Starting a decade ago, in my early twenties, I spent several months every year in India doing fieldwork for my PhD. As I visited various parts of the country, I observed a distinct shift in the clothing shops that lined the streets in larger cities. Next to stores that sold Indian outfits–such as brightly colored saris, tunics, and a traditional pantsuit called a salwar kameez–you could find American and European brands, like Levi’s and H&M. Many women mixed Indian and Western styles, wearing colorful cotton tunics with jeans, for instance.
Western fashion brands–from Tommy Hilfiger to Nike to Zara–have recognized the enormous opportunity the Indian market opens up, and have been rushing in to woo Indian consumers. India’s economy is expected to grow 8% a year until 2022, and the Indian middle class is expected to expand at 19.4% a year over the same period, outpacing China, Mexico, and Brazil. According to a report by Business of Fashion and Deloitte, India’s fashion market will be worth $59.3 billion by 2022, making it the sixth largest in the world, on par with the U.K. and Germany.
India’s meteoric growth is dovetailing with a growing awareness of how the apparel industry’s pollution–from plastic waste to carbon emissions–is reaching a breaking point, both in the country and globally. A Nielsen study from eight years ago showed that Indian consumers were already becoming more conscious of environmentally friendly fashion practices, and this awareness is only growing. Groups like the Worker Diaries, which advocates for the welfare of workers in the region, and Fashion Revolution India, which pushes for sustainable and ethical practices in fashion, are helping make ethical and sustainable issues more visible. “India has a huge influence on how our fashion is made globally. We are also a huge consumer market,” Fashion Revolution India writes on its website. It encourages Indian consumers to ask fashion companies to explain where their clothes come from through social media–and reports it has received responses from over 1,000 brands so far.
And even as America pulls out of the Paris Climate Agreement, India has doubled down on its commitment to joining the other nations of the world in cutting carbon emissions. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it would be a “morally criminal act” for the world not to confront the looming threat of climate change. India is the third highest polluter in the world after China and the United States but is committed to absorbing 2.5 billion to 3 billion tons of CO2 through planting trees, achieving 40% renewable energy by 2030, and reducing the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions based on its GDP by a third below its 2005 levels. According to a recent United Nations report, India is on track to meet the first two of these goals ahead of this deadline, reflecting the government’s dedication to averting a climate disaster.
It’s important to note that on a per capita basis, India is still only the 128th in terms of emissions, and 300 million Indians don’t have access to electricity. As its economy grows, more people will move into the middle class and have access to goods that contribute to the world’s pollution, including fashion. As the number of consumers grows, it’s arguably a critical time to introduce eco-friendly products.
As fashion’s biggest European and American brands enter the Indian market, selling sustainability is not just the ethical thing to do–it also makes good business sense. This is part of the reason that global giants are pitching themselves to Indians as eco-friendly brands. At the same time, as they rapidly expand, it’s become clear that to truly tackle the looming threat of climate change (to which the fashion industry contributes mightily), brands need to rethink not only what they are selling customers, but also how much.
What Big Brands Are Doing Now
The American denim brand Levi’s was one of the earliest American fashion labels to enter the Indian market in 1995. The brand has been working to lower its environmental footprint globally, by reducing carbon emissions and using lasers to finish jeans instead of chemicals. Sanjeev Mohanty, Levi’s managing director for South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, says that Indian consumers are aware of the importance of such sustainable practices and are more likely to shop from brands that make clothes ethically.
“As far back as 2011 (when the Nielsen study was conducted), the Indian consumer was already more interested in energy efficiency in manufacturing, and related practices such as the use of recyclable packaging,” he tells me over email. In its stores Levi’s broadcasts messaging about its sustainability goals, like its plan to reduce carbon emissions across its offices, retail stores, and distribution network by 40% and use 100% renewable sources in its own facilities by 2025, or its new technique for finishing jeans that requires less water–which it made it open source, in the hopes of saving 50 billion liters of water by 2020. Those goals show up in Levi’s products, too: All Levi’s and Docker’s products have a tag that says “Wash less, wash in cold, line dry, and donate when no longer needed.”
H&M, a Swedish brand, is a far newer player in the Indian market. In 2015, it opened its first store in New Delhi, but now has more than 40 stores throughout India. It’s not only in big cities, where wealthier, more globalized consumers live. It is also in smaller cities, and targets lower-middle class Indians by offering clothes at prices that are affordable to them.
H&M is working to introduce the concept of fast fashion in India–but it’s making the case that inexpensive, on-trend clothes can be made ethically and sustainably. The company says it is working to use entirely recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, and totally offset its carbon footprint by 2040. Part of this approach is to respond to customer demand and sell more products to eco-conscious Indians.
For instance, India is one of the largest producers of cotton in the world, and many Indian consumers will be familiar with the horrific stories of entire villages in the Indian countryside being poisoned by the chemicals used in the cotton-growing process. By 2020, H&M aims to source all its cotton sustainably–which it defines as using organic cotton, recycled cotton, or cotton certified by the Better Cotton Initiative, which helps farmers grow cotton in a way that reduces environmental stress.
Like Levi’s, H&M uses its tags to stress its efforts. “When Indian consumers see green tags on garments (which explain how eco-friendly they are), they are starting to understand what this means, and thinking, ‘Oh this could be good for me,'” says Elin Astrom, H&M India’s sustainability manager. “Talk about sustainability and circular fashion has gained a lot more attention here over the past few years.”
The science of fabric recycling is still in its infancy. Organizations–including the H&M Foundation–are working to develop technologies that will be able to separate the many fibers that are used in fabric blends. But H&M is already working to collect clothes from customers, which are either given to people who will use them or taken apart to be recycled. In 2017, the company collected 17,771 tons of textiles. It has recycling bins set up at all 40 Indian stores, and Dhatri Bhatt, H&M India’s head of communications, says they have been popular with customers. “We’ve been pretty encouraged by this response,” she says. “Customers across the country have been bringing their old garments to recycle them.”
Big problems need radical solutions
Yet the industry’s fatal flaw is that it is built on a business model of selling more and more clothes to customers faster and faster. According to data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which helps companies and governments transition to a circular economy, the number of times an article of clothing is worn before it gets chucked out has declined by 36% since 2000, with many consumers discarding garments after just seven to ten wears. And in that same period, the number of units of clothes sold annually has doubled from 50 billion units to 100 billion units. “The reason we see so much waste happening is because we’re producing more and more, and wearing the clothes less and less,” says Francois Souchet, a project manager at the Foundation.
Rather than selling more clothes that are marginally more sustainably made, a truly earth-changing solution would be to encourage consumers to buy fewer, more durable products. This may seem radical, but we’ve seen it work for brands like Patagonia, which mends customer’s well-worn garments to extend their life, and Eileen Fisher, which eschews fashion trends to encourage customers to wear the same outfits season after season. While these brands haven’t grown as fast as their more popular fast fashion counterparts, they are both successful, profitable businesses. A more radical approach to sustainability, both in India, and around the world, is for fashion brands to make durable products in classic styles.
As they expand into India, global giants have a chance to rewrite the book on fast fashion. What would happen if these brands sold Indian middle class consumers a fundamentally different vision of fashion than the one they’ve sold elsewhere in the world? What if instead of idealizing newness, they instead focused on quality, durability, and classic looks that never go out of style? That would be a much more effective approach to sustainability than a simple recycling bin.