Words like sustainability, circular fashion, upcycling and recycling may have entered the fashion vocabulary, but the real challenge is to find fibres that have a low environmental impact and non-polluting processes.
Call it the cotton paradox. Cotton is beautiful, breathable and defines our national narrative. It is also a water-intensive crop and may be overdependent on pesticides. Its processing footprint isn’t great either. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton T-shirt. You can go natural and biodegradable but that may not always add up to sustainability.
The fashion industry, which is often accused of paying lip service to sustainability, is seeking alternative fibres. There are multiple considerations though: the fabric should be soft enough to cut, allow for drape and silhouette and be economical enough to scale up to collections or fast fashion. Beyond the “organic" labelling, sustainability encompasses a larger universe of environmental impact that includes energy sources, water consumption and transparent and responsible processing.
Designer Hemant Sagar (of the label Lecoanet Hemant), who has launched a range of leisurewear made in the Ayurvastra tradition—dyed with medicinal herbs—called Ayurganic, mentions a high fibre-yielding plant called Ramie. Found in abundance in Meghalaya’s Garo region, it yields a linen-like fibre. It has been creating a buzz because it is strong, naturally antibacterial and needs no pesticides. Sagar invited 17 designers, including Love Birds, Kishmish and PELLA, to create designs with a blend he created of Ramie, silk and cotton fibres at an exhibition at the French embassy in Delhi last year.
“At that point," says Sagar, “we were working at getting the stickiness and stiffness out of the fibre. This usually demands a chemical solution that will be polluting. The idea is to act proactively and work on it right from the beginning so that the fibre is 100% organic and no chemical procedure is required at any step even later." He adds that they are working in collaboration with the agriculture university in Shillong, Lille University in the north of France and government in Meghalaya.
Sagar is happy about the Ramie growers’ collective, and his design experiment—it yielded 200 pieces of Ramie fibre blended with organic cotton and silk fibres—which started the conversation. “Each time I mention the project, it becomes bigger and bigger," he says.
If Sagar and the Ramie growers are looking at creating a new strain of fibre, Austria-based Lenzing has established a firm foothold in the alternative fibre space. “While cotton is well recognized in India, wood-based cellulosic fibres are the fastest growing category in the fashion industry," says Arpit Srivastava, marketing and branding manager, South Asia and Thailand, Lenzing Group.
Tencel—which created waves when it amped up its computer research in 2018—is made from wood cellulose sourced through responsible local forest cultivation. Seen as an alternative to heavily processed rayon, Tencel has been adopted by many in fashion (the Birla group also manufactures its version of wood cellulose fibre under the brand name Excel). In August, Lenzing launched EcoVero in India at the Lakmé Fashion Week in collaboration with designers Abraham & Thakore, who used this new fibre to create a line of modern kurtas. EcoVero is still a form of wood cellulose but it claims to have the lowest environmental impact and is made in a completely sustainable way. Lenzing uses what they refer to as a “circular economy" where waste is minimized or eliminated completely and a “closed loop" system, which means that though chemicals and dyes are used, they are constantly recycled and never pumped back into the environment. “Turning fibre into a sports jacket or an evening blouse involves numerous stages and specialists and it is important to control these processes", says Srivastava. Without process controls, it is possible that the shirt labelled 100% organic may have spewed polluting chemicals into the environment through bleaching, dyeing and softening processes on its way to becoming a shirt.
The Bombay Hemp Company (Boheco), which was a runner-up at the Tata Social Enterprise Challenge in 2017, is now backed by industrialist Ratan Tata and Sequoia managing director Rajan Anandan. It was started in 2013 by seven co-founders as an industrial hemp and medicinal cannabis company. They have now ventured into fashion with B Label. “Our vision is to create a tribe of hemp natives, mindful choosers who want to lead healthy and sustainable lives whether it is in health, hemp consumables (like hemp seeds and hemp hearts) or fashion," says co-founder Chirag Tekchandaney.
Hemp is a bit of a wonder plant. Native to Asia and grown in north India, it is a zero-waste plant, i.e. every bit of the plant can be used. It needs less water than cotton, grows fast, prevents soil erosion, absorbs carbon, is resistant to mould, needs no pesticides and lasts longer than most other fibres. It is an ancient plant which was very popular as clothing in Europe for centuries and is making a comeback, thanks to the fact it is an environmental warrior, with uses across industries like beauty, health and construction.
For a sustainable clothing label, B Label’s prices are surprisingly accessible, considering that terms like organic or sustainable can often mean “wildly expensive". B Label’s hemp dresses start at about ₹2,500, which competes with high street and fast fashion pricing. This is in line with the founders’ vision that sustainable clothing can be profitable without unreal mark-ups. “It is only fair," says Tekchandaney, “that we offer this alternative lifestyle to our consumers at compelling prices that encourage them to buy".
Designers and fashion editors are pushing for more research and newer materials. International designer Issey Miyake has been an energetic experimenter with both synthetic and natural fibres. His collections have used paper, horse hair and recycled petroleum. Tencel and EcoVero have been associated with designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh, Anita Dongre, Mara Hoffman, Mehtap Elaidi and Patrick Owen.
Bioplastics made from vegetable starches, recycled agricultural waste and recycled plastics are becoming an area of research in fashion too. Juice brand Raw Pressery launched a small collection of T-shirts, each made of seven recycled PET bottles, to demonstrate its eco-credentials. But there is a still a long way to go—it begins with awareness and small steps. For instance, the Lakmé Fashion Week now includes a “circular fashion" day, with business pitches from young designers working in the sustainable space .
Thirty-six brands, including H&M and Burberry, one fast fashion and one high fashion, have signed a pledge with not-for-profit Better Cotton Initiative’s sustainability programme to switch to sustainable cotton by 2025. Chanel, Hermès and Stella McCartney are among the 150 brands that have signed French President Emmanuel Macron’s Fashion Pact and committed to an ambitious environmental pledge that covers global warming, the impact of plastics, biodiversity and alternative sustainable practices.
Now, as consumers, it is up to us to hold them responsible for fulfilling their promises and make our own choices based on a garment’s sustainability quotient.
Geeta Rao writes on luxury and wellness.