Darn it! It is fashion’s time to repair: An essay by Mridula Ramesh
There are lessons to be learnt from Swadeshi, and why Gandhi was so concerned with fabrics. Follow that thread all the way to our ties to cotton, carbon today.
A hundred years ago, a few kilometres from where I write, a fashion moment changed the course of India. On September 22, 1921, in Madurai, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi appeared in public wearing a khadi dhoti. This simple garment, made with hand-spun cotton yarn, handwoven into a cloth a few inches wide and a few feet long, carried a profound message. In Gandhi’s words: “I do wish that they [Indians] should thoroughly realise the meaning of the boycott of foreign cloth… I do wish that they may understand that swadeshi means everything.”
Gandhi had always been “punctiliousness in dress”. Indeed, earlier photos show a younger Gandhi, hair slicked back, staring confidently into the camera lens, dapper in a suit with a carefully knotted tie. What made him deliberately change his clothing? And what does it have to do with sustainable fashion?
About seven years before Gandhi’s khadi reveal, British India imported about ₹58 crore worth of manufactured cotton textiles. At the time, rice cost about 11 paise per kilo, and an able-bodied agricultural worker earned about ₹12 a month. Textile imports were a big deal, making up over a third of India’s overall imports.
This was ironic, given that the (British) East India Company (EIC) originally made its fortune by selling Indian fabrics to the world. Indeed, the Company, understanding how powerfully fashion shaped demand, cultivated the rich and famous in England, including with free Indian cotton textiles, much as today’s fashion brands pay celebrities and influencers to drive desirability. As historian AW Douglas writes, “The Company, in furtherance of its trade, did not scruple to exploit its connections with the classes that dictated fashion.” And it worked. In 1663, British civil servant Samuel Pepys notes in his celebrated diary: “bought my wife a chintz, that is, a painted Indian calico, for to line her new study, which is very pretty”.
Soon, people from all walks of life were buying this beautiful fabric — soft, exquisitely coloured, so different from the scratchy woollens and flax-based linens the poor were used to, and cheaper and easier to wash than silk. While the EIC was thrilled with its profits from importing Indian textiles, Europe’s domestic textile traders and producers were less happy. They were powerful, and ensured that France banned chintz between 1686 and 1759 and Britain banned it between 1700 and 1771 — an important lesson on interplay between economic incentives and fashion. This grace period, along with some good, old-fashioned spying and experimentation, allowed the European industry to catch up with India’s weaving, dyeing and printing techniques, but left them dependent on the Indian village woman and her charkha for their cotton yarn. She was displaced only by the English spinning machine, invented in the late 18th century.
Then the Industrial Revolution got going in earnest and, driven by an untameable desire for cotton fabrics, reshaped the world forever. Between the slave-plucked cotton from America, the highly productive spinning frame in England, and the lopsided tax regime in the British Raj, the Indian textile weaver and the charkha were put out of business. Indian cotton textile exports fell from 2.2 million pieces a year in the 1790s to just 2.7 lakh pieces a year in the 1830s. The British were sucking India dry, and using textiles to do it.
Gandhi understood that Swadeshi could help achieve Swaraj. The first khadi cloth, made in the Sabarmati ashram in 1917-18, gave him the weapon he needed. He wrote in 1917: “our copying of the European dress is a sign of our degradation, humiliation and our weakness, and that we are committing a national sin in discarding a dress which is best suited to the Indian climate”. The subtext of his fashion advice was crystal clear: importing textiles is bad.
But advice is powerful only when backed with action: Gandhi’s sartorial choice of a khadi dhoti galvanised the Swadeshi movement. Soon, bonfires of English textiles burned across the country even as imports of English textiles plummeted. In 1920-21, just before Gandhi donned his dhoti, India’s imports of cotton piece goods had risen to ₹82 crore. A decade later, piece good imports had crashed to under ₹20 crore. In the background, the domestic Indian textile industry grew, with some of the largest business houses today cutting their teeth then.
