During 2020 when our world of living was limited to our living rooms, I spent 200% less than any other working year. Yet, I was in the best mental and physical health of my life, and that wasn’t a coincidence. Living with my parents in suburban New Jersey meant living humbly and consciously; I grew up with a mother who valued composting, upcycling damaged clothes and squeezing out every last drop of Aveeno cream. I spent less time chasing consumerism and more time learning how things, such as clothes, were produced — and I was horrified. Even more shocking were fast fashion revenue numbers — evidently, a majority of people didn’t care about the supply chain or effects on the environment if their lives weren’t directly impacted. I couldn’t help but think of this as a majority Western mindset, especially since it was a mindset I had adopted myself only after leaving for college.
[Read Related: Consciously: Democratizing Sustainable Fashion in the Midst of a Pandemic]
South Asian sustainable fashion brands, and many Asian countries, embed conscious living into their daily lives. There is an inherent understanding that with anything that we can buy, there has been a level of injustice and suffering along the supply chain and to the environment; therefore, we must honor what we have and own to its fullest extent. There is no morsel at the dinner table that is wasted, any torn shirt can be repurposed and every last drop of toothpaste should be squeezed out. As immigrants, my family and I have relied on the creativity of our brains to reuse and repurpose products around us besides their marketed intention. This is a form of “jugaad,” which encompasses the idea of making the most with what you have in life.
Sustainability has become an ambiguous term and is often influenced by our economic understanding of the geographic location we reside in. A clothing piece deemed sustainable could mean that fair wage payment was given to formerly marginalized workers or a manufacturing process was changed to incorporate zero carbon emissions and less plastic. Maybe the fabric is biodegradable, but the production value releases toxins into the air that affect our respiratory systems over time. How are brands defining their idea of sustainability, and how are people today grasping their identity in relation to retail consumerism?
I wanted to understand how South Asians with ethically conscious brands define “sustainability” and how they actively implement their ethos into their mission. In doing so, I wanted to honor each brand that I spoke to and hold a torch to the South Asian founders who are pioneers in this commonly white, female-dominated space. Check out these brands and founders below!
Location: Goa, India
Founder: Jolynn Carneiro
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Sustainable brands do have a steep price tag; that’s because of the work, labor, the way it’s manufactured, wages, consumption of resources, substitutes of packaging and time that goes into it. So it’s completely justified, but you don’t have to look at it that way. Just be conscious about the choices you make in your own lifestyle — check your consumption level, check whether it is a necessity or is it a want. You need to distinguish these things because if you have the money, you will indeed spend but you need to be conscious, and you need to practice being a minimalist. — Jolynn Carneiro
Founded by Goa native Jolynn Carneiro, Nonsense Curry is a lifestyle brand infused with a mix of alter egos like elegance and quirkiness. The brand capitalizes on creating products from durable and comfortable Khadi and embracing slow fashion as an extension to life. Carneiro sees the potential in all scraps, all seemingly small “thingamajigs,” and builds projects out of them.
Carneiro calls herself a lifestyle designer because she designs her life, and generates revenue from it, through footage from refurbishing videos and content, slow fashion, cartooning, merchandise curations, speaking to societal topics and being transparent about her opinions on them — right from skin color, to feminism and self-love. She speaks about her craft and how the choices she makes help her to lead a conscious life.
Anu’s picks: Joan of Arc Trousers, Plumeria
House of Bilimoria
Location: Wembley, England
Founder: Shilpa Bilimoria-Cherry
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My real training is that of my grandparents and my mom actually hands-on making things. When I launched the label it was really important to me that I knew where things were coming from, [that] people who were impacted were treated fairly, because it didn’t even cross my mind to be a business that would operate in a different way. — Shilpa Bilimoria-Cherry
House of Bilimoria is a luxury t-shirt company rooted in sustainability of clothes and people history. All products are reproduced by upcycling vintage clothes and heirlooms. Founded by Shilpa Bilimoria-Cherry, the brand first promoted upcycling through their luxury upcycling “Luxcycle” saree program that took family sarees and turned them into bespoke wearables. From there, the brand has grown and changed over the years, but is still maintaining culture, ethics, circularity and community.
Bilimoria-Cherry felt the pressure and hardships of working for large retail brands from a brand design level. Despite landing her seemingly dream job of fashion design, she quickly felt the shackles of owing her time and molding her creativity to fit someone else’s ideals. When she was told that heart medication would help with her daily bouts of anxiety, Shilpa knew that she had to leave the corporate part of the industry and create her own brand rooted in her culture and family practice.
We often forget to consider the caste system and its lasting effects on family life. For Bilimoria-Cherry, she attributed her skill and interest in the fashion design industry to the long lineage of the Darzi caste. She shined a light on a unique aspect of sustainable fashion: how sustaining mental health, heritage and identity can be intertwined.
