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A lot of the fashion we buy and wear has its roots in South Asia, the region that includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Luxury brands and fast fashion retailers alike manufacture in the region.
India and Pakistan are in the top ten of textile exporters, responsible for over 7% of global textile exports in 2019, according to the World Trade Organization’s latest Statistical Review. And, the same research reported that Bangladesh exported $34 billion worth of ready-to-wear clothing last year. Plus, the region is a major producer of one of our most used materials: cotton. Archaeological research shows that the Indus Valley Civilization has been cultivating cotton since at least 3000 B.C., and today India is the world’s top producer of cotton. India and Pakistan collectively have the most land that is transitioning from conventional to organic cotton. Chances are your wardrobe has at least a few pieces either made there or using materials made there, or both.
But do you have clothes designed by a South Asian-owned brand? If you don’t, you should! Fashion and textiles have a rich history in the Indian subcontinent and many common practices in the region happen to be sustainable ones: natural materials like cotton, silk, and linen are locally-produced and readily used; custom tailoring is the norm; and brands tend to make-to-order. Also, the region is home to thousands of craft techniques, highly local specialties when it comes to embroidery, weaving, dying, printing, and so on.
Historically, homegrown Indian and Pakistani brands tended to focus on selling into their sizable domestic markets or producing traditional clothing for the South-Asian diaspora. But, in recent years, designers in South Asia or with South-Asian heritage have increasingly been using traditional fabrics and applying artisanal techniques on clothing silhouettes more familiar to Western audiences. And they’ve set up slick e-commerce sites that offer international shipping, making it easy for you to get your hands on some sustainable slow fashion straight from South Asia.
What to look for in sustainable slow fashion from South Asia
Natural materials: South Asian brands tend to use natural and local materials like silk, cotton, and linen. Sourcing materials directly from farming, weaving, or craft cooperatives is also a relatively common practice and usually translates into a high degree of transparency when it comes to the material’s provenance and processing. Look for natural materials first, and then for even more details about how the material was loomed or dyed.
Wages and working conditions: Many South Asian brands have built local or regional supply chains that directly engage with artisans specializing in a very specific craft; and tend to cut and sew clothing in partnership with small workshops that they may own outright. Look for any information a brand provides about working conditions and whether the brand offers regular work and a steady income to those working in its supply chain. Specific details about the wages it pays and other training or support it provides is even better.
Certifications: Check for any third-party certifications, but don’t rule a brand out if they say they use organic cotton or pay fair wages but aren’t GOTS or fair trade-certified. Certification can be a costly process, especially for small brands in the Global South.
Lead times and shipping: South Asian brands tend to produce in small batches and often make clothes to order. This makes for less waste but longer lead times! So, before you place an order, check to see how long it will take to get to you — look for production lead times and information about typical shipping windows.
Pune-based JODI uses traditional printing techniques (block printing and bandhani) to create beautiful patterned masks, scarves, and dresses. The brand is transparent about its supply chain and publishes information about where each fabric was soured before being turned into clothing at JODI’s own workshop.
New Delhi-based Bodice is known for its pleated dresses and shirts and this season’s collection contains lots of color-blocked options. The brand is committed to natural materials sourced locally within India: the brand uses wool, cotton, and silk for its clothes; coconut shell, seashell, or wood buttons; and plant-based dyes.
Mumbai-based Runaway Bicycle offers a range of slouchy-yet-structured blazers, dresses, and two-piece sets made mostly from handwoven cotton and linen. The brand’s philosophy is to design comfy, timeless pieces that can be worn for years while sourcing high-quality fabrics from artisans around the country.
Tamil Nadu-based Oshadi is building a regenerative cotton supply chain. As well as supplying material to international brands, the company produces its own line of colorfully-printed dresses made from the hand-loomed organic cotton it grows and processes.
Bangalore-based The Summer House makes flowy dresses, trousers, and shirts in its own workshop. The brand uses sustainable materials like khadi (handspun and handwoven cloth), organic cotton, silk, linen, and Econyl. The Summer House also partners directly with NGOs and craftspeople to produce a small selection of home goods.
New York-based Roopa Pemmaraju’s patterned pieces are made-to-order in her Bangalore atelier from sustainable materials like silk and recycled cotton. The brand prioritizes artisanal techniques like hand-weaving, block-printing, and hand embroidery; as well as eco-friendly modern ones like digital printing.
