Shopping for traditional Indian clothing has evolved so much over the years. Turning to Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration and being able to ship an outfit from any store around the world has certainly changed our experience.

Gone are the days that we were confined to the local suit shops or depending on trips to India to purchase our garments. It’s much easier now to get our hands on any style that our hearts desire. 

While we are enabled to achieve our dream aesthetic, when do we stop to think about how sustainability plays into all of this? 

The sustainable fashion movement has started gaining momentum in recent years. One of the themes of the movement is to steer consumers away from what is termed “fast fashion,” which is cheaper and often lower-quality clothing that has been mass-produced and isn’t made to last long before breaking down.

Oftentimes, the dialogue has been restricted to Western clothes, like H&M or Zara, and there is still a gap in the dialogue for consumers who have immigrated to the West and are consuming cultural clothes with Western dollars.

As one of many aspects of how two cultures blend, it’s common for immigrant families to adopt to a Western culture of consumerism. 

Margarine tubs may be repurposed to hold frozen dal or subzi and cleaning rags may be made of old t-shirts -- yet when shopping for Indian clothes, a combination of classism and the desire to stretch your dollar to its maximum potential often leads to only purchasing clothes that are new and made in India, which are cheaper (in both price and quality), and come with a significant carbon footprint.

These clothes are quickly replaced as the trends change, and new wedding seasons begin.

Indian thrift stores

The prevailing attitudes towards buying cheap and new have resulted in an underdeveloped market for sustainable approaches to Indian clothes, which would involve either thrifting or buying outfits at significantly higher prices. 

Research into sustainable options in Surrey yielded only one thrift shop geared towards Indian clothes: SEVA Thrift Store.

SEVA Thrift Store, founded by Jas Gill in 2016, primarily collects and sells what the founder terms “ethnic” clothing. In an interview with Surrey Now-Leader newspaper, Gill noted that the idea for the store “stemmed from the realization that we didn’t have anywhere to take our Indian wear and our cultural items.”

“A place like Value Village will take those things, yes, but they don’t know how to price them, they don’t know how a three-piece goes together or how a lengha or a sari does – what goes with a sari, things like that.”

With a staff that is familiar with Indian suits, how they are worn together and how they’re priced, the shop is able to more effectively market and sell the Indian suits that are donated to them. 

Gill also commented on how the store provides an avenue for Indian clothes to be reused that isn’t already widely available: “Our community, Indo-Canadians, we’re big consumers but we don’t necessarily know what to do with our merchandise once we’re done with it, especially clothing.”

In an interview with 5X Press, SEVA Thrift Society President Raj Arneja stated that, over the past four years, the store was becoming a “well-oiled machine.” 

She noted the store had a regular customer base for their gently-used Indian attire, and that the biggest cliente is currently “non-Indians buying Indian suits for weddings [and] women coming in with a list of occasions to go to, and they need to buy outfits for everything.”

When asked if Arneja had encountered individuals who are reluctant to purchase second-hand Indian attire, she responded right away: “Yes, Indians. Indians are reluctant. When I tell them about [the] store, they always say, ‘we have to come donate our clothes,’ but no one says, ‘we have to come and buy.’” 

The shop was completely non-profit and volunteer-run until this year, when a manager and cashier were added to the team. The majority of the items sold in the store are collected through donations. All proceeds from sales are donated to a charity chosen by the store’s volunteers. 

In 2019, SEVA Thrift Store donated $30,000 to the Surrey Hospital and Outpatient Care Foundation.

Repurposing: Sari Knot Sari

While sustainability within traditional clothing is not as easy to come by, there are some who are trying to do their part as much as possible. Repurposing previously used clothing is also a way to bring sustainability into the conversation around fast fashion in traditional clothing. 

Priya Mohan is the owner of Sari Knot Sari, a brand that repurposes vintage pure silk saris into designs that Mohan says are cross cultural and easier to wear in the North American environment.  

Mohan says her brand is meant to be as sustainable as possible. 

“We try to provide women with a clothing option that is better for the environment in a lot of different ways while still allowing them to express themselves,” she says. 

Mohan started Sari Knot Sari in 2017 to combine her two passions of sustainable living and a love for transforming traditional Indian fabrics. A storefront was opened in 2018 which includes other ethical and sustainable brands from across the world.

For Mohan, sustainability is also about having clothing that will withstand all that our bodies go through. This was something she realized for herself when noticing the changes her own body went through after having her children. “My body was destined to change, just like everybody’s body is destined to change,”

She says everyone makes a big deal about the changes a woman’s body goes through from becoming a woman, to pregnancy, or to losing weight or gaining weight. That’s why, Mohan says, Sariknotsari clothing is not made to a particular size, but instead has a looser fit that can adjust with the individual that purchases the piece. 

“Your clothing’s job is to fit you, your job is to live your life,” she says. 

Mohan does acknowledge some of the challenges that come with owning a sustainable brand such as not being able to compete with the low-priced fast fashion brands. 

“All the things around production cost more for ethical brands,” she says. That includes paying fair wages to all those involved and using clothing dies that could be more expensive but better for the environment. She says fast fashion brands are not as concerned with those things. 

She adds that cheaply made clothing means some consumers don’t recognize the cost of fashion.

“There’s also the perception that ethically made clothing is outlandishly overpriced but that stems from the same problem. It’s not that it’s outlandishly priced it’s reasonably priced given who is doing the work. I can honestly tell you, I’m not getting rich from this and I don’t know anybody who’s in this industry who cares about sustainability who’s raking it in, none of us are Jeff Bezos.” 

How many more options do we have? 

Renting instead of buying Indian outfits is another way to consume sustainably.

One available option is MeeraMeera Rental Studios based out of Vaughan, Ontario. 

The company ships outfits Canada-wide, and also has a storefront to try on a variety of outfits. The company also invites owners of traditional Indian attire to rent out their clothing through MeeraMeera and earn back money in the process. 

Finding sustainable options beyond that has proven to be quite tricky. While the Indian fashion industry in Canada booms alongside the wedding and events industry, there is a gap where the sustainable fashion movement is sorely needed but nowhere to be found yet. 

However, it is worth noting that sustainability in Western fashion has only started to gain momentum in recent years, and there is an opportunity for the Indian market to catch on and follow suit. 

For now, the only widely-accessible approaches to steering clear of fast Indian fashion are the main tenets of sustainable fashion consumerism: buying local, avoiding fabrics made of plastic such as polyester, and buying higher quality clothes that can be worn multiple times — regardless of the newest trends in the wedding season.

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5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.