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At the London Fashion Week earlier this year, Spanish designer Javier Aparici showcased Sohuman, a sustainable fashion and accessories brand that is a favourite among popular artistes such as Beyonce and Rita Ora. British menswear designer Bethany Williams and Ireland’s Richard Malone were also part of the showcase. While Williams’ materials included abandoned festival tents for garments and book waste for bags, Malone’s creations featured fragments of materials including scrap leather.

Similarly, in March, FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week brought Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) to showcase a khadi presentation featuring ensembles by designers Mossi Traoré, Abhishek Gupta Benares, Anavila, Anju Modi, Charu Parashar and Rina Dhaka. Adidas Originals, too, previewed one of its most progressive and sustainable footwear collections created with Parley for the Oceans and new-age designer labels—Antar Agni by Ujjawal Dubey and Khanijo by Gaurav Khanijo.

These examples indicate how sustainability and upcycling are becoming fashion industry buzzwords, more so when vibrant and environment-friendly lineups of couture are taking centre stage or dominating runway scenes. From fibre talk to fashion shows, phrases like eco-conscious, sustainable and ethical, which were earlier part of marginalised conversations, have now gained momentum because of the growing collective consciousness of individuals and brands alike.

“The sustainable fashion movement has gained impetus, and customers expect key players in the industry to become socially and environmentally responsible. Given the amplified conversation around sustainability, innovation in fabrics and raw materials for the fashion industry have seen an influx in the use of organic cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo linen and several other sustainable fabrics by high-street brands and designers,” says Saurabh Srivastava, director and head, Amazon Fashion India, which houses collections from local brands, prominently featuring handstitched apparel and weaves by karigars across the country. In addition to products from popular brands like FabIndia, Soul Space and Inner Sense, it has a host of emerging labels like Ahilya, Travibe, Pashtush, Berry Tree.

Clearly, the runway has become a perfect blend of effortless style and innovative sustainability showcasing eco-friendly and sustainable avatars re-imagined for a better tomorrow. For instance, French-Belgian fashion designer Nicolas Ghesquière, who has been the creative director of the house of Louis Vuitton, presented the Louis Vuitton Women’s Spring-Summer 2022 Collection fashion show in Paris with a selection of bags. For over 15 years, Louis Vuitton’s sustainability development policy ensured targets on the conservation of natural resources, climate control, and the positive impact of the Maison on society. Today, 97% of Louis Vuitton shows and event sets are reused or recycled, and a second life is anticipated from their conception. For the Spring-Summer 2022 show, 20 tonne of materials, including chandeliers and chairs, were rented, and all wooden elements were crafted from Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood.

Austrian textile giant Lenzing Group has partnered with several Indian designers to develop products and innovations which meet the Indian aesthetics while offering superior environmental benefits, which is Lenzing’s forte. Fashion designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh, Satya Paul, Anita Dongre, Ritu Kumar and Abraham & Thakore have collaborated with their collection launches at Lakme Fashion Week and worked with Tencel and Lenzing Ecovero fibres for different collections. “The designers have made good use of features present in our fibres like colour vibrancy, better drape and comfort to experiment with silhouettes, shades, and fits for the local audience. The continuity of the collaborations reflects well on the acceptance of eco-friendly fibres in India,” says S Jayaraman, senior commercial director, (AMEA and NEA), Lenzing AG.

So, what textiles and fibres are emerging from behind the scenes on to the runway? Jayaraman feels it is important to understand the reasons leading to the new fibre trends. “There is a requirement of alternative options to synthetic fibres or big-on-resource cotton fibres and the sustainability push in global markets by consumers, industry bodies and governments have catalysed this need. Introducing new products altogether with better and different product features will break the aesthetic monotony which comes from using traditional fibres,” he adds.

Model walks the ramp for TENCEL X RAJESH PRATAP SINGH FOR SATYAPAUL show at the FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week 2021 at Jio World Convention Centre in Mumbai, India on 8th October 2021. Photo : FS Images / FDCI x Lakme Fashion Week / RISE Worldwide

Responsible consumption

Indians want to leave an impact on the planet by prioritising spending on sustainable products and contributing to local businesses, as per the latest American Express Trendex report. Over 87% of Indians are always or often purchasing sustainable products and 97% interested in spending money on items that will have a positive impact on local businesses and communities, highest among the surveyed countries.

