Waste Measurements: East versus West

Waste Measurements: East versus West

Sustainability may be the new black of global fashion but on World Environment Day we need to look at the growing East-West divide

The climate is thick with concern. For the fashion industry collectively and everyone who works with it as a responsible individual, World Environment Day must be counted as a holy day. A day of reflection, stark honesty and the willingness to mitigate the dangers of ecological degradation. In fashion, environmental conservation has become synonymous with “sustainability”. Upcycle, recycle, buy less, wear more, share more, swap instead of throw, gender equality, water and waste management, alertness, awareness, sensitive leadership are different terms but they spring from the same fount: the urgent need to conserve.

Last month, I was an eager attendee at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit (CFS) 2019 (Denmark), a leading business event and a platform of influential dialogues on sustainability in fashion. Organised by the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) that has its roots in the Danish fashion industry, CFS which celebrated ten years works with strategic partnerships. With global brands like H&M, Nike, ASOS on the one hand, and conglomerates like luxury fashion group Kering, Li & Fung, Sustainable Apparel Coalition on the other. There are other names on that list as CFS engages with businesses of all sizes.


Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Nazma Akter of Bangladesh (R) and other speakers at Wages – what should fashion brands do.

In their address to the press, founder Eva Kruse, also the CEO and president of CFS and GFA and chief sustainability officer of GFA Morten Lehmann spoke about engaging with policy makers across the world. Every year, GFA publishes the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group. They also release the CEO Agenda.


Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Nina Smith of GoodWeave (R) and Anindit Roy Chowdhury, India programme manager of C&A Foundation (R) and others at “Hidden Supply Chains” panel discussion at Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019.

Everyone agreed that the global fashion industry is not catching up fast enough with remedial plans given the extent of problems it has created—waste, inequality, injustice to human beings and animals in supply chains thus creating a frightening carbon footprint.

A Western Bias?

As the conference progressed though, it became apparent that this was essentially a Western court on fashion’s problems and problem solving. Though well-known Indian designer and respected sustainability champion Anita Dongre was invited to speak about what sustainability meant to her brand and other panels discussed hidden supply chains, child labour and human rights issues in India and Bangladesh, it was by and large of the West, by the West, for the West.

No session could really decode how the East is grappling with the pursuit of sustainability. In India for instance, we don’t even have a proper vocabulary to conduct a contemporary dialogue in different regional languages, among artisan groups, designers, supply chain workers, manufactures, labourers, weavers, craftspeople. Fashion and design colleges are still to rewrite their curriculums to tweak them towards sustainable fashion principles and teach new interpretations of bio-design. Despite this, numerous brands, organisations and members of civil society are tackling the issue thus changing the conversation. But it is work in progress. It involves a lot of frustrating “side hustle”—poor awareness, misuse of the term “sustainable fashion” for market promotions and the pressure to compete in price and look with ordinarily produced goods.

The Fashion Industry’s Top Challenges

The two-day conference had rousing key notes by Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault and Paul Polman, the chair, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and The B Team. Henri-Pinault promised to stop using underage models besides making other insightful observations while Polman spoke movingly about why the world needed “more willpower not more technology”. CEOs, designers, policy makers, elected ministers, editors and sustainability professionals (mostly from Europe and the US) spoke on a range of issues. Innovators argued that all fast fashion in the future must mean circular fashion. Others came with suggestions on the reuse of waste materials or how to make plastic noble and so on. Among compelling takeaways was the challenge of innovation. How to sustain beauty, aesthetic, versatility and allure while swimming against the tide of muchness.


Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault at Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019.

Sustainability is a Class Issue in India

It is hard for those working in India’s handloom, creative and cultural industries to understand why satata (the closest Hindi translation for sustainability) suddenly matters so much. Worse, what it actually means in day to day work. Sustainability is a class issue in India. While the elite, the urban literate and the globally exposed appreciate urgencies of environmental conservation, a majority think it is something “organic”. This includes a section of the educated. One reason is that India traditionally follows some sustainability principles as a cultural imperative. It is common lore that we make infant beddings from old bed sheets, mend, sew and create embroidery by saddle stitching old fabrics, grow plants in empty beer bottles, put leftover rice in potted plants for ants, give leftover Indian food to cows on the street and other stray animals, use old pillowcases to store saris, and almost every family even of modest means has a hand-me down tradition in wedding clothes, old shawls, jewellery even if it is semi-precious.

