Conscious Fashion: a hope for India’s young generation

For the past two weeks, I have been working at Upasana on our new Conscious Fashion Team. Upasana is a fashion company which takes a holistic approach in everything it does. Instead of focusing on maximizing profits, they take into account people, planet, and profit into everything they do. My fellow team member and intern Shraddha Mahajan has been working on Upasana’s 2017 launch of our conscious fashion hub. Shradda is a student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Mumbai. As an up and comer in the fashion industry, I wanted to get a feel of what the sustainable and ethical fashion scene is like in India amongst the younger generation.

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Shraddha Mahajan

Shraddha’s passion is creative writing. At Upasana, she has already begun writing for our new blog which is scheduled to go live this week on www.upasana.in

“Though at our school, we have been taught to communicate through various design means (that include visual merchandising, graphic design, styling, photography, strategy management, marketing, fashion journalism, exhibition design, etc.), I feel myself more inclined towards creative writing as I love the art of language and expressing through words.”

As much as she loves fashion, Shraddha also acknowledges the negative impacts this industry has on the world. At Upasana, she has been doing extensive research on its effects with a focus on India. Through her work on the upcoming blog she will cover topics such as building a more ethical closet, consumption and consumerism, and slow fashion* in order to educate and increase awareness among the fashion community.

“Fashion has been a vital part of our curriculum at school and we as a fashion student must not only be specialized in contributing our skills to the industry in the field of design but must also try to look at the negative impacts caused to the environment and humankind in order to develop solutions for awareness and encourage the idea of sustainability. I think embracing an ethical lifestyle is everyone’s responsibility.”

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Scarves made from Paruthi brand organic Indian cotton. Source: Upasana

Although most of her research has been about the dark side of fashion, Shraddha still has hope for the future because of her generation’s potential to educate itself and challenge the status quo.

“Being a fast fashion market and majority of the population being a middle class economy, people are less aware of the idea of sustainable and ethical fashion. But since a large group of population (nearly 70%) now includes youngsters, there is a strong hope and scope for education regarding sustainability and adoption of ethical lifestyle.”

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Upasana’s Japanese collection. Source: Upasana

Shraddha’s positive outlook has also been inspired by Auroville, the universal township where Upasana is located. Auroville’s goal is to realize human unity and the transformation of consciousness, but is also concerned with sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind.

“I already knew about Auroville before coming here and the lifestyle always fascinated me which tempted me to experience it. The life at Auroville is much better than I had expected. People are conscious and behave ethically in whatever way they can. For example, waste management, disposing of plastic, paper and vegetable waste separately. In other parts of India, you may not find this.”

It is clear that positive messages about sustainability are already creating positive change in India so that students across India such as Shraddha are drawn to work in Auroville with socially responsible companies such as Upasana. As someone who has seen her passion about conscious fashion, I wish her the best in her journey here and can’t wait to see her work in this space continue.

“I look forward to extend my skills in communication and design. I would also like to empower and please people with what I write.”

Best of luck, Shraddha

*Slow fashion: High quality, timeless, long lasting clothing that is produced ethically.

Connie MORELAND

A Visual Insight Into a Sustainable Fashion Business

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

Check out some pictures I took during my time working for Uma Prajapati, ethical fashion designer and founder of Upasana based in Auroville, India.

 

 

“I am Full of Hope for the Future”

Sustainable fashion designer Uma Prajapati talks about bloody cotton, high-speed trains and why she never wanted to become a business woman.

DSC00121Uma Prajapati in her apartment in India. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

January 7, 2016. 3:22 P.M. Auroville, South India.

“Hold on tight or you won’t survive,” I keep telling myself while sitting on the back of Uma Prajapati’s motorcycle. The rebellious driving style of the fashion designer and founder of Upasana clearly reflects her obstinate approach to her career path. We are on the way to her apartment, where I interview her over a cup of tea. Besides her impressive book collection, design furnishings and a kitchen everyone in their twenties can only dream about, it is her story that fascinates me.

