SUSS: A Pipeline For Change Makers

6 Nov 2020
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Interview with Gauri Sharma, Co-Founder of SUSS.

Since May 2013, right after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh – a tragic incident which killed over 1,100 garment workers – Gauri has been passionate about driving positive change in the fashion industry. While she acknowledges that businesses create negative social and environmental impact, she is convinced that the private sector, with its scale and resources, can be a force for good. That’s why she has spent the last seven years engaging with businesses initially as a corporate social responsibility consultant and for the last three years working directly in the fashion supply chain as an Organisational Development Manager at Shahi Exports. She learned about the sustainability challenges on the ground and worked on solutions ranging from workers’ voice and menstrual health to circular economy. Understanding these issues from the inside has helped her shape a more balanced and nuanced perspective on sustainable fashion than what’s often portrayed in the Western media. 

Gauri met her partner, Lavanya Garg, Chief of Staff at Good Business Lab, through worker well-being projects, and they soon felt the need to connect with others in this field and create a narrative for sustainable fashion from an Indian context and perspective. SUSS, is born from that journey. In 2018, they decided to launch a Facebook group with the objective of networking and connecting with other people in the space; it quickly became a virtual networking platform.

“Our vision is to build a community with people that are passionate about sustainability and fashion with the objective of providing them with opportunities to grow professionally.”

Gauri and Lavanya started by creating events and hosting experiences such as upcycling workshops, clothing swaps, lightning talks with the primary objective being knowledge creation and networking. Since 2018, they have hosted 12 events which have been attended by over 800 people, and have delivered several talks and lectures at universities and other forums.

The SUSS platform is open to everyone. Events go all the way from understanding what circular fashion is to cultural intellectual and property rights. They have a spectrum of events and content that appeals to different people in various stages in their sustainable journey. 

SUSS aims at creating a pipeline of changemakers; it is by creating awareness, knowledge and collaboration that they aim at achieving their goal. “It is all about collective action for us, if everyone is doing their own thing, it may not be as effective as if we create a platform that enables everyone to connect and learn together.” It is only after launching SUSS that Gauri and Lavanya realised how large the population of conscious change makers is in India. 

When asked about the challenges and areas that need change in the fashion supply chain, Gauri highlighted two different perspectives. “A lot of basic challenges we face currently are related to the environment and are caused by fast fashion; which is fundamentally wrong and still needs to be fixed. The industry is very challenging as there are still many problems to fix but there are endless possibilities.”

From the perspective of production, she noted that there are several challenges when it comes to working conditions in the factories, however it is important to acknowledge that mass employment is a source of job creation. In India, the apparel and clothing industry is the 2nd largest employer.

Women working in textile and garment factors are often portrayed in a homogenous manner – as having poor incomes, unfair working conditions; These issues do exist, there is no denying that they require drastic improvement on the whole. However, garment workers are not one uniform group, and in fact don’t necessarily need our “pity.” While working in factories, Gauri had many opportunities to meet and exchange with women workers. She realised that they are fighting against social norms, their working environment becomes a community space for them where they meet and bond with each other. 

“They are building a career for themselves, earning a living and being independent. It means a lot for them to have their job. There are fighting against so many restrictions to be able to work. People should be more aware when talking about sustainability and women in the industry, and avoid falling into the trap of the saviour complex. We should bring women workers’ voices to the fore so we can hear directly from them what they need and then design wellbeing programs which are grounded in the local cultural context. ”

According to McKinsey’s State of Fashion 2020 report, the Indian clothing market will be worth $53.7 billion in 2020, making it the sixth largest globally. In India there is a growing middle class, consumption is booming; but at the same time awareness around sustainability is growing for the young generation. “It is important to respond and meet this growing and aspiring sustainable demand with new business models that avoid the fast production mistakes of unprecedented growth and overexploitation of resources, while ensuring high quality and safe jobs.” 

India’s textiles sector is one of the oldest industries in the Indian economy. India has a rich history of textiles, crafts and handlooms; however unfortunately, a lot of this cultural heritage and crafts are dying as artisans are not able to make a living out of their work anymore. Today, the Indian sustainable fashion movement revolves a lot around reviving these skills and heritage. Many upcoming designers are aiming at making these crafts more accessible, while empowering artisans. 

Gauri raises the point that the Indian Sari for example is sustainable by definition. It is designed and created in a way that it can be worn and styled in multiple ways and for many years, by many generations – sustainability is embedded in the traditional culture. “In India, it is part of our culture; whereas we see that in Western countries conversations are often about inculcating these habits and trying to change people’s mindsets.”

The sustainable fashion conversation can quickly become isolated and appropriated to Western countries whereas consumptions patterns are different throughout the globe and therefore sustainability is embedded differently. This is why it is important for Gauri and Lavanya to be able to connect people from around the world that have different experiences in the industry and that can teach and learn from each other as there is no standard solution to the sustainability challenges. 

SUSS’s goal today is to formalise and strengthen the community they have been building through their own platform and facilitate and increase direct conversations through the implementation of member-specific activities. They are working towards creating new offerings and learning opportunities such as workshops, masterclasses and more. You can read more on their BlogInstagram and website.

Gauri’s Tips to Consumer:

  1. Buy things that you need and that will last a long time. Invest in pieces and find ways to keep them.
  2. When you buy new things, choose brands that are transparent and that have values that resonate with yours. 
  3. Take time, make research and you will find opportunities that align with your values. 
  4. Read about sustainable fashion and don’t be afraid to reach out to people to learn more.

Reading Recommendations:

  1. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough
  2. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist by Kate Raworth
  3. A Practical Guide to sustainable fashion by Alison Gwilt

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Photo Credit: Sui Mui