The wealthy also bequeath woven saris, shawls and antique fabrics as heirloom pieces to their children and grandchildren. The “kabaadiwala”, a hawker service which takes away old newspapers, discarded household items etc., selling them further on and making a living out of “recycling” is a culturally peculiar sustainability soldier. In Indian villages, the only way of life, is reusing something old for newer functionality—a torn bedsheet would plug a hole in a slum house, a broken umbrella would find use inside an animal shed; material from used jute bags would warm a bed for cattle… Then, some communities live with the scars of Partition, of having lost everything before rebuilding some. For them sustainability is identity, an imprint on their troubled consciences as refugees.

Clichéd but unavoidable is the age-old reference to (Indian Independence movement leader) Mahatma Gandhi’s Charkha philosophy. Spin your own yarn, be self-sustainable, simple, focused. A true Swadeshi—rooted and local.


Photo: Vivek Tyagi

Khadi spinners at Gandhi Ashram at Sewapuri, Varanasi.

The West makes a U-Turn but what about the East?

Till Western fast fashion brands came and dumped see now, buy now, wear now, throw now fickleness on us. That which was Made in India, China, Bangladesh! We were blown away, flushed with the excitement of new trends every fortnight—fast fashion’s irresistible promise. Landfills rose in our minds, wardrobes and fields. Indian sustainability got seriously challenged if not overthrown in some classes of society when reuse and recycling got mixed with being non-trendy and underprivileged.

Now the “West” is taking a U-turn. It leads the debate on the enormous environmental damages of “luxury” handbags and shoes made out of exotic animal skins, the scary dangers of excess, the need to conserve water and resources. The world’s top CEOs have made it their “agenda” to worry about gender equality, fair wages, fair trade, supply chain problems, underage models, exploitative child labour, poorly paid karigars (artisans) in poor countries.

So the East must sit up and listen again. It must now celebrate slow fashion and recycling but on the terms of the West. It means regressing to old ways of living while recognising it as a sign of progress.


Photo: Prateel Patel

The Miniaturist collection by Good Earth showcased at Lakmé Fashion Week 2018.

Unfortunately, no international conference bothers to ask people trapped on this side of the supply chain what sustainability means to them. Explore how Indian fashion designers like Rahul Mishra, Aneeth Arora, Sanjay Garg among a dozen others offer stable employment to village artisans in their rural setups without turning them into migratory slum dwellers in cities.How brands like Good Earth create Indian luxury within sustainability parameters.


Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Designer Anita Dongre speaking at Pulse of the Fashion Industry Update Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019.

How Anita Dongre doggedly pursues the path of change in a country where norms are routinely flouted.


Photo: Facebook/Byloom

The Abir sari by bai lou.

Or the Kolkata textiles and sari label bai lou and its Abir sari: a handwoven drape, priced at a constant ₹800 for the last 15 odd years to “sustain” the scale of work for the Phulia weavers of West Bengal.


Seamstresses at work at Anita Dongre’s Jawhar tailoring unit, Palghar district, Maharashtra.

More than anything else, why can’t an international conference get a weaver, an embroiderer, a seamstress, a khadi spinner or a lace maker to the global table to ask what “sustainable production, workplace and wages” means to them. How would they like their problems to be tackled?

It may be a flawed idea to seek solutions only from the privileged in the fashion and luxury industry. Just as leaders, CEOs, activists with privileged education and chairpersons of fashion coalitions matter, so do those at the lowest rung of the fashion and design ladder.

Else, the current clash of civilisations in the sustainability dialogue could soon make it philosophically unsustainable.

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