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Walking the runway towards a regenerative fashion economy

January 21, 2023
topic:Sustainable Development
tags:#India, #fashion industry, #textile waste, #pollution, #circular economy
by:Rishabh Jain, Sutapa Baksi
As textile waste continues to contaminate communities and the environment, green entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative solutions to bring down the volumes of annual waste .

Industry estimates state that India discards more than one million tonnes of textile waste annually, and the latter constitutes the third-largest source of municipal solid trash. This significantly distresses the country's environment.

Strong local production, vast domestic consumption and a fashion supply network all contribute to India's massive textile sector. According to Statista, an online platform specialising in market and consumer data, currently the Indian textile industry is valued at USD 223 billion. Adding to this, it is the second largest sector in terms of employment generation in India, where over 45 million people are employed directly by the sector and an additional 100 million work in related industries.

However, it also involves equal quantities of garbage.

The textile industry has been under fire recently for its detrimental effects on the environment and society, which have only increased due to the rise of fast fashion and fashion influencer culture. It is well known that the worldwide textile business produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all international travel and shipping put together.

Asiya Chaudhary, a professor at the Department of Commerce at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), told FairPlanet that "with pesticides and other chemicals, cotton production contributes to environmental contamination, but used and discarded clothing add to solid waste in landfills, which takes years to degrade."

She added that after the food and construction industries - textile is regarded as one of the major polluters and that an urgent improvement is required in its production and supply chain management. 

In the past few years, an increasing level of awareness among industry players is leading to the development of creative solutions, from brands creating a circular fashion economy, which focuses on making clothes from recycled or renewable inputs, to businesses focusing on making sustainability accessible and affordable to all.

a sustainable clothing industry

"Sustainability, zero waste, blue loop and the consumer are basically the four pillars on which our brand works," said Monika Gera, co-founder of One for Blue - a fashion brand based on the principle of "perfect balance." The idea originated during one of Gera's trips with co-founder Nitin Gera to view the hatching of olive ridley turtles.

"We witnessed the ceaseless, invisible efforts made by the local grassroots to restore this biodiversity, as well as the worrisome rate at which marine species were becoming endangered," Gera told FairPlanet. "We were aware that it was a result of a number of negative habits that millions of people had adopted, but few were taking action."

The fabric that One for Blue uses comes from the highest grade recycled cotton fiber with a Global Recycling Standard (GRS) certificate. Also, in order to create the ideal fabric for its products, the  company's reclaimed fibers are combined with the longer fibers from recycled pet bottles and spun again.

The Circular Apparel Innovation Factory (CAIF), a DOEN Foundation-funded project based in Mumbai and run by Intellecap, also presents itself as an ecosystem builder that accelerates the circularisation of the apparel and textile industries.

It does so by dividing the work of its employees into two basic tasks: First, a set of ideas is created to  help brands achieve their 2030 sustainability targets for lowering their carbon footprint. Secondly, they concentrate on creating an ecosystem and developing circular textile waste solutions.

The cohort launched  pilot projects in Mumbai and Bengaluru in areas near landfills where waste collectors live with the goal of organising the pathway for the collection of textile waste. The primary focus is on educating waste workers in the classification of post-consumer waste and helping them evolve into "green micro-entrepreneurs" who are capable of distinguishing between clothing that is wearable, repairable and reusable from clothing that unusable.

Currently, waste collectors receive no formal training on identifying the waste that can be recycled. Through this project, CAIF aims to reduce the textile waste that goes down in landfill sites or incinerators.

However, even as new brands come up with innovative solutions, there are challenges that need to be overcome in order to fully realise the potential of textile waste in India and achieve the goal of a regenerative fashion economy.

A 2022 report titled Wealth in Waste: India’s Potential To Bring Textile Waste Back Into The Supply Chain by a joint team from Fashion for Good, Sattva Consulting, Reverse Resources, and Saahas Zero Waste indicates that currently there are four bottlenecks to recycling textile waste: Ineffective textile waste management systems; unorganised and informal textile waste value chains; an ineffective realisation of textile waste potential; and worker well-being and gendered division of labour.  

The report highlights that the textile industry must change all phases of production in order to transition from a linear to a circular economy by cutting down trash production and use of virgin materials while maximising the value of waste. Additionally, the report states that during this transformation consideration should be given to the interests and general well-being of every stakeholder along the value chain.

While investigating the challenges around recycling textile waste in India, FairPlanet spoke to Harshitha Venati, a Programme Manager at Reverse Resources, a SaaS platform that enables digital traceability of textile waste flows.

In Venati's opinion, in the context of India, there is an urgent need to emphasise segregation of waste at the point of generation. However, this needs to be supplemented with a robust infrastructure that allows collection and channelling of the segregated waste to suitable types of recycling. 

In addition, Venati added that digital traceability is key to addressing the growing challenge of textile waste across the globe. "Bringing visibility to textile waste streams and having access to verified data of their quantum is fundamental in designing interventions that can not only streamline textile waste management, but also amplify the volumes of textile waste that can get recycled," she said.

Image by Deepak Rautela.

Article written by:
Rishabh Jain
Sutapa Baksi
Embed from Getty Images
In India, the third-largest source of municipal solid trash is textile waste.
Embed from Getty Images
Brands are working to create a circular fashion economy that focuses on manufacturing clothes from recycled or renewable sources and making sustainability accessible.
Embed from Getty Images
“Bringing visibility to textile waste streams and having access to verified data of their quantum is fundamental in designing interventions that can not only streamline textile waste management, but also amplify the volumes of textile waste that can get recycled.”