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Sustainable fashion – the much-needed textile transition

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It is estimated that 73 percent of all our clothes end up in landfills, clearly an alarming statistic that cannot be ignored anymore.

Sustainable fashion – the much-needed textile transition
A typical household puts a considerable amount of thought into deciding the quantity and spread of grocery purchases to be made for the month. While this is considered normal and prudent when it comes to the purchase of perishables, surprisingly, an increasing percentage of millennial consumers do not seem to apply the same levels of deliberation when purchasing clothing.
Clothes– which as a product segment are durable– have increasingly come to be treated much like perishables. They are worn for extremely short periods of time and discarded recklessly, contributing to the mounting heap of landfills every year. It is estimated that 73 percent of all our clothes end up in landfills, clearly an alarming statistic that cannot be ignored anymore.
However, irresponsible purchase behaviour is only part of the problem. To be fair, consumers have been enticed into such behavior partly because the average price of clothing (as a share of disposable income) in general has dropped significantly in the last two decades.
By adopting sourcing and manufacturing methods that significantly reduce production costs (example: off-shoring manufacturing activities to developing nations where wages are low, using cheaper chemical inputs for dyeing fabric), clothing manufacturers have been able to achieve significant economies of scale and have passed on the cost benefits to the final consumer.
Unfortunately, these methods usually do not price in the negative environmental cost associated with large-scale centralised production and global distribution. Nor do they price in the social cost of underpaid contributors to the supply chain.
In effect, suppliers and consumers have together propagated unsustainable industry practices – both from the production and consumption side. Considering how important clothing is as a commodity for humankind, it comes as no surprise today that this industry ranks the second most polluting industry on earth after oil and gas.
It was also evidenced that global CO2 emissions attributed to the apparel and footwear industry exceeded the airline and maritime industries combined. In the wake of such telling numbers, the concept of sustainable fashion has found significance.
This term is an all-encompassing concept that hopes to bring awareness both to consumers and producers about the unsustainable practices of the textile industry as a whole. Additionally, there is an effort to change existing practices and infuse an element of environmental and social consciousness going forward.
As a market response to the consumer consciousness primarily seen to be growing in the West, clothing production hubs like India are seeing positive innovations introduced across the fashion value chain. These innovations incorporate both socially and environmentally responsible elements.
The Fashion Value Chain and promising innovations
The traditional Fashion Value Chain typically starts from the procurement of raw materials and reaches an abrupt stop once the fully finished clothes reach the store (retailing). However, as far as the sustainable fashion value chain is concerned, this is not the end of the line. The chain continues post the retail stage with activities such as recycling or upcycling of used clothes.
Not to mention, the changes in production and processing incorporated within the existing value chain that reduce negative environmental and social impact are also regarded as part of the sustainable fashion initiative.
While a vast majority of these innovations are in the idea/incubation stage, there is incredible promise in what can be a textile production and retailing revolution. Here are some areas of innovation we came across during our conversations with innovators or through secondary research:
Alternate materials: The production of certain textile fabrics is known to take a relatively heavy toll on the environment either directly or indirectly. For instance, cotton production is extremely water-intensive, requiring approximately 22,500 liters of water to produce 1 kg.
Innovators are experimenting with alternate natural fibers that are more eco-friendly, naturally available in abundance (in a particular region), and offer very similar if not identical comfort and cloth ‘feel’ to a consumer. On similar lines, innovators are also experimenting by replacing chemical coloring dyes with natural dyes and coloring agents.
Transparency and accountability: Conscious consumers are increasingly interested to know the origin, quality, ethics, safety, environmental and social impact of the products they consume. In line with this growing requirement, textile producers are making additional efforts to adopt better practices and disclose the same.
Innovators, ideally with backgrounds in technology and blockchain, have stepped in as ‘product tracing’ service providers to larger textile producers and garment manufacturers. They use technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification) and blockchain to monitor the origination of raw material and its movement along the supply chain, while capturing information on the quality and the people/companies who work on the product.
Community-based production and localised supply chains: Instead of the conventional large-scale production approach that is typically considered the norm in clothing manufacturing, some innovators have consciously decided to run ‘micro’ production units that can serve the local community in multiple ways.
These solutions involve providing livelihood to the locals (example: Women SHG members being employed to source wildly growing raw material) through involvement in the production process and re-adopting traditional local production techniques (example: handloom instead of power-loom).
Cleaner/precision production: In the garment manufacturing industry, both pre-consumer and post-consumer waste generation is a major concern and challenge. During the process of fabric cutting at the garment factory, it is estimated that nearly 10-25 percent of fabric is wasted.
Innovators have been involved in adopting and developing higher precision technology that significantly reduces fabric wastage. One such technology development is laser cutting – the use of high-precision lasers instead of conventional blades for cutting fabrics.
Upcycling/Recycling: A section of innovators are focusing on developing technologies or methods to upcycle/recycle the waste generated during different stages of the textile production process. The challenge here arises from the fact that not all waste is directly reusable in its raw form. Finding ways to efficiently and affordably segregate fabric and cloth waste depending on its quality, market price and technical use has attracted several passionate innovators.
Second-hand retail and rental solutions: A rising consciousness about the need to change the ‘single use’ approach to clothing in general, and in particular festive wear (example – wedding dresses) has given rise to innovators who provide rental and second-hand retail solutions.
Online aggregators who act as intermediaries between people looking to sell and buy used clothes and those who rent out wedding wear are gaining a lot of traction.
While such changes in existing industry practices are definitely steps in the right direction, it is equally important for consumers to consciously change their consumption habits. Conscious consumers and empathetic producers together can make a real and sustainable difference in the world.
Author Avishek Gupta is Investment Director, Nishanth Nandakumar is Associate, Impact and Srinithi Kumar is Senior Associate, Digital Excellence at Caspian Debt.
Views expressed are personal.