Former Vogue India editor-at-large Bandana Tewari remembers clearly the thought that led to her life’s purpose of sustainability activism. She was en route from Mumbai, India, to Indonesia, so that her daughter could attend the world-famous Green School Bali, a move that also allowed her to make a fresh start after the end of her marriage.
“I thought about Mahatma Gandhi and his profound relationship with clothes,” she reminisces in her melodious, accented English. “I started to wonder if we could apply some of his principles to fashion — ahimsa, which is non-violence, and satyagraha, which means holding on to your own truth. It so happened that after arriving in Bali, I was invited by Suzy Menkes to be one of the keynote speakers at the Conde Nast Luxury Conference in Oman, and the theme that year was mindful luxury. The topic of my speech was obvious — it was about Gandhi and fashion, and it changed my life. Gandhi’s phenomenal journey with clothes directly connects fashion with activism, and it resonates with everyone, everywhere. That forged my path as a sustainability activist, and there was no looking back. I had found my calling and my sense of purpose.”
Tewari is one of India’s most expert authorities on fashion and is a journalist, sustainability activist and member of the BoF500, the professional index of the most influential people shaping the fashion industry. She is also a contributor to worldwide editions of Vogue, a judge for the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award and special adviser to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Moving to Bali and leaving behind the charmed and enchanted life of a fashion glossy editor may seem unheard of and Tewari agrees. “I don’t think anyone would have thought you could leave a job at Vogue in Mumbai and move to Bali, but I did, so now we know it can be done,” she quips warmly.
Since border closures owing to Covid-19 has temporarily put a stop to her overseas assignments, Tewari has continued her work from her base in Bali as physical events have given way to digital webinars. If anything, her work has become more important than ever before as the pandemic has exposed the dysfunction and inequality in many industries, fashion included.
“The fashion business never had fingers pointed at them like this in its entire history,” she says. “The trajectory of a simple white T-shirt — the cotton is grown in one country, made into yarn in another, and then stitched in another country, going around the world before it comes to you. And yet, the customer pays so little for it? The cost is borne by someone else, and it’s usually those at the lowest rung of the supply chain, and more often than not, they are women. So, when we talk about the dysfunction of the system, we often talk about gender rights because these women are not only invisible but voiceless and, therefore, unprotected.”
What Tewari is talking about is hardly news to any of us, although the actual numbers may sometimes be beyond reach. According to data published by the World Economic Forum, clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000 as fashion companies went from an average offering of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011 (fast fashion companies like Zara top this list at 24 per year). Unfortunately, a lot of this clothing ends up in the dump: The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or discarded in a landfill every second.
Ah, but I wash my clothes and reuse them, you might say. Well, this releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibres into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Many of those fibres are polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments. Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics — very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade — in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester. Also taking into account irresponsible textile dyeing techniques, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
Wait — what if I only wear cotton clothes? It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt, which is equivalent to a person drinking eight cups of water a day for 3½ years. A pair of jeans? That’s 2,000 gallons, and 10 years’ supply of drinking water. This is because cotton is a highly water-intensive plant. In Uzbekistan, for example, cotton farming used up so much water from the Aral Sea that it dried up after about 50 years. Once one of the world’s four largest lakes, this body of water is now little more than a desert with a few small ponds.
There is also a geographical imbalance to all this. “What people also don’t realise is that almost 80% of clothes for the Western world are made in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, so the pollution and degradation of the land is happening in our part of the world, not theirs. My activism started way before Covid-19, but people just pay more attention. Sustainability has become more tangible, somehow. I feel the wounds were already there in the industry, they have just become wider and more visible.”
Some apparel companies are starting to buck these trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. The United Nations has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which will coordinate efforts across agencies to make the industry less harmful. At present, it is valued at US$2.4 trillion and employs about 60 million people worldwide, most of whom are women. This is an important industry, the scale of which is only expected to grow over the coming years — it needs to be more sustainable starting now.
“When you look at the predictions by many global organisations, if we don’t change our ways, it is frightening. Children we bring into this world have to live on a planet that we are completely degrading. Fashion plays a big role here, and it’s important that stakeholders in the industry talk about this on a regular basis. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and that is not my point either. It’s expecting brands to be transparent, and take their responsibility seriously while they make beautiful clothes for people like us who want to buy them. Just not at the cost of ruining the environment.”
