Buy less, think more: The growing clamour of mindful clothing

All eyes are on the fashion industry, not for the latest trends and collections, but for its increasingly problematic record as a major polluter and irresponsible employer. A growing number of young buyers may be willing to pay more for clothing that is ethically and sustainably produced, but is the industry geared to make the shift?

Consider this: In 2014, the number of garments produced worldwide exceeded 100 billion. Over the last two decades, clothing production has more than doubled and shows no signs of slowing down.

And let’s not forget this: The fashion industry today is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It frequently engages child labour in its supply chain, consumes gallons of water, produces 10 percent of all carbon emissions, and releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibres into the ocean each year—equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.

“Fast fashion”—mass-produced clothes in rapidly changing styles and affordable prices—is proliferating at a blistering pace. But this is one growth story that fails to cheer.

“Buyers today are spoilt for choice and look for the best combination of style, quality, price and brand,” says 54-year-old Mumbai resident Radhika Singh. She recalls her days as a trendsetter in college, attired in the latest fashions, but says there’s a crucial difference in today’s scenario. “Our choices were limited back then and that was for the best. Today’s consumers prefer buying three pairs of “affordable” trousers for the price of one quality pair. Few realise that a faster turnover rate leads to more waste and drastic increases in the industry’s environmental impact,” she says.

But there is a sliver of hope. A growing tribe of young consumers is veering towards ‘slow fashion’ or “ethical fashion”—buying clothes with longevity, even if relatively more expensive—thus encouraging slower production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprint and, ideally, zero waste.

Pritha Dasgupta, a 29-year-old fashion aficionado currently based in Denmark, says she and her peers are increasingly choosing to recycle their wardrobe. “Rather than throwing out old clothes and buying more stuff, we prefer being creative—for instance, we use appliqué patches on worn-out parts of garments, turning them into ubercool outfits,” she says.

Sustainable fashion, as it’s known, is driven by the adoption of environment-friendly processes such as the use of natural fibres and natural dyes in place of synthetic petroleum-based fibres, and minimal use of water. According to a Nielsen poll of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries, 73 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for ethically and sustainably made clothes.

Need for ethical fashion

For designers such as Wendell Rodricks, who is also known for his environmental activism, this shift in thinking is a welcome one. “Sustainable and ethical fashion is needed—sustainable for the planet and ethical for people. In an ideal world, both fashions should meet common ground,” the Padma Shri award-winner says. He is equally candid about the lip service paid by some in the fashion business.

“Many people are latching on to the bandwagon of ethical and sustainable without truly walking the talk. We need to look eventually at the core people impacted by these two fashions.” The Goa-based designer had, a while ago, revived the region’s long-forgotten traditional Kunbi sari using natural dyes. “I ensured that we use the same artisans for years. Fashion, sadly, is in one day and out the next season, leaving the artisans, cotton growers, embroiderers, dyers in the lurch. This is unacceptable,” Rodricks says.

Neeta Lulla, the designer famous for her costumes in director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, Devdasand Jodhaa Akbar, is more optimistic. She believes that global brands such as H&M, Zara and Uniqlo are making major strides towards sustainability, and taking others along with them.

“This is at all levels in terms of recycled fabrics, waterless dyeing, energy-efficient processes, and biodegradable packaging. Indian textile manufacturers who cater to these global brands are also incorporating sustainable processes,” she says. And given that Hindi films have long played a significant role in setting fashion trends, Lulla is attempting to change the narrative in her own way by avoiding polyester in favour of handcrafted fabrics.

Her compatriot Ritu Beri flags a different issue. Agreeing that fair wages, fair trade certifications and good working conditions are a must, the New Delhi-based designer, a keen advocate of khadi handloom, emphasises the need to equip everyone in the value chain—beginning with the cotton farmers at the sourcing end.

“I run a not-for-profit foundation, The Luxury League, and for the past two years I have worked with the Textiles Association of India (TAI)–Cotton Vidarbha,” she says, and quotes TAI chairman Hemant Sonare as stressing that the region’s cotton farmers have not been getting the desired yield as they use conventional methods. Moreover, due to contamination, Indian cotton is being sold at a discount of 7 percent in the international market.

