The Making of the Modern Sustainability Soldier

The Making of the Modern Sustainability Soldier

The restraint taught by 2020, erring on the side of ethical consumption and informed choices could turn each of us into a sustainability soldier 

Among the well-deserved (yet surprising because of the unusual choice) recognitions of 2020 was the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Special Humanitarian Action Award by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for Hindi cinema actor Sonu Sood. “Messiah of the migrants” as he was called, the actor stepped up and beyond the regular call of social empathy and philanthropy that drives many karma positive Indians towards charity. By sending lakhs of stranded migrants and students back to their homes, creating opportunities for education, sustenance, and re-employment for many in the COVID-19 lockdown, Sood contributed to “sustainable development”. His version now rubs shoulders with globally admired “campaigners, storytellers, visualisers, includers, creatives, connectors and mobilisers” as the UN SDG calls them.

Sustainability, the once confusing 21st century term and now a ubiquitously overused idea may have lost some of its branding burnish in fashion and lifestyle. Yet, the growing need to pursue it is not about to fade just because we feel our appetites are full and we know more or less, what it means. Or that by playing smart chess with “green”, “natural”, “ethical”, “organic”, “ecologically safe” and “mindful pawns”, we are doing our bit.


Photo: Twitter

Sonu Sood (centre) in a face mask and shield working to send migrants back to their homes.

The Voice of Fashion’s Everyday Sustainability series that starts today and will bring information filled ideas a couple of times every week starts with the acceptance that whatever we do is not going to be enough. Not for a long time. Given the enormous and damaging imbalance between planet and people, the practical and mental chaos created by reckless consumption, each one of us must urgently enlist as sustainability soldiers. According to the biennial ‘Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report’ of the World Bank, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to push as many 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021 depending on the severity of the economic contraction. Garment workers in poor countries have been particularly pushed to the brink of existence by the disrupted global supply chains.

Our future choices or course corrections could be in any direction. To borrow vocabulary from Fashion for Good—a global platform for sustainable fashion innovation, it could be Good Materials, Good Economy, Good Energy, Good Water, Good Lives.

Here is an info-guide to make sustainability a daily non-negotiable in our lives. You may have broadly stumbled into these ideas earlier. However, each of these thoughts comes with fine print.


Photo: Instagram/futurecollectiveindia

A sari swap display from a Future Collective event in Delhi, February 2020.

Secondhand saris:
Buy from platforms for pre-used fashion like for instance to use products to their maximum. However, it is as important to sell/ resell what you can’t reuse or are bored of. Looking for a new idea? Start a section to sell pre-worn saris. Unique to India, it can be grown in a curatorial way with an small advisory board comprising some of India’s sari experts so that you are not just helping sell a pre-worn sari but sharing knowledge on its make, textile, origin. The second hand fashion market is expected to soar in the coming years. According to ThredUp’s Resale Report: Resale Growth and Impact of Covid-19, resale will overtake the traditional donation and thrift market and grow from $28 billion currently to $64 billion by 2024. Putting pre-worn Indian saris for sale is an opportunity as a sustainability initiative.

Supporting plagiarism is anti-sustainability: Fired by the desire to look like film celebrities, the rich and famous, who thrive on expensive designer wear, we go to great lengths to find replicas in fast fashion or couture brands. In India, mass-market stores selling counterfeit designs of original bridal wear by top league couturiers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Manish Malhotra, Gaurav Gupta and a horde of others is commonplace. We may be getting a deal but it comes at the cost of someone’s intellectual copyright, skill and creative work. Knock offs are not only legally wrong, they add to creating “more of the same” problem associated with piling up of clothes. Buying plagiarised designs or commissioning copies of original gowns and lehngas to small-time tailors and fabricators is a sustainability crime. Watch the films The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Yves Saint Laurent (2014) again to understand why originality matters in fashion. Alternatively, read up other info-data on this issue. It is of utmost importance that fashion and design schools educate their students that copying is not fashion.


Photo: Facebook/coutureindian

(L-R) A lehnga designed by Sabyaschi Mukherjee; a replica of the design.

Avoid bargaining with artisans: Among the core ideas behind journalist Dana Thomas’ books Fashionopolis (2019) and Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster (2007) is that what is sold as luxury is not real luxury. It is the image, logo, promotion, marketing and price that turns many products into “luxury products” even when they are not exceptional or artisanal. This trend has only grown in the last decade. In India, on the contrary exceptionally handmade, artisanal products are accessible, affordable and barely marketed, if at all. That does not give us reason to bargain and negotiate prices with craftsmen when we directly buy from them. Once we understand the real definition of luxury, sustaining the craftsperson by valuing their skills and creations with the right commercial price will acquire a new meaning.


Photo: Shutterstock

A woman in a cotton farm in Maharashtra.

Fashion is about feminism and humanism:
A sustainability soldier needs to cultivate a temperament to find out more. Information, data, who made my clothes (as Fashion Revolution coins it), what kind of environmental or human resources we drain by adding a shoe or bag to our overfull closets. So always ask “Who Made My Clothes”. Often you will find it includes exploited and poorly paid women and inhumanly handled child labour. Recently, The Guardian reported that fast fashion brand Boohoo was exploiting workers in Pakistan by forcing them to work in appalling conditions and paying them 29p per hour. You can stop using the brand yes, but if you can try finding concrete help that extends training/ an educational opportunity to a wronged child, or health care to an oppressed female worker, you will have done more than your bit to go against fashion slavery. Combine the Sonu Sood philosophy with that of filmmaker Danny Boyle who made the hugely successful film Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Boyle fully supported the education and social placement of all child actors from the slums who acted in the film. Takeaway: we can’t just tell stories. Sometimes we must overwrite them.

Cotton On: It is estimated that by 2050, the fashion industry will have used 25 per cent of the world’s carbon budget, making it the second most polluting industry only to oil. Now is the time to know your “cotton” better. And why even though it is biodegradable, the cultivation of cotton depletes environmental resources. While most consumers understand how synthetics, plastics, and animal derived materials are ecologically poor choices, the damages of cotton (it demands extensive pesticides, chemical sprays and gallons of water) confuses many and it remains the most sought after, most used fabric in the world. To sustain local cotton growing communities and farmers, switching to organic cotton is imperative.

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