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Spotlight: From Fabric Waste To High Fashion

Kriti and Paras of Doodlage talk to us about building a company that aims to be India's first global sustainable and affordable fashion brand: focusing on reselling, repair and upcycling while including ethically made recycled fabrics. 

1. Tell us about your background and life journey - what were the steps that led you to Doodlage?

Kriti: The idea of Doodlage had been in my mind since second year of college. I started interning with brands and export houses very early on in my fashion career. I understood how the fashion industry worked in terms of a linear fashion model and the problems a take-make-waste economy can incur. With more knowledge, job experiences and international exposure, it led to deepening that understanding. 

I just had a simple idea of working with wastages at first. Over the years, it developed more as I got the chance to work with organisations which were working at a global scale to create more awareness about the need for cleaner supply chains, etc. As a bootstrapped company, with small savings, we started working with something that was accessible with us. Having an experience in export house manufacturing, we had enough contacts to initiate a label in 2014.

Now we know it’s not just about the raw material, but the people who make the brand, so we have fair wage for artisans. We are also looking at things like zero-waste packaging and even moving to units that produce products by utilising cleaner or renewable energy. All of this is a step by step process and we are constantly trying to improve ourselves.

Paras:In 2011, Kriti and I spoke about the waste problem in India, while I was working in a corporate job. We wanted to do something meaningful to solve the problem since resource exploitation would inevitably be on the rise with the entrance of big brands and a rise in consumerism. There were a lot of issues we were concerned about like waste water being discharged into the rivers in India. Circularity was also a very unheard of concept at the time. We started with a small passion project, which became our full-time project from 2017 onwards. I come from a very different world - real estate, but developing my own brand that gives back to society was always something I wanted to do.

2. What is Doodlage India all about?

Paras: Doodlage is about making goods which are sustainably produced at every step of the value chain, yet fashionable. We’re talking about a brand which makes everything that is related to fashion and lifestyles out of fabric waste or recycled fabric or with negligible hit on the environment. 

We are using something that is already available, so no additional resources are extracted for our raw materials. Instead of someone downcycling the waste fabrics to lower quality goods, we wanted to get the best possible use out of them.

Kriti: Once we began scaling up, we noticed we had wastages of our own - we started further processing them to make accessories, home products, stationery products, or packaging materials.

I think the most important thing we realised was the importance of communicating the need for sustainable fashion to customers so they can actually put their money into the kind of world that they want to see. It’s been a mix of creating awareness, finding solutions and providing those solutions at a more affordable and accessible price point.

3. How do you work with industry partners to receive their industrial waste and what do you think would have happened to the waste if you didn’t start your company?

Kriti: With our industry partners and everyone else who approaches us to donate their fabric wastages, we look at two things -

1) how to create a repetitive cycle and a sustainable business model - so we have a constant reliable source of fabrics for our collections, and

2) diversifying our sources so we don’t become reliant on a particular type of waste (which doesn’t work for creating a collection). 

There are different kinds of fabric wastage - from scraps to post-cutting waste, to actual surplus fabrics and defected fabrics which are available in larger quantities. Everybody discards their fabric waste at different times depending on the size of the warehouses. To build that cycle it was slightly hit-and-trial, to understand who we will continuously source from, to build that conversation and to be able to source before it gets dumped. 

For the second question - even today, with or without us, the scale of the problem is so big that one brand like ours cannot save all the wastage. In our country, a lot of fabric waste goes to landfills or is downcycled into daris (ropes) or blankets used for railways etc. How we come into play is that we create good-looking, desirable and long lasting products out of it. The idea is to upcycle it and not downcycle it. Because there were so many resources that have already gone into manufacturing these fabrics and they are often rejected for very minor reasons. All those resources lose a lot of value. By value I mean resources like water, from farming, weaving, spinning and making of that fabric. So saving these fabrics allows us to save all of those resources by giving the fabrics a much longer lifespan. When we produce it in a way that it’s finished properly, it will last you for at least 75-80 washes, which means a good number of years in which you wear and re-wear. 

Paras: A typical mid-sized unit that we work with is wasting close to 45,000m of fabric in a day. A lot of bigger players have realised the importance of addressing this issue. At the scale they are working with, it becomes very difficult for them to create a circular supply chain, so they reach out to try and collaborate with us to address this need. On the demand side too we are seeing a rapid transformation happening. The conversations that we were having a few years ago, people are having now. If the demand side changes, the supply side will transform too, that’s how it goes.

4. You found Doodlage in 2014. Do you think the fashion industry has changed much since then?

Kriti: Yes, massively. When we started, people always asked us “Why don’t you just go buy fabric and come back and make a garment? Why do you sit in go-downs to figure out what kind of fabric you want to use?”

Now I think from that 2014, to today, at least that question is gone, that ‘why’. I think the impact of fashion on climate change is vaguely understood by a larger consumer base which is a positive change.

But people are still a long way from investing that kind of money into it - understanding why do I need to spend a certain amount of money on my clothes, why do I need to look into further details to understand what supply chain, what fabrics, what goes into making my clothes. That kind of information is still nascent but it’s definitely growing in a positive direction. 

Paras: The awareness about sustainability is definitely growing, with more dedicated days for sustainable and ethical fashion. Whatever changes that are happening even at the bottom of the rung will have an impact further up the chain later on.

5. Do you think big brands and their sustainability campaigns have a role to play in driving circularity forward?

Kriti: For large scale brands, even 2% of their collection is about 200x the size of a small scale brand’s entire production. Organic cotton has become more affordable today because so many large scale brands have incorporated it into their products. A lot more consumers also know about store recycling and collection programs through brands like Adidas and H&M. So building that awareness around sustainable fashion is something that large scale brands have been able to do - but if they are just marketing gimmicks, the general consumer will be able to see through it, that it’s not a long term solution. You cannot say you are a sustainable fashion brand when 98% of your collection is just polyester (a resource-intensive material).  

