Nupur Srivastava, a fashion designer in Bengaluru, got married in an intimate ceremony in December 2018 with just under 200 people, a departure from the extravagance Indian weddings are famous for.
The Indian wedding industry is currently worth Rs 2.7-3.4 lakh crore and is growing at 25-30% a year. An estimated 20 million weddings happen every year. According to one estimate, a middle- or upper-class, upper-caste ceremony costs between 20 lakh and 5 crore rupees, and each middle/upper-class Indian spends about a fifth of their savings on their or their children’s weddings.
Fashion is the world’s second dirtiest industry after oil, being responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. And like all climate injustice, it penalises the poor for the aspirations of the rich. (Those with higher incomes are the bigger culprits because they have more money to spend more on new clothes; they also exercise more social power and which they can exhibit through their clothes.) Its supply chain often involves low wages for workers, the use of unsustainable textiles to create wedding garments, and the industry frequently encourages self-indulgence. It is also responsible for 20% of the world’s water waste.
Fortunately for Srivastava, she always to design and make her own lehenga, and doing so also allowed her to steer clear of contributing to these problems. It cost her Rs 50,000. “I wanted something that I could wear again,” she told The Wire. “I can use the blouse and dupatta again with other outfits.”
But not everyone is a fashion designer, and renting is an easier way out. Shewali Tiwari, who got married in December 2017, rented two sets of wedding outfits for under Rs 40,000.
“I knew I had to wear something flamboyant because that’s the cultural ask and what’s expected of a bride,” Tiwari said. “But since I knew I would never have an occasion to wear something so extravagant again, I didn’t want to spend lakhs of money on outfits that would spend their lifetimes in my closet.”
Her choice astonished her friends. Her sister Shtakshi didn’t want to rent either because of hygiene reasons and purchased seven salwar suits and two lehengas. Her aunts, it seems, bought at least six pieces on average.
“I have worn the suits a few times, but the lehengas haven’t been touched since the wedding,” Shtakshi, a fashion design student, said. She prefers not to repeat her outfits with the same crowds because “we click pictures,” she says, “and I’m conscious of being seen in the same clothes”.
Mahima Gujral founded a ‘sustainable fashion brand’ called Sui by Sue Mue in New Delhi. It produces clothes made from hemp and other organic materials. For her wedding, she turned her back on the tradition of the trousseau, where the bride buys new clothes for her ‘new life’ and is also gifted new ones by her partner’s family.
“I refused to play a part in this,” she said. “I also worked on the outfits, keeping in mind that this will not be a one-time wear for me.”
McKinsey, the business consulting group, has reported that the Indian middle class will grow 19.4% a year until 2022. With this will grow its consumerist habits as well as its desire to consume in ways that meet social expectations.
Marketing campaigns on television and in newspapers, social media advertisements and celebrity endorsements constantly shape the people’s aspirations. Weddings are a common setting in which these aspirations are expressed, with people wanting to flaunt what they’ve seen their friends and stars flaunt.
However, for Durba Chattaraj, an assistant professor of writing and anthropology at Ashoka University, Sonepat, consumption in contemporary India “makes a great deal of sense”.
“I don’t think it is about just copying celebrities … but rather that it has its own cultural logic. You could say that a major cultural ideal in post-liberalisation India has been the valorisation of individual success in mainly economic terms,” she explained. “Consumption is a way to demonstrate that success, so by increasing consumption, people are following a larger cultural script, fuelled by growing industries such as advertising.”
Add rapidly changing fashion trends to this and it’s the reason why many people are ashamed to repeat outfits.
Climate change penalises just such profligate behaviour, and demands that we reimagine our relationship with our clothes. Instead of buying, it might be wiser to rent, borrow, reuse and swap. (Interestingly, one 2017 report estimated the Asia-Pacific region’s rental clothing market would grow by 11.4% by 2023.)
However, a warming world alone isn’t likely to motivate such significant behavioural changes. Advertisers and consumers alike will have to install the requisite social and cultural incentives as well.
Gujral believes there should be no shame in repeating outfits. “If people are going to buy something new that is unsustainable, they should promise to wear it at least 30 times,” she says.
That in turn spotlights the deeper problem: our consumption. A report from the UK’s House of Commons in February this year stated that the business models of the global fashion industry actually encourage over-consumption and waste.
Given this is the case, Indian consumers who can change the game by ruffling some feathers almost have a moral imperative to do so.
Shreya Kalra is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.