MIA WINDISCH-GRAETZ Tell us about your career progression, where you studied, where you worked, who influenced you.

UMA PRAJAPATI After I finished my studies in economics in my hometown Bodh Gaya, I went to New Delhi. There I did my major in fashion design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) from which I graduated in 1994. Then, I worked two years for the European fashion market in Delhi. For a design project I came to Auroville in 1996. I remember I only had 2,000 rupees in my pocket, less than 30 euros. Actually, I was supposed to be there for two weeks but those weeks turned into years. And well, I ended up creating Upasana in 1997. Wow, it’s now been twenty years since I first got here.

MWG What does sustainable fashion mean to you?

It means to care. Once you start to care about people and the environment, the ways you make decisions will change. This twist in your mind comes naturally. The way you think changes. And your plans change. You really have to plan ahead to dodge around big conglomerates that only want to make profit.

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MWG What inspired you to create Upasana? 

UP A couple of things. A little more than ten years ago, thousands of cotton farmers in India committed suicide because of the rising costs of farming brought about by Monsanto. It has driven them to crippling debt. They felt they had no other choice. That really hit me. And change happens when it hits you. It doesn’t come easy but when you get hit and cry helplessly, that is when you find the change.

Since then it became very clear to me that fashion has to be sustainable. I worked in fashion and with cotton at this time. I had to live with that. I felt responsible for what happened. Many people in India pretend to not know what’s really going on. There is a seed mafia and farming communities are not well educated. I knew that everyone would just continue the way they work. Why is the world so unfair? Fashion is the second largest industry in the world. And it’s a really bloody business. When we started to work with cotton farmers in South India, it changed my life. What I could do to help these people? I had the choice to either write nasty articles and blame others, or I could just go ahead and change the way I work and consume. And that’s what I did. At first, it was hard but I realized that positive conversation has a far greater effect than negative conversation for a positive cause. I thought, Okay, I will give you fashion but I will make it my own way. I also wanted to create a space where young professionals from all over the world can come and explore Auroville through textiles and design.

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Upasana Spring/Summer 2015 Collection. Image Credit: Upasana

MWG You said ‘a couple of things.’ What else hit you?

UP There was an old lady. I encountered her in a village where I was running a project to empower local weavers in South India. When I was sitting there, next to our car, about to go home again, she suddenly came over to me. She nudged me and asked: ‘Would you support us too?’ I did not expect that and just asked her: ‘What do you want me to do?’ She just wanted to work and earn a few rupees a day. This woman was about sixty and still had a dream. The dream of only earning a few rupees a day.

MWG How is Upasana a sustainable fashion brand?

UP We only use cotton from local farmers. Going organic was the biggest change we have ever made. The clothes are made by our seamstresses and tailors at Upasana. And we only use high quality, naturally dyed fabrics that are made in India.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Sounds very costly… Between ourselves, does it pay off?

UP To be honest, it really broke us financially. We did not realize how badly it would hit our business. I did it all wrong. I jumped in blindly. If I had known how difficult it would all be, I would have done things differently. Instead of taking a leap of faith I might have taken baby steps in the right direction. Despite everything, I am very proud of that move.

MWG Why did you choose fashion as your medium for social change?

UP Because I didn’t know anything else. If I had known music I would have used music. If I were a writer I would’ve used writing…

MWG Every project you have started so far has been very successful. You launched a concept store in Pondicherry and sell your clothes throughout India. You give TED talks, CNN reported about you, and local designers as well as people from all over the world come to work with you. Was starting your own business always a dream of yours?

UP No. I never wanted to start my own business. I wanted to be an artist. Even as a child I was obsessed with painting and writing poetry. It was clear to me that I wanted to become a painter or a writer. I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t be able to make money. Making money didn’t interest me at all. But then I came to Auroville and well, look at me now. I don’t know why, but something in me accepted that I am a business lady now. It took me a long time to digest that.