Despite Vidarbha being cotton-rich, its farmers are shifting to other crops and that calls for instant attention from the industry, he cautions. “So, it’s very important that we first provide everyone in the fashion ecosystem with the right tools and conditions to work smoothly, and then ensure zero waste at the production units,” Beri says.

Lulla echoes this sentiment. “Proper facilities for employees, especially in a country like India with wide economic disparity, are a must, along with fair wages and transparency in sourcing. This is the only way the textile and apparel industry could help several employees move out of poverty and afford a better life,” she says. At her unit, women workers are trained in skills that are income-generating. “That helps provide an additional source of income to their household, and hence a better life.”

Long hours, low wages

In an industry that is labour-intensive and largely unorganized, the tales of exploitation far outstrip any glimmer of equitable working conditions.

Take the case of 25-year-old Uma Devi. For six days a week, she arrives at 8 a.m. at her workplace—an export garments factory in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. Depositing her bag and cell phone at a security checkpoint outside, she takes her place at a sewing machine and gets going immediately, her eyes fastened unwaveringly on the fabric before her. At 11 a.m., there is a 10-minute tea break, then a 30-minute break for lunch and another 10-minute tea break at 4 p.m.

The employees’ visits to the washroom—100 meters away—are timed with biometric punching to ensure no one exceeds the stipulated time. Even a few extra minutes in the washroom will attract abuse and heavy banging on the door by the “time keeper.” At 8 p.m., it is time to finally pack up for the day.

This regimented life at work—further marred by instances of sexual harassment—to keep production lines running, fetches Uma ₹6,000 a month.

“We need a salary hike, reduced work hours, provision for paid leave, safety measures, proper sanitation facilities, and adequate time for lunch and bathroom breaks,” says Uma, voicing the collective demand of the many lakhs like her who are engaged in this trillion-dollar industry.

According to government data, the nearly 40,000 garment factories and spinning mills across Tamil Nadu alone employ more than three lakh female workers, although the actual number could be far higher after accounting for the informal workers. India boasts exclusive zones for garment factories, with Tirupur and Bengaluru in the South, and Noida and Gurugram in the North being the more prominent ones.

Suhasini Singh, country representative of Fair Wear Foundation, a global organization that seeks to improve labour conditions in the garment manufacturing industry, points out that the industry is only now opening up to the idea of workers’ rights.

“The first level of suppliers who are directly in contact with the brands follow the norms and guidelines in letter, but not so much in spirit. For instance, our team was looking into the policy on sexual harassment in a factory and, except for the first page, the rest of the document was a copy-paste of policy and codes lifted from a university,” she says.

Sensitising the management to labor laws is a huge challenge, she adds.

“Shouting at and abusing workers to meet production targets do not feature as part of workplace harassment in common understanding,” she says.

There are other forms of exploitation, too. In Bengaluru, for instance, the working hours go well beyond 9 pm, and overtime—if the worker is lucky—is paid at a single rate instead of double the hourly rate. Often, the women are asked to stay back to complete the target assigned, but without any additional payment.

Figures of exploitation

The International Labour Organization has identified eight fundamental conventions pertaining to workplace rights. Garment factory owners violate many of these principles—prevention of child labour, payment of living wage, reasonable hours of work, safe and healthy working conditions, to name a few.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation exposé this year, based on interviews with about 100 women in Tamil Nadu’s garment industry, found that workers were routinely given unlabelled drugs for period pains to ensure that the cramps did not slow down the production cycle. The women took the pills as they were anxious not to miss work and wages, but their health suffered as a consequence.

“We often have to stand for long hours at a stretch, we are forced to work without any overtime payment, we drink less water to avoid using the washrooms, which are deliberately left filthy to discourage us from taking breaks,” says Sudha, a seamstress working for four years at a garment factory in Tirupur.

On the face of it, some of the first-tier garment manufacturing units claim to be compliant with the ethical and responsible business practices applicable to global supply chains. The mills showcase infrastructure such as proper ventilation and fire safety measures. They even have designated rooms for a crèche and a medical center, but these remain largely unused, according to Singh.

The workers are required to wear safety masks, but many don’t as they find it cumbersome, and the management, too, remains lax about it. “It is only during audit that workers are seen to be wearing masks,” she says.

