations, the US Environmental Protection Agency, academic institutions and environmental nonprofits (See box: Higg Index).

The concept of sustainable fashion was institutionalised in the interregnum, with the British Fashion Council establishing Esthetica at LFW in 2006 to showcase the growing movement of cutting edge designers committed to eco-sustainably. All Esthetical designers adhere to at least one of the three principles of fair-trade and ethical practices, organic and recycled materials, and are selected for both their ethical credentials and design excellence.

And if fashion shows come, can awards be far behind? The Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel (GLASA) was launched in 2013 to inspire bold and courageous leadership in the apparel sector and to mobilise key stakeholders around promising ideas or practices that can significantly increase the sustainability performance of the apparel industry. The award was instituted by the Sweden-based Sustainable Fashion Academy.

There have been other similar developments. Stella McCartney, G-Star RAW, Loomstate, Bionic Yarn and the manufacturer Saitex came together last year with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute to revolutionise the fashion industry through their Fashion Positive. The programme helps fashion businesses in five categories of sustainability: material health, material reuse, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness.

Conglomerate Kering came aboard the sustainable fashion bandwagon by creating in 2014 a 'Smart Assessment of Materials' tool which was meant to assess the environmental performance of its own plastics. It also launched a 'Smart Supplier Programme' to reduce emissions, water consumption and waste from suppliers. It also implemented the Natural Resources Defence Council's 'Clean by Design' programme for textile mills.

The growth of sustainable fashion is also reflected through revenues. According to the Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2012, the sustainable fashion industry was worth 150 million ($237.5 million) in 2011 - a minuscule fraction of the 21 billion value of the entire British fashion industry, but a huge jump from its 5 million value in 2000. In the end, when sustainable fashion becomes mainstream, its size would be that of the whole industry itself.


The turning point

The fillip to the movement in the last few years has come from a tragic incident. For years activist groups and labour unions had been crying themselves hoarse over the plight of Bangladeshi garment workers. High-profile brands that sourced from Bangladesh lived in denial and the government there turned a blind eye towards the inhuman and hazardous conditions under which its own people worked. Till, of course, the Rana Plaza incident shook up all.

On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-storied commercial building, collapsed in Savar, a sub-district in the Greater Dhaka Area, the capital of Bangladesh. The search for casualties officially ended on May 13 with a death toll of 1,129. In all, 2,515 injured people were rescued from the building alive. It was the deadliest garment-factory accident in history and the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history. Warnings to avoid using the building after cracks appeared the day before had been ignored. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour.

Many have contended that the decision by managers to send workers back to the building was due to the pressure to complete orders for brands on time. There were other concerns too that emerged: short production deadlines imposed by Western buyers (due to the quick changes of designs i.e. fast fashion), to irresponsible purchasing practices of Western buyers.

The outcry was global, and soon an 'Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh' was put in place. More than 100 companies have signed this legally binding agreement between international labour organisations, non-governmental organisations, and retailers engaged in the textile industry to maintain minimum safety standards in Bangladesh.

All this could have been avoided had warning signals that emerged from the smoke of the 2012 fire been heeded. On November 24, 2012, a fire ravaged the Tazreen Fashion factory in the Ashulia district on the outskirts of Dhaka. At least 117 people were killed, and over 200 injured. But industry started cleaning itself only after over 1,000 people had paid a price. The Copenhagen Fashion Summit last year paid homage to those killed in the Rana Plaza incident. The supply chain clean-up process has begun, and the legacy of Rana Plaza lives on.

Things back home

It (the Rana Plaza disaster) certainly had a profound impact on Sana Rezwan and Nihar Sait, the husband-wife duo who established Indelust to build a fashion business that creates positive social impact, ethical and profitable with improved supply chain transparency. Bengaluru-based e-commerce venture Indelust partners with Nest, an international NGO whose mission is to align the interests of local designers and artisans to produce ethically sourced material. Each supplier has the option to sign and comply with a code of ethics created by Nest and Indelust. This includes a review of each of the suppliers' production facilities and management.


But initiatives that have a top-of-the-mind recall value are still few and far between. Among the first in India to launch an eco-friendly range was designer Anita Dongre in 2007. Three years later, her line Grassroots gained international recognition when she was invited to the Ethical Fashion Show Paris. Since Dongre, a number of brands have seen the light of day, but mostly catering to a niche sector. Ahmadabad-based Bhu:sattva converges organic fabrics, traditional herbal dyes and ancient, languishing textile art forms with modern, stylish fashion for men and women. Ethitcus, on the other hand, is a brand of saris and linen owned by Appachi, a leader in cotton production, through the back-end and front-end integration of the cotton value chain.

