Let’s talk sustainable fashion
This summer, the hottest fashion trends in Kochi are on the sustainable side. We spoke to designers and buyers about the pros and cons
Sustainable fashion is a phrase that we hear quite a lot these days. The fact that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, has driven many eco-conscious brands and individuals to opt out of fast fashion and adopt more planet-friendly strategies.
Sustainable fashion has been catching up of late in Kochi too. According to event and brand coordinators based in the city, sustainable, eco-conscious brands from across the country are eyeing the buyers in Kochi, and conducting online as well as offline sales of their products for Kochiites. Kerala on a whole has many homegrown fashion and accessory brands, who have played a big role in educating Malayalis on sustainable clothing and fashion.
Now, before we elaborate on sustainability, let us discuss what fast fashion is. It comprises mass-made, cheap clothing inspired by seasonal trends, lined up at clothe stores ready to be picked up. For decades, such mass production caused abundant waste — mostly brought about by the disproportion in demand and supply — apart from toxic textiles that pollute water. Use of materials like polyester fabric derived from fossil fuels releases more plastic to the water bodies when they are washed. The use of conventional cotton that required massive quantities of water to process also stirred up discussions surrounding the need to rethink what we call fashion.
In contrast, sustainable fashion is one that inspires us to be more mindful of what we buy, how much we buy it and how well we reduce wastage. Sustainable designs don’t rely on seasonal mass-production. Rather, they are handmade according to demand, using eco-friendly materials and methods. Kerala, which is home to the traditional kasavu and handlooms like Chendamangalam and Balaramapuram, has always had sustainability in its veins. Lately, this trend has been booming, with handloom cotton, linen, recycled polyester, organic hemp, and other eco-friendly materials becoming popular. Many online and offline brands now offer myriad sustainable designs.
However, while sustainability may be an emerging style statement, how accessible is it to the regular Kochiite? We spoke to designers and buyers on the trend, and how it can be adapted further with the right kind of consumer education.
The 100% haux
According to Sreejith Jeevan, founder of Rouka, Kochiites are well aware of sustainable fashion and why it is relevant. However, he does admit that no brand can be 100 per cent sustainable. “We can’t say a product is fully sustainable even if it’s made of organic raw materials and the workers were paid a fair wage. Sustainability is not based on such rules, rather it is an attitude which makers and consumers need to embrace. It is all about balancing responsible production and consumption,” says Sreejith.
Jebin Johny, founder of clothing brand Jebsispar, says though most people think of sustainable fabric during summers, handloom cotton can be worn during any season. “Especially the Kuthampully handloom cotton. The gaps between the fine threads do the trick. During summers, our body heat is released sooner, while during winters, it gets locked inside,” he says. Eco-friendly fabric is also skin-friendly, making them ideal for the global warming that awaits us.
The pricing conundrum
While the positive aspects of eco-friendly fabrics make us want to adopt it more, the price tags usually discourage many from going for it. Priya Joseph, an IT professional from Ernakulam, voices this concern. “If the whole idea of sustainability is to reduce pollutio from fast fashion, then isn’t it important we make it more accessible? Buying eco-friendly clothing has become more of a trend now. But if the concept caters to just one group, isn’t the whole idea defeated here?” she asks.
To this, Sreejith says sustainability shouldn’t be confused with the price on it. “If you want the experience of slow fashion, it’ll come at a certain price,” he says. “The process behind making each fabric wearable is what makes handmade clothes expensive. The yarns procured have a fixed price, the designers pay the weavers fairly, the printing cost comes extra. The artisans put in long hours to make each piece perfect. They carve the wooden blocks and then dip them in chemical-free dye. All these make each design pricey,” says Jebin.
Furthermore, Sreejith says designers want all their consumers to have access to sustainable editions. “But if we have to make them cheap, then we will have to compromise on the very methods that make these goods sustainable. If they have to be made cost-effective, sustainability will also demand mass production. That would beat the purpose. Also, when you buy handmade goods, they last for years. Unlike store-bought clothes, you won’t need to buy a new one every few months. That said, filling your wardrobe with many sustainable products is also unsustainable. Sustainable fashion is about a long-term relationship and not a short term affair,” he says.
Caroline Joseph, another Kochiite, agrees with this. “When you realise the amount of labour that goes into making sustainable clothes, you will know why they are pricey. The weavers are getting paid what they deserve, and that is how things should be. Also, when you consume consciously, you don’t spend on hoarding your wardrobe,” she says.
Serving weavers in peril
At Chendamangalam, the factory staff is busy weaving school uniform, shirts, and kaavi for the upcoming acamedic year. The pandemic outbreak and subsequent closure of schools, along with the financial crisis had driven most of them into debt.
“For two months, we were out of threads. We just resumed weaving uniforms recently,” says 60-year-old weaver Sagari. According to Dasan A E, president of Chendamnagalam Handloom Weavers Co-operative Society Ltd No: H47, the handloom sector can be improved only if people buy and consider the product as art. The price of sustainability, is often the fair wage that these artisans have been denied for years, since fast fashion became normal.
But Chendamangalam also gets orders from renowned brands outside and inside Kerala now as part of Care for Chendamangalam project. “We supply them with the required raw materials. Outside orders constitute just five per cent of our total production. Normally the weaver’s daily wage would be around I200. This is not sufficient, but the orders from outside can even earn them around I500,” says Dasan.
The workers claim that in two weeks they could earn only Rs 2000. “We are not satisfied with the wage we are receiving at present, but we can’t switch professions because this is the only job we know. If the orders keep coming in, then there will be a steady flow of income,” says Shiny, a weaver.