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Sustainable fashion in India

Submitted by-Shrita Suri

Saachi Bahl, a sustainable fashion consultant and Shrita Suri, a fashion lawyer at Krida Legal, provide an insight into the opportunities and challenges involved in operating a business of sustainable luxury in India.

The idea of sustainability

Vasudhaiva Kutumbukam, an ancient Indian phrase which means ‘the world is one family’, succinctly captures the idea of sustainability in Indian tradition and culture. For many years, ancient texts such as the Vedas and Upanishads have provided guiding principles, not only for moral enhancement, but also for finding the path for achieving true sustainability. However, lately, India is also facing the disproportionate and clearly unsustainable pattern of production and consumption. Being the global leader in handicrafts and handloom products, with abundant resources, rich tradition and favourable socio-political structure, India is uniquely placed to develop into a hub for global sustainable fashion and luxury business.

Traditional practices

Sustainability mandates reasonable exhaustion of natural resources, protecting the environment and social welfare. The established traditional practices of tying, dyeing and weaving exquisite textiles and drapes provides a robust platform for production and procurement of sustainable raw material of various kinds. Processes and products such as Lucknow chikan craft, Kotpad handloom, Mysore silk, Orissa ikat are, in fact, recognised geographical indication, and thus can be procured from authorised sources. Further, to support the production and supply of raw materials and the final product, the significantly high population of skilled young adults and robust infrastructure provides a perfect fit. The Indian consumer base is familiar with the sustainable products Khadi and ittar/attar (essential oils), which are used on a regular basis, across India. Owing to the global consciousness about ethical and sustainable fashion, several established and new brands have introduced high-end and innovative sustainable products to the Indian market.  

Lack of knowledge and awareness

Fashion, being a trend driven industry, creates hurdles for sustainable clothing which, by its nature, has limited range and variety. Lack of adequate knowledge and awareness about ethical fashion and sustainability is also a cause for slow growth of this sector in India. It’s also a fact that Indian consumers relate sustainable clothing with Khadi alone, which is not considered a high end product or haute couture. Whether up-cycling is as much a sustainable fashion as is use of organic cotton is also a concern for the designers and labels who wish to deal in ethical or sustainable clothing. Also, the need for appropriate certification such as Fair Trade or Khadi, affiliation and legal compliances, at times, can cause impediments.

Indian laws support sustainability

Indian laws, in their letter and spirit, support sustainability. In 2017, the Government of India launched a soil health and management scheme to promote sustainable agriculture, which in turn, promotes farming of organic fibres. Also, the environmental laws impose criminal sanctions and damages on violations. We have sui generis laws for protecting geographical indications and traditional knowledge, including handloom products and processes. Employment and labour laws ensure minimum wages and humane working conditions, which are equally a subject matter of sustainable fashion. To promote gender equality, Indian laws provide maternity benefits and protection against sexual harassment within workplaces. Additionally, wildlife protection laws prohibit import of exotic skins and furs for clothing and accessories. India, being one of the mega-biodiversity nations in the world, also allows benefit sharing of the biological resources and of the associated knowledge.  

Proactive approach

Availability of resources and supportive laws provide ample ground to create global sustainable fashion brands in India. The challenges, as we perceive, can be overcome by a proactive approach, involving extensive marketing and promotion, and abiding by applicable laws and compliances.