Sustainable Fashion: Why you should care about what you wear

Over the years, fashion businesses increasingly commit to sustainability and ethics, with consumers playing a bigger role in deciding the future of fashion.

(With contributed reporting from Maya Kilpadi.)

This section on Ethical Fashion is made possible with the support of Bhu:Sattva



Rana Plaza in ruins. Flickr cc 2.0 rijans

It was a building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that revolutionized the world of global fashion more than any single event in history. Rana Plaza, an eight-storied commercial complex that housed a garment factory, collapsed due to structural failures killing over 1100 people and injuring another 2515 people, many of whom were working graveyard shifts to keep the wheels of the affordable global fashion industry turning.

Consumer awakening post the Rana Plaza disaster, considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, brought huge pressure among fashion brands to fundamentally re-think their value chains to make them more ethical and reconnect the broken links. Businesses were compelled to critically examine safe conditions for workers, fair wages, ethical people practices in factories, social security measures and much more in order to create scalable fashion in efficient and fair ways.

How fast fashion came about

flickr cc 2.0 pennyspitter

Fashion has come a long way since 1922 when American norms mandated women’s swimsuits not be over 6 inches above their knees. flickr cc 2.0 pennyspitter

The last 6 decades have witnessed a boom in the global fashion industry. As late as the 1960s, across the world, most clothes were made and worn domestically, few could afford a full wardrobe, and the luxury brands and mass fashion of today were an idea in waiting.

The postwar era ushered in an economy of mass production. The 1970s marked an important shift with laws that sought to reduce import of goods in America and fuel domestic production. In a move to make fashion affordable to all, production moved from America to developing countries across the world.

Says Connie Ulasewicz, co-editor of Sustainable Fashion: Why Now? and associate professor at San Francisco State University, in an interview to Triple Pundit:

“Moving production off-shore was the impetus for fashion becoming more global. Companies moved their manufacturing to places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Mongolia, where there are no minimum wage or age requirements or regulations on maximum hours worked. When this happened, people also lost contact with how and where their clothes were made.”

As fashion became based on a rapid-response production system, low-wage production in the developing countries of Asia and Africa grew. A proliferation of malls, outlets, seasonal sales and offers that have fuelled the big consumer boom and the birth of Fast Fashion, where clothes have transformed from being an essential need to fast changing trends that follow the buy-wear-throw culture.

Are we wearing the earth on our sleeves?


Weaving of the fabric accounts for 30% of the total energy required to produced one shirt. flickr cc 2.0 epSos .de

It takes 2,720 litres of water to make one t-shirt – that’s about the water one person drinks in 3 years! Fashion is the third largest polluting industry after oil and agriculture. The dyeing and treatment of textiles using an estimated 8,000 toxic synthetic chemicals are guilty of 17 – 20% of the world’s water pollution.  Resource depletion is not the only harmful effect of fashion production. Fashion supply chains have led to the cruel treatment of animals in producing fur and leather and millions of tonnes of unwanted textiles and fabric waste end up in landfills each year.

Change, though slow, is just round the corner. The vision for a sustainable future for fashion is no longer a fringe concern. In 2014, 34 countries gathered at The Copenhagen Fashion Summit to accelerate the environmental impact reduction of the fashion sector. As an educated and informed consumer base begins to look beyond affordability and convenience to value ethical and sustainably produced fashion, pressure is mounting on global fashion conglomerates to up their sustainability game.

Fashion giants like Marks and Spencer and ASOS are transforming their business by demonstrating a long-term commitment to conscious practices across the value chain. Pioneering initiatives like Levi Strauss’ Waterless Jeans, Nike’s Materials Sustainability Index, and H&M’s Conscious Foundation are all efforts in the right direction, efforts that examine every part of the supply chain – reducing the use of PVCs in fashion, sourcing ethical dyes from small scale mills, environmentally friendly glues, textile recyclability, moving away from animal testing and animal products, Extended Producer Responsibility on waste fabric and more. Celebrity designers like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood are fierce critics of the mainstream fashion industry, advocating instead, an industry with a smaller carbon footprint.



Says McCartney in an interview,

“I design clothes that are meant to last. I believe in creating pieces that aren’t going to get burnt, that aren’t going to landfills, that aren’t going to damage the environment. For every piece in every collection I am always asking what have we done to make this garment more sustainable and what else can we do. It is a constant effort to improve.”

There are now segments in mainstream fashion shows – The Estethica at London Fashion Week and The Green Shows at New York Fashion Week that showcase sustainable fashion innovators worldwide.


flickr cc Jason Hargrove

The challenges to sustainable fashion are numerous – lack of comprehensive labelling practices, slow growth and scaling of cleaner technologies and low – impact materials, the perception of ethical fashion as ill-fitting, dull, sackcloth-like garments.

