Who makes your clothes?

Thursday, May 03, 2018

A recent event in the city highlighted the true cost and impact of the fashion industry, and urged consumers to think before they buy

When you are buying a new dress, do you ever stop to think— ‘Who made my clothes?’ Or that there might be considerations beyond how well they fit your waistline and your wallet?

When Suki Dusanj Lenz goes shopping, she asks these questions, and a few more. Does she really need that outfit? Is swapping an option? She also looks around before she makes that purchase; “I’m the queen of hunting,” she says, and adds: “I will repeat my clothes with pride”. It’s not something many of us are willing to do these days, especially when we keep posting photos of ourselves on social media and can’t bear the thought of being seen in the same ensemble.

Suki is no ordinary shopper. The stylish, gorgeous and very committed lady is the India coordinator of Fashion Revolution, which was born soon after the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing 1,138 people and injuring another 2,500—making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. There were five garment factories here, all manufacturing clothing for global brands. The victims were mostly young women. The organisation recognises that while apparel companies have seen higher costs, driven by rising labour, raw material and energy prices, the price we pay for our clothing is less than ever before. Clearly, something is wrong somewhere.

For some years now, mindful shoppers in India have been debating these issues, and trying to do something about it. Last week, at the WeWork global collaborative space at Bandra-Kurla Complex, some of these trend-setters in the Indian fashion industry got together for the first-of-its-kind Fashion Revolution Week.

The event, which took place from April 23 to 29, was organised in collaboration with Fairtrunk, a social enterprise and marketplace for sustainable brands. There were screenings and DIY workshops on tie-and-dye and upcycling, plus a blogger meet-up. The event culminated with a pop-up over the weekend featuring sustainable garments and footwear. There was also a panel discussion on the final day, moderated by Darshana Gajare, founder of Fairtrunk. The Fashion Revolution Week was the culmination of WeWork’s partnership in February with Lakme Fashion Week to launch a Fashion Incubation Program for designers. The objective was to help young designers to be part of a larger progressive movement with access to cross-industry learning. The program ran parallelly across Mumbai and Gurgaon with 80 designers who were given the opportunity to use the WeWork space.

Gautam Vazirani, Strategist – Sustainable Fashion at IMG Reliance and a key organiser of Lakme Fashion Week, was one of the speakers that day; he believes that the livelihoods of the people who make the clothes are as important as the cut and trends. Gautam has worked to showcase the work of artisans from Kutch and Assam, bringing handlooms to high fashion with the intervention of designers who ensure contemporary designs and a quality finish.

Among other things, Gautam spoke of the huge number of villages in India where artisans had much to contribute. He also highlighted how, to make the project sustainable, it was important to understand what materials were in sync with their particular environments; for instance, for the famous Mul Jamdani textiles of Bengal, a certain type of long-staple cotton is needed, which is becoming difficult to source. “We have to educate the consumer on where things come from,” he said. Gautam believes that big industry needs to be involved, simply because of the muscle and the reach it offers; to this end, he has worked with Raymonds to introduce khadi products.

Apurva Kothari, founder of No Nasties, champions the use of organic cotton. During the panel discussion he said: “Cotton is known as a nasty crop, because of the inputs that go into its farming.” Apurva, who was disturbed by the rising number of farmer suicides—one every 30 minutes and 300,000 farmers suicides in just over 15 years—started No Nasties seven years ago. No Nasties uses organic and fair trade practices built on the premise that cotton farming is possible without genetically modified seeds, synthetic pesticides or fertilisers; without child labour, and with fair wages to farmers. With all this, Apurva is acutely conscious that the end results need to match the design sensibilities of contemporary consumers; as he said, “unless you have an amazing product that sells for itself, you cannot compete with the big brands”.

Another speaker, Yash Kotak, Co-Founder, BOHECO, spoke of hemp as a sustainable textile. Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived product. “Imagine walking into a government office,” said Yash, “and saying, ‘We want to make bhang ke kapde!’ But cannabis need not be a problem if you think of it as a solution instead.” When they did walk into the government office, it was with a brick, a bag and a garment—all made of this single crop.

The question of recycling came up, and Shubhi Sachan, Founder & Designer, Jambudweep, pointed out that recycling was not always the best option because so many processes were involved; upcycling would be a better choice.

There was also some discussion on leather and Suki had a strong response. “You should take a look at how leather is made and the chemicals the workers are exposed to,” she said. Jeans could be dangerous too; “to get that distressed look, people are literally dying on the job! Watch the film RiverBlue!” she declared.

So what can you, as a sensitised shopper, do while purchasing that new outfit? Suki’s advice: “Think before you buy. Ask who made your clothes. Be mindful”.

On this, the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, you can also join Fashion Revolution’s campaign.“We encourage millions of people to ask brands #whomademyclothes and demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain,” says their website. Log on to https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/get-involved/ for more.

“WeWork as a platform truly believes in offering creators an experience through workspaces and resonates with the dynamics of the Indian fashion industry. Post launching our Fashion Incubation Program at Lakme Fashion Week with IMG Reliance in February, this is our partnership with an incubatee to organise events at WeWork BKC during the global 'Fashion Revolution Week'. The events were organised around the topics of sustainable fashion and definitely lend to the WeWork experience."

 - Ryan Bennett, General Manager, WeWork India

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