It is nearly impossible to imagine anyone being exempt from the categories of food and fashion consumption, especially since nutrition and clothing form a human’s bare necessities. Seen in this light, one can dare to make an almost generalised assumption that we’ve all encountered the term ‘sustainability’ in some form or the other. Be it foods that have been cultivated, harvested and manufactured sustainably, or fabrics and textiles that are derived from sustainable cropping and artisanal systems. For the environmentally and ethically conscious, opting for sustainable consumer choices is becoming increasingly instinctual. This is why the question of what we understand by the ‘sustainability’ tag is gaining increasing importance by the day. This week, I am joined by The Space At 9/2 as we delve into the fundamental concept of sustainability as perceived by our world, and the inherent loopholes therein.
Founded by Anahita Kayan six years ago, The Space At 9/2 has risen as a prominent contender in the hybrid fields of curation, design and consulting. With their forte lying in web design and branding, Kayan’s studio launched their first show in 2015, titled the Guerrilla Art Project, at Calcutta’s 54 Chowringhee, which incidentally ended up becoming their gallery a year later. Ever since, The Space At 9/2 has enriched Kolkata’s myriad art subcultures with dazzling hues.
Most recently, The Space At 9/2 designed Devina Salarpuria’s StudioModa India work, showcasing traditional tailoring patterns in Sheetal Patti. By collaborating with Kadam Haat and their craft clusters from the Cooch Behar region, Salarpuria aimed to explore this lesser known fashion medium in the form of post-modernist fashion crafts. The Space At 9/2 approached this initiative through their distinct curation perspective, which largely pointed towards imagining the future of fashion through one’s subjective lens. Elemental Shift, as this exhibition was titled, metamorphosed into a new beginning for The Space At 9/2 in terms of innovation and experimenting.
“The narrative came to life as a multi-sensorial experience questioning and speculating the future of fashion through conversations around the Sheetal Patti process, thereby initiating a more conscious approach to the fashion system,” says Kayan. In other words, here was a new-age studio that dared to shift away from existing trends of thought that fixated on the past and present, to unfurl an entire galaxy of imagining materials for the future. A future that paid better consideration to the environment in terms of origin, sourcing, manufacture, design, creation and vision. Never mind the lack of our imagination in fashion’s unwearability today, The Space At 9/2 held on to a shift in that possibility in a not-so-distant future.
Thus, the bravely radical stance taken by Kayan’s studio and the unique exposure granted to it as a result into the futuristic world of fashion has made The Space At 9/2 an interesting contributor to the topic of sustainability as we currently understand it. Their enriched perspective on sustainability causes The Space At 9/2 to contend that one, relegating sustainability as merely a trend has a less obvious downside, and two, that it is thoroughly inadequate in addressing the fashion industry’s present needs.
Now, the average sustainability-opting consumer might be agape in surprise and wonder. How can sustainability have negative implications after all? Is it not steeped in humanitarian ethics and environmental consciousness? Yes and no, says The Space At 9/2, and reasons it with much eloquence: “People now realise the need to purchase a 100% organic cotton garment over a polyester one, but they are not aware of the fact that if child labour was involved in growing that cotton, or if the labourers weren’t compensated fairly, then the garment is definitely not sustainable. While numerous brands have jumped on the bandwagon of ‘being sustainable’, it has simultaneously led to the loose and often incorrect usage of the term ‘sustainable’”. Thus, sustainability has become more of a luring factor for potential clients than a genuine clause, and the present functioning of most manufacturing and production lines in the fashion industry enable the shifting of blame and passing the buck as far as consumer choices. After all, sustainability remains a lesser priority when compared to commercial gains, and unfortunately, is even reduced to a mere bait for better sales.
The studio cites an interesting example to illustrate the subjective deployment of value systems as far as sustainable choices are concerned. In the case of Xingjiang, China, there is a trade-off between choosing a dress made out of recycled polyester on the one hand, and another made of 100% organic cotton on the other. To be fair, neither of the two choices trumps the other in terms of sustainability in the absolute sense. Rather, it is the value system subjected to consumer discretion that determines the purchasing choice. In many more instances such as this one, sustainability becomes increasingly obscure as a value system that so many of us are certain of consciously abiding by.
This partly dystopian feature of the fashion industry leads The Space At 9/2 to address the second point. That while our current deployment of sustainability renders it thoroughly inadequate to address the fashion industry’s current needs, there lies a tremendous amount of untapped potential that is likely to stir positive and more meaningful change. “Untapped potential lies in the power of brands to educate and empower their consumers about what really is sustainability…by making choices about the terminology used for their communication and as a result, play a crucial role in educating our audience. Untapped potential also lies in bringing forward other pillars of sustainability-like health and well-being of workers, protecting life above and below both land and water, improving and modernising infrastructure, and also uplifting and improving the life of all stakeholders in the process”, remarks Kayan. That said, she and her team duly recognise the rising expenditures ensued by each one of these pillars for the discerning consumer.
Looking towards the future, The Space At 9/2 is unearthing new ways of innovating and creating experiences across the sensory spectrums, which are in greatly amplified by, but in no way limited to online touchpoints. Sure, the future holds space for more creativity and experimentation, something that lies at the core of the studio’s philosophy. Every day, it finds new ways of bringing India to the world through experiences across diverse mediums.