I learned about sustainable fashion when I was shopping at Champs-Elysees, the most famous street of Paris in 2016. I was with my family on a vacation where we were casually shopping on the street from likes of brands like Zara, H&M and other luxury designer boutiques like LVMH, Givenchy etc. buying different types of apparel like joggers, t-shirts, jackets and outerwear. 4-5 hours later, we decided to go further down the street to get some food. On the way, we found a flea market full of vendors selling apparel I had never seen before. These apparels were handcrafted, embroidered, hand sewn with fine threads, colorful and materialized fabric. My mom found something that she would love to wear and is affordable as she is a low spender. She took us all in that market to look around. Mind it, all the vendors selling their apparel in these small stalls and booths were small businesses from around and outskirts of the city. They were trying to grow their businesses and compete in this place called the fashion capital of the world.
After walking around for half an hour to forty-five minutes, I got curious. So, I stopped at one of the stalls which was selling apparel with patchwork and embroidered quotes on it. I loved these designs because they aligned to my sense of fashion and personality. I started talking to the vendor Paolo and told him that I came from India and I was very impressed to see their designs, fabric material and the overall craftsmanship of these pieces. After getting comfortable and friendly with him, I asked him how he started his business and how he handles it. He glanced over my shopping bags that I was carrying and asked me, “Do you know how much these clothes are worth and how much extra you are paying for it?” I didn’t have an answer to it. So, he explained me that the clothes I bought were manufactured through unethical means practiced in the factories. Raw materials like cotton obtained from nearby farms and farmers. Brands provide them a contract of manufacturing to later procure them for very cheap prices. What farmers don’t realize is that they are not even making sustainable wages for their families for the quantity they are producing. Furthermore, these brands set up huge factories heavily equipped with machineries, offices, design studios and facilities to maintain chemicals and dyes, but poorly ran waste management system to dispose waste materials like extra fabric, chemicals and dyes and electricity used by machines that do not run 24×7. He said, “you are paying hundreds of euros for the brand name, not for the quality and it’s manufacturing process.” He also mentioned that what I paid for these products was almost profit for them because they manufacture in bulk which is cheaper for them, but at the cost of compromising sustainability. Counter to that, I asked Paolo, “what is it that you guys do differently?” He briefed me about his business and how he manufactured apparel using only recyclable materials, fabrics with low chemical dyes and organic materials that are long-lasting and safe for environment when disposed. He paid workers sustainable wages and employee benefits like discounts and free lunch. They encouraged them to work no more than 8 hours a day to give them time for their families. This made the designers, tailors and machinery operators work for that small business with honesty and hard work. Before this whole experience, the only thing i knew about sustainable fashion was that the apparel is made out of recyclable materials and they are safe for the environment when disposed. My whole perspective and definition about sustainable fashion was very one dimensional and vague. But through this experience, I learned that sustainable fashion is not just about the end product but is a whole circular loop of fair ethics that starts from manufacturing raw materials to creating a finished good.
It is my responsibility to share this story. I know that many people around the world have very vague and abstract perspective of sustainable fashion just like I did. I want to aware them about how sustainable fashion benefits every individual and entity involved in the production cycle. Throughout the whole conversation with Paolo, I never felt that he was trying to sell me the clothes. He was helping me understand the concept of sustainable fashion and its practices. From then, I completely changed my shopping style by practicing mindful purchasing. I started thinking if the product is worth it before buying. Today I look at my wardrobe and I feel that each apparel has some meaning and value to it. Value that not just helps me but will also help the environment when I will dispose it. And most importantly, has helped many people in the process earn a living when I bought that piece.
After this experience of alertness and changing my perspective, I wanted to start my own private clothing label practicing sustainability. Mr. Lala is my dad’s driver who is working with him for about 24 years now. His wife is a part-time tailor. When i came from sports with torn clothes, she stitched them for me. I remember telling my mom that I hope dad pays them enough to make a good living, give their kids education and work. It aroused an emotion in me to help this family and help other tailors around the city as well. My experience in Paris, my emotions about small working class families and my dream to start a sustainable fashion company aligns with same purpose that led me today to start this brand called NorthShore Mercury which will strive to be the home of sustainable fashion. Through this venture, I want to help the community and the people (tailors, farmers, local designers, artists). They’re the ones who will ultimately drive this venture and expand it. We want to provide valuable wardrobe options that have meaningful stories, personal interests and injected value. This will answer the question is sustainable fashion worth it.