As sustainability as a concept is being more talked about, its meaning has now been elevated from a niche, exclusive segment to a characteristic that has to be an intrinsic value of each piece of clothing manufactured. Brands and retailers are now being urged by the consumers to consider sustainable fashion as the need of the hour rather than an added tag to enhance their sales. In fact, fashion search engine Lyst reported a 47 per cent increase in shoppers looking for items that have ethical and style credentials with terms such as ‘vegan leather’ and ‘organic cotton’ after scrutinising 100 million searches on their shopping site over the past 12 months. What’s more, several brands with a strong stance on sustainability made the ‘most searched for’ round-ups for the first time.
India too is responding to the sudden fervour for conscious fashion that is taking centre stage internationally, as several small start-ups and labels are now devoting their business models to sustainability and established retailers and brands are gradually adding a segment that promotes the same. One such brand is Venn, which was named so in order to emphasise on the overlap of three spectres of sustainable fashion: Product, People and Planet. It is the brainchild of Pooja Khanna, who is employing several simple ways to make her brand sustainable.
An Economics graduate,Pooja was one of the early members of Zomato’s team in 2011 and spent 7 years with the company. Being part of the core team gave her exposure to all aspects of the business both during the formative and later years of Zomato. During her time abroad, she identified the dearth of classy and functional westernwear choices in India as compared to what was available abroad. She also felt strongly about the absence of customisation in the Indian lifestyle and body sizes. Reacting to fashion being the second-most polluting industry, Pooja realised that today sustainablewear falls under the luxury segment and the best way to bring awareness about sustainable clothing is to make it mainstream. This led to the inception of Venn.
Pooja shares, “I felt a two-fold need for this brand. Firstly, there isn’t enough westernwear in India tailored towards the needs of Indian women in the average corporate age (25 to 45). These women lean more towards slow fashion and find comfortable clothing in formal or occasionwear, and both categories lean toward classic silhouettes and good fit. The other greater reason was sustainability. I have always been very fashion-conscious. Gradually, I got aware of the harm the industry is doing to the environment and workers and this is something that needs attention. This made me feel that I need to elevate my identity from an aware consumer to a conscious entrepreneur, and thus I launched Venn.”
Most sustainable fashion clothes have different aesthetics altogether and Pooja works towards imbibing a design language that is wearable for day-to-day occasions. Offering westernwear for women, Venn starts the product cycle by clear visualisation of the occasion for which the garment is to be made.
As Pooja explains, “If we are making workwear, we gauge the lifestyle of the corporate woman, she might use public transport, she might have a meeting and she might have evening plans immediately after work. Then we think of the design that will fit the user’s journey and we make something that checks out all of these.”
Sourcing raw materials sustainably
A lot of R&D preceded the brand’s launch on all the concepts that come under the vast umbrella of sustainable fashion. Pooja and her team researched about the effluents and resultants of the supply chain and their impact, the factors that make a garment sustainable and how different processes are affecting the environment as well as the people. Pooja also spent a lot of time evaluating the vendors and manufacturers, choosing the ones that are thriving on ethical supply chains and eco-friendly materials.
Her brand works with sustainable fabrics such as recycled polyester, which are recyclable and prevent polyester deposits. They also use Tencel and Eco-Vero that employ a sustainable production cycle. For eveningwear, they use bamboo and corn fabrics, which have a more luxe touch and feel. Explaining how Venn ensures that its fabric suppliers are sustainable, Pooja avers, “For fabrics, we try to go to very big vendors in the industry and inspect their operations and verify their certifications. These big players cater to major companies that order bigger quantities and subsequently, there is an abundance of left-over fabric that is more than enough for us. A few of them have agreed to support us in our cause by providing us with these extra fabrics that promise innovation in sustainability.”
Owing to strict compliance standards required by big league buyers, these suppliers have a very transparent supply chain and their openness for clients to inspect and verify their processes makes brands in nascent stages such as Venn confident of the material they are dealing with. “We are working with two major companies for this, namely Vardhman and Harpar (HSPS Textiles). The fact that we have smaller MOQs gives us very less say in the choice of fabric we take, as they give us a choice of about 20 run-over fabrics and we have to pick from that set only,” states Pooja. One thing that frustrates her is the gap in the market for sustainable trims, as they are struggling to find the same.
Of, by and for the people
Moving on to another facet of their brand ethos, Venn as a brand works to empower the labour class involved in the supply chain. What sets it apart from the brands and designers that are working towards employing small clusters for the same purpose is that they aim to target small commercial manufacturing units.
Pooja enlightens us, “We select production units where the working conditions are apt for the labour and workers are treated fairly. Since ours’ is a small brand, we could have easily had our own unit, but we strongly felt the need to employ smaller production houses for our garmenting as these units are struggling and need help. We also try to formulate ways that help in the upliftment of these units, by supporting them in their infrastructure, taxations, GST etc.”
Pooja and her team help with the small details that form a bigger picture in the long run. Adding coolers to combat the hot weather, getting earthing done to save workers from being electrocuted and further paying them the correct salaries are a few instances of the same. Aiding these units has made them grow in number, machinery and expertise while ensuring that Venn has a loyal vendor base that is ready to work at optimum cost with top-notch quality. The label also works to uplift handloom through collaboration with artisans and clusters for small capsule collections; their latest capsule utilised block printed fabric from Bagru in Rajasthan and Sanganer.
A promising future
Venn not only takes care of the supply chain but also ensures that garments are tailored to the needs of the Indian woman. The design language is more about structured fit than design and to ensure customised sizing for women, the team did extensive primary research, as Neha shares, “We measured a lot of women in India, and understanding the trends in the consumer groups, we inferred that most women are heavier bottom down; then we altered the western size sets to tailor to these variations. Changes like these have enabled us to reach out to many women at once, thereby increasing our popularity. We are already getting orders internationally for our own website, along with many loyal customers in India showing that the consumer is ready for change.”
Talking about the state of sustainability in the industry, Pooja frowns upon the industry players that are trying to squeeze out maximum profits on the back of fast fashion. “People do respond to fast fashion better, be it India or the international market. In India, sustainability always boils down to less demand. Every year, as brands come out with new trends, they market them vigorously, so why not do the same for sustainability! We shouldn’t really wait for the demand of sustainable fashion, it should be a characteristic value of each brand or retailer.”
Venn champions sustainability using three Ps: Product, Process and Planet, but the core of any business in this risky space lies in the fourth P – Profit. “I don’t think that absolute profits are bad,” says Pooja adding, “You can make a decent amount of money, and sustain your business as well. In the end, if you are a small-scale company even in sustainability, you have to make profits, even if the percentage is less. Speaking for myself, my business, I am not aiming for such high profits at all. My business model helps me go on, and collaborations and finding the right partners is the key.”