MWG What keeps you doing all of this?

UP I love the community. Many people appreciate us for what we do, for being consistent and for actually doing what we truly believe in. Bringing a sense of value in the fashion industry is what I am very proud of. I have a good night’s sleep, you know. And I am really grateful for all the support we get.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Did other girls you were growing up with have the same opportunities as you had?

UP Wow, that’s a very serious question. I can’t speak for other girls. I can just say that you have to jump at every opportunity life offers you. I just did it. When you keep on asking yourself questions like ‘Is it the right time? Can I? May I? Will I?’ and never risk anything, then you might risk that there might be no more chance. And the opportunity will be gone forever. Sometimes we just have to make decisions and act. I can think of so many girls in my class that had the exact same opportunities as I had but few put them into practice.

MWG Do you think people consciously ignore the work that goes into what they buy?

UP We are living in a high speed train. Everything is so fast. Now you are relaxing and listening to me, but as soon as the interview is over, you will go back into the train. The speed of life is accelerating and the demands to our flexibility are constantly rising. Sometimes we manage to communicate through three technical devices at the same time. Everyone is on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. And we are expected to respond within seconds. There is such an overload of information. The question is, How do we process all of that? Our attention is limited. Being quiet enough to make a conscious choice is very hard nowadays.

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I personally need to mediate and do yoga for at least thirty minutes a day. It is challenging to make a conscious choice in times like these. When we hear that Africa suffers we say ‘Ah, that’s horrible!’ but a few seconds later, we forget about it because we get a Whatsapp message from a friend or see a funny post on Facebook. News touch our brain cells for just a few seconds and only a moment later, they do not exist any more. Because we have other problems. Because we do not feel responsible and don’t have time. I think that many people simply don’t know that the consumer has the power to make a conscious choice and change the world. So I would not blame anyone.

MWG Do you think that peopleʼs values regarding sustainability have changed in recent years?

UP Yes. Education is definitely changing people’s values more and more. Sustainability has never been such a big topic. It matters to us, our children and next generations. I am full of hope for the future! I am very, very hopeful.

Priya look 2015 (28)Image Credit: Upasana.

MWG Will they ever have the potential to compete with big fast fashion conglomerates such as H&M or Zara?

UP There will always be a market for both, as they address different target groups and meet different individual needs. I am sure that there will be more of a change but I can’t predict to what extent. There will certainly always be a place for people who want to promote an ethical lifestyle. Niche markets will always exist and find people who support them.

MWG In 2012 the second largest fast fashion retailer H&M launched its first conscious collection. Could sustainable fashion finally be going mainstream?

UP Not really. This idea sounds kind of utopian to me. We should see the world in many shades of grey. Nobody is perfect. And diversity is a beautiful thing. Let’s stay optimistic and say that although big companies will always exist, they may change their ways in order to become more successful in the coming years. People start to think differently, even if only at a slow pace.

MWG You are already working with many organizations and designers in India. Are there any other organizations or designers in your mind that you would like to work with? 

UP I am impressed how big the ethical fashion market in Europe is. I would like to work with the European sustainable design market.

MWG Which social development project are you most proud of? 

UP The little Tsunamika doll is still our most successful project. She is a darling. She is more than a living symbol. She is hope. She is love. It is impressive what a huge impact a small doll like her can have on people all over the world. In 2004, I wanted to help people who were affected by the devastation of the tsunami. So I employed women to make female dolls that are made of recycled waste that remained of the devastation. The doll cannot be bought or sold but only gifted. More than six million of them made it to eighty countries across the globe. And the Tsunamika story is told in schools ranging from Spain to Singapore.

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The Tsunamika dolls. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

MWG  Where do you see Upasana in the next five years? 

UP Upasana has already inspired many students, organizations, designers, brands and people. We will just keep on designing for change. I want to do as many things as possible: Going international without going too crazy and breaking our neck, keep being financially sound and take baby steps to reach our goals. I see Upasana as a shining star.