Singh also cites instances of wage theft. Workers’ contracts are terminated before they complete five years, to ensure they are not eligible for gratuity payment. Their dues are not deposited or settled in full at the time of quitting, she says. “Labour laws are easily manipulated and workers in Tirupur are paid a little over ₹300 as daily wage—a paltry sum for a breadwinner. Deprived of living wages, they lead a hand-to-mouth existence.”

To identify and safeguard such vulnerable groups, some of the global brands have begun conducting surprise audits of their supply chain beyond the first tier of factories, to weed out exploitation and undeclared subcontracting. Fair Wear Foundation—which counts several global brands as its members—conducts a Workplace Education Program to raise awareness on the factory floor, equipping both workers and management with effective methods for communicating their problems and resolving disputes. It also makes workers aware of the complaint helplines available to them.

“Recently, we held discussions with factory owners and the management on the importance of having workers’ unions in factories and mills. We showcased a positive example of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union, which had taken up the cudgels to provide safe drinking water for the workers. Initially the management had retaliated and the matter escalated, with the global brands getting involved. Finally an MoU was signed, heeding the demands for safe drinking water,” Singh recounts.

Karuppusamy Raman, Director of the non-profit Rural Education and Action Development (READ), says, “We are frequently in touch with the workers and listen to their grievances through our helplines. Pouring out their woes helps them to unburden, and we try to do what we can to support them.”

Women, who form the largest segment of the garment industry workforce, also happen to be the least empowered in this ecosystem. “While 80 percent of the world’s garment workers are women, this is more in the industry’s own interests rather than to promote gender diversity or empowering women,” explains Singh. “They don’t form unions easily, nor do they complain much, and there is no formal grievance mechanism.”

Showing the way

On the bright side, there are a handful of caring employers, such as the designer duo Dev r Nil. At their factory in Alipore, Kolkata, they provide the 70-odd employees all the benefits that workers in other sectors are entitled to. “They work from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., have a six-day week, with two Saturdays off, proper lunch and tea breaks, and, most importantly, Employees’ State Insurance. We also ensure there is no child labor and that our vendors are compliant in all respects—even if that entails paying a higher price,” says Dev.

Singh and the other stakeholders highlight the need for proactive involvement by the government—not just to revive dying art forms but also open more centers for vocational training.

Consumers with their personal choices will have to spark change, too, as do businesses big and small, and local and international governance bodies.

Pointing to the flip side, Shovit Dasgupta, co-owner of the Kolkata clothing brand Notlikeyou, says, “Although fast fashion weaves in environmental abuse and ethical violation, it makes shopping for clothes affordable.” Slow fashion, on the other hand, does offer clothes with longer shelf-life but they are invariably more expensive, he says.

For many people today, being seen in the same set of clothes on two different occasions is next to sacrilege. “That is the reason ‘fast fashion’ is still in, and ‘slow fashion’ is slow in making deep inroads,” says the Kolkata-based designer Agnimitra Paul.

“We still judge people by their clothes. So the perennial demand for new styles persists,” she says. But the tide may turn. Many across the world are following a slogan that underlines the need for slow fashion. Buy less, think more, it says.

This piece was originally published here and is reprinted with permission from the author.

Vishnupriya Sengupta will present “How to be a future-fit marketer” at the IABC World Conference on Monday, 15 June.

About the author / Dr. Vishnupriya Sengupta has been criss-crossing the media, corporate and academic worlds for over two decades. Having started as a print journalist, she moved into the corporate sphere to explore other facets of communication. Content, marketing and communication are her core competencies and writing her passion. As director at PwC India, she has driven knowledge management, change management, communications and publications, drawing on her vast experience and research in diverse fields—with marketing as a binder. Sengupta has travelled widely the world over on work and to deliver talks at international seminars held in the U.S., U.K., Spain, Italy, Poland, China, Thailand and India. Several of her papers have been published in academic journals and business publications both in India and abroad. She won the Recognize 2016 PwC award in recognition of her individual contribution to the firm’s brand image, an award for securing the second position in a global contest organized by PwC Global and CNBC on what women’s empowerment will mean for men, and was nominated for the Reach Out program, a diversity initiative for potential women leaders of the firm.