Sustainable fashion for the post-COVID world -Sirish Kumar Gouda

Apart from fashion brands, the textile industry also has the label of being one of the most polluting and resource-intensive industries. The figures are multiple and staggering, such as the emission estimated at 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (more than the airlines and maritime industries combined)1 and the 10,000 liters of water needed to manufacture just one pair of jeans! However, environmental concerns have not created significant changes in manufacturers’ preference for natural materials such as cotton, primarily due to its physical and chemical properties. In Tiruppur, a major textile center in Tamil Nadu, 700 tons of cotton yarn are used every day against an annual use of 2,000 tons of other synthetic fibres2.

However, over the past two years, the textile industry has faced many challenges globally. The industry has experienced demand shocks followed by severe supply chain disruptions due to container shortages, labor shortages, port congestion, limited raw material availability, the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, etc. These logistical challenges lead to opportunistic behaviors among some buyers, a phenomenon called the bullwhip effect (the bullwhip effect refers to the increased variability of upstream orders due to distorted demand signals) in supply chains, to hoard material which drives up commodity prices creating a vicious cycle of unavailability and price increases. The story is no different in India. For example, cotton costs have almost doubled in a year – a 29mm cotton candy costs Rs. 39,000 in Nov 2020 but the same cost close to Rs. 1,00,000 in May 20223.

The rising cost of cotton is making it difficult for several Indian textile manufacturers to maintain price competitiveness in the global market. It would be even worse for manufacturers if the GST rate increased. Due to strong opposition from state governments, the GST Council in India recently postponed the increase in the tax rate from 5% to 12%4.

The confluence of increased environmental awareness, increased supply chain and regulatory challenges has the potential to be an inflection point for the industry. Several researchers are working to find alternative solutions to reduce this consumption. Now may be the time to kick-start these efforts and for manufacturers to turn to these alternative solutions that promise to be both viable and sustainable5.

Sustainable solutions

In addition to being driven by the reduction of consumerism, sustainable solutions for this industry revolve around the idea of ​​a circular economy and the use of alternative and environmentally friendly raw materials in the process of production.

Recycling: According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, 53 million tons of fabric are produced every year6. The majority of them reach countries like India as post-consumer waste within a year. Along with other materials like PET waste, this fabric waste is recycled and used to make a range of products. For example, Panipat in Haryana is known to use this fabric to make blankets and bed linens which are not only consumed in India but also exported to African countries7. This waste is also converted into different types of yarns to cater to markets upstream in the textile supply chain, such as Usha Yarns Limited does. Several new-age start-ups like Thaely and Neeman’s are using plastic waste to create fashionable sneakers that meet the fashion needs of young people in a sustainable way. Global clothing brands such as Nike and Adidas also manufacture several products that use recycled materials.

However, recycling is not a complete solution to this problem as there are limits to its viability and sustainability. Textile manufacturers still only use a limited proportion of recycled materials as well as new resources in their production process. Moreover, in addition to compromising the physical and chemical properties of the raw materials, the processing of recycled materials also leads to the release of large quantities of microplastics which pollute the environment.

Upcycling: The concept of upcycling is not new in the world as consumers have always repurposed old clothes to use them for other household purposes. Upcycling, unlike recycling, does not involve the shredding and pulping of raw materials into new products. It is a creative reuse of material by simply turning waste into a useful product. Organizations such as Better India, Dwij and Rimagine have recycled textile waste into innovative products such as tote bags, quilts, clothes and other furniture.

Use of alternative raw materials: Several alternatives to conventional raw materials have been tested in the textile industry. There is a marked increase in the use of raw materials such as agricultural waste, hemp, bamboo and dairy waste by companies around the world. However, their production is not on a large scale to achieve the supply savings provided to industrialists using cotton. Moreover, the technology required to handle such a fabric is different from that which works with cotton. Companies like Alt Mat and Hemp Fabric Lab in India are working with the textile industry to make these alternative raw materials viable for production on the same machines that process cotton-based fabrics, thereby ensuring their viability. These alternative raw materials are sustainable solutions because they consume less water for processing and have certain hypoallergenic properties.

Sustainable fashion is the need of the hour. The pandemic has also made several textile manufacturers aware of the importance of creating multiple sources of supply, and especially from local and environmentally friendly sources. With growing consumer awareness and start-ups diving into the sustainable fashion space, it is possible to hope to see less greenwashing and more responsible production and consumption.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise indicated, the author writes in a personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be taken to represent the official ideas, attitudes or policies of any agency or institution.

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