 

Towards the end of the interview, the fashion designer suddenly jumped off the couch. Apparently, she was no longer in the mood to answer questions. “Let’s have more tea. We need a break.” After she persuaded me to try some vegan honey nut balls, (Prajapati’s lactose intolerance means one cannot find any diary products in the household), she offered me a ride back to my hostel for the night. Once I arrived, I posted a photo on Instagram and did some work for university while I kept my friends updated on Whatsapp. She was right. I was back. Back on that high-speed train.

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

 

I cannot help my self

It has been argued that one can only recognize the self through the “other”. This is because the “other” confirms what the self is not. This argument is one which is salient when people promote “colour blindness” as a solution when it comes to racial prejudice. Those who are in favour of the understanding of the self through the “other” bash the notion of colour blindness because of the perceived inevitability involved in self identity formation of identifying the other and participating in “othering”.

Some collectivist societies openly recognize that the notion of the self is one that cannot exist independently without the other. There are languages that do not have an equivalent word for “the self.” The pronoun “I” is often the closest word to the self. In South Africa where I am from, the philosophy of ubuntu summarizes how the self cannot endure independently from others.  Ubuntu is the belief that you are who you are because of your interactions with those around you who also contribute to your development.

In India this inability to exclude the self from community is apparent.  All of the NGOs within and beyond Auroville all participate in contributing towards developing India in a sustainable way for future citizens of India and of the world. Auroville’s charter is one that candidly echoes the sentiment of ubuntu and selflessness:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the divine consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

Here, the definition of the self is dependent upon the recognition of constant interaction with the other. In order for Auroville to keep evolving, individuals would need to continue to learn and share from each other.

The NGO that I am working with is called Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG). The organization has self-help group sessions for its members who reside in the local villages. This may seem a little contradictory in some ways right? A self-help group in a community that doesn’t fully recognize the self without considering its community and “others”.

Self-help is a process embedded within psychology. The field of mainstream psychology often promotes the self through wholly focusing on the individual and personal development. How then does personal development resonate within a society that prioritizes the need for the development of the self through others? AVAG has managed to integrate this within its organizational practices.

AVAG self help group health seminar which took place yesterday at the AVAG premises

AVAG self-help group health seminar which took place yesterday at the AVAG premises

AVAG’s self-help groups reflect the NGO’s ability to incorporate the concept of the self in a relevant, contextual manner.  This could also be an indicator of perhaps why the self-help groups have been sustainable. Anbu Sironmani is the Director of AVAG. She argues that AVAG combines the self within its collectivist context by putting emphasis on the fact that individual development is a precursor to the sustainable development of the community. Anbu mentioned that since the self-help groups have started, the suicide rates have dropped significantly within the villages.

AVAG’s model for its members recognizes that multiple factors contribute to the self reaching its highest potential. AVAG’s services include: self-help groups, education, microcredit, community service, social enterprise and community development.

The sustainable development of the community is the utopian ideal for AVAG.  It is the reason behind why I, as a self that is not mutually exclusive from my colleagues, have come to learn from this community. I cannot help my self but be inspired by the work of AVAG and its members.

One of the AVAG self help group members

One of the AVAG self-help group members

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nolwazi Mjwara

 

 

 

 

Waste less by slowing down

At every turn, the exchanges we make amongst ourselves and our objects seem to increase at an unstoppable speed. A short visit to WasteLess and it was immediately evident we are living in a space of accelerated consumption. From mobile phones to t-shirts, when is a product considered old? The trend suggests that a product’s life is becoming shorter with each generation. When in a time our grandparents considered a t-shirt old at 15 years, today’s generation considers it old at six months.

