When Indian Textiles Minister Smriti Irani tweeted a picture of herself this week in an electric-blue silk saree with the hashtag #IWearHandloom, her tweet was favourited more than 10,000 times and retweeted 4,000 times.
Hundreds responded to Irani’s request to post pictures of themselves in handloom apparel, including politicians, actors, athletes, models and designers, ahead of National Handloom Day on Aug. 7, to celebrate the humble hand-woven fabric.
A symbol of India’s freedom struggle, handloom attire was once regarded as fit only for politicians and villagers.
It is now seeing a revival, with demand growing for sustainable and ethical fashion, even as mass-market clothing still dominates malls and pavement stalls.
“There’s a greater desire among the youth and the middle class, who are frustrated with dirty politics and crooked companies, for something better,” said Arvind Singhal, chief executive of retail consultancy Technopak Advisors.
“Having a greater sensitivity to people and the environment is ‘in’, and people are even willing to pay a small premium for what they perceive to be ethical and responsible,” he said.
India is among the biggest global manufacturers of textiles and apparel, supplying leading international brands.
But the domestic market is large too, and accounts for more than 40 percent of the industry’s revenue.
The sector is dominated by small and medium-sized firms that are under pressure to reduce costs and produce garments quickly. Many use forced labour, while abuses including withheld salaries and debt bondage are rife, activists say.
Wages in India’s textile and garment industry are about $1.06 an hour, compared with $2.60 in China, according to the World Bank.
The pressure on margins trickles down to cotton farmers.
More than 90 percent of cotton in India is genetically modified, and as those seeds cannot be replanted, farmers have struggled with rising input costs and lower prices for cotton.
Tens of thousands of indebted cotton farmers in the western state of Maharashtra have killed themselves in the past two decades.
It was the plight of these farmers that drove Apurva Kothari, who was working in technology in San Francisco, to return to India and set up apparel brand No Nasties in 2011.
The company sources organic cotton, and audits its supply chain to ensure there is no child labour and that workers receive fair wages, he said.
“I simply Googled ‘fair trade cotton’, then met with cotton producers,” said Kothari, speaking by telephone from Goa.
“They all supplied foreign apparel makers, and it was a challenge convincing them there is a market here, too. But the great reception from consumers has been a happy surprise,” he said.
No Nasties and Do U Speak Green are among a handful of Fairtrade-licensed clothing brands in India.
They source from producers including Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills, which deals in organic and fair trade cotton and pays fair wages, and Chetna Organic, whose seed conservation project has organic “seedbanks” from which farmers can withdraw seeds.
They are getting a boost from Fairtrade India, which set up office in 2013, and has stamped its distinct circular logo on a small range of products including tea, coffee, rice and sugar.
Fairtrade India is also working with Amazon India to make Fairtrade-certified products available online.