The article explores the resource requirements of textile manufacturing and the growing problem of global textile waste disposal. Furthermore, the author offers suggestions for how both manufacturers and consumers can play a role in promoting sustainable fashion.
In 2020, the fashion sector manufactured and distributed approximately ~150 billion clothing items worldwide, equivalent to around ~20 pieces for everyone. The abundance of garments highlights the remarkable pace at which fashion trends evolve and how our wardrobes have become a testament to the ever-changing global fashion landscape. This staggering production rate raised important questions about manufacturing and the environmental impact of such massive clothing consumption.
Bleak Reality of Textile Production
As per a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), approximately 3,800 litres of water are used to make a pair of jeans, equating to 33.4 kgs of carbon emissions globally. The majority of the emissions come from upstream activities such as material production, preparation, and processing. Now, even though the Indian textile and apparel industry contributes to 2% of India’s GDP, its production contributes to 7% of global GHG emissions which is expected to reach 10% by 2030. As the need to address climate change becomes the need of the hour, India’s fast fashion industry must focus on reinventing its manufacturing processes.
Indian Shoppers’ Spend per Month on Clothing
From the above chart, consumers prioritize affordability and tend to overlook the chemicals employed in garment production. Their primary aim is to achieve immediate gratification, frequently ignoring the lasting consequences of clothing disposal.
Around three out of five clothing products find their way to incinerators or landfills within a few years of being produced. Clothing doesn’t biodegrade easily in landfills and could persist there for more than two centuries before breaking down. This also amplifies the carbon footprint of the garments within the landfill. Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste are generated every year, which is akin to a garbage truck filled with clothes being dumped into landfills every second. By the year 2030, the projected amount of discarded textile waste is expected to surge to 134 million tonnes. (Source: BusinessInsider). In India, the annual quantity surpasses one million tonnes, with a significant proportion originating from households. According to the Indian Textile Journal, textile waste also holds the position of being the third-largest contributor to municipal solid waste in the country.
Manufacturing Value Chain: Through the lens of key contributors
Manufacturers and consumers are catalysts in fashion industry exploitation. Manufacturers’ unfair practices and use of inorganic materials lead to environmental harm. Consumers’ demand for disposable trends and lack of awareness perpetuates this cycle.
Paving the path towards sustainable fashion:
In the West, a multitude of efforts have been implemented to promote sustainable textile manufacturing. These are backed by government initiatives, non-profit partnerships, fashion industry platforms, and the active involvement of both new and established brands. For example, the well-renowned denim manufacturer, Levi’s, introduced a ‘water<less’ collection of denims in 2019. Otherwise known for requiring vast amounts of water during its manufacturing process, the ‘water<less’ denim collection saves water throughout the process. Levi’s also works towards 100% sustainably sourced cotton and recycles old jeans into home refurbishment. Similar initiatives need to be practiced by Indian manufacturers to expand awareness.
India is a leader when it comes to manufacturing eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, linen, cork, natural dyes, and fruit skin and it must leverage this powerful tool. The above-mentioned fibers do not require pesticides or fertilizers in their production and conserve more water and energy than synthetic fabric production. Of these, organic cotton is one of the promising contributors to green textiles.
The popularity of organic cotton is proportionate with its market size, which is expected to reach US$ 6,730 million in 2028 globally, i.e. a 40% CAGR from the period 2021-28 (Source: Fortune Business Insights). India is the leading producer of organic cotton and has produced 1.2 million tonnes (51% of global production) (Source: TOI) in 2022. In fact, India has a golden opportunity to tap into its considerable potential in the organic cotton market and embrace innovative approaches to furthering sustainable fashion concepts.
The end customer is the apex player of change in the value chain. The consumer has access to four pathways for leveraging change, and can traverse multiple routes simultaneously:
- Less is more – While clothing items cannot be classified as need-based purchase commodities, there is scope for fast fashion to slow down. Urban consumers in India are becoming more aware of the environmental and ethical implications associated with the rapid production and disposal of low-quality garments. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for reevaluating consumer priorities. Lockdowns and restrictions prompted many individuals to reflect on their consumption habits and focus on what truly matters. This introspective period has translated into a heightened demand for items that hold meaning and longevity, rather than fleeting trends. Many are shifting their strategies to align with sustainability and ethical practices, offering well-crafted, durable garments that stand the test of time. Slow fashion, characterized by its focus on quality, durability, and ethical production, is gaining traction as an alternative to the rapid turnover of fast fashion.
- Buy Smart – There’s a common perception that only the wealthy can afford sustainable fashion, given the overwhelming presence of affordable and quickly changing fashion trends endorsed by the media. However, the reality is quite different: Anyone with the intention of making informed shopping decisions can tap into a range of options that provide avenues to sustainable clothing. In terms of longevity, a synthetic piece of clothing will have a lifetime of at most one year, whereas organic clothes can be used for a longer period and if, discarded will not have a negative impact on the planet. According to the India Sustainability Report 2020, 45% of the surveyed participants expressed a desire to embrace recyclable fashion, 49% were inclined towards adopting sustainable practices, and 22% showed a preference for upcycled garments. (Source: India Sustainability Report)
- Recycle – Global fast fashion brand, H&M, has moved away from its roots by introducing its “conscious” collection, made using organic cotton and recycled polyester in India. The brand has set up the “let’s close the loop” programme, where shoppers exchange old garments at H&M stores and in return, receive gift vouchers. The old garments are marketed as second-hand clothing. If it is not suitable to be worn, they’re turned into other products, such as remake collections or cleaning cloths.
- Repurpose – An Indian eco-conscious brand, Doodlage, works with a mindset to upcycle worn-out or used fabrics into new ones. The ideology is to minimize waste disposal and repurpose it into different products. Few home-grown brands work with the same ideology, but India’s not there yet. To achieve sustainable fashion as a way of life, there is an alarming demand for local brands to work towards a circular approach.
Without a doubt, sustainable fashion is paving the path to new practices in the lifestyle and fashion industry. Approximately 50% of shoppers want brands to be more sustainable and have acknowledged an eco-centric shopping culture. Buyers are enquiring about the fabrics and choosing organic textiles over chemical-based products. Mindless shopping hauls are now taking a back seat, but we’re not there yet. The journey towards a truly sustainable future may still have hurdles to overcome, but the path of change has been set. The onus lies on key stakeholders i.e. consumers and manufacturers, to work together and drive this transformation, ensuring that Threads of Change continue to weave a fabric of a better, greener, and more responsible fashion world in India.
Avneet Anand is a consultant at Avalon. She provides strategy-related solutions to clients and has over 4 years of experience in consulting and other domains. She is experienced in growth strategy, corporate strategy, and due diligence. Her prior professional experience honed her skillsets in the consulting and private equity world.