Revisiting Fashion and Sustainability: A Holistic Perspective

High Level Panel on the Future of Sustainable Fashion

BGIF Dialogue Volume II

In partnership with Centre for Research Into Sustainability and Copenhagen Business School

Thursday, 22.10.20 | 4.30PM IST


Can the fashion industry ever be sustainable? This unsettling question – being pondered over by professionals, researchers, consumers, and academics ever so frequently – continues to be left unaddressed.

The textile industry is the second most polluting industry after oil, and contributes significantly to climate change, the generation of greenhouse gases, resource exploitation, the release of production related chemicals, hazardous waste, and toxicity. People’s love for fast fashion means that we are expected to hit 300 million tonnes of clothing-manufactured waste annually by the year 2050. This has led to a catastrophic increase in textile waste, equivalent to an estimated $500 billion worth of clothes annually, most of which end up in landfills. Furthermore, recycling is challenging not only because of high costs, but also owing to the use of blended fabrics in several garments. Indeed, the dark side of fashion is not limited to environmental exploitation, but also encompasses animal cruelty, child labour, poor wages, long working hours, gender inequality, health and safety issues, sexual harassment, and so on.

In this edition of BGIF Dialogue – in collaboration with Centre for Research in Sustainability (CRIS) at Royal Holloway (United Kingdom) and Copenhagen Business School (Denmark) – these challenges, as well as potential solutions, were discussed by bringing together views from academics, fashion designers, entrepreneurs, consumers, and policymakers. The panel explored the Global North- South perspective and aimed to address the looming threat of not only a climate emergency but also of workers toiling away in inhumane conditions at a huge environmental and social cost. As a result, in order to build a robust business with sustainable innovation is no longer a niche but has become the focus for sustainability experts to address.


Did you know that it takes more than 2,500 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt? Did you know that every second, an equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is either burnt or landfilled? Bhavya Bishnoi, Founder of BGIF, kicked off the Dialogue by contextualising the cause for alarm due to the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. For instance, the fashion industry:

  • Is responsible for 10% of the world’s annual carbon emissions;
  • Consumes 80 billion m3 of water annually;
  • Is responsible for the feeling of 150 million trees annually;
  • Causes the death of more than 10,000 silk works in the production of a single silk saree; and

• Produces annual plastic microfibre waste, equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.

These are but a few statistics to shed light on the scale of the challenge at hand. Indeed, the panel opened with the extremely pertinent question, ‘What does sustainability mean in fashion? And is it really achievable?’ Recently, sustainability seems to have become a buzzword, having different meanings to different people and businesses. The most common view merges eco-friendly consumption with fair trade principles but sustainability in the fashion industry spills into a myriad of other areas as well. Indeed, according to Vandana Jaglan, Officiating Principal, Satyam Fashion Institute (India), ‘a sustainable environment starts with you. The main notion we have in sustainability is to increase the longevity of the products. We as consumers, manufacturers and decision-makers, need to think of ways of increasing the life of the product’.

From a business perspective, consumer awareness, in using a carrot and stick approach, will be critical to incentivise corporates to transform their business processes to become more eco-friendly. Currently, consumer awareness isn’t necessarily translating into purchasing behaviour. Once consumers genuinely start rewarding companies that are socially conscious and ethically oriented in ensuring, for instance, fair wages, the use of organic materials, circular production lines, and so on, then we could expect tangible improvements in sustainability in the industry at large. Currently, some fast fashion brands such as H&M are making laudable efforts on this front, but ‘other, smaller parts of the industry are hardly awake’, in the view of Emily Baines, Senior Lecturer, De Montfort University, (United Kingdom).


On whom does the responsibility of sustainable fashion fall? Is it the producer – through achieving economies of scale in processes that are environmentally sustainable? Is it the consumer – through her conscious consumption choices? Is it the government – through regulation and appropriate policy design?

Understandably, the onus of sustainable fashion lies on all of the above in fairly equal measure. However, producers and fashion businesses need to step up to the plate in drastically altering their processes, making systemic changes happen, and developing strategies concerning energy use, waste management, organic material use, and so on. Governments, on their part, need to make environmental sustainability in general and fashion sustainability a policy priority, and provide a practical framework within which businesses can operate moving forward. A robust regulatory framework needs to be complemented with incentives and support systems to enable the transition for fashion businesses. Finally, consumers need to hold corporates to account by rewarding and sanctioning corporate strategies, processes, and outputs. We as consumers need to be more willing to make the trade-off between keeping up with latest fashion trends and caring for our wellbeing and that of our ecosystem. Gradually and promisingly, fashion start-ups the world over are innovating and lowering the purchasing price of sustainable clothing, thereby making the transition to a greener industry easier.

Sonia Jetleey, Fashion Designer: ‘We need to slow down and alter our purchasing habits – less is more. Instead of purchasing clothes from fast-fashion brands, we can choose quality over quantity and support local business, artisans,

and weavers. By sustaining weavers and artisans, we connect not only to their clothes but also to the profound stories behind them.’


The concept of the ‘attention economy’ has garnered importance in recent times whereby it has become almost imperative, especially among Generation Z, to exhibit ‘newness’ in fashion and not be seen wearing the same outfit more than once on social media. This feeds into the idea of fast fashion, and therefore, real change requires a mindset change all around. Therefore, while the digital economy has brought significant benefit to producers and consumers in enhancing the efficiency of the marketplace, it has brought environmental sustainability to its knees.

Giana Eckhardt, Director, Centre for Research in Sustainability, Royal Holloway, University of London (United Kingdom): ‘It is interesting to think about alternative consumption models, like ‘Rent-the- Runway’, which allow consumers to access clothes without purchasing them, but they are also followed by controversies around the extent of their true sustainability.’


What implications does a nation positioning itself as environmentally conscious have on the global arena, especially in light of the growing discourse on sustainability? According to Vandana Jaglan, Senior Faculty, National Institute of Fashion Technology (India), Prime Minister Modi’s recent thrust on going ‘vocal for local’ has sustainability underpinnings in that it encourages citizens to support local arts and crafts that is likely to not only help in poverty alleviation but to also promote production methods that are environmentally sustainable. Similarly, Ghana promotes local products and designs in fashion. Furthermore, offering certifications to products that are environmentally sustainable will help provide credibility to conscious businesses in the minds of consumers.

An Liu, Lecturer, Beijing Normal University (China): ‘Certainly, traditional methods and contemporary trends need to blend in fashion. Furthermore, transformational change occurs on the confluence of economics and education. In China, for instance, things are improving but consumers need more education on sustainable fashion.’

It is great to see that designers and professionals are considering the fundamentals of sustainability in their business models and many of them are moving away from the just-in-time fast fashion process and towards ‘small-batch manufacturing’, which allows the artisans and weavers to exercise their skills without the fear of being exploited. The initiative has already been taken in this direction by luxury brands and the absurdity of having multiple collections in a year instead of the traditional two collections is also trickling down.

In conclusion, the ongoing debate on fashion being lucrative, affordable, and sustainable all at once can be settled through a concerted, conscious, and collaborative endeavour between producers, consumers, and the government. The three M’s of man, material, and machine need to be effectively directed towards coherently and cohesively catering to the three P’s of people, planet, and profit.