The Covid-19 pandemic has made sustainability and slow fashion a center-stage conversation, which would have otherwise taken a little more time to happen. And in the times to come, we will see a greater focus on sustainability, call for transparent supply chains, increased impetus on local artisan craft and hopefully a reduction in fast fashion consumption, believes Arundhati Kumar, Founder of Beej.
Beej is a fashion accessories brand that vouches for the use of sustainable materials and fabric that are innovative alternatives for regular fast fashion fabric resulting in a major carbon footprint. They use leather made from pineapple leaves, cork and recycled sarees to make high-end luxury bags.
IANSlife caught up with Kumar to know more about the brand, the materials they use and the process. She also shares her views on the current state of fashion in India and the importance of making mindful choices in current times.
What materials does Beej use in the making of their products?
Kumar: At Beej, we work with a variety of plant -based leather alternatives that we have carefully selected for their manufacturing process and environmental impact. We work a lot with cork. Piñatex and Desserto are all fascinating plant-based new age bio-materials, very unique in their own ways both in look and feel and structure.
The cork we work with comes from Portugal, which is also home to most of the cork oak forests found in the world. The bark of the cork oak is harvested very nine years, which is then used to make the cork fabric/ leather we use for our products.
The fun fact is, that when harvested responsibly, the tree absorbs upto five times more CO2 while growing back, thus playing a major role in reducing green house emissions. All our cork is FSC certified. This is a certification from the Forest Stewardship Council that certifies that the cork is responsibly harvested without hurting the trees or forests.
As a material cork is very versatile, highly durable, light weight, stain and scratch resistant, a natural water repellent, hypoallergenic and anti-fungal. It's also a renewable resource and 100 percent recyclable.
Piñatex is made from the leaves of the pineapple plant and is essentially a by-product of the pineapple industry in the Phillipines. It's a natural, non -woven leather alternative. Apart from being plant based, it's also water resistant, sustainable, about 90 percent bio-degradable, and with a very low environment impact.
It's a patented technology and material, made by just one company in the world , that is Ananas-Anam.
Desserto is a plant based vegan leather made from Nopal cactus. This has been developed in Mexico by a company called Adriano Di Marti. Desserto's cactus leather is organic, partially biodegradable, soft, durable, and high enough quality that it can be used to make clothing, accessories, furniture, and even car interiors. It's a cruelty free, sustainable alternative, without any toxic chemicals, phthalates and PVC. With a look and feel almost identical to very soft leather, it can be the perfect material replacement for high end luxury products.
We also work with upcycled leather. These are usually leather scraps that would have otherwise found their way to some landfill. We use these scraps to create leather panels that are then used as accents / trimmings in our bags.
The latest material we've added is Khesh. Khesh is upcycled handloom material that's made from old cotton sarees. Its low environmental impact, manufacturing process and the variety it offers while designing makes it a perfect material to work with.
Can you explain more about Khesh?
Kumar: I discovered Khesh on a chance visit to a weekly village market in Shantiniketan and the first thing that attracted me was how good it looked. When I then found out how it's made, it was a perfect addition to materials we work with. The fact that it uses what's already existing to create something new makes it more sustainable than most other materials.
The other thing about Khesh is, it's a material made and sourced from India. While we work we various materials sourced from across the globe I always wanted to work with more materials sourced from within India, as I truly believe as a country we have strong roots in sustainable practices.
Khesh is a traditional form of weaving that originates from the Birbhum district of West Bengal. It is believed that "khesh", was started in Shilpa Sadan in the early 1920s. This was the vocational training centre that Rabindranath Tagore had set up in Sriniketan, adjacent to the Visva Bharati University.
It's a weaving technique where the warp is new yarn and the weft is thin strips torn from old cotton sarees. The tearing process is labour intensive and is done by hand largely by the women folk within the weaving community. A single saree yields 80-90 strips . The beauty about khesh is that no two materials look the same and this is because the weaver can only specify the colour of the weft and not the warp. The warp threads are randomly chosen from the hanging strips and only once the fabric is woven can it be appreciated in its full beauty.
