As sustainability is becoming more of a mainstream avenue rather than a buzzword in the market or a mere topic of discussion in conferences, more fashion players are emerging in the segment to make their contribution for the cause. It is indeed the need of the hour as dictated by the reports rolled out by the UN Climate Change Website, that states that with a net worth of US $ 2.5 trillion in 2018, the fashion industry is considered to be one of the top polluters, accounting for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and 20 per cent of global wastewater, with 85 per cent of textiles disposed of instead of being recycled.
Joining the line of celebrities who are utilising their influence to make sustainability mainstream, Leonardo DiCaprio collaborated with the United Nations for a movie called Before The Flood, a 2016 documentary film about climate change directed by Fisher Stevens. It gave many industry stakeholders and consumers an insight to the alarming rate of consumption of nature’s resources by the global population, and the need for the same to slow down, if not stop. One such inspired viewer of the movie was Neha Kabra, who embarked upon her journey in the fashion industry with a label that champions sustainability in various stages. In a tête-à-tête with Apparel Resources India, Neha talks about her Udaipur-based contemporary womenswear label, Maati, and about the various ways through which she aims to make her supply chain ethical, conscious and sustainable.
“Maati translates to soil in Hindi, and I chose the name as an ode to Mother Earth, as we all rise from the soil and dissolve in the same. The ethos of the brand is all about striking the balance between efficiency and expression. With simple application, Maati uses pure and effortless silhouette bringing out the best in people,” says Neha. Before pursuing her post-graduation from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London, Neha explored different faces of fashion industry apart from clothing, as she worked with companies right from Lakmé, to Mumbai-based interior design initiative and shoes brand Fizzy Goblet, while exploring her city, Mumbai, and different parts of the country to get a pulse of the industry. She even explored the different small and big vendors who can further contribute to her venture, and after her education, Maati was born in December 2017.
Sustainable roots of the supply chain
One of the very few Indian apparel brands to be PETA verified, Maati talks about breaking down the fashion chain and exploring sustainable solutions for each step, in a big way. The brand’s choice of raw materials formulates the majority of its sustainable practices, as it uses handloom fabric and natural dyes sourced right from nature. As Neha avers,“We are using handlooms, as it consumes less water and thus, less carbon footprint. The fabric has longer life and even when it is discarded, it just goes back to the soil, so there are no residues.” Handlooms are known for their aesthetic value, but it is a fact known to few that the handoperated loom shed a lot of yarn as scrap, and Maati has found a way to curb this as well, as it upcycles the wasted yarns into another cotton fabric of a special count, and uses both the resultant fabrics.
Discussing the latest trend in the Indian fashion industry of using recycled polyester thread, Neha shares, “Khadi is better than polyester, even if it is recycled, because of its tactile feel and also because of its durability and lower carbon footprint, as polyester needs water to get converted back to fibre, but khadi requires less water and electricity, and the biggest point is that its production gives employment to people.” As Maati doesn’t believe in inventory, it outsources fabric from two clusters based out of Bengal and Bikaner.
Maati’s next step comes in the form of its prints and colours that are extremely environment-friendly and are sourced from nature. Its sustainable bouquet includes primary colours such as black, taken from iron oxide; white sourced from limestone; yellow created using haldi or turmeric; blue from indigo; green from spinach and red from kumkum and gulmohar flowers. In order to prevent the colour bleeding that accompanies natural dyes, they mix plant gums with the fabric to stick the colour to the surface, which further reduces the need for dry-cleaning, a process which is criticised by several nature lovers.
Talking about her inspiration to do the same at a commercial level, Neha says, “There was a time before I went to London and I had just graduated from my college. I was in my city researching what all is available, how will I put things together if I start my brand, and for around six months, I went to Bhuj, Kutch, Jaipur, Bhagru for my sourcing.
This is when I found my cluster in a small village called Gajsinghpura, where such dyeing practices were taking place.” The brand does majority of its production in this village, and the head of the set-up takes care of this human resource.
This network of collaborators further help manage the crucial ‘P’ of the four Ps of sustainability, that is profit, as Neha explains, “I am running a one-man show at the moment; I don’t have to take care of the production processes as the head of production takes care of that. I am mostly in charge of the fabric, designing and printing and I manage the human resource cost this way, as I don’t have a lot of people under me but I would rather have a lot of clusters working with me. If you are running a business, you need to cut down on your expenses a lot to make profit; and the other thing is that you need to aim for a decent profit and not go mad over it.”
Closing the loop
Maati incorporates conscious materials till the end of the processes, as its packaging also includes eco-friendly elements. The parts of the product that are always wasted and thrown away as soon as the wearer adorns the garment are the tags, and for Maati, these tags are made out of seed paper. “Basically if you throw my tags, there is a possibility that a plant will grow out of it. It is the best use of something which is otherwise always wasted,” says Neha, while further elucidating,“The paper has a lot of black dots that are actually seeds. We found a vendor in Ahmedabad, we gave them the idea, they experimented with it and they really liked it.”
To promote circular economy, Maati provides its customers the chance to return the worn-out products that they once bought from the brand to close the loop. Depending on the condition, it upcycles the garments into accessories, or gives it away to orphanages or old age homes if they are in a better condition. Neha does small-scale collaborations that involve upcycling saris to dresses to give back to nature.
Talking about the slow state of sustainability, Neha concludes, “The masses are not educated about sustainability, and only know fashion created by RTW brands. Change is on the horizon, as some of the mass retailers are going for change. The biggest example is Zara; secondly, the way H&M calls out for using wrong sustainability campaigns shows how consumers are becoming aware too. In India, three things come into play, the huge population, the consequent consumption, and third and most crucial point, the poverty, which leads people to buy cheaper things and become averse to adoption of sustainable fashion. But smaller initiatives like my own label are now sprouting and these will one day cause a major change.”