Jaipur-based Rias Jaipur is committed to preserving the crafts involved in creating Khadi — a hand-spun, hand-woven cloth that played an important role in Indian independence — block-printing by hand. These old-world techniques are translated into modern patterns and prints hand-blocked onto modern silhouettes.
New Delhi-based 11.11 / eleven eleven makes tailored separates from khadi (hand-spun and hand-woven) cotton and denim, as well as Ahimsa silk (also known as peace silk) and dyes them using natural dyes and the traditional bandhani (tie-dye) technique. The brand operates a concept store in Tokyo and is stocked in India, Canada, Korea, USA & Japan.
New Delhi-based Doodlage upcycles waste (fabric scraps from factories and recycled materials made from post-consumer fibers) into paneled trousers, dresses, and jumpsuits. The brand is committed to zero-waste and so any scraps from its own production are in turn used to make accessories or packaging.
Delhi-based Lovebirds makes elegant, block-printed dresses and jumpsuits with locally-sourced materials produced by craft clusters across the country. The pieces are then cut and sewn in the brand’s own studio and waste during the production process is repurposed into cross-body bags, masks, and even a new upcycled handwoven fabric. Lovebirds also offers alteration and repair services to keep its products in use for as long as possible.
Gurgaon-based Khara Kapas sells dresses and shirts in earthy tones made of 100% organic cotton and dyed with vegetable dyes. The brand is committed to using homegrown Indian fabrics for all its clothing, something that is reflected by its name ‘Khara Kapas’ which is Hindi for ‘pure cotton’. Pieces are made-to-order and can be customized as well.
Delhi-based LOTA makes playful, patchwork shirts from fabric scraps — not one piece they use is larger than a meter. Even the buttons the brand uses are rescued from old clothing. To keep their footprint to a minimum, LOTA models its clothes on a CGI-model to create content for Instagram instead of regularly producing resource-intensive shoots.
Pune-based Ka-Sha’s bold printed and patchworked pieces are made from materials sourced directly from artisan groups across India. The brand makes sure to credit the groups it partners with for its collections and has recently worked with the Chadamangalam Weavers’ Association in Kerala and the Kota Doria Women Weavers Association in Rajasthan. Ka-Sha also established, Heart to Haat, a sister label that upcycled textile waste created during production.
Lahore-based Rastah reinterprets and decontextualizes traditional South-Asian techniques on Western streetwear silhouettes. The brand collaborates with artisan families across Pakistan to handcraft bold, graphic jackets and hoodies from hand-woven fabrics and finished with hand-painted or hand-embroidered designs.
Amsterdam-based Raff produces its sleek leather bags in an Auroville factory committed to fair wages and comfortable working conditions. The bags are made from vegetable-tanned leather hand-stitched using waxed linen thread for durability.
New York-based behno makes leather purses and wallets at an ethical, solar-powered factory in Gujarat which is run by a nonprofit. Workers at the factory receive fair wages as well as access to health clinics, family planning services, and education for their children.
Bengaluru-based Aranyani creates leather bags adored with stones or embroidered motifs. This new brand regularly measures and looks to reduce its carbon footprint and plans to use solar power at its manufacturing plant by 2022. Aranyani also aims to be zero-waste by 2025. (We’ll be checking back in 2022!)
Mumbai-based Real State upcycles waste marble from construction into pieces of statement jewelry strung onto gold-plated chains. Products are shipped in handmade, upcycled fabric pouches.
Chennai-based Zola collaborates with rural and folk artisans across India to turn their crafts into wearable pieces of art. Some of the techniques used to create Zola jewelry include Bidri inlay work and Dhokra lost-wax metal casting.
Lahore-based Zohra Rahman hires people for her workshop who don’t have specialist skills and offers them apprenticeships and training to teach them each process involved in the making of her sterling silver jewelry. This way, she can create jobs and provide incomes that have helped her workers build houses and pay for family members schooling.
Kabul-based Saeeda Etebari handcrafts stacked elements of sterling silver, brass, and gold-plate to create structural statement pieces. Etebari’s work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C and Buckingham Palace in London.
London-based S jo partners with female artisans in rural Pakistani villages to create stand-out textile jewelry. The one-of-a-kind pieces are co-created with the craftswomen in rigorous design workshops that encourage creativity while providing opportunities for a sustainable, fair-wage income.