Many prominent fashion brands minimising their carbon footprint

Manisha Kinnu, Campus Director, NIFT, believes that given how polluting and energy intensive some fashion industry processes are, sustainable fashion is an immensely important concept in the face of the existing climate crisis.


IBT: How would you define sustainable fashion? Why is it important and what are the factors driving its growth?

Manisha Kinnu: Sustainable fashion can mean different things to different people. Some take a very simplistic view and relate it only to reduced consumption and wardrobe reduction. Holistically seen, sustainable fashion covers the whole gamut of sustainable practices across the complete raw material supply chain, designing & production processes, marketing & distribution, usage, disposal and recycle – colloquially termed as “cradle to cradle” as well as sustainable livelihoods. While the focus is primarily towards environmental issues, it would be a grave mistake if the world does not factor socially responsible behaviour and health and other societal factors while reviewing sustainability.

The textile and apparel industry is associated with serious environmental issues globally.  It is the second highest user of water worldwide, generates about 20% of global water waste, and a major contributor to plastics entering the ocean – it is estimated that around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers are shed during the washing of plastic-based textiles such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic and end up in the ocean annually. Given how polluting and energy intensive some fashion industry processes are, sustainable fashion has been gaining importance in the face of the existing climate crisis as it is being realized that the global economic growth model which is consumption driven can create additional problems of stress on resources and municipal solid waste generation and disposal.

IBT: According to the World Bank, textile manufacturing and the fashion industry accounts for 10% of carbon emissions and one-fifth of 300 million tons of plastic that is produced globally each year. Given the growing popularity of fast fashion, how receptive are customers to sustainable fashion? Why/why not?

Manisha Kinnu: Sustainable fashion awareness, in the Indian context, is still in its infancy. While a section of urban consumers is waking up to the environmental challenges with which the fashion industry operates and are increasingly receptive to the idea of sustainability in fashion, a lack of eco-friendly options limits the penetration of sustainable fashion. Customers are also sometimes sceptical about the quality and authenticity of products which boast of being ‘organic’, ‘slow’ or ‘eco-friendly’ because of limited awareness about them. There is another section of consumers who have not warmed up to the idea of sustainable fashion yet due to a strong desire for variety, therefore, the mindless consumption of cheaper fast fashion. Another factor is that customers are also very price conscious and as most sustainably sourced garments come at a premium  therefore there is limited uptake for them at present.

IBT: From farm to fabric, what sustainability efforts are companies currently making in the global fashion value chain? How can sustainable fashion be made cheaper?

Manisha Kinnu: Many prominent fashion brands across the globe are waking up to minimising their carbon footprint by working on various parts of the value chain. While some are working towards procuring safer raw materials, others are working on reducing the emissions from their production process. There are others who are also working to make the front end more environment- friendly by addressing concerns related to marketing, packaging etc. Some are going back to more traditional methods of production and experimenting with natural materials and dyes. 

Sustainable fashion costs have to be assessed through a holistic LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) and scaling it up and reducing the per unit cost of production. We at NIFT ensure that concepts of Sustainability and sustainable fashion are inculcated in all our programmes and graduates go out in the industry with not only awareness about the harmful impacts of unsustainable practices but also alternative practices and solutions. We have specialisations in various areas of Design, Technology, Management and Communications and with mandatory inputs of sustainability in all streams, we try to cover the complete value chain. We have also collaborated with United Nations Environment Programme towards education in areas of Sustainable Fashion. At NIFT-Delhi we are working on developing a standardised process of traditional natural dye sources with incorporation of innovative technology to heritage design. We are also teaching eco-printing and advanced printing technology to our design students. Through all these interventions we have tried to ensure that we have sustainable minded next generation of designers, technologists, managers and communicators for whom sustainability is not an afterthought but a way of life.

IBT: Where does India stand in its ambition towards sustainable fashion? How can India brand itself as a hotspot for sustainable fashion while ensuring that livelihoods of all the stakeholders – fashion companies and farmers – are sustained without compromising on the planet’s health?

Manisha Kinnu: Sustainability has been a way of life for traditional societies like ours. Our traditional systems for making and consuming fashion are being revived by many across the globe. Even now India has been a champion of sustainable fashion particularly through the encouragement of its localised handloom and handicrafts traditions. We have craft cluster initiative at NIFT where our design students visit various craft clusters and learn traditional environmentally sustainable practices from master craftspeople. This experience and learning helps them incorporate sustainable practices in their own designs and also makes them sensitive to social issues at the grass root level.

Several of our graduates are using sustainable practices in their design labels – Uma Prajapati’s label ‘Upasna’, Sonam Dubal through his label ‘Sanskar’ & Richana Khumanthem label ‘Khumanthem’ to name a few. However, the more organised and industrial aspects of fashion in India are still largely driven by profits, which often leads to flouting of environmental norms. Therefore, an equal thrust is needed in all these directions to become truly sustainable.

IBT: In the past, a few eminent brands have been accused of green washing consumers in the garb of fast fashion. How can this challenge be resolved to bring accountability into the value chain?

Manisha Kinnu: If proper checks and balances are placed at every step of production and stringent standards are made available for certifying sustainable products, the problem of fake narratives and fake products can be encountered and resolved. Technology can also be used for ensuring authenticity and transparency of the production chains.

Ms. Manisha Kinnu is Campus Director of NIFT, Delhi and is 2004-batch officer of Indian Revenue Services (IRS). She has handled multi-faceted positions of responsibility and challenging assignments in Income Tax department and in Ministry of Finance, Government of India during her long career, from administration and infrastructure building to assessment of some of the largest firms in India to litigation, vigilance and investigation to development of IT systems and digital infrastructure. Ms. Kinnu has a keen interest in latest innovation and trends in textiles and fashion, and experience in Indian and international educational institutions. Prior to joining civil services, she has taught undergraduate students at Delhi University while pursuing her doctorate in Philosophy.

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