It's not a new fact to anyone that the fashion industry is one of the major reasons that contributes to global waste, climate change, humanitarian causes and is a constant work in progress when it comes to sustainability. As the pressure rises to tackle our global sustainability issues, brands are pledging to go the eco-friendly route. Although significant wastage occurs during production and consumption levels, wastage done at the domestic level like the daily food waste tends to be a rising global problem. Not only is this a humanitarian and social crisis, but it is also an environmental one.
But can fashion help in this aspect? Well, there's good news on the fashion horizon; food waste is being transformed into clothing. "There is a limited section that understands the word sustainability in the context of fashion. This is also because the term is misused as well. The bright side is that there is a growing section of the young generation who do believe in designs crafted from such resources. A lot more is written on agro-based clothing which helps in creating awareness. The few important things from a consumer perspective are the design first, so we need to ensure it appeals the most. For consumers apart from being sensitive needs to get comfortable with this re-engineering of fabric and once they do then the word spreads." explains designer Gautam Gupta of the Label Asha Gautam. A lot of homegrown brands and Indian designers are using a veritable menu of food and agro-waste fibres to make clothing and accessories.
Knowing Fashion From Food Waste
Luxury accessories brand World Of Mayu for its two collection used discarded fish scales and pineapple leather, a vegan alternative to animal leather. Designer Mayura Davda tells, "Fish leather was discovered thousands of years ago in the Nordics; the use of fibres from pineapple leaves to turn into textile is also a fairly new development. The materials which we use are biodegradable and also processed responsibly. These materials require lesser resources to develop thereby having a lower carbon footprint as compared to conventional leather and synthetic alternatives."
Food crop agriculture creates a tremendous volume of waste from the parts of the plants that are not consumed or utilised. "On the farming side, with the increasing population worldwide with an ever-increasing demand for food production, by using by-products or agro-waste materials for making fabrics, we would be making available more farmland for food cultivation and for afforestation too," adds Mayura. The designer has introduced three materials salmon leather, wolffish leather and pineapple leather/textile in her existing collections. "This is the very premise of our brand and our choice of materials to craft sustainable luxury products which serve as alternatives to the typical luxury goods that very often come at the cost of endangered species for their 'exotic' skins."
The problem of garbage and food wastage is an enormous one but what adds to the complexity of this issue is the lack of proper segregation at the source level. The carbon footprint and the emission of CO2 and other harmful gases from this disposed waste are remarkably high. Speaking with context to fashion, Mr Gautam adds, "The advantage with food waste is that is bio-degradable as well especially when you compare it with polyester waste and its reusability in apparel. In a county like India where consumption is elevating, we need to continuously look for resources that preserve the environment in the best possible ways. Every sustainable practice is very important, but since these yarns go directly in the main garment it makes them top on the charts."
The Delhi-based fashion designer, Gautam loves yarns from banana fibre, "Five years back when we started working on it, things were in their initial stages. We first sourced yarns made from banana, bamboo fibres and sent them to our weavers. We were working on our new Benarasi collection in 2016 where we first tried with these yarns. The fabric came out beautiful and post that we have made a lot of fabrics using these yarns year after year. These fabrics give us the edge to design Indian as well as fusion wear. Recently we did the same with yarns made of Aloe Vera fibre as well."
The Science Behind Fabrics From Agro-Waste
Fabrics are being made from orange peel, lotus stems, betel nut husks, rose petals, sugarcane, coconut, coffee grounds and many more have already made it to the common market. How exactly are green fabrics made? "The process starts from the extractions of fibres from agro-waste and then from fibres, yarns are separated. Once we get the yarns, we send them to our weavers. Certain yarns have low count, so they are processed differently while others are used as it is. It also depends on the products you design" enlightens Gautam.
It's somewhat the same when one designs accessories as well, "We should be able to make alternatives to conventional textiles/materials from most of our biowaste, however, enough research and resources need to be dedicated to this coupled with equally intense demand from the consumers. At the unit where the bags are produced, every bit of the material is utilised, they're cut strategically in a way that minimal bits are wasted, and those extra bits are used to stuff the bag to maintain the right shape and volume of the bag." adds Mayura.
But finding the right food waste material to create biodegradable clothing is not easy. "We first get swatches made, there is a lot of permutation and combination that happens at the weaving stage and once we get them then test for dyeing, embroidery, and stitching happens. Whichever swatch goes with the vision and the utility of the brand we start its production. Since these innovations are a work in progress, with time we all will also learn newer things especially with new textiles."
Fashinza is a manufacturing platform for apparels. Their CEO and co-founder, Pawan Gupta talks about these clothing made from food waste, "Every groundbreaking transition involves some challenges, and this is no different. While producing a collection, a brand first needs to determine the kind of agro-waste they want to focus on. The manufacturing process might vary depending on the raw material being used." Since every production indulges in post-production residues, does manufacturing apparels find its way to be truly sustainable?
Even if the yarns are generated from the by-products of the food processing, usage of chemical-based dyes, carcinogens come in the way of the process being authentically sustainable. "Vegetables like turmeric, beet, spinach, and cabbage make for great organic dyes and some of them like turmeric have found large scale commercial usage in our industry. It goes without saying that they are way more sustainable than the chemical dyes available in the market today. This is a problem that we're yet to find a credible solution to. Nevertheless, the goal should be to aim for closed-loop production procedures, where the post-production residues are reused again and again. While this does not eliminate waste generation entirely, it reduces the quantity of waste generated, which is also a helpful solution." enlightens Mr Pawan.
Agro-Based Fashion Matters More Than Ever
The audience in India is waking up to the alternative and eco-friendly materials trends and this is such a big positive shift that we need to be grateful for. Indian brands and designers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of agro-based clothing and seem to consider it as an antidote to fast fashion. However, it is yet to become a mass-market trend. Mayura believes this is the reason behind it "There is a niche set of consumers who are mindful about their shopping choices, but the majority still do not fully care about the impact the conventional materials have on the environment. It's still the label over a cause. Or sometimes it's the price point. Not many have disposable income and such materials tend to lean towards the expensive side. Many big brands have started taking steps towards sustainable initiatives and hopefully, that will make the larger part of the consumers more aware about the benefits of opting for more sustainable choices."
Although the West has progressed quite a lot in the field of developing agro-based material alternatives, historically, India only produced and was reliant upon natural materials and fabrics which was lost in the wake of industrialization and mass commercialisation. Gautam adds to this, "In India clothing is so much in variation that there will always be a disparity in choices and views towards making. More awareness has to be created from all stakeholders especially influencers and media. It has to be a collective effort. We (designers) can't blame consumers and vice versa." He also said that certain designs cannot use such fabric and hence, switching to them at a very rapid pace would be hard but with more design intervention, things will change.
Mr Pawan concludes, "Eco-consciousness is on the rise among consumers but the demand for agro-based clothing is limited so far in India. Yes, there is a group of emerging designers who are experimenting with agro-based materials, and some of them have even produced sustainable luxury wedding collections out of banana peels. However, so far the industry leaders have not paid adequate attention to agro-based materials." Well, the agro-based fabric is still striving to carve out a notable space in the Indian fashion industry. It would take enough demand from consumers and efforts from the suppliers to make and educate designers about the possibilities of alternative materials in order for the whole ecosystem to flourish.