Anu’s picks: Luxury Upcycled Ruffle Tee, Dvaya Scarf: Turquoise Snowflake
Location: Austin, Texas
Founder: Nicki Patel
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Like that of feminism, racial injustices hold roots in the topic of environmentalism. When it comes to the numbers, there is a disproportionate amount of vulnerable communities exposed to unhealthy climates, identifying by age, poverty and minority status as factors of susceptibility. — Nikki Patel
milo+nicki is a sustainable clothing brand that celebrates the power and strength of women, culture and diversity. Designed in-house by founder Nicki Patel, the brand was one of the first to use banana fabric, a zero-carbon emission fabric, in its products.
Nicki started the company after she discovered that her stressful corporate job was physically and mentally affecting her. She turned inwards and decided to pursue her passion for fashion, with a twist. She repeatedly asked: Who is the human behind your brand? And thus, milo+nicki was born. A testament to her pup Milo, the brand creates an open dialogue around the ethics of manufacturing and the consumer mindset, a term called intersectional environmentalism. The portfolio of blogs on the company website includes a campaign called “Be You” that features a variety of interviews from people that have personally inspired and helped Patel.
Tip: To become more sustainably minded, Patel recommends manifesting the idea of “seasonless fashion” — you can be a conscious consumer by building a closet that can be used throughout the different seasons.
Anu’s picks: The Fiesta Dress, Zero Waste Headbands
Location: Jaipur, India
Founder: Nisha Mirani
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I’ve never adhered to traditional fashion schedules. We launch one or two collections a year, and they are small. It’s really reliant on when the product is ready versus ‘okay, they have to be done in March.’ Right now, it’s starting to rain a lot, so production has stopped since there is no way to dry them. When there is heat or rain, they can’t block print because the fabric will stick to itself and smudge the print. Those are the challenges of working with a handmade process. — Nisha Mirani
Sunday Monday is a home textiles and art company that is founded on the principles of block printing and hand dyeing from the Bhuj region in India.
Anthropology studies graduate from Brown, founder Nisha Mirani didn’t realize that her passion for people and culture would lead to a path to fashion. On a trip to visit her family in Gujarat, Mirani visited the village Bhujodi with the city Bhuj and discovered beautiful textiles and the art of block printing.
On India’s 52nd Republic Day (January 26) in 2001, a huge earthquake hit Gujarat during which over 15,000 people lost their lives across India and Pakistan, and many lost their homes. During the aftermath, the Indian government reorganized craftsmen in order to support them better and encourage sharing of communal tourism through a crafts park in Bhujodi. Nisha was able to form personal connections with people in Bhujodi and decided to build upon the block printing art that she saw there.
Nisha’s approach to fashion is human-centric, minimal in production and craft forward. Rather than focusing on what the end consumer demands, she is focused on creation through the constraints of resources and weather.
Anu’s picks: Mosaic Table Runner, Sundial Bandana in Canyon
Location: Mumbai, India
Founder: Vandana M. Jagwani
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No other industry [other than miners] will suffer at the entrance of lab-grown diamonds; after they are grown, they go through the same factories for cutting, polishing, designing, everything. I was moved because sustainability normally comes at an increased cost, but because of advanced technology, this was something that became affordable as well. — Vandana Jagwani
Founded by Vandana Jagwani, Vandals is a unique and luxurious lab-grown diamond brand that has been worn by top Bollywood actresses including Alia Bhatt and Deepika Padukone.
Traditionally, South Asians have viewed purchasing diamonds as an asset or investment, an expensive adornment; the harmful effects of sourcing these mined diamonds are rarely spoken about, if at all. DiamondFoundry claims, “Even the most eco-friendly diamond mines are environmentally damaging because diamonds aren’t renewable resources. For example, the Ekati mines in Canada are often cited as the most environmentally benign of all mines. However, in order to extract its diamonds, the mine produces an annual carbon footprint equivalent to more than 600 million car miles.”
Jagwani wanted to disrupt diamond commercialization to introduce affordable and sustainably sourced lab-grown diamonds that were equally, if not more, luxurious than their mined counterparts. Jagwani hails from a lineage of jewelry businesspeople and is one of the few changing the course of South Asian jewelry design one lab-grown diamond at a time.
Note: What about miners? Lab-grown diamonds would replace mining jobs, but other aspects of the supply chain stay the same. The trade-off here is a depletion of high-risk jobs in exchange for affordable jewelry.
To make the conscious effort to invest in fashion that goes a long way for less is a choice we can all make. Let’s take inspiration from these South Asian sustainable fashion brands that make fashion an ethical passion and not just a quick buy.