When Binaya Bhusan Jena, a professor at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Odisha’s Bhubaneswar, first looked around campus, all he could spot were concrete academic buildings. The tier-2 city had limited exposure to the fashion industry and the surroundings had little to offer for inspiration. After several rounds of deliberation with colleagues and months of observing the 10-acre campus, he had an idea. In 2013, three years after it was established, NIFT Bhubaneswar became the first national fashion institute campus to incorporate sustainability in its curriculum. The campus had ample space available.

“Odisha has a rich heritage of handloom and natural dyes,” said Jena, in conversation with Mongabay India. “We decided to use our strength and merge the available space with our state’s heritage. We concluded that sustainable fashion would be unique to NIFT Bhubaneswar.”

Following this, the Union Ministry of Textiles, last year, directed other NIFT centres across the country to replicate this concept, “based on their location, typographical uniqueness, and availability of resources”.

In India, the textile industry accounts for 5% of the Gross Domestic Product and provides direct employment to 45 million people. India’s textile and apparel exports achieved their highest ever tally in the financial year 2022, with an export turnover of $44.4 billion.

However, textile mills are also among the top industrial polluters in the world and cause around one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution. The emergence of fast fashion, which promotes changing trends based on celebrity styles and cheaply available clothing, has further added to the problem.

Sustainable fashion refers to a carbon-neutral process of manufacturing textiles or accessories. This not only reinstates ethics into the industry but is also linked with Sustainable Development Goals, related to sustainable management of water.

‘Farm to fashion’

NIFT Bhubaneswar achieved sustainability by adopting the “Farm to Fashion” concept. The initiative enables students to witness and participate in the procedure of developing a garment or a décor item from yarn.

The first step in the value chain involves sourcing the fibre for which, several fibre-yielding plants have been planted inside the campus. As the centre has not yet been equipped with the required laboratories, the fibre is extracted manually and is not of industrial standard.

The fibre is then spun into a yarn inside the looms, on the campus. The yarn is weaved into a fabric that is dyed with natural dyes, procured from the dye-yielding plants. Once the fabric is ready, it is designed into a garment.

Most of the fibre-yielding and dye-yielding crops planted on campus are climate-resilient and no chemical fertilisers or pesticides are used. This ensures the chain of activities is eco-friendly.

A fresh naturally-dyed yarn made from onion peels. Students use readily available natural materials inside the campus to reduce production costs. Photo credit: Tazeen Qureshy/ Mongabay

Jena said the four pillars of “farm to fashion” include sustainability, environmental, social and economic justice and it is what they follow at the centre. “We encourage our students to use basic materials such as onion peels for natural dyes to reduce production cost,” he said, adding that the process should be inclusive for all players involved – from farmers who grow the plant to brands selling final products. The centre has also collaborated with local artisans with whom, they share their expertise.

Unique centres

The 16 NIFT centres across India have adopted unique styles.

In Patna, sustainability is not taught or included in any semester but is a module in every subject across the academic course. Vikas Kumar, a professor at NIFT Patna said that sustainable fashion was always part of the curriculum, but there has been a more focused approach since the government’s directive.

“We are evolving techniques to include sustainability in our existing infrastructure, instead of developing more spaces,” Kumar said. “We also have an in-house dyeing laboratory where we show students how to make natural colours and apply them to the fabric.”

Similarly, in the Gandhinagar campus, students are being encouraged to use sustainable fibres as raw materials, instead of cotton. While the base has mostly been cotton for several years, the campus is now making a transition to cellulose-based fibres.

Students are encouraged to use climate-resilient and organic plants in NIFT Bhubaneswar to ensure activities are eco-friendly. Photo credit: Tazeen Qureshy

Shubhangi Yadav, a professor at the campus said that they are encouraging students to experiment with different fibres, either natural or man-made. “We have also tried natural dye plantation within our campus, but owing to infrastructure constraints, we are using it for demonstration purposes,” Yadav said.

Sustainability and fashion

Apart from fashion institutes, several designers and brands are exploring the concept of sustainability and experimenting with new raw materials. Renowned Indian fashion designer Anita Dongre is one of them. Her “Grassroot” collection not only emphasises “slow fashion”, but also promotes social sustainability and local crafts.

Among crops, hemp is the latest to attract the attention of the textile industry, as an alternative to cotton. When compared to cotton, hemp fabric is at par in terms of endurance and breathability. Unlike cotton, which consumes over 22,000 litres of water for every kilogram, hemp requires half as much. However, hemp clothing is more expensive than cotton and its price varies according to the blends being used.

In 2019 and 2020, American clothing company Levi’s introduced “cottonised hemp” clothing in its denim and shirt designs. It now plans to expand its collections.

In India, Blabel, a Mumbai-based fashion brand has collaborated with Bombay Hemp Company and designs hemp-based clothing.

“When we first started the concept of hemp clothing, people were apprehensive and asked us if they would get a high after wearing the fabric,” Alisha Sachdev, co-founder, and director of Bombay Hemp Company told Mongabay India. “Hemp is so much better than cotton but is a highly misunderstood crop. We have a digital presence, but our outlet sales are much better as customers can examine and feel the fabric.”

Greenwashing challenges

Even as fashion institutes and industries are exploring sustainable methods to curate fashion trends, the challenges remain. There are generic standardisation and certification methods, exposing the industry to the risk of greenwashing.

In the past, brands like Hennes & Mauritz and Zara have been accused of greenwashing consumers in the garb of fast fashion. Jena says that one can have brand certification, but there needs to be detailed certification criteria for sustainable fashion, too.

“There needs to be standardisation,” Sachdev said. “If the palash flower brings a certain colour when converted into natural dye in India, it has to be the same colour or shade, when produced elsewhere. That will give customers satisfaction that whatever they are purchasing is genuine.”

Meanwhile, Sachdev believes that the entry of big brands into sustainability can help resolve the issue of certification. “Big players need to come into this field and increase competition,” she added. “This will prompt the industry to set standards and chaff out the original from a fake. The awareness will also grow when people will find their brands making eco-friendly clothes.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.