Our desire to replace or upgrade our phones and t-shirts presents a behavior that invites more conscientious awareness, but perhaps accelerated consumption requires a more investigative look; maybe our smart phones and t-shirts are just the tip of the iceberg? Are there other “fast” consuming habits that may not yet be immediately noticeable? With 1.25 billion people living in India, perhaps this country is an incubator for accelerated consumption? Consider the basic need to wash one’s hair – most reading this might purchase a bottle of shampoo that lasts one or two months. In India, the same bottle may be too expensive or the purchaser may need to share the entire bottle among their community depending on the cultural expectations within a particular village. As a result, major brand marketers have responded to this need and created the single-use packet — affordable and readily accessible in the market square the day it is needed. Unfortunately, this approach is not limited to shampoo, but single-use packets are also produced to meet other daily needs such as laundry, body and dish soaps among other daily needed products.

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But what makes up the composition of these single-use packets? We must peel back the layers in order to take a closer look and see the unseen. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as a piece of plastic readily available for recycling. According to Ribhu Vohra at WasteLess, the design is composed of a multi-layer foil or laminated packaging film which includes not only aluminum but is also composed of very difficult to process plastics such as Termo and Termoset plastics. And because the metal component causes additional challenges, the single-use packets are not currently being recycled!

And it begs the question, where do all these packets go once the product inside has been used? If they are not being burned in a landfill, they often end up on the side of the road or worse, clogging drains possibly leading to increased cases of malaria and dengue fever.

It is becoming more evident, there is a seriously large problem contained in such a little package. Individuals wish to address their immediate needs, and corporations wish to increase their bottom line. The sale of these packets accelerates revenue while also accelerating the amount of waste in landfills, accelerating disease and pushing aluminum into water systems that may accelerate yet to be identified health problems. Furthermore, by meeting the immediate needs of individuals, brands are enabling the acceleration of thought to happen so swiftly that people no longer think through their purchase activity. By way of convenience, many brands have simplified our thought processes expediting our rate of plastic consumption.

Where do we go from here? The question at hand requires major shifts in not only how we think about the products we consume but also the space in which the life cycle of those products occupy. This is not a problem isolated to India. This is a global challenge — a challenge for us all to slow down, reflect and act consciously about our product consumption habits.

Alexa Newlin

 

A Commercial Project by Unilever: Discrimination of Skin Color in India

As internet users, we are all exposed to a number of YouTube advertisements every time we are connected, unless we blocked them. During my time in India, I witnessed a few interesting online videomercials that were designed to be geographically-targeted. In India, it does not require watching more than one or two ad campaigns to understand that the media exclusively employs light skinned actors. However, a commercial for a so-called anti-pollution cream especially got my attention. Knowing that pollution is a tremendous issue in India and often seeing women in Pondicherry, putting a scarf around their head to protect their faces in traffic, I was intrigued from the start. In the video, a young light-skinned female plays a typical Indian woman washing her face with the product after realizing that a scarf does not protect her skin “against dullness caused by pollution particles”. The face wash promises to “extract all pollutants from the inside” and yield a “glow and fairness on the outside”, owing to its activated carbon “that has purifying power”. I was completely confused as soon as I heard the advertisement and saw what was written on the packaging: “Pond’s pure white face wash.” However, what really shocked me was at the end, when I saw Unilever’s logo.

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Pond’s is a brand of beauty and health care products owned by Unilever, world’s third-largest consumer goods company. When I visited Pond’s website, their brand philosophy expressed how each product brought out the best in women’s skin that was linked to its fairness. Valuing fair skin can carry two definitions: fairness either implies beauty and physical attractiveness, or suggests being light in color, meaning a skin of light complexion. Here the direct association made between beauty and light skin is patently clear, furthermore, the idea of a whiter skin connected with “purity”. This “purifying power” is what Pond’s promises to provide to their customers. The “purity” again seems to hold a dual denotation here: it does not only indicate being hygienically-clean, but it also qualifies being of unmixed ancestry or origin. Pond’s does not solely rely on rhetorical techniques to persuade women in buying their products but carefully exploits and accentuates discrimination of skin color, on the pretext of offering a solution to avoid pollution effects.

