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The grey truth about green clothes

Hawks, or if you prefer, ‘observers of social trends’ will agree: everything that can be recycled is trendy. Every product tagged ‘eco-friendly’ is fashionable. And if your handbag is made of jute, you’re already on the hip bandwagon.

india Updated: May 08, 2010 23:46 IST
Nivriti Butalia

Hawks, or if you prefer, ‘observers of social trends’ will agree: everything that can be recycled is trendy. Every product tagged ‘eco-friendly’ is fashionable. And if your handbag is made of jute, you’re already on the hip bandwagon.

Malati Gadgil, 35, is not obsessed with the environment to the extent that she is fashionable — or fanatic. But while she was in the US, Gadgil ran a business of importing eco-conscious bedding products that were sold in various retail stores. Then, after 14 years, she returned to India. Today she is with an environmental group that works with ragpickers. The manager for Voice for Waste at Chintan is “fairly environmentally conscious”. What else would you call someone who eats local and seasonal fruits and vegetables, cycles to work at least once a week and wears only natural fibre?

Mark my clothes

In all her years in textile, Gadgil says she hasn’t come across any one one universal certificate for things organic or eco-friendly. Adarsh Kumar, executive director, All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA) agrees, “We need to have a basic set of standards for what is eco friendly.”

Kumar says a main objective of his organisation is to work out recommendations for the government on how better to implement the eco mark. (Jairam Ramesh, are you listening?)

Did you know there are several (international) eco-labels, each with their own criteria, scope, and certifying body? Chances are you haven’t heard of them.

Clothing company Van Heusen, for instance, launched an eco line less than two months ago. The guys at Van Heusen skipped the Indian Ecomark (with the matka (earthen pot) as its logo — see box) in favour of mark (not listed on the AIACA list of labels) called ‘GOTS: Global Organic Textile Standard’. The shirts are priced between Rs 1,299 and Rs 1,599. And in keeping with their ethic of 100 per cent organic, the brand is even peddling reusable jute bags for Rs 35.

But don’t be fooled by products that have a fancy stamp and declare they’re dedicated to the welfare of labour in villages. Which prompts the question, how ecologically sound are the kurtis you buy in Greater Kailash, the linen you wear, the textiles you use? Not very, say people in the development sector.

The loopholes

Eco friendly is a near-bogus term. There is, to consider, the carbon footprint of what you bought — the chemicals used, handmade or mill made, transportation cost, middlemen used and consumer-durability — read dry-cleaning (not good for our planet). Clothes you buy believing they’re organic are not always vegetable-dyed. The substitutes, chemical dyes, are not eco friendly. But even if you knew that, a little heads-up can’t hurt.

Read the fine print on the labels before you assume you are saving the planet. According to Anuradha Nambiar, a research consultant with AIACA who has worked on a study titled ‘The domestic market research for eco-friendly and sustainable textile products’: “It’s a rare instance that a product is a hundred per cent eco friendly.”

According to the study (available online), companies win customers by capitalising on their concern for the environment — often only by changing style rather than substance. Consumers are bombarded with labels that declare products eco-friendly, environmentally-safe, recyclable, biodegradable, ozone-friendly, reusable, green, organic, natural and even, ahem, safe in a landfill.