Manoj Adlakha, SVP and CEO, American Express Banking Corp India, says, “Indian customers are making conscious decisions and shifting their buying patterns by prioritising spending on sustainable products thereby contributing to local businesses and leaving a positive impact on the planet. Ever since the pandemic hit the world creating an irreversible impact, people are becoming mindful about the purchases they make and the impact that will create for generations to come.”

Besides fabrics and fibres, the supply chain innovations are given much importance and there’s a visible push for responsible consumption and manufacturing where retailers and manufacturers are incorporating ambitious sustainability targets. Fibres in the form of fabrics form the biggest component of any outfit and the need for eco-friendly fibres is key. Recycled fibres significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the product since a crucial component of the textile is being reused. The amount of resources saved, which otherwise would have been used to grow more raw materials, is quite substantial.

“Cellulosic fibres like Tencel, which has its wood coming from sustainable forestry, play a vital role in reducing environmental impact through their advanced manufacturing process. These fibres are certified biodegradable at the end of their lifecycle, making it better for the planet. Effective supply chain innovations help to ensure quality and authenticity of these product innovations. Tools like blockchain, which enable transparency, are key to offering the right products,” says Jayaraman.

ReshaMandi is one such marketplace digitising the natural fibre supply chain. From participating in independent events at NIFT, Fabric & Accessories Show in Bengaluru, and Lakme Fashion Week in Delhi, it has empowered farmers, weavers, and reelers by sourcing sustainable fabrics and providing them with market exposure. Their unique line of products made from silk fabrics, orange fabrics, milk fabrics, natural fibres like cotton, banana, viscose, hemp and others have garnered interest and appreciation from designers and fabric connoisseurs.

“Besides providing ReshaWeaves with finished goods to retailers and consumers, the farmers are willing to give technology a chance. When we work with them to improve their crop yield and in early disease detection and prevention, and provide easy access to market linkages and assured payments, we are able to create long-term partnerships with all stakeholders of the standardisation of the supply chain,” says Mayank Tiwari, founder and CEO, ReshaMandi, a marketplace digitising the natural fibre supply chain.

Fast focus

Sustainability is an omnipresent phenomenon on runways, streets and fashion brands now. From fashion shows in New York, Milan, London to Paris and India, designers are increasingly becoming conscious of how damaging fast fashion is to the environment. And slowly they are moving over feelings of repulsion against replications, borrowed references and use of certain colours to focus exclusively on making sustainability a norm.

However, some eco-friendly warriors stress on raising awareness about the climate crisis. Protesters of Extinction Rebellion once again stripped naked to protest fast fashion in the UK. Abbreviated as XR, the group took to the windows of an H&M store in 2020 to demonstrate against the environmental harms of fast fashion by gluing hands to the shop’s window in early September.

Extinction Rebellion is a global environmental movement with the stated aim of using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse.

In fact, English fashion designer Stella McCartney introduced the world’s first clothes made with Mylo mushroom leather, a sustainable leather alternative made from mycelium, the infinitely renewable underground root system of mushrooms. Developed by California-based material solutions company Bolt Threads, Mylo is certified bio-based unlike most synthetic leathers.

Luxury fashion house Hermès, too, introduced in March 2021, a bag made from fine mycelium (the network of threads forming the vegetative part of the organism that produces mushrooms). Interestingly, mycelium grows best in a lab with mulch, air and water, and is designed to have minimal environmental impact. It takes days, not years, for raising cattle, helping save water, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and protecting vital ecosystems like the Amazon from deforestation.

Is alternativism worth it?

When factors like going green, consuming less and using resources optimally take centre stage, there is a significant headway in adopting alternative materials like vegan silk, mushroom-based garments, etc. But do we know the real process?

