Lifestyle journalist and sustainability activist Bandana Tewari believes storytelling and personal responsibility have a huge part to play in the reformation of the fashion industry.
When you were starting out in fashion, what were the issues facing the industry, and at what point do you think attitudes to fashion and especially fast fashion started to change to incorporate ideas of sustainability?
I worked at Vogue India for thirteen years. It was a time when the Indian market opened up to a deluge of international luxury brands. There was much optimism and excitement about the massive aspirational population of India, the cynosure of multinational companies eager to conduct business in the Indian subcontinent. At this point, conspicuous consumerism was applauded and encouraged – signalling a modern India that was willing to spend money, display affluence, and be the sartorial arbiter of a young nation. There was no awareness of conscious consumption, of sustainability and environmental impact of the incredible waste and excess that plagues the fashion industry today.
In all honesty, the risks of over-consumption and the perils of fast fashion, as we now know of them, came into our collective consciousness only recently. The Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 in Bangladesh was the most brutal symbol of a global fashion industry gone wrong. It exposed a terrible truth: a multi-trillion-dollar industry was systemically plagued by unimaginable inequalities, both economic and social. This Rana Plaza disaster – when five garment factories collapsed killing more than 1,100 people, mostly women – created a global uproar. The world woke up to a fashion industry that pays some of the lowest wages, conducts business in such unsafe work environments, it creates untold disregard for human life. And then the environmental issues ensued which saw rivers and farms in developing nations being clogged and degraded with industry waste creating irreparable harm to people and the planet.
It is through the exposé of the extraordinary pains of ordinary people who make our clothes that led to a monumental change in the way we perceive the business of fashion.
How seriously do fast fashion brands like, let’s say H&M, really take the concept of waste within the industry? Are these efforts to improve sustainability just an exercise in greenwashing?
We are drowning in clothes – many of the approximately100 billion garments sold each year go into landfills or are incinerated – both harmful to the environment. According to Fast Company, H&M produces three billion garments a year and till 2019 was sitting on $4.1 billion worth of unsold clothes, some of which, we are told, became fuel for a power plant in Sweden. While many initiatives are underway to address the problems of production and consumption, it seems too little at a time when we have swiftly moved from climate change to climate crisis. The fashion industry generates 10 percent of global carbon emission, 20 percent of all waste water, and pollutes the oceans with half a million tons of microplastics. So, if big changes do not propel a big impact – it is, simply, greenwashing.
Given the magnitude of the problem, whatever solutions provided by fast fashion companies, thus far, seem perfunctory. The velocity with which garments are being manufactured, bought and tossed away is horrendous, to say the least. One garbage truck of clothes is either burnt or dumped in landfills every second! So whatever Zara, H&M or other fast fashion brands are doing to rectify the system is too little. Governments and policies need to intervene to limit the greed and speed of overproduction. More investments in R&D for solutions in recycling, alternative fabrics, etc, are crucial. Consumers need to play an important role in disarming the consumerist agenda of globalisation that fuels the ‘marketing need’ for more and more, bigger and bigger. Every human being should know how they choose to spend their hard-earned money really does matter!
To what extent do you think consumers really care about what happens in the rivers and seas thousands of miles away that are affected by the processes used to create our fashionable clothes?
Consumers do care about rivers, seas and every aspect of nature, provided they are shown the truth – truth about human beings’ role in the degradation of nature that comes from corporate greed, mindless consumption and governmental apathy. There is not a single human being who doesn’t want their children to grow up in an environment that is nurturing and nourished. Who amongst us wants to live in the filth of pollution?
The problem is that consumers have been ‘sold’ only one part of the story – the part that says when clothes glitter and automobiles shine and you own them then you have made it. When in fact, the process of making – what irreplaceable natural resources are harnessed to make things, the number of hands that go into making even a simple t-shirt – is excluded from the narrative, the inequalities in the system and the harm perpetrated on our environment will remain invisible. When you are never shown the problem, why would you seek a solution?
Tell us about your latest project…
I am a writer. Sadly, I don’t have any big projects to boast of. However, my personal commitment as a storyteller is to always follow the four fundamental principles of authentic storytelling: Product, People, Process, Purpose. If any one of these ‘Ps’ are unfulfilled or unaddressed by a company or brand, I will not write about it. Every media person should pay heed to the power of the pen.
What advice would you give to young designers starting out now?
I would request every designer starting out today to read Small is Beautiful, a book written by the hallowed global economist E.F. Shumacher. In this book there is a chapter called ‘Buddhist Economy’ which throws light on the need for mindfulness in business. It is a guide to making one’s daily work – a noble act of humanity. It points to our present-day crisis in the way leaders are raised or made to pillage the earth, as if humans are the only sentient beings in this world. It points to correcting an era that seems so disconnected with our inner and outer divinity – that we have made human-force into labour-force.
What is the future of fashion?
The future of fashion is compassionate; how else will we survive? There is no business to be done on a dead planet. So, I feel confident that we will rise to address the challenges of waste, greed and environmental degradation. With a generation of young people born in this era of climate crisis, they will, without any doubt, only choose industry leaders who lead with a ‘monk mentality’, leaders who reinforce the crucible of compassion and conscious consumption. I believe that the future of fashion will have storytellers, producers and creators who will show the interconnectedness of everything around us – the magic of coexistence and biodiversity. They will tell us the story of our t-shirts – made from a seed of life that blossomed into cotton; the same cotton that clothes us also thrives when it grows alongside other diverse plants, on a land rich in soil nutrients. The future of fashion will have great teachers who will tell us that what we ingest into our bodies and what we put on our bodies must both honour the sacredness of nature.