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👕 Visible Hands: Sustainability, But Make It Fashion
We spoke to Tanvi Bikhchandani, the co-founder of Tamarind Chutney, about sustainable fashion and responsible value chains.
We spoke with Tanvi Bikhchandani, the co-founder of Tamarind Chutney, a social enterprise that aims to improve artisan livelihoods and reduce textile waste in India. Tamarind Chutney sources fabrics directly from small to medium sized artisans, provides them with design inputs, and aims to share profits with them. TC also sources 'deadstock' fabric from existing production to prevent it from being thrown into landfills. In 2020 the team worked with 45+ artisans / tailors and diverted 763m of fabric from the landfill.
We’ve condensed and edited the interview for concision and clarity.
VH: What really is “sustainable fashion”?
TB: There’s no one definition of sustainable fashion in the industry, which is why you often see the phrase being thrown around to describe all kinds of brands and practices. To me, sustainable fashion represents a shift from linear consumption - of ‘use and throw’ and of generating waste - to circular consumption. That is, using eco-friendly raw materials, producing high quality garments that last long, and minimizing waste in production.
No brand can be 100% sustainable, but being transparent about the steps they’re taking in each part of their supply chain is a good sign. I wouldn’t trust a brand that is reluctant to give out this information.
VH: What is your biggest worry about sustainability in the garment industry?
TB: I’m worried about the rising incidence of “greenwashing,” where companies use sustainability as a marketing gimmick without actually changing their practices. For instance, brands run recycling programs for old clothes, but in reality only 30% of the clothes they collect are recycled. This stuff is totally misleading, and unfortunately also very common in the industry.
From a labor perspective, the COVID pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of garment workers - so many brands cancelled orders, leaving manufacturers in developing countries without livelihoods.
VH: Where have you seen the biggest improvements in the fashion value chain?
TB: Despite these large scale problems, I’m encouraged by the efforts of organizations such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Revolution. Because of their work, at least the industry has recognized that there’s a big problem. Brands have stopped some egregious practices such as burning their unsold inventory.
A few other brands are leading the charge on providing a sustainable / ethical alternative to consumers. Patagonia, for instance, has done some great work by using recycled raw materials and starting a second hand market place for their goods. Everlane’s model is pretty unique.
However, the big limitation is that none of this work is at the system level - it’s individual actions by certain brands. It’s still the exception - until this becomes the norm, we still have a problem.
VH: What are structural changes we should push for to improve the environmental and social footprint of fashion?
TB: The global nature of fashion makes this issue so challenging. Your clothes are likely stitched by someone thousands of miles away in a developing country where labour rights and rule of law are often weak. It doesn’t make sense for a US / European customer to advocate for reform in these manufacturing countries. Brands need to be held accountable to signing fair contracts and honoring them. Even when brands commit to a certain safety standard, it’s often broken. Brands know this - they know their clothes are being made by underpaid workers in unsafe conditions but they just choose to look the other way.
On the environmental footprint, a lot has to be done on each aspect of the supply chain, but the hardest one to crack is raw material. Synthetic fabrics - which are used in everything from athleisure to formal dresses - are basically plastics. There’s a high carbon footprint associated with their production, plus there’s the problem of microplastics when we wash these clothes. On the other hand, natural fabrics are extremely water intensive and usually grown using lots of pesticides. More sustainable alternatives exist but the natural ones are expensive and the synthetic ones are patented. It’s critical to support policies that foster innovation in raw material and also facilitate widespread access to these materials are critical.
Thanks Tanvi for many of these suggestions!
As a consumer:
Be a conscious consumer! “Buy only what you need, and if you are financially able, support sustainable brands (due to higher raw material costs + better wages, these are usually more expensive than fast fashion companies). But remember, you can’t buy your way to sustainability. Individual actions need to be accompanied with structural change!”
Back small businesses as they are more likely to share information about their practices.
As an employee:
If you’re working at a fashion company, put pressure from the inside to stop greenwashing practices, to reduce the number of fashion cycles and to commit to ethical production.
Check out Tanvi’s article with more details on being a sustainable fashion entrepreneur: “Brands should buy yarn or fabric from certified suppliers, and if there are no certifications, get as much information about the fibre production process before purchase.”
As an investor:
“Back companies that are producing sustainable raw materials and support platforms that focus on sustainable consumption, such as thrifting, conscious living, etc.” says Tanvi
Get smart about the various certifications and don’t take brands’ claims at face value: “Comedian Hasan Minhaj did a segment on fast fashion in his show, The Patriot Act. He talked about how he saw a big brand advertising a garment as recycled polyester, but when he read the tag only 10% of the fabric was actually recycled. Such ‘greenwashing’ is rampant.”
As a citizen:
On the topic of improving the fashion value chain, “civil society has a huge role to play here. NGO campaigns and third party audits can ensure contracts are being enforced and safety standards are being met. Advocate for policies that improve access to sustainable raw materials, that safeguard workers rights, and put the onus on companies to move from a profit only approach to a ‘people & planet first and then profit’ one.”
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