Paras: It will be tough for big brands to change overnight, for the scale they operate at. Also, if they disrupt the supply chain, it will affect the employment they are giving to low-income countries. To get there, the consumer has to lead the race. The brands will see that nobody is buying the normal stuff and everyone is buying the green stuff. Then they might make some real progress. It needs to be a step-by-step process.

6. What kind of technology is available right now in the circular fashion industry and what do we need to do to move towards greater circularity?

Kriti: A lot of investments have been going into blockchain to make systems slightly more transparent - tracking where things have been produced. But not enough effort is going into creating systematic changes involving where the product is being produced, how much garment workers are being paid or even understanding if the customer is willing to know more about the product. 

Right now you have a lot of broken systems in place and I feel that a sustainable brand needs to be built with innovation from the ground up.  A lot of research is needed to develop better fabric qualities for recycled and alternative materials and making those materials scalable. Also, having more brands to connect the fabric to a product to a consumer. At some point, certifications and blockchain systems to trace back everything in the system too.

Paras: It is the right time for people to realise that resources are limited. Sustainable fashion is just one part of it. The bigger concept is how to make goods ethically, with limited resources. There are 4 main steps to circularity in fashion:

1. The origin of the material and how sustainably it has been produced. Anything that blends with something else is difficult to break down later.
2. Taking care of the environment should be basic hygiene. 3. What are we doing to close the loop and get back the products we produce? It’s important to give people incentives to return and repair their items. 4.. We need to consider AI and blockchain technologies. The remanufacturing is not a problem - the issue is often that the origin of something is not always clear. 

If we connect the 4 things together, it might close the loop, considering the idea of traceability through blockchain. AI is more for the demand side - it helps brands not to over-produce, with demand-oriented models. People should realise that there is a mileage for garments. Like how many times can a shirt be worn. The higher the mileage, the better it is. It will have a big impact on consumer behaviour. Most complicated problems are solved by making simple changes.

7. What is the proudest moment in your career to date? 

Kriti: It’s never been just one moment where everything changed. It’s always a series of really interesting things that have happened and when you look back, you are able to connect the dots to see where you’ve landed and how that journey happened. I can think of our first collection in 2014 - I took all my relatives'clothes and created new pieces out of them. It turned out really well - it got picked up by one of the only concept stores in the country. It was encouraging to do your first collection out of used clothes and make a sell-out. That’s when we realised we could probably do more and different kinds of things. 

We got selected at Lakmé fashion week for a gen-next collection, 5 people out of 700 applications - that was the first time they selected anything that was sustainable. Then the media picked it up and the fact that our collection was made out of fabric wastages got the most number of eyes and conversations. I think there were lots of moments that made us realise there is a market for making sustainable cool and desirable. London School of Fashion also gave me a full scholarship to do my Design Management. Lots of coverage happened from various magazines and publications. These have been a series of interesting events to assert our confidence that we’ve been doing well and should keep going for some more time. 

Paras: I think it has yet to come. As an individual, I am more focused on smaller things. It’s a good feeling when you employ a lot of people in your value chain. During these times, we question ourselves if we would be able to survive this. These are not just 20 individuals, these are 20 families that are reliant on this ecosystem that we have created. I think I look at the smaller moments rather than the bigger moments. I am a dad now. That is something I am very proud of. If I am able to raise a good human being, that would be a source of pride for me.

8. What advice would you give to a young individual wanting to have a career in the circular fashion domain?

Kriti: 1. Have enough experience in the industry. It’s very important for anybody to start any business, especially in fashion, because the market is so saturated already. Don’t just create a brand, understand what your brand stands for, what is the value addition to the industry you are entering. 2. Research more and more - know your fabrics, know your tailors, understand how you as a designer can contribute to building a more sustainable space. Because you can do that at a large or small scale. A lot of design graduates jump too early into making a fashion brand and shun the idea of working with export houses or manufacturing units. The kind of value that those skills add to your understanding, I don’t think you can gain that in a small scale setup.

Paras: The first advice would be, it is not necessary that you have to go after everything that’s out there. Stick to one problem and solve that first. Once you have a kind of expertise in that domain, then branch out to another problem. The circular fashion space is open for anyone to enter and make a change. There is no reason for fashion to be unsustainable.

9. What is one quote you live by in your daily life?

Paras: When I started my first job, i used to follow Steve Jobs a lot. I liked his saying ‘stay hungry, stay foolish.  As a 20 year old, things were very different to right now when I’m more mature.

Kriti: I don’t think I have a favourite quote I live by, but I feel that it is extremely important, to do more than your 9-5 job. I understand that everyone has a massively busy schedule, but to find some time in your everyday to do something differently and to stick with it. I think with this pandemic and a lot of stay-at-home time, a lot of people have changed the way they have been consuming, the way they have been spending their time at home, from cooking to creating their own little kitchen gardens, things like that. People are seeing the changes that, having to travel less, is doing to the environment for example. I think just to be more aware of your impact as an individual, and taking those little steps to making small changes. it’s a very addictive process, once you give up a straw you will realise you want to give up plastic bottles also, then you also want to carry your own bottle, maybe tomorrow you want to become more vegetarian. I think that kind of awareness within your existence is something I live by.

At first, every change seems like a mammoth. But I think it’s that small step that creates a domino effect. It’s easy to say just one person’s efforts won’t create an impact. But it’s okay to make that one change in your life, if it makes you feel better. Any big change can only happen through a series of small changes.

Read more about Doodlage in this article by Paras. Attend our upcoming webinar to hear more from Kriti and Paras:

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