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Style that’s sustainable: Retailers slow down; rethink fast fashion

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Enough is never enough, especially when it comes to clothes. Ask any woman and she shall bear testify to the same. Fast forward fashion is leading to consumers shopping to their heart’s content, but this comes with some risks – primarily danger to the environment. To quote author Stephen Leahy from his book ‘Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products’: It takes 2,000 gallons (7,600 litres) of water to make your favourite pair of jeans! However, thanks to consciousness shown by some retailers and brands, responsible and sustainable fashion is making in-roads and leading the way.

Global fashion retailer H&M has messages of being environmentally conscious screaming from their various visual merchandising initiatives. Steps are also being taken by ITC’s brand Wills Lifestyle. The brand has recently made the paradigm shift to 100 percent natural fibres and in its new avatar as WLS, it is the first mainstream Indian apparel brand to embark on a journey of going back to nature.

Vikas Gupta, Divisional Chief Executive Officer, ITC LRBD says evolved consumers understand the consequences of their actions – on themselves, their communities and the planet.

“Our new direction is an amalgamation of these insights, inspired by all that is real and catering to consumers who value responsibility and originality. Our entire product cycle—from ideating and designing desirable garments, to sourcing and then manufacturing— has been reoriented to live up to our promise to consumers, thus making us the first port of call for crafted, all-natural and authentically designed stylish apparel that tells a unique story in the modern workplace,” he states.

Keeping in line with this, WLS will offer authentic and real apparel which is built on 100 percent natural fiber. All garments starting from Spring Summer ’19 will be made of cotton, linen, silk or wool fibers. This will be a phased approach, as we go from making clothes with natural fiber to developing all trims such as the threads, buttons and labels using natural elements. This approach marks the brand’s stance in favour of timeless, high-quality and multi-seasonal apparel that is now gaining importance among consumers, in a world dominated by disposable garments, fast fashion and relentless consumerism.

Following suit is Alcis Sports with their recent athleisure collection – Alcis X Nari that has been launched in collaboration with designer Narendra Kumar. Alcis X Nari is made almost entirely of Recycled Polyester that is sourced from PET Bottles. Generally, garments are made of Polyester—a man-made fibre, production of which involves huge quantities of water,chemicals and use of fossil fuels.

Commenting on the initiative undertaken by the brand, Roshan Baid, Managing Director, Alcis Sports says, “Consumers in India are increasingly getting environmentally conscious, which is getting reflected in their choices of what they are eating and wearing. We take the pride in using recycled polyester in more than 90 percent of our range which is contributing to our nature in a big way.”

The India Story

Talking about sustainability and its influence on what we wear or decide to buy depends on how conscious we are made to feel about it. Not many brands have taken the onus to educate the customers on the importance of being responsible shoppers and investing in brands/clothes that are manufactured responsibly keeping the environment in mind. Baby steps are being taken but there is a long way to go.

Pointing out the dynamics we witness in India with regards to sustainability consciousness, especially while disposing off the use clothes, Abhishek Bansal, Head of Sustainability, Arvind Limited says, “In the past few years, there has been a rapid change in how we consume, how much we consume and what we consume. These three factors have completely changed the dynamics of the industry. Lifestyle choices and per capita incomes have also changed in India. This has led to increased consumption and disposal. However, in India we still see that the used clothes are still getting passed on to charity or someone in need, more often than it goes to the landfill. The increased consumption does have a huge impact on environment. However, there is an alternate path involving cleaner production and better raw materials, which could lead the industry to a better path and lower impacts, ever with higher production. At the same time, there is also a need to engage customers and educate them to chose sustainable clothing and waste less.”

Excerpts from their Sustainability Report highlight Arvind’s commitment towards their commitment to responsible and sustainable fashion. To quote from their report – The proverb, well begun is half done, is apt when it comes to sustainability. We believe that sustainability when systematically embedded at the source gets cascaded throughout the production line and the value chain. At Arvind, instead of just concentrating on tailpipe management, we have adopted input management as our preferred approach to sustainability.

Bansal elaborates, “We at Arvind Limited have adopted multiple sustainable manufacturing practices which helps us make and sell products that are produced in environmentally conscious way and have low impact during manufacturing and sometimes during use stage as well. Our sustainability work is based on philosophy of Fundamentally Right, which essentially means looking after each input material to our production system and make sure these are Sustainable. The six-core areas that we focus on are—Water, Energy, Cotton, Chemicals, People and Money. We use 70 percent water which is coming from recycled water sources and we are planning to take it up to 90 percent. We use 30 percent renewable energy in our production system. We are also using Sustainable cotton like organic cotton and recycled cotton.”

On what makes it important for all brands, retailers and consumers to consider investing in responsible/ sustainable fashion, Manjula Gandhi, Chief Product Officer, Numero Uno states, “Fashion has become a consumer product with a limited life span. This is true for both cheap fashion as well as for haute couture. Cheap prices, discounting and vast choices allow large amounts of clothing to be purchased. Now that people communicate much more through pictures via Instagram and other social media platforms, it becomes imperative for customers to spot a fresh look always. And so, an avalanche of consumption has been set in motion which is threatening to choke the planet. It is true that many fashion companies and brands today are following the philosophy of sustainability. Denim brands have realized the market for sustainable and responsible products which is set to grow basis the rising awareness. The realization has come about mostly as a result of many different factors coming into play at the same time, one of them being changing values of society – durability and sustainability becoming increasingly important especially among young people. It is no longer enough for fashion companies to talk about their green ambitions, they have to prove that they are taking actual steps in making their practices greener and more ethical.”

