A trek to find Sustainable Fashion in India

Undergraduate students followed India’s cotton production chain in a week-long trek to engage with the most pressing challenges in India’s cotton industry.

By Samantha Allan

In May this year a group of 24 students from across the University were offered the chance to follow the supply chain of cotton in India. The idea started as a collaboration between Dr Winston Kwon, Chancellor’s Fellow at the Business School and Ayesha Sodha from Edinburgh Innovations. While visiting India to organise the trek, along with Amrita Sadarangani, Edinburgh Global’s Regional Director for South Asia, the team came up with the plan to focus the trek on fashion.

Influenced by the issues of social inequality and environmental sustainability, which is the focus of his research and teaching, Dr Kwon said:

"I realised that there is only so much we can do to help students to really understand these issues. We try to bring these issues to life with good lectures, storytelling and media, but that still intellectualises the issues. On the trek students could understand these issues first hand, experience them emotionally and engage with them viscerally."

India and Cotton

Employing over 51 million people, the cotton industry is the country’s second largest employer, and has a huge impact on the lives of people in India.

Dr Kwon told us that cotton as a commodity and the related fashion industry create a spectrum of societal issues ranging from the empowerment of women, objectification and repression.

The industry has a long history in India, Edinburgh Global’s South Asia Regional Director, Amrita Sadarangani added:

"Fine Indian cotton and local crafts were a key attraction to European traders and what became the East India Company. Local crafts were supressed and destroyed in order to develop British industry. Gandhi used local hand spun, hand woven cotton – khadi - to drive the freedom movement and bring attention back to the local industry. The history of craft and fashion in India is inextricably linked to the story of cotton."

The trek

The 3rd year students, who are studying different degree programmes in Edinburgh, started their trek by visiting an Artisan Centre to take part in a workshop on textiles, hosted by Radhi Parikh.

Students then followed the cotton’s production line to a factory to learn about the spinning and weaving process.

After meeting with artisans working at Grassroots, House of Anita Dongre’s sustainable fashion brand, students visited the brand’s retail store to find out more about its expansion into the international market.

Dr Kwon talks about one of the highlights of the trip:

The students also had a talk and discussion with Vogue India entitled ‘Can Fashion Sustain Sustainability’.

The trek ended with a ‘Student Industry Meeting Day’ where student s from Edinburgh and from the Indian School of Design and Innovation met with people from industry to discuss solutions to industry challenges. This gave students the chance to think critically and solve problems in a live business context.

The benefits of the trip

As the trek was interdisciplinary it gave students the chance to meet with others on different courses, leading to new friendships as well as interesting discussions.

Ellie, a Business Management student, thought the interdisciplinary nature of the trek allowed students to connect with each other and to share different ideas and perspectives. Ellie said:

"I don’t think it would have worked if it wasn’t interdisciplinary because it benefitted from a range of people able to look at things from different angles. A lot of it was teaching and learning in a reciprocal manner."

Rosie, who studies at ECA, found it interesting to see how traditional crafts were being adapted to be more commercial,

"To see how Anita Dongre had taught different artisans how to update their designs so that they became fashionable…I found that so interesting - how to keep traditional crafts alive but make them marketable."

Dr Kwon talks about how the students engaged with the trek:

He added that there has been multiple dissertation topics inspired by the trek, a start-up company has also been set up by two students and there seems to be a lasting engagement with around the issues of sustainability and social inclusion.

The trek also shows the impact the Edinburgh Global’s Regional Centres can have when designing international opportunities. Amrita said the trek showed her team how they could have a direct impact on student experience.

"The trek has raised the profile of the University with our partners and has created opportunities for further development too."

The industry partners who were involved have indicated that they are keen to be involved in future treks.

The future of the trek and the lasting outcomes for students

There are plans to increase the trek to nine days next year so students can meet local farmers and hear about the challenges they face. Many farmers end up in debt trying to grow cotton plants and suicide is prevalent.

Not only did the trek inspire some of the students’ dissertation topics, it has had a lasting impact on some of the student’s views and lifestyles.

Rosie said she felt that the trek helped her to realise what she values. Now she only wants to work for a company that is aiming to be sustainable.

Ellie explains that she now thinks more carefully about where her clothes come from and the impact that her decisions have on others:

An inspired expansion

Inspired by a presentation on the hemp plant by the founders of BOHECO (Bombay Hemp Company), at the Student Industry Meeting Day, Charlie Thomas and Laurence Denyer are helping to establish the brand in the UK.

Business and Geography student Charlie said:

"We were amazed by the potential this plant had, we told them we would like to bring the brand over here. That is what we have been doing for the last couple of months - setting up the brand in London."

The duo has set up a pop-up shop in Battersea to help establish connections with boutique retailers in and around the city. They are also working on a UK retail website, to sell the clothing direct to customers.

Charlie and Laurence hope to raise awareness of the benefits of buying hemp products instead of cotton. Not only is hemp extremely hard wearing resulting in longer-lasting clothes, hemp fabric becomes softer with washing allowing people to ‘wear in’ an item of clothing.

Charlie said:

"We’re aiming to be the best-known UK brand for hemp clothing and to pioneer hemp in interior design and soft furnishings. Currently vast quantities of cotton are used which is not good for the environment"