Shereen: Sustainable Fashion pioneered by India

The Indian textile industry has been blooming for centuries, tracing its roots back to the Silk Road trade. However, there exists a perception of India being the mass manufacturer of unsustainable clothing, made in unethical environments. This fails to capture the increasing trend towards slow fashion, pioneered by Indian companies and brands. There is a growing movement from the private sector to encourage conscious consumerism in India through redesigning their supply chains and empowerment initiatives. 

A fantastic example of conscious consumerism is FabIndia. It is a retail store owned by William Bissell, a man passionate about integrating sustainability into the retail industry. We visited a FabIndia factory in Bagru, where artisan methods of producing and dyeing were preserved in the manufacturing process. 

First, the locally sourced fabrics would be block printed by hand, using ornately carved wooden stamps. Next, the fabric would be dyed using naturally sourced colours – indigo blue from native flowers, red from metal ores, yellow from turmeric. The fabrics would stew in these colours, before being drained and sun dried. This provided job opportunities for the local villagers as every aspect of the process needed human handling. The process itself enhanced the value of the garment as each one was made lovingly by hand. The experience of witnessing firsthand the painstakingly intricate process made me appreciate the clothing more – knowing that they were made with minimal impact to the environment, in fair working conditions. 

This revival of Indian artisan methods allow for beautifully intricate and unique designs. The FabIndia brand focuses on Indian style clothing, embracing the Indian culture and heritage. The ‘Made in India’ brand is often associated with negative connotations but FabIndia is changing that narrative by reimagining the manufacture of their garments. This site visit depicted the important role of the private sector in preserving Indian artisan crafts, whilst encouraging conscious consumerism. This slow process of producing clothes enhances the value and quality of the clothing, building Fabindia’s reputation for quality designs. FabIndia’s investment in slow fashion illustrates that companies play an essential role in facilitating the shift towards conscious consumerism. 

USHA is a beloved and trusted Indian whiteware brand, found in many homes. However their social responsibility aspect is something not often portrayed. Whilst the USHA brand does not sell items of clothing directly, their Silai Programme empowers women in rural villages. The USHA Silai School teaches women how to sew, allowing women to make a living in their communities. The Silai Programme is another example of the integral role private companies play in cultivating conscious consumerism.

The USHA Silai School model selects one woman from every village and teaches her how to sew over the course of a few months. That woman is then provided with the resources and tools needed to establish in Silai schools in her community. At these Silai schools, sewing skills are then taught to other women in the community, creating a ripple effect of empowerment. This allows women in rural India to gain financial independence and respect from their communities as their skills can generate a profit. 

The styles of sewing and designs are adapted to suit different regions and different cultural contexts, which increases the value of the garment further. The finished garments range from delicate sarees to embellished blouses to extravagant weddings gowns. The final products are all sold in nearby or neighboring villages, keeping the profit within the local ecosystem. The direct sale from producer to consumer cuts out the middleman, increasing profits for the producer. This focus on producer-to-consumer model expands my understanding of sustainable fashion; not just sustainable for the environment, but sustainable for the local economy. This exemplifies how sustainability should be at the core of our product design and supply chains, not just a separate addition to brand reputations. By enabling rural communities to be self sustaining and independent, the USHA Silai school identifies areas where private companies can initiate positive change, just by investing in women. 

The Indian textile industry has undergone an evolutionary process to pioneer conscious consumerism. India has the foundation to become a global leader in the sustainable fashion market. Not only are they equipped with the resources, but they are willing to invest in the people. Sustainable fashion means not just for the planet, but also for the people.

Shereen L

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