We source our Khesh from Amar Kutir which is a certified cooperative set up in 1927 in Shantiniketan for the development, and marketing of rural crafts.
What is the scope of slow fashion or eco fashion in Indian fashion industry? Has the pandemic revolutionised the idea of slow fashion?
Kumar: In a way Covid-19 has made sustainability and slow fashion a center-stage conversation, which would have otherwise taken a little more time to happen. Today almost all fashion brands are looking to make a shift towards sustainability as it's no longer an option.
With an increase in belief driven consumption amongst the millennials, I believe this is a category that is here to stay and will only grow here on. ‘Sustainable fashion' is one of the fastest growing categories in ecommerce globally today having grown 3x in the last two years.
The Fashion Industry in India and globally is going through a major crisis and an overhaul of sorts. In the times to come we will see a greater focus on sustainability, call for transparent supply chains, increased impetus on local artisan craft and hopefully a reduction in fast fashion consumption.
There is a small voice of influence that is steadily gaining momentum for sustainable apparels and garments, how do you aim to create a niche and awareness for sustainable accessories?
Kumar: You are right when you say that the sustainable apparels space has had some head-start over the accessories space. The accessory space is still very new and almost unexplored. I think the answer lies in awareness and then experience. Knowing about these materials and its impact is one thing, but willing to switch from leather and put your money on trying something new when you are not sure about quality, durability etc. is very different.
The other factor is price, because these are patented bio-materials where a lot of research has gone into it, and the production capacity is limited the prices are steep, far steeper than vegan leather that has a plastic base. The other thing that makes these materials expensive is the manufacturing process – every element that goes into the making of these products is carefully selected to ensure its non chemical, non toxic and not harmful for the environment. All of that adds to cost.
It's important we make consumers understand why that is, so they appreciate the difference.
A large part of our focus as a brand is on tapping forums where we can have such conversations. More than really speaking about our bags, I want to talk about materials, research, impact etc. because these are things I keenly follow more as an individual.
How do you see the future of fashion in India?
Kumar: I see a lot more independent small labels making their foray – there was this whole space between high street fashion and designer brands that was untapped for a long time – that is changing.
Social media has today allowed young brands and designers to showcase their designs and reach out to potential customers without huge investments and costs. It's created a level playing field for many.
Looking at the current scenario, how important do you think it is to make mindful choices?
Kumar: When I started I realised the understanding of the difference between what makes a product vegan or cruelty free and what makes it sustainable wasn't very clear. Very often people use them interchangeably.
We have to understand there is no product which has a zero impact. Every time you buy or create something new there is an impact, so it comes down to understanding what this impact is and minimizing it.
The materials we've chosen to work with have minimal impact – some of it is created from agricultural waste and others have been ethically harvested to ensure they do not damage the eco-system from where they are sourced. The disposal of these products at the end of their life cycle is also significantly less damaging to the environment. They're either partially or completely biodegradable.
How do you think the pandemic has changed the way fashion is seen in India?
Kumar: Firstly people have realised that we all have way more than we need – most of us have gone back our closets, and realized that we have so much stashed away, that sometimes we didn't even remember.
It has brought the supply chains into focus – when we earlier bought an outfit not much thought was given to the person who's actually made it. During the pandemic they were the worst affected. With factories shutting down, orders getting cancelled, brands refusing to pay up, people losing their livelihoods and all of this being highlighted, shared and campaigned for extensively on social media, today a lot more people are aware, which is a first step towards responsible consumption.
Finally people are a lot more comfortable in their own skin today, six months of not having to dress up has changed the way a lot of us view our wardrobes - it's about being more relaxed, easy and laid back. Wearing what makes you happy. I feel this trend is here to stay.
Plans for the future?
Kumar: We are always looking to work with newer materials and once things settle down a bit, I am looking forward to introducing some newer leather alternatives. We are also looking at launching a men's collection soon and are in conversation with a few international platforms to start retailing. Over the next few months our focus will be on building our product portfolio, tapping global platforms to retail our products and mostly importantly building more awareness and conversation around what we do and why.