A conscious consumer is simply someone who chooses to be careful about the products they use or their consumption pattern, motivated by compassion, care and worry about the planet’s future and the human race.
There is nothing like a hundred per cent sustainable being and no fixed norms or rules for being a responsible consumer.
The clothing industry is one of the biggest polluters. To combat this, many concepts, movements, and discussions have been gaining popularity over the years to make fashion sustainable.
One of those concepts is Circularity—a closed-loop system where everything we produce and use goes back to the supply chain as raw material or biodegrades.
A part of the fashion industry has been actively investing in finding circular solutions recently, although many challenges need to be addressed and solved.
Many of these solutions lie in the hands of industry experts, designers, and brands; however, the Indian conscious-fashion space will only see progress if customers accept them.
We wrote a detailed article on the brands’ perspective on Circularity in fashion today.
What will equip the industry’s ecosystem to mitigate climate change, stop trash from ending in landfills, and make the planet liveable?
Let’s explore what role customers can play in making slow fashion sustainable.
The customers’ perspective: challenges and solutions
The waste generated from a customer’s wardrobe is called post-consumer waste. It is common in Indian households to use clothing to its maximum limit and even turn them into ‘Pocha’, meaning a cloth meant for dusting or mopping. Moreover, old clothes are passed down in families or donated, as much as they are mended and repaired. These customs have always existed as part of Indian culture – not to solve some environmental problem – but as acts of benevolence or altruism, as well as the mentality of reusing or repurposing clothing so one can extract maximum value from it.
However, over time, with the popularity of fast fashion soaring, the use- and- throw mentality has seeped into people’s minds. Moreover, fashion trends and social media exposure have further fuelled the misguided influence of not repeating clothes. However, due to growing consideration of environmental concerns, customers are again becoming aware of the importance of returning to the old days of repair, reuse and re-wear.
Customers’ opinions regarding thrifting have been polarising in the last few years. Some consumers love and proudly flaunt their thrift finds. However, others prefer to avoid wearing secondhand because of issues like lack of suitable fits and styles, hygiene concerns, societal taboos, and religious and superstitious beliefs!
Thrift supporters also find themselves with many challenges:
- The unavailability of enough physical thrift stores
- Unavailability of decent options for plus-sized bodies (XL, XXL, or XXL)
- The effort and costs involved in shipping their old garments to discard them
- The unavailability of systematic doorstep services for collecting old clothes, etc.
Leandra of The Susta Act, an Instagram thrift store, pointed out that a significant issue customers face while thrifting is that, most often, the clothes are old fashion, belonging to trends that have gone out of style. So, even someone inclined towards buying secondhand is not happy switching to thrifting in a big way, especially with clothes.
Repair and Upcycling by local tailors
Mending, repairing, alterations, and upcycling old, unused or defective sarees to outfits & furnishings with the help of local tailors had been a common practice in the country. But how many people will make an effort in today’s busy lifestyle?
Many talks have been going on to normalise and encourage mending again. But the fact that today these are called ‘Grandma hacks’ shows that it is unlikely that most people will try mending their clothes by themselves.
Local tailoring shops can come to the rescue and be a solution to help repair and increase the life of a garment. However, a new problem has arisen where tailors are often willing to take up only more significant projects like constructing a whole outfit and are unwilling to take up smaller repair jobs.
As shocking as it may sound, re-stitching a new button is a big task these days! Discussions around brands providing mending solutions have been going around, but logistic feasibility is a concern. We need increased customer demand for repair requests for brands to include alteration or repair services in their business models and encourage local tailors to accept small mending projects actively.
Even consumers get a lot of cloth scraps back from the tailors when they give garments for stitching orders. However, does every consumer have the time, creativity, interest, motivation or energy to conceptualise and design usable items like masks, Potli bags, scrunchies, or any mini utility items from those scraps? Moreover, tailors are more likely to take high-paying orders than small projects. Suppose a tailor were to agree to such mini projects; how many totes/Potlis can a consumer accumulate too?
