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Interview: Anita Dongre on how mindful consumption is key to sustainability in fashion

Anita Dongre’s understanding of sustainability stems from the basic premise of simple living and simpler choices. Even though conversations on sustainability are gaining intensity post-COVID-19, Dongre is one designer who paints a real picture of sustainable fashion in India. Her design vocabulary rests on Indian crafts and its preservation, and she is deeply involved in ensuring that the workforce and working environment both remain healthy.

Image: Courtesy Anita Dongre
Image: Courtesy Anita Dongre

After having launched her own sustainable label Anita Dongre Grassroot in 2015, she opened floodgates of conversations that inspired a number of labels to explore aspects of responsible fashion. In 2016, Dongre became one of the most Googled designers of the year after Kate Middleton wore her printed Jaipur-inspired tunic dress. Global fame had finally landed on Dongre’s doorstep, 24 years after she launched her label (then known as And Designs India Ltd).  The next three years have seen two stand-alone stores in New York.

Over the years, Dongre has gained fame for her intricately detailed bridalwear. Her recent bridal couture collection was a tribute to the colourful Pichwai paintings, signaling a cause which is a priority for her and the focal point of her label Grassroot. But above all this what makes her stand out is her commitment to sustainable fashion.

Sonakshi Sinha in Anita Dongre
Sonakshi Sinha in Anita Dongre. Image: Courtesy Sonakshi Sinha

Dongre doesn’t just aim to impart knowledge about varied aspects of sustainability through her work but wants to remove the idea of sustainable fashion being boring and monotonous altogether. Be it colourful wrap dresses made of sustainably sourced fabrics featuring graphic prints; handwoven Benarasi brocade dresses; bandhani jackets featuring the traditional art of tie-dye or shirt dresses with hand-block prints done by local artisans, everything from her label Grassroot fits in the narrative of contemporary fashion.

Image: Courtesy Instagram
Image: Courtesy Anita Dongre Instagram

In the light of COVID-19, she announced a medical fund of Rs 1.5 crore. This fund is in support of the smaller vendors, self-employed artisans, and partners without medical insurance or coverage to prepare for medical emergencies. That’s not all, the brand also extended help to its direct employees through the fund, in case they found themselves in an emergency. “Every one of us must do everything within our power to stop the spread of this virus and keep as many people as we can safe. The production of reusable masks is one step in that direction,” says Dongre.

She spoke to Lifestyle Asia on what sustainability means to her and how has she incorporated its varied aspects in her business model.

Image: Courtesy Instagram
Image: Courtesy Instagram

On her idea of sustainability

Sustainability for me is a lifestyle where you give back to the planet more than you take away from it. The biggest question is what are we leaving for the next generation? Today’s consumption patterns signal at a very unmindful way of living. 

My roots are in Jaipur and I had a very simple upbringing. Earlier, in my family clothes were passed down from one generation to the next. While growing up, my mother and aunts used to collect old clothes and barter with the vendors for utensils. As a country and an economy, we practiced sustainability to a large extent. We need to return to a simpler pace of life – the simpler you are the more sustainable you are. 

It is just that with the advent of material success an imbalance is created. If you notice, countries which are materially successful are the ones which are facing more sustainability issues. If you travel to the villages of India, they are completely sustainable and luckily for us, 80 percent of India is sustainable. The moment big businesses come in, the focus is on profitability. You can consume but you have to do it very mindfully. Material progress has made us more unsustainable. Even though I am in the business of fashion and it is about human consumption, I still feel fashion should become more responsible.

Image: Courtesy Anita Dongre Grassroot Instagram
Image: Courtesy Anita Dongre Grassroot Instagram

On working with craftsmen on Anita Dongre Grassroot

One of my main aims behind launching Anita Dongre Grassroot in 2015 was to work with local craftsman and assimilate them in the main fashion force. It all started with me collaborating with Ahmedabad-based Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an NGO which works with artisans from all over India. The idea was not just to employ these talented craftsmen but to make them a part of a bigger idea. Today, I am working with these craftsmen on my bridal couture lines as well. Through Grassroot, I want to educate the younger consumers about handmade and hand-spun. The idea is to create very easy, no-fuss kind of pieces, clothes that everyone wants to keep them in their wardrobe forever. I also want to ensure that the database of crafts that we as Indians have comes to into use, therefore I am ensuring in every possible way to loop in crafts in my work. 

Image: Courtesy Anita Dongre Grassroot Instagram
Image: Courtesy Anita Dongre Grassroot Instagram

On incorporating aspects of sustainability in her business

Today, through the Anita Dongre Foundation we have economic empowerment programs with a few villages near Mumbai ensuring tribal women get employed. My aim is also to take work in villages, though it is a tough task. Taking work to villages is one of the ways you can stop migration to cities and develop villages as sustainable units. 

Besides this, we are looking at every fabric we buy. In terms of fabric innovation, we have looped in Tencel fibres as our collaboration with the Lenzing Group. The fibres originate from the renewable raw material wood created by the natural process of photosynthesis.

Image: Courtesy Instagram
Image: Courtesy Instagram

We ensure that whatever amount of water we take from the lake, we give it back and it much purer than its original form. So, we have processing plants where they purify the water and put it back.In 2018, as a part of our Earth Day celebration, we planted 25,000 trees in the Bassi Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan. Besides this, our headquarters in Mumbai have been designed keeping energy conservation and reducing carbon footprint in mind. 

Image: Courtesy Instagram
Image: Courtesy Instagram

On association with Sustainable Apparel coalition 

Because we do not have a single governing body to promote sustainability, we chose to become a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a global alliance of retailers, brands, and suppliers, which aims to create products which have no unnecessary environmental impacts and have a positive impact on people and communities. The way it works for us is that they have all their sustainability parametres in place and we have to file reports documenting our efforts every month. It includes details on a variety of subjects, from what fabrics are beneficial for the environment, which are biodegradable which are not. So it is a body we can trust and whatever research we do, it is further shared with all other members of the organisation.

On Indian fashion and sustainability

We are very young as a fashion industry in India, but we have a much larger textile industry, way bigger and expansive than fashion. Our efforts should be to take textile, craft clusters, and people associated with them further, retain what we have while ensuring that more weavers and craftsmen get jobs. From dyeing of the fabrics to ensure that textile mills are located near the waterbeds, what are doing in terms of recoiling the water? Everything has to be carefully observed and assessed.  

One of the best sustainable models to follow are our villages, from composting their waste to convert it into manure to collecting the seasonal water, everything is an example of sustainability. It has a lot to do with educating the youth. On that front, CMCA is one such organization which has taken lead in imparting knowledge about social hygiene and sustainability. 

Interview: Anita Dongre on how mindful consumption is key to sustainability in fashion

Anupam Dabral

Sr. Associate Editor

It was while studying fashion journalism at London College of Fashion that Anupam developed a keen interest in the anthropological aspect of the discipline; for him, fashion only makes sense when seen in the context of its environment. He is always on the hunt for great stories, and in his spare time binge-watches films/shows starring Whoopi Goldberg, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

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