What is Sustainable Fashion, Anyway? A T-Shirt Explains
Sustainable fashion can seem really confusing. So we’ve brought in our resident expert - the Bahaar tshirt to clear things up - with the story of its life.
Sustainable fashion. It’s everywhere. Everyone’s talking about it. But talking about sustainable fashion can sometimes feel like talking about the definition of a fish - it’s just as slippery.
But where are my manners? Let me introduce myself. My name is Bahaar, and I’m a block-printed T-shirt. My name is an Urdu word meaning Spring - the season of rebirth, when things come alive again. And that’s fitting since I was born again from “deadstock” fabric rescued from going to overflowing landfills. My life exemplifies what sustainable fashion really means, and I want to take you through my journey so this confusing term makes sense.
“OK, Bahaar,” you’re thinking. “It’s crazy that I’m talking to a t-shirt, but let’s get on with this. What does sustainable fashion really mean?”
Hello, reader. I’m glad you asked.
What Is Sustainable Fashion? A 30-Second Answer
At the heart of sustainable fashion is the idea that we have to create, sell, and use clothes in a way that causes minimum harm to the environment, uses natural resources responsibly, and regenerates these resources as much as possible.
This is a new and responsible way of thinking about the whole lifecycle of clothing: how it is created to how it dies. That means everything from how the raw materials are grown, to how the fabric is made, the clothes are designed, bought, and used, is done in the most sustainable way possible.
Many advocates of sustainable fashion, including my creators at Tamarind Chutney, believe that sustainable fashion is also about ensuring that the process of creating clothes is fair to the people involved in (or affected by) the creation of those clothes. So sustainable fashion must also be ethical fashion.
That’s the theory, let's get on with the story. Let me tell you about my life.
Sustainable Fashion Explained Through The Autobiography Of A T-Shirt
Chapter 1: Seed in the Womb of the Earth
Most of you human beings don’t know much about how you were conceived, except that it involved your parents, you know...Your biology textbooks taught you that. As for me, well, it’s hazy. I was once a cotton seed, but the details of my development are fuzzy. I don’t know much about the conditions in which that seed became a plant: how much chemical pollutants seeped into the Earth, what workers were paid, and so on. All I’ve been told is that it took water equivalent to 2.5 years of drinking water for a human, to turn that cotton into a t-shirt.
Chapter 2: Look, Ma, I’m a T-Shirt Now
Seed became cotton, cotton became yarn, yarn became fabric. In my early childhood I was changing forms quickly, but I don’t remember much. I have a vague memory of the wind whispering the words of activists, something about how the chemical dyes giving me colour were seeping into water and contaminating it. I can neither confirm nor deny.
But my sharpest memories begin when I was commissioned as a t-shirt for my original creator - a large fast fashion brand. I was stitched quickly at the hands of an underpaid, poorly-treated garment worker, who needed to make thousands of us. I was priced low so I’d be attractive to buyers, and as a result, my maker was paid a pittance. She would’ve quit if she could, but she needed the job. She didn’t have much of a choice.
At the time, I’ll admit, I could care less about her. I was young and naive, ready to go out on the shelves and conquer the world. I would draw in buyers and make my creator - the fast fashion brand - proud.
As I learned later, life doesn’t always go according to plan.
Chapter 3: I Don’t Wanna Die, I Sometimes Wish I’d Never Been Born At All
Fast fashion is a rat race. You hustle off the shelves and come out on top, or you get left behind, discarded. Fast fashion brands churn out “microseasons” or new collections every week or two. For those of us that can’t make it off the shelf by then, it’s game over. We’re packed up and sent away in disgrace. Stripped of our tags, some of us are sold at surplus stores. Those that don’t make it even there are headed for the graveyard: the landfill.
Every second, a truckload of rejects are thrown into a landfill to slowly rot away into oblivion. That’s all of us: the unsold clothes, and the fabrics and clothes that weren’t “good enough” for the fast fashion company, and the clothes humans buy but get tired of wearing or discard for a brand new outfit from a brand new collection. Around 18.6 million tonnes of us are rotting away right now, emitting some 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases warming up the planet.
Carry on, carry on. As if nothing really matters.
Chapter 4: A Sustainable Fashion Brand Saved Me
I was a surplus t-shirt destined for an overflowing landfill. But with the explosion of brands committed to sustainable fashion, I found a new home. My new creators found me in a secondary market with other neatly packaged clothes hoping for a home. And they decided that though they could not control how environmentally friendly and ethical my life had been so far, if they saved me from the landfill, they could cut down significantly on harm to the environment.
After all, everyone needs us t-shirts. Creating us is resource-intensive, but we already exist! Instead of leaving us to rot, we have a function to serve. So my new creators decided that from now, my life would be as sustainable and ethical as possible. I was adopted into sustainable fashion.
My creators found artisans to give me a new avatar with beautiful block-printed designs. The artisans earned a full 20% of the price I was sold at. I went home in eco-friendly packaging to conscious consumers who bought me because they loved me and wouldn’t just throw me away at a whim.
My Sustainable Fashion Story Continues With You
It ain’t over till it’s over. That’s life, and that’s sustainable fashion too. My journey began with how I was created, then sold, but it continues with the life I live with you, the conscious consumer.
As I grow older, I will wear-and-tear. My sustainable fashion journey continues as you stitch me up instead of discarding me. Maybe I’m too old, faded, or moth-eaten: maybe I can’t be a good t-shirt now but you can recycle or upcycle me as a bag, a rug, a rag, a diary - take your pick.
Or maybe we’ve been together for years. Maybe you’ve grown and changed, and I don’t fit anymore. I understand, and that’s okay. Will you find me a new home? Will you swap, donate, gift, rent, or thrift me to someone who would love to have me? Your choices here are all part of lengthening my life cycle. And the longer I live, the better it is for the planet - and you.
Story as told to Sanya Sharma by the Bahaar Unisex Block Printed Tee.