Donate or Hand-me-downs
Many people gladly declutter their wardrobes to donate old clothes to the underprivileged. But often, many garments prove useless because of style, fit or condition and end up in landfills.
The same happens with hand-me-downs. An outfit that can never go out of style (like a Sari) can be quickly passed on and well-accepted by the receiver. However, it is less likely to be accepted if they regard the style as old-fashioned or ‘last season’. Moreover, stitched clothes (with heavy design work) may only fit some people perfectly; people still have to spend on alterations. Examples could be saree blouses, dresses, and festive or formal/corporate wear, where the fit and design work matter most.
The fashion industry often encourages the mindset of following short-lived latest trends, which is building up a system of producing disposable styles. This mindset is a crucial challenge faced alongside the good-willed concept of secondhand clothing.
We will need more practical and customised solutions for a large population of different demographics.
While an affluent customer may reject secondhand, citing outdated styles, a customer from lower socioeconomic strata would look at fits, colours, sizes and modest designs that are socially acceptable in their circles.
Also, one must consider constraints like the material of hand-me-downs. For example, winter wears could be passed down only to places where it’s cold. On the other hand, people residing in a humid or hot climate will buy more cotton clothes.
Another critical point that needs more discussion is that one can not donate innerwear or active wear to others. Such clothing accumulates sweat and other body discharge, becoming a long-term breeding ground for bacteria, fungi or other pathogens despite regular and thorough cleaning. As a result, some dermatologists advise patients with sensitive skin and recurring infections to discard such clothing as often as every six months. On that note, donating it to someone isn’t really a goodwill act.
Embracing and encouraging Upcycled brands
Upcycled textiles are mostly laborious to construct, so they are often highly-priced. Even if we categorise upcycling clothing in the ‘luxury’ segment, will it be accepted by the consumers?
Upcycled textiles have a different, individualistic look and feel—and beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Designers suggest that upcycled clothing needs to be looked into and valued from a different lens for its aesthetics and construction in terms of business models. Instead, industry stakeholders and consumers compare such clothing with traditional virgin fashion materials and ongoing fashion industry norms, posing a problem. As a result, running a business on upcycled clothing by challenging such fashion industry norms becomes difficult.
Currently, the market for upcycled fashion is quite a niche. Are more customers willing to embrace upcycled textiles and accept them from a different lens? Are they willing to pay more for the efforts required to create upcycled clothing? Or should it belong to the luxury segment?
It all depends on customers’ acceptance and encouragement of upcycled brands. The success of upcycling businesses relies a lot on a customer’s willingness to dispose of their old clothes mindfully. Some startups are in the nascent stage of bringing solutions like buy-back schemes, thrifting, etc., to standardise a way of collecting old clothes and textiles to prevent them from going to landfills. However, using these new systems depends on the encouragement and acceptability of consumers to convert such solution-driven businesses into success stories.
While the job of circular businesses is to make operations easy for customers, success also depends on us to efficiently use these circular initiatives.
Are we ready for mindset change? Are we willing to make way for ‘made-to-order’? If not physical stores, can pop-ups travel to Tier 1 and 2 cities to make sustainable options available? We can continue asking many such questions endlessly.
Clearly, there isn’t an ecosystem to enable slow fashion and conscious consumption to thrive in the Indian market. However, if consumers and businesses work together, we can bridge the supply-demand gaps to make circular fashion a reality.
This article is authored by Namrata Gohain, a sustainable fashion & crafts professional with 10+ years of experience. An advocate of SDG 12 – Responsible Production & Consumption, she runs a conscious craft-based business called Kaizen, the label. This brand works with artisan communities of mainly Northeast and East India.
She works with other organizations with a similar ethos in multiple domains, including managerial duties for merchandising, operations, creative content and brand building. An avid reader with many questions, she loves research and has a knack for continuous learning. She aims to get Indian artisanal crafts and underdog sustainable natural textiles a better market and bring the dignity of labour to the artisans of India.