Q+A: Challenges of producing and marketing sustainable fashion in Indonesia

Batik with natural dyes. Photo credit: Kevin Murray on Flickr
30 May 2018

JAKARTA (Landscape News) — The stakes for sustainable fashion are high as raw materials become scarce, supply chains require international outsourcing and transport, and countries lack policy support for sustainable producers. In Indonesia, these challenges pose formidable entry barriers to local enterprises committed to producing sustainable fashion.

Established by Sancaya Rini in 2007, Kanawida is a home-based sustainable batik workshop in South Tangerang outside Jakarta. An esteemed member of the Indonesia Association of Natural Dyers (Warlami), Rini was a finalist in the British Council’s 2010 Community Entrepreneur Challenge. She also received the 2009 Kehati Award from the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (Kehati) for Kanawida’s sustainable practices.

Rini, who also owns Kanawida’s trendier sister brand Kanagoods, spoke to Landscape News about the challenges of producing and marketing sustainable fashion in a country where mainstream industry practices are often otherwise.

Q: How did you get yourself into the sustainable fashion business?

A: I started researching plant-based dyes after my husband reprimanded me for using synthetic dyes, which were harmful to the environment and my health. It was the mid-2000s, and many school leavers in my neighborhood still struggled to find work in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian monetary crisis. So I invited them to join my experiments, dyeing batik from garden clippings of old local trees such as persimmon, mango and jackfruit. I didn’t mean to start a business but the school leavers thought Kanawida could provide them with decent work. My university classmates responded well as a test market, and we ended up participating in a gallery exhibition, before finally supplying sustainable batik apparel and accessories to department stores.

Q: What are some devastating impacts of conventional fashion production that you have seen in Indonesia, and what difference does the production of sustainable fashion make?

A: Pekalongan, which Indonesians take pride in as a modern north coast Javanese batik hub, offers examples of conventional batik’s devastating impacts on Indonesia’s natural landscapes and people. Rivers along batik workshops are polluted with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, and these accumulate well into the sea. Many people suffer health problems caused by batik-related air and water pollution. Workshops rarely exercise adequate occupational health and safety precautions, so artisans are forced to appear “immune” to chemical hazards—although their stained and scalded hands clearly indicate otherwise. Whereas in sustainable batik production, most materials are reusable, recyclable, and compostable. I could reuse a batch of (sappan-wood dye) three times, combine the leftovers into a new batch of (mangosteen peel dye), and continue until the water runs out. Remaining solids are composted. We use small amounts of alum and sodium carbonate to fix colors, and strip off wax resist using tapioca flour. We reuse pine resin wax twice. Pregnant women—anyone—can touch our materials without worrying about their health and safety.

Q: As a sustainable fashion enterprise based in Indonesia, what are your greatest challenges to responsible production?

A: Kanawida and Kanagoods’ exclusive use of natural dyes also means that we work only with natural fibers such as cotton, ramie, water hyacinth, rattan and ulap doyo (Curcoligo latifolia, endemic to the rainforests of East Borneo). Unfortunately, Indonesia produces insufficient raw materials for fiber, so we do import some. Hence natural dye batik becomes expensive to produce. Still, we need to price our goods reasonably for the consumers. Advocacy for policies that make the production of sustainable fashion in Indonesia possible is crucial. But personally, I would rather focus on the actual production of responsible fashion, albeit within a flawed system with some factors beyond my control.

Q: What are some policy changes you believe are necessary to enable a more sustainable fashion industry in Indonesia?

A: Firstly, Indonesia needs policies that aim for self-sufficiency in the raw materials required for producing sustainable fashion. This includes land use allocations and regulations for the sustainable cultivation of cotton, silk, and ramie. Warlami is also advocating for forestry policies to protect ecosystems from which natural fibers and dyes are sourced, and create sustainable livelihoods for the people managing them. If ulap doyo production could promote the protection of the rainforests it grows in, it might be a better route to economic growth than monocultural oil palm plantations. Secondly, Indonesia needs to issue sustainable fashion certification that authorizes producers’ claims to sustainability. Without this certification, it is difficult for Kanawida and Kanagoods to claim to be “sustainable fashion” enterprises in the international market. Currently, we market our products as “sustainable fashion” based on our customers’ good faith, but that holds no authority. And we could be selling next to competitors who also claim to sell “sustainable fashion,” but in fact compromise where grey areas allow.

Q: Sustainable fashion still tends to be considered a fringe movement due to scarcer supplies and media exposure, and higher prices. How do you convince customers to choose your products over a fast fashion equivalent?

A: This is why I branded Kanagoods’ oversimplified ready-to-wear collection to appeal to a younger market than customers buying Kanawida’s classical fabrics. Kanagoods’ younger market is important for sustaining the future business of Kanawida’s mature market. My grown children’s generation tends to be more familiar with aizome—Japanese indigo dye—due to their exposure to Japanese pop culture, but may have trouble differentiating batik from tie-dye. Kanagoods can appeal to this market by showing them Indonesian indigo’s place in contemporary fashion, and how they could be part of that cultural innovation right here at home. Ultimately, I hope that what started off as a young urbanite’s appreciation for contemporary natural dye batik creations ends up inspiring them to continue practicing this tradition, delving into Indonesian cultural history, and developing their concern for policies that support environmental and cultural conservation through sustainable fashion.

Q: Sustainable fashion comes in many forms, and some argue that natural dye plays only a minor role to the proverbial big picture of sustainability. How do you respond to this opinion?

A: I would beg to differ. Our exclusive use of natural dyes is a commitment that affects the entire production chain. Our long-term business with the smallholder farmers who supply our indigo paste has stimulated them to set up an indigo plantation business, which now also caters to other producers of indigo dyed fabric. Likewise, our business with our ulap doyo suppliers has stimulated the species’ conservation through intentional cultivation, and economic growth in their community. Many details go into planning Kanawida and Kanagoods’ product sustainability: the usage of drawstrings instead of buttons and zippers, no foam fillings or sculpted materials, and wash-and-wear fabrics that look stylishly rough around the edges without requiring ironing. Your products either come wrapped in reusable ramie fabric with strings, or in recycled cardboard and tissue paper.

Find out more about this topic at a digital summit – Fashion for the Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable Supply Chains and Green Job Opportunities for Youth and Women

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