The best-known brand, needless to say, is Fabindia which links over 80,000 rural producers to modern markets, thereby creating sustainable employment and also preserving India's traditional handicrafts in the process. Fabindia, which has been around for five decades, promotes inclusive capitalism through its 'Community Owned Companies' model. The COC model consists of companies which act as value-adding intermediaries between rural producers and Fabindia. Mother Earth, a brand of clothing, linens and home textiles, is similar - it reaches out to over 20,000 women and more than 15,000 crochet artisans. Some 40 per cent of its products are made by self-help groups (SHGs), who have a 15 per cent share in the company.

Ethical lifestyle brand Buqa Couture provides a final example of fashion supporting women. SHE (Self Help Enterprise) trains women in rural parts of India in needlework and design, giving the skills to earn a wage. Buqa's non-profit wing, Buqa Woman buys the products and sells them in London, sending the money made back to SHE where it funds women's training, implement infrastructure projects in villages and help with education and welfare.

So, India has not remained untouched by developments at the international level, and one might even miss the changes that are taking place unless one is specifically looking for them. As of now, there are two members from India in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition: Arvind Mills and Madura Fashion and Lifestyle. There are, of course, many international brands that have a presence in India: from Adidas and Burberry to Esprit and Levi's. But these are teething days.


For a country that is one of the largest growers of cotton and producers of textiles, the biggest change can possibly come through what is being practiced by the likes of Dibella India, a Bengaluru-based company that ensures a clean supply chain - right from sourcing of cotton to retailing of apparel. Dibella India is certified by both Fairtrade India and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). It uses certified, hand-picked organic cotton that are from non-GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds and grown with 100 per cent bio-fertilisers and without using pesticides. The fabrics are processed without adding harmful chemicals, and care is taken to ensure that the dyeing water is recycled and discharged without polluting the environment.

It also buys certified cotton which ensures that cotton farmers are paid fair price for their produce and in addition they are paid a 'social premium' to invest in community development projects. The increased income improves the living conditions of the farmers and their families and the pesticide-free farming avoids the degradation of the farmers' health. In other words, its products are both clean and green. But initiatives like that of Dibella India are too small both in size and in number to have a resounding impact right away. For the moment, at least.

The future

Not everything is hunky-dory either. A recent study by brand comparison website Rank a Brand showed discrepancies in sustainability talk and action in the fashion industry. It found that while fashion brands were tackling sustainability challenges through communication (63 per cent speak of sustainability on their websites, 10 per cent more than in 2011; 20 per cent publish a sustainability report), many are not backing it with details and data.

Rank a Brand asserted, "A large number of the fashion brands create the impression that they are doing the right thing for sustainability, but then fail to produce relevant and tangible information about the action they are taking." As a result, it placed 30 per cent of brands on a 'Greenwashing Alert.' "These brands appear to talk about sustainability rather than taking positive action. They run the risk of being accused of greenwashing and ultimately that could turn consumers away from them," it said. The dozens of brands on the Greenwashing Alert list included Louis Vuitton, New Yorker, Hugo Boss, Hollister, DKNY, Hush Puppies, Michael Kors, Fossil, Jockey, Triumph, Chantelle, Bugatti Shoes, Columbia, Marc Jacobs and Pepe Jeans.

Such loopholes can be plugged the likes of London-based Made-By, a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to improve environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry. It uses the motto: "fashion with respect for people and planet", and aims to make sustainable fashion common practice. Central to its services are benchmarks that support brands in making the right choices in line with their business needs.

Scepticism (about the subject at hand) does not abound rampantly, but it surely exists. There are people who feel that the 'eco' or 'ethical' labels do not resonate with consumers - that those are mere add-ons and not the unique selling propositions (USP) of products. But that's not how things work. After all, when it comes to change, multiple factors come into play.


Take, for instance, the changes that were effected in the public transport system in Delhi some years back. Compressed natural gas (CNG) became the fuel for public transport not because there was a mass movement against diesel, but because of the advocacy measures of concerned environmental groups, granted due credence by pro-active judicial interventions.

For fashion to go sustainable all the way, it may or may not necessarily have to be demand-driven. There is a case in point: the banning of shahtoosh. It had been a secretive trade all along, and few even knew where and how the wool came from till conservationist George Schaller established the startling link between the decline in the numbers of the endangered Tibetan antelope to shahtoosh, a fabric produced exclusively by artisans based in Jammu & Kashmir.

The antelope, endemic to the Tibetan plateau, was being indiscriminately killed to extract it's under fleece - the raw shahtoosh wool, that was smuggled into Srinagar to be processed into products that sold in the international market for thousands of dollars. The International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI) launched a campaign against the shroud of doom that was backed by leading fashion designers of the country, as also by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). The selling or owning of shahtoosh was made illegal in all countries that signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A ban on the trade by the state government came in 2002. Even this had not been, what one would describe as, a mass campaign. But a snob value fashion item simply disappeared.

Change can certainly come in through demand (with consumers demanding clean fashion), or it can come through advocacy (as the anti-shahtoosh and pro-CNG campaigns show). Or, it can come about through legislative compulsions, as the Rana Plaza incident necessitated.


