[Sustainability Agenda] How this startup is using innovative bamboo and nettle fabrics to create sustainable clothing

Started by Zoya Wahi and Nitij Singh, sustainable fashion startup Aslee makes a range of apparel that is made from ethically sourced, sustainable materials including hemp, bamboo, and nettle.

“In 2015, the weekend I was supposed to travel to Nepal, the earthquake hit and the community was affected very badly,” Zoya Wahi tells SocialStory. She was travelling to meet her friend Nitij Singh, who had been working in the country. Nitij, who works in policy and development, had close ties with the community and recognised the immediate needs of the people who were affected. “One-time aid is never a solution; it doesn’t help communities in the long run,” she adds.

They realised that sustainable community building was the need of the hour. That led to the birth of the idea for Aslee (which translates to ‘real’), which eventually took shape in 2017. Today, the Delhi-based business has a range of apparel that is made from ethically sourced, sustainable materials including hemp, bamboo, and nettle. The team works in partnership with indigenous Himalayan communities in India and Nepal, who are involved in every step of the supply chain — from harvesting to manufacturing of the fabrics. 

For Zoya, who was a media professional, and Nitij, a policy consultant at a leading bank, building the startup enabled them to combine both their interests and work towards climate change mitigation. 

According to data from the United Nations, the fashion industry contributes to around 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally due to lengthy supply chains and energy-intensive production. As a trend, fast fashion has also been criticised for its increasingly exploitative employment practices and significant environmental impact in developing countries.

Aslee is a part of the efforts to promote ‘slow’ sustainable fashion and benefit all the workers involved in the manufacturing of the apparel. Putting the creators at the heart of their operations, the team has worked towards identifying fair employers, and mostly work with teams where the staff is primarily women-led. 

“We talk to people who work in these factories and ensure that the working conditions are safe and clean,” says Zoya. To ensure fair prices, Zoya reiterates that they don’t believe in haggling and would rather work with a group that they trust than save a marginal amount of money. 

Discovering and distributing innovative textiles

For Nitij and Zoya, who don’t hail from a fashion or merchandising background, it was a learning curve to understand the fabrics that became the core of their business. “There is high hemp production in Nepal, mostly small-batch productions,” Zoya tells while explaining how they stumbled on to it. 

She underlines that there is a great level of innovation in terms of sustainable fabrics and cites examples of banana fibre and orange fibre. Nettle fabric production is also common in Himalayan communities but the awareness of such alternatives is mostly limited to states like Uttarakhand. “People didn’t even know you could make textile from bamboo,” she adds. 

Aslee aims to not just push their products but to raise awareness about the need to move to sustainable and ethically sourced clothing. They hope to influence a shift in mindset where people understand the processes and the impact left behind by the items that they use every day. It also means justifying the higher price. Zoya says that they have been working on interacting with people and educating them about sustainable fashion. 

Challenges of creating category awareness 

One of the primary challenges that exist with promoting sustainable fashion is the higher cost compared to clothing produced by chains. “Ours is a very touch-and-feel product. When you touch it you can distinctly feel the difference and quality,” Zoya explains. Due to this, they have had to rely on physical customer acquisition through exhibitions, pop-up stores and creating on-ground experiences. “We also go to farmers’ markets in Delhi, Gurugram, Noida, and Bombay,” she adds. 

Between 2018 and 2019, Aslee generated revenue close to Rs 15 lakh which gave Zoya the confidence to quit her full-time job in early 2020 to focus on the startup. However, COVID-19 proved came as a rude shock and shut down their supply chains due to which they had to stall their activity for a large part of the year. However, they pivoted to making masks during the initial wave. Now, with business picking up pace again, they have since generated around Rs 6 lakh in revenue. 

“Our cost of customer acquisition has been almost zero since most of the growth has been organic and through word of mouth. We've been very careful about where we put in our limited resources since we're completely bootstrapped,” says Zoya. 

Despite having a small team where only two people currently work full-time, Aslee is confident in their product and has achieved a return rate of under 2 percent. In line with their aims to expand, they are looking to ramp up marketing and ecommerce in 2022, and add newer products and sales channels. With conscious customers increasingly looking for avenues to reduce their carbon footprint, Aslee has a wide range of audiences that they hope to reach out to in the coming years.

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Edited by Kanishk Singh


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