Handcrafted products don’t use fossil fuel, but that does not mean all practices are green. Indigenous fibres made from milkweed in the Northeast grow in the wild but the process to cultivate and procure may not be large-scale as compared to others. “Every Indian state is known for different fibres—silk, cotton, hemp, banana, pineapple and milkweed. Some people are reviving old fibres like lotus and bamboo, as these are stronger and softer than the contemporary fibres. But we also need to see the process of production. Does it cause pollution? What is the energy required to convert into fibre? We cannot look at all this in isolation,” says author Archana Shah, whose book Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices talks about how handcrafted production is inherently eco-friendly yet employs more hands and still is not an organised sector.

From aloe vera to soybean processed cotton, brands under organic labels offer fabric or fibre varieties obtained from vegetable cashmere, hemp or seaweed. “Organic cotton, being India’s best product, is grown without harmful chemicals, often uses less water, and doesn’t destroy ecosystems. It is known to improve soil quality,” says Sushant Koul, founder of Shoonyam, a sustainable and ethical slow fashion brand, who works in organic cotton and linen. He finds organic cotton and linen use less water and do not destroy the ecosystem but help in improving the soil quality.

“Recycled, cellulose fabrics are a great way to move forward as fashion is already one of the most polluting industries in the world. There is a need to slow down and rethink the way we are approaching consumers,” adds Koul.

For designer Raghavendra Rathore, fibre innovations are baby steps to achieving carbon-zero footprints and the only way to check this is by reducing consumption of fast fashion. “Brands have a tendency to act only when there is consumer pressure. The government, too, needs to tax wasteful production of poly and synthetic fabrics,” says Rathore, creative director and founder of label Raghavendra Rathore Jodhpur, who revolutionised the traditional bandhgala under this label. His company uses almost 100% natural wool made from sustainable sheep farms, making the product highly ecological.

Besides cotton, chiffon can be treated as an all-season wear, which is easily degradable. “Recycled fabric is good for the environment as these are easily degradable, especially handwoven chiffon and Banarasi fabrics,” says Raghuram Kuchibhatla, founder and CEO of Yes!poho, an online platform that helps weavers and artisans to directly connect with customers, allowing them to sell handloom sarees without any middlemen.

Meanwhile, innovation in the fashion industry continues which biodegrades while still lasting as effectively as other materials. Apple leather has entered the vegan category made from crushed apples, naturally dried into a fine powder and later mixed with a resin. Portugal-based Dooeys’ shoes are made from 100% vegan plant-based materials (including apple leather). Similarly, Shop Veerah, a New York-designed shoe label uses apple leather and so does Allégorie, a brand for wallets, card holders and bags.

Bemberg, the cupro fibre from Asahi Kasei Corporation, is a sustainable, regenerated cellulose fibre made from cotton linter and produced in Japan. It has in the past collaborated with designer Payal Pratap for her environmentally-friendly and biodegradable material collection. Designer Rajesh Pratap Singh of Satya Paul made use of the eco-friendly, sustainable fabric R|Elan GreenGold, one of the greenest fabrics made from 100% post-consumer used PET bottles deploying efficient and certified manufacturing practices for his shows.

Meanwhile, Indian denim mills are keeping their focus on being sustainable as well as adhering to benchmarks and requirements of global brands. The Indian denim industry is the second largest in terms of capacity and a majority of mills in India today have a vision to be export-centric and to focus on their resources and energy to tap the potential of global market.

Denim is now being crafted into a luxurious and versatile garment collection for eco-conscious consumers. Raymond UCO, a 50-50 joint venture of Raymond Textiles with Belgian denim major UCO NV, is reinventing its high-quality denim fabrics using recycled polyester from ocean-bound plastics and Blu 2.0, a unique indigo-dyeing process. The process involves recycling the ocean-bound plastics into fibres and blending with cotton to weave sustainable denims, reducing the freshwater consumption and effluent load in the dyeing process by about 85% using BLU 2.0 process and using eco-friendly dyes like natural indigo to reduce the dependence on synthetic chemicals. This responsible denim offers ultimate comfort, breathability and moisture management while also being environment-friendly.

“These are small steps in the right direction towards creating responsible denim fabrics to reduce the gap between fashion and sustainability. These fabrics can be crafted into luxurious, versatile garment collections for eco-conscious consumers,” says Sudhir Deorukhkar, head of marketing, Raymond UCO.

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Author: Howard Caldwell