The Higg Index is an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard for evaluating environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain. The Higg Index provides a tool for the apparel and footwear industry to assess sustainability throughout a product's entire life cycle, from materials to end-of-life. The metrics are limited to a company's internal use for the evaluation and improvement of environmental performance. Plans for a future version include the creation of a scoring scale designed to communicate a product's sustainability impact to consumers and other stakeholders.

Version 1.0 of the Higg Index was made public in June 2012. In December 2013, an updated version of the Higg Index was released. The first version of the Higg Index was adapted from two previously existing sustainability measurement standards: the Nike Apparel Environmental Design Tool and the Eco Index created by the Outdoor Industry Association, the European Outdoor Group and the Zero Waste Alliance.


The Higg Index 2.0 is a tool to help organisations standardise how they measure and evaluate environmental performance of apparel products across the supply chain at the brand, product, and facility levels. It is:

  • a self-assessment tool that enables rapid learning through identification of environmental sustainability hot spots and improvement opportunities;
  • a starting point of engagement, education, and collaboration among stakeholders in advance of more rigorous assessment efforts.


The right actions regarding the design phase have the potential to begin a chain reaction and bring about massive change in the fashion and textile industry. To begin this journey, designers should follow these five easy steps:

1. RECLAIM DESIGN POWER: Actions speaks louder than words: Use sustainability as a positive design opportunity and create beautiful styles without compromising ethics. Convince your decision makers through short-term financial wins to pave way for long-term investments. Water-less dyeing has the potential to save more than 60 per cent on energy use compared to traditional dyeing technologies.

2. KNOW YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN: Education is key to change: Ask critical questions to suppliers and suppliers' suppliers and understand the consequences of where you source from and what materials you use. Every choice you make about production location and material selection has an impact. As a designer you are not expected to have detailed knowledge about the supply chain but to have deeper insights about materials. Cotton uses 45 per cent less energy than acrylic but 25 per cent more water.

3. CHOOSE A FOCUS: The power of one: Making just one better choice can make a huge change to the footprint of your product. Sustainability practitioners want designers to change everything overnight but one change can have huge impact. Switching to recycled polyester for one T-shirt can save 13 plastic bottles from landfill/incineration.

4. CREATE MORE; USE LESS: Materials matter most: The choice of materials has a significant impact on the footprint of the final product. Combined with an efficient usage of materials you have a strong case for sustainability. Reducing your material use through pattern efficiency is not only sustainable; it is cost effective. The goal is 100 per cent usage of materials into products and zero waste.


5. ENGAGE YOUR CUSTOMERS: Meaningful relationships pay off: The fastest way to be successful in business and in sustainability is to tell a compelling story about your design. Bring your customers with you in your choices. Never compromise on your design just for the sake of sustainability, but celebrate better choices.


Abhishek Jani, CEO- Fairtrade India

SG: In what way can the textile-apparel industry benefit from maintaining fairtrade ethics?

AJ: Until now Fairtrade's primary focus has been on the cotton farmers, who are often the hidden link in the textile-apparel supply chain despite the need for companies to address sustainability issues at the level of cotton production and ensure farmers get a fair deal. Nearly 70 per cent of farmer suicides in India take place in the cotton producing regions.

Over the past couple of years, we have also started developing a more substantive Fairtrade textile standard to bring greater protection and benefits to textile workers. The main benefit to the industry in maintaining Fairtrade Standards would be having a more motivated workforce who would be the direct beneficiaries of such initiatives. In addition, by subscribing to the Fairtrade Standards, businesses would also signal to retailers and brands that they are willing to invest in the welfare of their workforce; commit to not undertaking exploitative labour practices; and adhere to higher ethical and sustainability standards in a transparent and accountable manner, thereby boosting their image and reputation. In the long run, adhering to such practices and being transparent about it can also give a competitive advantage.

SG: Fairtrade India has been around for a while, though it started off officially only last year. What has been the response of the industry so far?

AJ: India is yet to catch up with the global trend of associating brands with their sustainability footprints. Though there are sustainability pioneers in the country, by and large the industry currently places little value on developing strong brand identities in the field of sustainability and there is lot more to be done to improve India's global image around sustainability issues. The response from industry has been little less forthcoming and in many instances the conversations are at a very nascent stage of even explaining why sustainability is important. However, with increasing consumer awareness we hope this scenario would change.

SG: Who are the major players working with you in the textile-apparel industry?

AJ: Though we are working with many of the leading industry players, they are mainly acting as suppliers to the global brands and are yet to incorporate Fairtrade for their own brands and domestic sales. Interestingly, our current associates for Indian market are some young social entrepreneurs who are using fashion as a tool for finding solutions to some of the problems our cotton farmers and workers in the textiles value chain are facing. These pioneers include No Nasties, Dibella India and a number of other such young brands.