Although their initial purpose may have been exclusivity, luxury labels are in an excellent position to pursue the sustainability agenda — their products are mostly handmade, designed to last, and often call for the skills of trained artisans, which then keeps age-old crafts alive. “Luxury and sustainability are one and the same,” reads an opening statement by owner and CEO of Kering François-Henri Pinault in the sustainability section of the company website. Incidentally, Kering-owned Gucci was the first luxury brand to ban fur from all its collections, which quickly made it a pacesetter in sustainability.
This sort of perspective could well be in response to Gen Z, today’s most influential and trendsetting consumer group for luxury brands — they will only associate themselves with brands that are sustainable at their core. Greenwashing, aka sustainability lip service, does not convince these consumers, and they are increasingly voting with their wallets for the brands that back up their talk. “There’s nothing wrong with making money, and I believe sustainability can be a very profitable business. It is also cool, which is all the things we have never been told,” Tewari adds pointedly.
A good example is the LVMH-owned Stella McCartney, which has had sustainability define its very existence. “Stella is at the top of her game and when a brand like hers does good and is seen to be doing good, it inspires smaller brands and promotes the understanding that you can be sustainable and successful,” Tewari observes. “Stella started with the sustainability agenda way before it became a term — her parents are humanitarians and her upbringing is a reflection of her inclinations to this day. It wasn’t trend she was following, but a deep belief. She should be commended for all she does and is a star in the sustainable world as she’s done more for the cause over the years, and more consistently, than any other brand.”
In India, where upcycling and living respectfully are philosophical and spiritual concepts intertwined in everyday life, sustainability is very much an accepted way of life. Fast fashion factories serve an economic need; traditionally, this was never an accepted thing. Most Indian designers do not pay into the mass-production, fast-fashion model — working, instead, with their own in-house systems, team of karigaars (workers) and suppliers, while a newer crop of sustainable and eco-conscious designers are really changing the game and making consumers pay attention.
For instance, Bengali designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, since 2002, has built a business with an annual turnover exceeding US$16 million capitalising on traditional craft techniques among his bridal client base while meaningfully supporting the livelihoods of those he employs. In 2013, he initiated a “Save The Sari” non-profit endeavour to popularise regional weaves, ensuring continuous loom production capacity and providing a point of sale at his stores with no additional markup. There are several brands within the beauty, apparel and design sectors in India that apply sustainable business practices and they are hugely successful too.
“If you ask me what’s a true example of a sustainable designed garment, it’s a saree — we would never, ever think of putting a saree in a bin. I’ve never seen anyone do it, and the mere thought of it is sacrilegious! A saree has all the ideals of sustainability, but it is part of a lopsided system — a Kanjipuram saree is handmade with pure gold threads, and yet, it costs a fraction of the price of a flip flop from a traditional fashion maison. Why this system has become so dysfunctional is because we’ve never understood the real value of traditional clothes like the saree, which has lasted multiple generations. Meanwhile, legacy brands from the West have raised the value of their brand so much that we are willing to pay a lot more for a monogrammed cotton bag than an embroidered silk saree that would have taken two months to make.”
Despite this, even Tewari admits that when she was at Vogue, sustainability was not an active discussion until fairly recently. “It’s so beautiful and enchanting to be in that world, and to be honest, sustainability wasn’t even part of my vocabulary, neither was it part of anyone’s in the high fashion industry. I think we were very much focused on what we already know about fashion — trends, aesthetics, beauty. It was never about the back story or the real cost of making clothes,” she says thoughtfully. “I was part of an industry that sold watches that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, but when you leave the office and there are slums and you realise what that money could do instead … You start re-evaluating the real value of things, if you need that 10th watch or could you have donated the money to a school, perhaps.
“This is very personal, though, and not to put down my incredible time at Vogue where I learnt so very much and interviewed some of the most creative talents and designers from all over the world. I couldn’t have asked for a more enchanting life, but I had reached the end of it, so to speak. I’m still in fashion, though — I love it, I love aesthetics, I love design, I love creativity. But when it disregards the people along the supply chain, then that cannot be a fashion I want to stand up for.”
