Deconstructing the Sari: India’s most sustainable garment

sari feature image

A sari is never really thrown away. Then why don’t we cherish each item in our wardrobe as dearly as a sari?

When I visited Kolkata last year for the annual Durga Puja celebration, I attended one of my grandmother’s tea parties. Lounging in her couch in the carefree ease that only comes after a certain age, I found her in a Berkeley campus t-shirt paired with a rather fashionable wrap-around skirt. In her gleaming white hair and flip-flops, she would not have looked out of place in one of those streetwear blogs where anything goes in the name of high fashion. When I inquired about her skirt, she casually said, “Oh I stopped wearing this as a sari and so turned it into a skirt.” The design of it- with an elastic waistband and a stylish ankle-length was far from haphazard. To me, it was upcycling done right – both conscious as well as aesthetically beautiful.

Later in Mumbai, I chanced upon the brand ‘I was a Sari’ at the Artisans Gallery in Fort. Rows of beautifully packaged earrings, pouches and scarves were showcased in fabrics that looked all too familiar to every Indian. It seemed that all the old saris from our motherland had been bundled up to breathe new life into accessories and lifestyle products.

And that’s when it dawned on me. If you come to think of it, a sari is never really thrown away. It holds many memories and a whole lot of sentiment to be cast away carelessly. At the most, it may be donated to the less privileged or even cut up into dishcloth. And that’s what makes it India’s OG sustainable garment.

  • A mark of Circular economy

It is not unknown that a circular economy has not only huge environmental benefits but can also present opportunities for various businesses. A Hitachi report estimated that moving towards a circular economy path could bring in annual benefits of US $624 billion (approx.) Resource rotation is ingrained in the DNA of traditional households of India and is practised in the villages to this date. Necessity being the mother of invention, villages still use cow dung for cooking fuel and compost for growing vegetables on a farm patch.  And that’s where the Sari steps in. All-forgiving, all-encompassing, it is the true mark of relentless use and re-use of a single garment. Every Indian lady knows how their mother’s wedding saree has been passed down to the next generation. It has never gone out of style, rather has persisted beyond lifetimes and morphed into ever-changing trends with ease.

  • Fighting the good fight

Look at the stats of the global fashion world and you’re sure to get depressed: the industry is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of wastewater, and consumes more energy than airline and shipping combined. However, there are a number of NGOs and indie artisan brands working towards the cause. NGO Goonj heroically creates sanitary pads out of fabric scrap, sent by workshops and ateliers across the country. One such atelier is that of Megha Nayak, who started LataSita, with the sole purpose of revamping old saris. Having dressed the likes of Arundhati Roy and Ayushmann Khurrana, she dreams of having a ‘travelling saree upcycling clinic’, in the metro cities to expand her business. Leesha Agarwal’s Adah by Leesha grew from similar interest. Disturbed by the amount of scrap that goes into landfills, she started a label that’s motto includes “strong belief in using every inch of the fabric”.

  • Responsibility towards artisans

A sari is a nothing short of a labour of love, craftsmanship and hours of sweat. Often a thankless one. A Banarasi on a handloom takes anything from 15 days to a month, the intricate ones even taking up to 6 months to weave. The knowledge of the craft is handed down generations and is rapidly being forgotten in lieu of more lucrative professions. A Kanjeevaram weaver is “makes 10,000 rupees in three months, that too depending on customer demands.”, reported an article in the Newsminute. Our country’s inherent respect for the handmade and growing concern for these dying crafts have made the sari a treasured possession, with revivalists working tirelessly to bring back the golden era of Indian handloom.

  • Eco-friendly material

The new wave of conscious weaver associations and brands are trying to make saris ‘actually’ sustainable, meaning the raw material and dyes are eco-friendly. Tamil Nadu Handloom Weaver’s Co-operative Society Limited, not only uses organic cotton made without fertilizers and pesticides but uses vegetable dyes or natural colouring. Because what is the point of chemical dyes and processing on organic cotton? But that doesn’t mean that the bright polyester prints are necessarily cast away. Kishco Group, Mumbai, India deals with residues of imported fabrics (cotton, acrylic, wool, polyester, nylon etc.) during different production stages of fibre. Some of these materials are converted to fibres like poly waste yarn, poly-regenerated fibres, etc. Used clothing comprising of wool, acrylic and cotton sweater are converted into re-generated fibre by Kishco Group.

  • A sentiment

Ask any elderly lady from the subcontinent and she will regale you with stories of where she bought the saris in her wardrobe from. It would include how she went to great lengths to own a piece as unique as that one, the occasions she wore it to, the compliments she gathered, and probably even the exact name and location of the store. She will probably even tell you, proudly so, which sarees she handed down to her children and grandchildren, and how they wore it to important events in their life. This is the sentiment attached to every 6-yard of fabric in her collection, from the brocades to the mulmuls and even the more modern prints. It makes me wonder; if every item in our wardrobes were treated with so much love, that even to their last breath we would give it the honour it deserved, wouldn’t we be way more responsible consumers and more mindful human beings?