Life | Eco-mmon Sense

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Eco-mmon Sense
Text by Supriya Nair and Sohiny Das
Published: Volume 17, Issue 11, November, 2009

The public facades of eco-awareness are all about gimmickry and ‘gotcha!’ moments. In two counterpoints to the hip voices of faux eco-consciousness, Verve attempts to puncture the bubble of virtue and address the reality

Sustainable savvy

Self-reliance and sustainability are words with which our grandmothers are familiar, although some of the things we do in their service would seem like basic common sense to them. Of course, they would tell us, you should walk away from label/sweatshop stores and buy something from a local arts exhibition. Why on earth would you shop for vegetables in the air-conditioned basements of big malls instead of local markets? And why would anyone eat out of a tin instead of a steaming kadhai, anyway?

It feels like yesterday’s common sense has become today’s tokenism. Of course, good intentions matter. I don’t mean to demonise our present as the destroyer of all things good and green and old-fashioned. Some of the foods, fabrics and services that my grandmother’s generation lived by were created by the most unfair means of production in history; slavery, casteism and exploitation were sustained through the land- and labour-owning practices of an older India. Unless we can be sure that the steps we take today – whether it’s buying a kurti from a state fair or veggies out of a basket instead of a freezer – don’t rely on the same systems, we cannot count our practices as fair.

But there is no way that we can do this, unless we stop thinking of the ‘one person can make all the difference’ as a rule instead of a maxim. Unilateral decisions that do not involve the ideas and commitment of our family and the larger community may make for great dinner conversation or book deals, but they generally tend to detract from the larger fight. In August this year environment journalist Elizabeth Kolbert ripped the mask off several guilt-trippy ‘eco-stunts’ like the popular blog No Impact Man (now a book and a film), in which writer Colin Beavan chronicles his decision to live for a year without producing any environmental wastage whatsoever. In The New Yorker, Kolbert argued that too often in our pop-cultural fascination with the eco-lifestyle, we look at it as an adventure or a whacko character-building experiment at worst, and a sentimental attempt to return to our roots at best.

Climate change and eco-disaster are not merely future inconveniences. They are a cataclysm already scheduled to happen. In this case, the best ‘return to roots,’ indeed, would be to get out of our heads and our houses, and get involved in local communities. Instead of trying to live without electricity for a year, work with the neighbours to bring down the apartment block’s carbon output. Invest in a farm that can sustain fairly-undertaken local labour while growing healthy food. Given all the work our grandmothers put in to create a country in which their descendants could breathe freely, it’s the least we can do to take it seriously.

Beware the pseudos

Made in India. This eco-friendly garment is handcrafted, created from natural fibre, using traditional techniques, endeavouring to preserve precious heritage and support families of craftsmen.’
There are pioneers. There are followers. And then, there are opportunists. The latter group is highly misleading. They are quick to sense the trend of the moment, and without any real effort, seek the easiest way to make a fast buck, or 15 minutes of fame, or a good Samaritan tag, or something else in equivalence.

‘Eco’ is a much abused word in fashion. Many a campaign will have ‘noble’ product descriptions. An ‘eco-friendly purse’? Pray, what is that? Be specific, please. Take, for example, the aforementioned garment tag text, and analyse. It is deliberately worded to facilitate misinterpretation. ‘Natural fibre’ does not signify ‘organic’. ‘Support families of craftsmen’ does not translate into fair-trade or ethical labour laws. Components may be natural, but the complete product may not be biodegradable. The consumer’s ignorance is blissfully taken advantage of.

A host of 'planet-friendly' creators will attempt to make us believe in their angelic ethos. ‘Indian fashion primarily uses cotton and silk; therefore, we are intrinsically green’- seems to be a resounding chant. Fact is, industrial cultivation demands mammoth usage of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Only a miniscule percentage of designers actually source ‘green’ fabric. Then there are those who had probably created one ‘organic’ collection in 2006, but still use it as leverage to call themselves ‘eco-friendly’. Really, now!

To maintain a green process throughout – dyeing, manufacturing, packaging and marketing - is an extremely difficult task. Price points are much higher, there are limitations at each step, and large scale production is hypocritical in eco-ideology. There are technical definitions of terms that need to be adhered to, and universal parameters and standards that need to be catered to, before branding a label ‘organic/ eco etc’. We, unfortunately, use our terms very loosely, and most of us do not question or check stated facts. We eat what is fed to us, and there is really not much green in our diet.

What pseudo labels do is a bit like power theft – diverting clientele that should rightfully buy from the very few authentic eco designers. Striving to find a balance between green and profitability is the ultimate aim. The way to tell apart the genuines from the fakers is simple. The latter ones will continuously extol their own virtues, while the real eco brigade will question themselves. Recently, I met a prominent fashion buyer who also runs an organic fabric manufacturing and supply business. “But,” she said, “When we pack our fabrics in plastic bags for shipment, I wonder – are we really green?”

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