In the years prior to her leaving Mumbai, the topic of sustainability in fashion took up an increasing number of pages in Vogue India, and according to Tewari, many other magazines have started this as well. But the challenge, as she puts it, is to consider sustainability as part of one’s everyday existence and not a passing trend. This is something she does not see enough yet in the fashion glossies, which are mainstream purveyors of style and whose opinions carry a great deal of clout. Whilst on the topic, our conversation meanders to fashion influencers and their responsibility as well. “It’s great that they are making money doing something they love, but imagine if they were activists? If they put a little more purpose into what they were doing, the potential for change is immense.”
Tewari gets her extraordinary perspective from an idyllic childhood and an education that had nothing to do with fashion. Growing up in the chilly hills of Darjeeling, she was one of four daughters whose early years were spent in Catholic boarding schools until she moved to Delhi, where she studied literature and, later, filmmaking. One of her earliest jobs was with the Discovery Channel, where she hoped to put her qualifications to work as a documentary filmmaker.
She was in for a rude shock. “This was in its early years, so they would rather fly down 20 guys from the US to Kerala to shoot the boat race but not use local talent behind the camera.” It was a long time ago, but it is hard to miss the annoyance in her voice even now.
Not one to waste any spare time, Tewari would pass the hours reading old scripts from Discovery Channel’s archives, some of which happened to be related to fashion. She was shocked to find that these documentaries were not just about clothes, but how the entire industry intersected with topics like repression, sexuality and politics. Tewari was inspired to do her own research and taught herself fashion history. Her first paid assignment was as a contributor to The Times of India.
Tewari left filmmaking and embarked on a career in fashion journalism, but her work was always underwritten by a seriousness not often associated with the industry. Elle India offered her the chance to build her oeuvre, which was not so much about passing trends than the way fashion was in fact a movement that affected entire societies. She wrote like a sociologist might have, showcasing the incredible depth in fashion and how it reflects identity, culture and provenance.
Her stint at Elle netted her writing assignments for many other international publications, and when Vogue set up shop in India, she joined them as fashion features director. Upon her move to Bali, she held the position of editor-at-large for two years before shifting her focus from high fashion to work more closely on issues related to sustainability. It wasn’t just lip service, though — Tewari gave away almost 90% of her clothes and accessories accumulated over her years of working in high fashion; she few to Bali with just three suitcases.
“Both of us needed to leave and start afresh,” she says, referring to her daughter Mairah, who is now 18 and will soon be flying to the US to study at the Berklee College of Music. “It couldn’t have been a better decision for me because with the move, my journey to become a sustainability activist was so clear. In Bali, it’s so easy to be inspired by nature and the power of social impact — I really started to think about how I could participate. It was something personal that also became professional. There’s a lot of talk about how when you get home, you leave your work at the door — I believe that when you’re really passionate about something, that is not the case.”
Our chat winds its way back to the topic of Gandhi, and how he continues to inspire her. Indeed, from the image of a gentleman to the humblest of men, Gandhi kept a symbolic and profound relationship with clothes throughout his life. Much of her research has traced the details of this fascinating story and the lessons the fashion world may learn from the man who was one of the greatest political and spiritual leaders of the 20th century, from the dandy apparel he wore as a lawyer to his humble clothes inspired by the Khadi Movement — a political, economic and social gesture that remains one of the most meaningful in India to this day.
Tewari explains why it matters. “There are many ways to talk about sustainability, all beautifully evocative language — there’s innovation and technology, there’s cultural sustainability, which refers to sartorial heritage, handmade and provenance, then environment sustainability. From a spiritual point of view, the conversation is a little lacking, I think. I believe in personal responsibility and ownership for social change and impact and, for that, you need to have a change of heart. I look at philosophies from Hinduism and Buddhism, I use Sanskrit works in my talks as they are so meaningful. The transition from high fashion to Gandhi paving the way for me to create this conscious, conscientious approach to fashion was actually very natural.”
Gandhian philosophies of sustainability and kindness are by no means alien, but they need to be repackaged and refreshed every so often to stay relevant to a changing world. If fashion, style and good taste are everlasting, it stands to reason that our planet should be too.
This article first appears on Apr 19, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.