M.K Gandhi is known as many things: the father of the nation, the champion of non-violent satyagraha, and even the “conscience of humanity”. This Gandhi Jayanti, let’s explore a side of him which we rarely think about - Mahatma Gandhi, the sustainable fashion icon.
Calling a man in a dhoti a “fashion icon” may seem absurd in a world of celebrity bloggers and influencers. But Gandhi was a fashion icon in a far more meaningful way. He transformed how a whole nation dressed and in the process, advocated an economic philosophy built on kindness to people and the planet.
The Rich History of Indian Textiles before Mass Production
Until the early 18th century, Indian textiles were famous all over the world for their beauty and high quality. Local village economies depended heavily on producing textiles. Each region of the subcontinent had its own crafts and techniques of production that local village artisans used. Many of these Indian crafts are popular even today, like tie-and-dye, kalamkari, and ikat (a Tamarind Chutney favourite!).
Then came the Industrial Revolution, bringing with it the mode of production that we’re all so familiar with today: machine-made mass production. This challenged the Indian handicraft industry, which continued to rely on labour-intensive processes. Indian artisans could likely have adapted and survived if their challenge had been industrialization alone, but in the face of structural British exploitation, they could do nothing.
The economic policies of the British Raj forced India to become an exporter of raw materials only and a captive market for cheap, mass-produced British cloth made in the factories of Manchester and Lancashire. As a result, the textile industry collapsed, village economies were crippled, and millions were pushed into unemployment, destitution, and poverty.
Mahatma Gandhi, The Sustainable Fashion Icon
By 1906, the anger of the masses seethed into bonfires of mass-produced British cloth. This was the beginning of the Swadeshi movement, which called for the boycott of all foreign-made goods and a return to Indian production.
Along with boycotting mill-made cloth, Gandhi popularized the use of the charkha to produce khadi, a coarse handspun and handwoven cloth. As the Indian masses began to spin, weave and wear their own cloth, the charkha became a powerful symbol of self-reliance and revolt against the British. The movement became so popular that it posed a real challenge to British mills. Today, the call for Swadeshi echoes through history into the“Make in India” campaign.
For many leaders, the iconic Swadeshi movement was only a tool for Independence from the British. But to Gandhi, it was far more. The project of khadi and swadeshi was a model for self-reliance, economic self-sufficiency, and freedom from exploitation.
Gandhi believed not in “mass production, but production by the masses.” He rejected the idea of mechanized industrial production for the sake of driving consumption based on infinite wants. Instead, he believed in producing according to social necessity only.
To use a modern term, Gandhi was also quite #vocalforlocal. He encouraged small-scale production through local resources to meet local needs. In this way, he believed every person’s needs could be met while giving them a livelihood. This embodied his idea of “Sarvodaya” or welfare for all.
At the heart of Sarvodaya is the principle of ahimsa. While we loosely translate ahimsa as non-violence, it also means the cultivation of compassion for all living beings, including the environment. His vision of production ensured that the environment would be cared for as well as people.
How Gandhi’s Philosophy is Relevant To Fashion in 2020
Gandhi’s simple white dhoti wasn’t very stylish. But its fabric was woven from the threads of his philosophy: of non-violence towards people and the environment, dignity for all, and economic self-sufficiency through freedom from mass manufacturing.
In 2020, this translates into the movement for slow and sustainable fashion, which pushes for the manufacture, marketing and use of apparel to reduce environmental impact and improve socioeconomic conditions. As conscious consumers, here’s how we can push for more sustainable fashion:
Demand transparent pricing
The way the British (and even Indian merchants before them) exploited village artisans is by earning huge profit margins on their work. The artisans themselves, meanwhile, were paid paltry sums. If that sounds familiar, it’s because most of the fashion industry functions in exactly this exploitative way.
But in Gandhi’s words, “there is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” In his thought, economies needed to be structured such that they served the people, rather than just creating profit for the rich. He refused to treat economics like people did not matter.
In the world today, we can push for fairer business practices by holding companies accountable about the wages they pay by demanding transparent pricing. How much of what you’re paying is going to the people who actually produce your clothes? Demand to know.
Say no to fast fashion
Gandhi famously said, “the world has enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed.” This exemplifies his commitment to ahimsa or non-violence towards all living beings, including the environment. Fast fashion is a far cry from this philosophy of ahimsa.
Fast fashion is characterized by wasteful mass production that drives artificial demand for clothes we don’t need. In addition, clothes are deliberately made poorly so they are quickly discarded and bought again - all while the people that make them are paid meagre wages.
Instead, invest in timeless and high-quality clothes from sustainable brands that will actually last for years. In this way, you can further a people-centred method of production, pay producers fairly, and care for the environment. There are plenty of options.
Support Indian artisans
With the Swadeshi movement, Gandhi and other Indian leaders introduced a much-needed focus on supporting Indian artisans in response to British exploitation. With global brands available to us at the click of a button, this message is now more relevant than ever.
Indian crafts are alive and kicking, and they employ lakhs of people across the country. As an example, there are over 35 lakh handloom workers alone in India. But they could use your support.
When you buy clothes made by Indian artisans, you support artisan livelihoods and rural economies and ensure that India’s rich craft heritage lives a long life. Plus, you look fabulous while you’re at it!
Need a place to start? At Tamarind Chutney, we proudly offer sustainably and ethically produced clothing, handmade with love by Indian artisans. In line with Gandhi’s vision, we are a zero-waste brand using craft and surplus textiles only. We’re also transparent about our pricing because you deserve to know exactly where your money is going. Shop now or learn more here.
A note on our relationship with M.K Gandhi: As a values-driven brand, we believe in being upfront about what we believe in. Tamarind Chutney stands strongly committed to consent, dignity and equality for all. We respect many Gandhian values but disagree with his views on caste, race, and his treatment of women, including his sexual experiments. About the author: Sanya Sharma is a content writer and strategist. She works with brands across industries in India and the U.S, and especially loves working with social enterprises committed to making real positive impact in the world. She can usually be found marvelling at the beauty of stars, sentences, and the taste of coffee. Reach her via: Email | Linkedin | Instagram