Fashion is a powerful force, and as the designer Coco Chanel said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
Walk through your house. Slide a hand along the sofa, touch your socks, run your dupatta through your fingers. Pull back the curtains, look at the bathroom mat as you step out of the bath, dry yourself with a towel and put on your underwear. Textiles envelop your life, and fashion is everywhere.
I write this as an infinitesimal yet integral part of the fashion industry — I help run two factories that spin yarn using a few tonnes of cotton fibre daily, of the over 3 lakh tonnes of textile fibre produced daily in the world. Only about 25% of global fibre is cotton. The vast majority, over 70%, is synthetic or manmade (mostly polyester, some viscose and their ilk). The rest is composed of plant and animal fibres, from banana and pineapple to wool and silk.
In thousands of farms and factories, millions of people pluck, produce, pack, cut, colour, design, stitch and ship the T-shirt you may be wearing right now. In doing so, they alter the planet itself.
Fashion (clothing, footwear, home decor) emits an estimated 347 million to 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent gases, depending on which dataset one uses (this is a huge range, and that’s part of the problem of getting people to act). Going with the first number, that’s as much as India — every car, coal plant, bovine, light, AC unit and rice field together — emits in 40 days. Half these emissions come from synthetic fibres and nearly a quarter from animal fibres.
Coming to water, growing plant-based fibres such as cotton consumes 55 to 99 billion cubic metres of water per year worldwide (not counting rain water), or roughly as much as all households in India use in a year or two. Given that India is water-scarce and is the world’s biggest producer of cotton, managing cotton’s sustainability is critical. Then, of course, is the impact our clothing has on non-human life. It takes land, you see, to grow cotton, to graze the sheep whose coats provide wool, and to grow trees that are pulped into viscose — land that could have otherwise been left for Nature.
And there is the matter of waste. Every year, millions of tonnes of textiles are tossed or burnt in a landfill, and washing synthetic or blended textiles releases microplastic into the ocean, that eventually find their way back into us.
To make textiles more sustainable at scale, we must emit less carbon, use and pollute less water and land. Leaving polyester and viscose for another day, let us stay with cotton. A commonly quoted statistic is that a cotton T-shirt uses 2,700 litres to make. Most of that water is used to grow the cotton plant. Yield matters most in reducing this water footprint (drip irrigation helps), and India’s yield is abysmal. China produces four times more cotton in every hectare than India does. India’s cotton yield can rise if it can access and use water better, something that can happen at scale easier with better seeds and if water were priced.
The next big water guzzler is the dyeing (and processing) of textiles — and here your choice makes a difference. Today, sustainability is fashionable, but economics is holding back scale. Consider this: Brand A wears sustainability on its sleeve and spends millions getting celebrity A to say so from the digital rooftops. And yet, it haggles with its suppliers on every last paise for making that T-shirt, and looks the other way on how the T-shirt is dyed. Brand B, on the other hand, recognises that it costs more than ₹7 per T-shirt to treat the effluent properly, and that the fabric maker makes a meagre ₹2 profit on the T-shirt. So, it audits the T-shirt supply chain to ensure that they are behaving responsibly and rewards them with a slightly higher profit margin. We need more Brand Bs to make sustainable fashion scale.
My point is, fashion sets the agenda and industry follows in a way that makes economic sense. While fashion is about what is cool, economics works by putting a price on what is scarce. And when we put a price — ie, pay for — water, carbon and waste, we will get true, scalable sustainability. So, Dear Reader, please hold your brands accountable and ask them to audit their value chain, and pay fairly to ensure that their suppliers respect the environment. The technology to make a durable cotton garment with very low emissions, that does not use or pollute too much water exists today. Indeed, start-ups are even pushing the boundaries on sustainable fashion, by making leather from temple-waste flowers or living garments from algae to absorb carbon as they are worn. Fashion has prioritised sustainability (let’s not dilute it by greenwashing), the technology to make it happen exists and is evolving further; now the baton has moved to making the economics work at scale. In that, sustainable fashion is waiting for its Gandhi moment.