Looking inwards

We live in a time where more than 50% of our country’s 1.2 billion people are under 25 years old, where every third search on Google is fashion related and where every global brand is at your neighbourhood mall or at your doorstep in minutes. The Indian apparel industry is one of the leading apparel industries of the world, contributing 4% to the country’s GDP, 17% to export earnings and directly employing over 45 million people. Apparel is also the second largest retail category in India, representing approximately 10 percent of the total market. The industry is projected to growth at a CADR of 9.5% in the next decade to reach over $200 billion by 2023. Simultaneously, the evidence suggests that the proportion of rural and urban households purchasing readymade garments has risen by 75%. Projections say that, by 2020, India will generate over 35 billion USD in fashion revenue only through online commerce. The age of GOSFs and 50% off weekend sales means that more people will have greater access to a wider range of lifestyle products than ever before at price points within their reach.

All this signals that there is now, more than ever before, an opportunity in the Indian fashion market for products that meet international standards in their design, quality, and durability. But, as a domestic audience gains access to global brands and trends via international travel, media and the Internet, and as conversations of health, wellness, and environment permeate mainstream discussions, the result is a consumer base that is more aware of the hazards of conventional, mass produced garments and accessories on their health as well as their adverse social and environmental impacts.

This is going to result in a greater demand for businesses that adopt fair, socially responsible, ethical and sustainable practices across the value chain. Manufacturers of fashion and lifestyle products of the future face an educated and conscious consumer base that is on the lookout for products that are safe, non-exploitative processes that revive the skills of traditional farming and artisan communities with processes whose environmental externalities are minimal.

On the domestic front, change is coming in the form of innovative, forward-thinking designers like Siddhartha Upadhyaya and Samant Chauhan, peppering the Indian fashion scene as much with their versatile designs as with their dedication to socially and environmentally responsible fashion. Brands like Bhu:Sattva are at the forefront of the conscious clothing movement in India – they live the green speak with their range of organic certified, chemical-free, fair trade apparel, taking fashion  out of its niche and making it accessible to a large, mainstream audience with discerning tastes, across the world.

Organizations like Dastkar are taking significant strides in reviving Indian handlooms and handicrafts and bringing them directly to mainstream  markets, joined by online platforms like GoCoop. Weaving tales from the old and the new are brands like Malkha and Mora, reviving disappearing Indian arts and fabrics to appeal to a contemporary aesthetic.

On the consumer awareness side, there is an increasing number of movements asking people to pick better clothes. Fair Trade India recently ran the Fashion Revolution Day campaign with a  ‘Show Your Label’ initiative, aimed at getting us to look critically at where, how and at whose hands our garments originate. The 100 saree pact has documented so many stories of our rich tradition of weaving and craft through the meme of the saree.

Courtesy: Fairtrade India

Courtesy: Fairtrade India

What can you do?

As the future of business begins to be shaped, increasingly by their commitment to sustainability and ethics, customers like you and me play a greater role than we ever have in deciding the future of fashion.

There are many ways in which we can start. Here are 3 simple things we can do beginning tomorrow:

Support green and fair: Find out where your clothes are coming from and who made them. Support those that are organic certified, follow fair trade practices or use natural means of production as often as you can.

Keep clothes clean: From washing jeans less often, washing in cold water, using washing machines without drier cycles or washing only full loads, it is possible to be fashionable without having a large carbon footprint.

Be a label junkie: Read clothing labels closely – find out who made them, how they were made, where they are coming from, and what is going into them.

The Alternative’s series on sustainable fashion is an attempt to spark conversations about sustainability in the fashion industry, understand what makes for a responsible and ethical value chains, examine policies and trends that have impacted the sector and highlight artists and entrepreneurs who have set out on the path to creating conscious clothing.

Feature Image credit: Fairtrade India


The Sustainable Fashion Hub is a series that examines shifts in the the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India. It explores what goes into creating a just and sustainable fashion value chain – from the creation of garments and lifestyle accessories to making them available to consumers. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative. 


The Hub is supported by logo, India’s first certified organic fashion designer brand in India. With products that are directly sourced from organic cotton farmers at fair trade terms. Bhu:Sattva® uses natural colours, vegetable and herb dyes and goes further to work on reviving various forms of traditional weaving and handloom. Information on its products and processes can be found at










Aarti Mohan is the Chief editor of The Alternative. more


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Aarti Mohan is the Chief editor of The Alternative. more

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