I ask all of the people and companies I interview lately about their ideas of sustainability. It is an obligatory question these days, and yet I’m almost always agape at how much it unsettles the interviewee.
The answers I receive range from the contrite to the confused to the plain choleric. It’s 2023, and people in small or large businesses still skirt the ‘sustainability’ question with trepidation. Have we had an overkill of the word? Can there be an overkill in asking people how ethical are their business practices? I thought not.
But I’ve come to realise that much of the problem with how to be a responsible business is that there are just too many contrary schools of thought out there. For example, in India, we seem to have adopted western notions of ethical fashion.
Just look at the young shopper’s love for pre-loved or vintage fashion. This has given rise to a slew of second-hand online stores and services such as Viange Vintage, Relove, Saritoria, Poshmark and others. Many of these are passionate efforts in encouraging circular fashion—sell it once you are bored of it so someone else can fall in love with it. I doubt any of them have gotten to be a ‘sustainable’ business model as yet.
Then there is the strange new beast called a rental wardrobe. This actually works wonderfully if you are an influencer, and need new clothes for every single post or reel. It is impossible to have a wardrobe that big, so hiring fun clothes seems sensible. But there is also a growing tribe of women who hire dresses just because they feel it is far more ethical than making a new purchase to wear just once or twice.
Last month, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, wore a green dress in Boston, which she reportedly rented for GBP 74 instead of paying full price at GBP 350. Kate is also a famous repeater of dresses, as well as a high-street shopper, making her a far more relatable, accessible as well as responsible royal.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas is also said to be a fan of rental fashion, as is Kourtney Kardashian. H&M has just introduced a rental section as a pilot on their giant store at Regent Street, London. Marks & Spencer launched a rental platform called Hirestreet last year. Luxury fashion, too, is exploring the trend: ecommerce venture Matches Fashion rented out a Paco Rabanne dress that cost GBP 2500 for GBP 220.
But there is something to be said about the idea of buying less in a country like India. Huemn designer Pranav Misra puts it best when he tells me, “If no one shops in the US or Europe for a year, people will not starve, but in India and Bangladesh, they will. We have a borrowed idea of sustainability, our mantra should be ‘buy more Indian’.
Indian handmade clothes are naturally organic and sustainable, says Dipali Patwa, group head, brand and community, Fabindia. “You need to understand how communities across the world live. Many villages in India have no electricity and thus no light after 4pm. Artisans can only work in daylight. This may be ‘sustainable’ items to the west, but this is how we live,” she says.
In India, ‘sustainability’ is not a major environmental concern as it is a livelihood issue. Lakhs of India’s poorest communities are artisans—they are weavers of cloth, or makers of traditional craft or leather workers. They come from ‘low caste’ communities that are bereft of opportunity or social justice.
They make beautiful items by hand, items we understand as a ‘luxury’ today, and yet our artisans are consistently on the brink of poverty and hunger.
In India, sustainability means buying more. Buying more handmade Indian items and paying a better price for them.