In a country like India, where both race and caste underlie extreme inequalities and prejudices that are based on birth, Unilever commercializes these deeply-entrenched social stigmas to peddle skin-whitening products for profit. After further research into their advertisement campaigns, I encountered no shortage of more disturbing content. The Anglo-Dutch corporation offers a prescription for those who have dark skin: buying Pond’s products makes you whiter, more desirable, and even helps you find love.

The Advertising Standards Council in India published certain guidelines in May 2014, concerning skin lightening and fairness improvement products. Communicating discrimination of skin color through advertisement, using post-production visual effects to enlighten the skin of the model or associating the darkness or the lightness of the skin color with a socio-economic strata were articulated as a major concern for the sector. As a matter of fact, Pond’s advertisement campaigns seem to have gotten less negligent of these issues through the years, if not completely ethical, nor sensitive about the matter.

Click to see difference between a recent campaign (2014) and an old campaign (2008).

The more I discovered different advertisement campaigns, the more my ears got used to hearing the slogan: “Pond’s – White Beauty”. If Unilever wants to invest in creating a positive social impact in the countries where they sell their products, they should have undertaken the responsibility by changing their brand’s message before they dedicated a whole section of “Sustainable Living” on their website.

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-Cansu

Chocolate Can Help Save the Planet

save worldWhile the above phrase is meant to be a joke, it actually is quite true. The cacao tree can aid in the healing of not only Earth but humans well.

Sustainable cacao tree growing is not only environmentally friendly, but assists in providing natural balance for forest vegetation. Also, it can grow simultaneously next to 50+ types of other trees (including the coconut tree which is very important to India considering it is one of the top exporters of coconut in the world) which naturally pollinate the cacao tree and therefore requires minimal, if no, use of chemical fertilizers.

cacao podsI know I stated that chocolate can heal humans and that might be a little farfetched. However, there are certain properties of the cacao bean that are beneficial to humans and can aid in improving our health. Consuming dark chocolate, in small quantities of course, can improve heart health, lower blood pressure, and packs some serious powerful antioxidants.

There is already a huge chocolate industry, so why are environmental and health benefits still being discussed? While that is correct, the industry is not all sunshine and rainbows. There is a darker side to the cacao industry which is not sustainable to human beings.

Luckily, the dark side of chocolate does not seem to be present in India, at least as much as in other parts of the world. India is not necessarily known for its cacao industry although many big chocolate companies, such as Cadbury, Mars, Hershey’s, actually do get their beans from India. However, the farmers in India sell all their beans to these big companies; meaning both the good AND the bad beans are going into the chocolate that you more than likely buy. These big guys aren’t too keen on superior quality.

That is starting to change. There is a movement in the chocolate making industry now to follow what is known as the bean-to-bar process. I must admit that I had no idea what this was until I was introduced to a wonderful social enterprise here in Auroville called Mason & Co Craftsmen of Chocolate.  This process of directly making the chocolate bars you consume straight from the bean itself (and not from pre-made bulk chocolate that is melted down and molded into bars) not only allows for better flavor and purity, but also allows the farmer to harvest a better quality product and be able to receive fair prices for his beans.

mason cacao roastingmason chocolate barMason Bars 3It was not apparent to me at first, but now, after studying this company, I can see how almost anything can be under the umbrella of sustainable development. How working directly with farmers to improve their crops to obtain a fair trade value provides the income needed for the farmer to support his farm and his family. How with improved crops it in turn improves the quality of the cacao beans used to make chocolate. How even deciding to plant cacao trees in the first place helps the Earth’s natural soil components while also aiding the vegetation surrounding it and naturally keeping away pests so that there is no need for artificial pesticides.

Next time you buy some chocolate, research the company before you do and see whether they are on the right track to help heal the planet while of course at the same time providing you with a delicious treat.

I think I’m going to go take a chocolate break now…

 

*All images courtesy of Mason & Co.