Talking about her brand, Gandhi reveals, “For Numero Uno sustainability is not just about making a contained range and labeling it as conscious/sustainable. It is about inciting a real change at every stage of the product lifecycle possible, from manufacturing to washing and finishing, delivery, recycling and disposal. Numero Uno has taken significant steps towards setting up an ethical sustainable ecosystem from the beginning by adopting eco friendly processes and technology with emphasis on low water consumption, restricted use of hazardous chemicals and good working conditions for its workforce. There has been a conscious, gradual and consistent shift towards sustainable methods, adoption of effective technology like extensive use of laser machines instead of handscraping for benefit of workers’ health. Use of E-Soft, Ozone/G2, Cold-Eco Dyeing have helped in reducing water and hazardous chemical consumption. Besides that, we have also initiated rain-water harvesting practice to replenish ground water, use solar waterheaters and energy-efficient lights in the factory and all of these together help in reducing burden on natural resources. We have also installed an ETP which cleans water and operates on Zero Liquid Discharge.”

Footwear brand Woodland has been doing its bit too to be one with the environment sustainability initiatives.
Elaborating on the same, Harkirat Singh, Managing Director, Woodland says, “When we talk about Woodland, it is a brand known for its eco-friendly initiatives further it strengthens its association with the environment by launching a new range of biodegradable footwear. This launch is in association with the company’s CSR initiative Proplanet, a wing dedicated to making our mother Earth a better place to live in. The new range is one of the most exciting environmental innovations to be witnessed by the footwear industry.” Singh highlights the importance of brands to realize that they need to give back to the community and the best way to do so would be to contribute towards the well-being of said community. The brand designs and constructs products to perform better and last longer.

“We believe that a high quality product that retains its performance properties and aesthetic appeal for many years is more environmentally responsible than one that must be replaced frequently due to inferior materials or poor workmanship. All our product hangtags, as well as our company business cards are printed on certified 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper. To reduce the total amount of paper used in our marketing materials, and the energy consumed to make and recycle them, we are moving towards more electronic billing, publishing and communication. This will offer consumers greater information at their fingertips, while reducing the volumes of our printed materials,” he says.

Cost Calculation

Everything comes at a cost and more than that, consciousness. Being responsible and ethical in today’s fast moving world may sound daunting but then brands and retailers who are committed towards the cause at hand are ready to take the plunge and await the long term returns.

Bansal says, “We have always believed in doing what is right when it comes to sustainable production. It helps to take a very long term view when investing into cleaner production practices. Things might look expensive in shorter term, but it pays off in medium and longer term. Certain measures like water savings and renewable energy have started to make financial sense now. However, certain measures like recycling or organic might still be more expensive and requires a gradual shift.”

He further states that cost of goods is still the largest factor besides quality and style in the minds of shoppers and how across geographies it has been difficult to get extra value for sustainable products from a wide range of shoppers.

To this, the possible solution according to Bansal would be, “We believe that overtime the industry should produce and sell more and more sustainable products, so that these products become baseline and we have to no longer look at pricing differences. We believe that fast fashion is transforming in responsible fashion and overtime these two will not be distinct but whole of fast fashion would transform in responsible fashion. In India in particular, fast fashion is a new phenomenon. The industry should try to make it sustainable from early days and not make the mistake committed in US and Europe by letting fast fashion grow unchecked.”

Gandhi says, “Being an environment friendly brand and a responsible manufacturing corporate, Numero Uno intends to continue producing sustainably, avoiding waste or spoiling of resources, recycling non renewable resources like water, conserving energy and reducing use of harmful toxic chemicals during washing processes. And that comes at a cost. Nevertheless that is our chosen path as that is the way forward in order to save the planet. We will continue to enlarge our portfolio of sustainable denim collections in future and will educate and encourage our customers to buy more of these. Further we advise them to not wash their jeans too often and wear them with everything.”

The Road Ahead

While the notion of responsible consumption evolves in the Indian context, alignment will be needed among producers, brands and retailers to provide access to ‘responsible products’. So, while, it is upon the brands to take it up on themselves to educate the customer on how they can contribute towards environment sustainability, it is equally important for customers to be equally conscious about their actions. Use and throw attitude needs to undergo a change. To cite how this consciousness can be ingrained in the shoppers, H&M’s initiative of asking customers to exchange their old clothes for a certain discount on their new ones is worth mentioning. The brand not only has brochures being distributed to customers at the store, but their Visual Merchandizing initiatives too have bold messages being played on giant LED screens asking customers to recycle their old clothes for new ones.

According to Bansal, “We all are collectively responsible for taking this message to consumers and including consumer themselves are responsible for what they consume. There is definitely a role for leading industry associations in India like CII, FICCI, textile association as well as global coalitions like Sustainable Apparel Coalition and ZDHC.”

Singh also points out that it is we, not just you or someone who can bring about change. “Together we can make the change. We can promote idea of buying less, choosing well and prioritising quality fashion over fast fashion and making it last. This idea will minimise the waste. We can educate people through electronic channels, radio, newspapers, etc. It should be malls and brands coming together with government to support for a change.”

To conclude, Singh talks about the UN initiative which if executed well can have brands and retailers heavily contribute towards environment sustainability, “‘Not charity. Just work.’ This is the mantra of the UN’s initiative, which connects artisans from the developing world with top international fashion brands. The goal is to radically reform the fashion industry by guaranteeing good working conditions, a liveable wage and a minimal impact on the environment. They monitor and produce data to demonstrate the social impact, sustainability and traceability of the fashion goods they produce.”

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