Circular fashion ‘sparks joy’

First up, I can’t do what Marie Kondo does. Discard.

In her new Netflix series, people who have accumulated clothes over time are seen decorously breaking down and seeking the help of Marie to check whether their shopping sparks joy. If not, the alternative is one: discard. Discarding is so central to fast fashion, it seems Marie has inadvertently become the messiah for it.

Upcycled shirts
Upcycled shirts developed by the National Institute of Fashion Technology‘s students as part of design curriculum

Working in a fashion design and technology institute that was started by the Government of India in the late 80s, I always worry that circularity has not yet entered the garment industry in a substantial way. Most of the manufacturers I meet, the designers who come to pick student interns, and the fashion houses who send their lists for classroom projects, do not talk seriously of circular economy and fashion’s role in it. The stress is always on more sales, more products, more things on the rack – all of which translate into more profit, of course.

More than 70% of the clothes that are manufactured in the world ends up in landfill, thanks to the weekly churning of trends. Gone are the days when fashion used to be restricted to four seasons. Most of the big high street retailers now have ‘micro’ seasons for which they generate new collections every week. This hurried production often demands cheaper, less eco-friendly fabrics that are often not bio-degradable. The manufacturing process itself leaves much to be desired, with severe environmental damage and ecological implications. Most often, quality suffers yet the point is instant gratification, supported by aggressive marketing that fuels the appetite of the consumer to buy more and more of the cheap, fast stuff and change their wardrobes all the time.

Fast fashion and modern consumerism has taken ‘need’ out of the shopping lexicon. No shopper worth his salt now goes shopping because they need new clothes. They often buy because there is a sale or a new collection popped up on their phone.

old footwear art installation
Old footwear collected and upcycled into an art installation by NIFT students

The garment industry has to step up the conversation on slow fashion. Mindful designing and mindful production that eventually lead to a mindful consumption pattern are badly needed. A bold attempt to move in this direction came at the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit when the Global Fashion Agenda got many brands (including Nike, ASOS, Target, H&M, etc.) to sign the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment. The 2020 Commitment aims to promote circularity of design by increasing the volume of used garments and footwear collected and resold, as well as increasing the volume of such garments and footwear reused in production and increasing the share of fashion products made from recycled and upcycled garments.

Stella McCartney has an initiative called the Stella McCartney Cares Green that lists out very relevant ambitions for sustainability in the fashion industry at large. She talks of material innovation, animal welfare and including young designers and fashion students in the conversation on eco-friendly fashion.  She must be given the credit of marrying fashion with climate change and using her position to increase awareness on the issue globally.

In India, designer Anita Dongre makes a conscious effort to reduce her label’s eco footprint and works with grassroots communities and craft clusters to promote community development, reduce fabric waste, source eco-friendly fabrics and prevent labour migration. In February 2019, India hosted the Circular Design Challenge Award in collaboration with the UN. I WAS A SARI, an eco-friendly and ethical lifestyle fashion brand based out of Mumbai bagged the award for their collection that used recycled plastic tarpaulins.

It is sad that the public policy world has not yet woken up to the scope of work in this sector: most governments are not even aware of this environmental disaster called fast fashion. In the market-driven economy, there has been no policy support for building responsible brands in terms of laying down protocols for manufacturing that include inter alia ceilings on product range, quotas on production, incentive for using natural dyes and easily biodegradable fabrics, fair trade practices and labour rights (think unfair labour practices of multinational corporations in developing economies). The climate change conversation has only just touched on the concern caused by the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.  The design curricula for fashion students most often do not address circularity, an area into which the government can step in and incentivise. It is high time personal style woke up to the societal need of sustainability.

Susan Thomas is an alumna of the Blavatnik School of Government (MPP Class of 2015). She has been with the Government of India since 2001 as part of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and works presently as the Director for the National Institute of Fashion Technology under the Ministry of Textiles. She has worked earlier in areas of corporate taxation, tax tribunal advocacy and other areas of Income Tax. Views expressed are purely personal.

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