Clean Tech

Green race: Will the world of fashion make the cut?

Preeti Mehra | Updated on March 11, 2020

Is it possible to make the highly polluting garment industry sustainable and eco-friendly, asks Preeti Mehra

It is hard to imagine that the trendy jeans or the designer dress you picked up from your neighbourhood retail outlet could be contributing to global warming and degradation. But experts are veering around to the view that the growth of fast fashion in recent times, which enables garment manufacturers to offer consumers fresh designs within weeks of launching one line, and that too at affordable prices, is a serious threat to the environment.

True the garment industry has grown in the process, and fashion democratised, but the demand for cotton, polyester and chemical dyes has also seen a remarkable rise to feed this growth. It has consequently led to an upping of the carbon footprint of the industry, increased water consumption, pollution of rivers and oceans, as well as a rapid turnover of old clothes ending up at landfills.

But till two years ago, very few within the industry were ready to see the writing on the wall and the cost of the fashion explosion. In this context, 2018 will go down as a landmark year when realisation finally dawned that something needed to be done urgently to contain the damage caused by high fashion and fast fashion.

It was agreed by experts that some modicum of sustainability must be brought into the industry’s highly polluting, environmentally wasteful, manufacturing and retailing processes.

Need for action

One of the accelerators for this new thinking was brand Burberry’s revelation in its earnings report that it had destroyed $37-million worth of unsold clothing to protect its brand. This sparked massive protests on social media, with customers as well as activists calling it an unethical and environment unfriendly practice. Burberry made commendable amends by reversing its policy and assuring that it would no longer burn its unsold stock. What this did was to set the stage for a sharper focus on the role fashion and apparels play in global warming.

It was around the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was voicing concern on the issue.

It also emphasised a few home truths about the fashion industry — that textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally; that it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans; and that the industry produces 20 per cent of global waste water and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping.

Not only this, but also that with every passing second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned; washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year. And if nothing is done about it, then, by 2050, the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

These facts and more had the environmentally-conscious world terribly worried, and what better platform than the UNFCCC’s COP 24 in Katowice, Poland, to air these fears before the world? So, it was here in December 2018 that the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was launched for action that could reduce the sector’s impact on global warming.

The climate action charter was ambitious and went beyond any commitments that the industry had made before. Its ultimate aim was to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which would impact the entire value chain. It consisted of a set of principles addressing climate change. These included a target of 30 per cent greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions by 2030. The charter promised to plan out the road to de-carbonisation for the industry based on the methodologies of the Science Based Targets initiative.


The signatory list grows

From the initial 40-odd signatories, in two years, the list has grown to over 90 companies and around 28 supporting organisations. These include well-known brands such as Adidas, Decathlon, Gap Inc., H&M Group, Kmart Group, Levi Strauss, Nike, Otto Group and Puma, with several councils and associations as supporting partners. Under the charter, the signatories and organisations will work in collaboration to deliver on the principles they have agreed to through a number of working groups that will bring to the table key stakeholders, experts and initiatives in the textile and fashion space.

Some impact of the charter can be seen in the marketplace. In India, for instance. flyers at H&M outlets inform customers of the availability of a recycle box where “all textiles are welcome — from all brands, in any condition — even the odd sock, worn-out t-shirt or discoloured sheet.” Stating that the company wants to reduce the environment impact of the fashion industry and limit the amount that ends up in the landfills, it gives you an incentive for each bag of textiles that you drop off — a 15 per cent discount on the next purchase.

H&M says it sends these textiles to its sorting plant where the usable ones land up in the second-hand market, while the unusable ones are turned into cleaning cloths. Some are also recycled into new textile fibres and ultimately become new clothes, in effect turning textile waste into new raw material. But this is a minuscule amount as less than 1 per cent of textile waste gets recycled into new material.

So, while recycling is an option, several companies have begun to address the whims of fast fashion culture by setting up garment rental services. Some experts point out that the number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36 per cent in 15 years, hence renting out garments for special occasions or swapping garments through a private online service is becoming viable. “If you have a dress that you have had enough of, you can exchange it for a bag, a shoe or another dress,” says P Maya, a Delhi consumer, who uses the option sometimes.

Indian innovation

However, a Noida-based Indian start-up, IBA Crafts, which sells only overseas for now, has found a unique method to cut the flab from the fashion business and produce only what is ordered and to be used by the customer.

Nitin Kapoor, one of the three founders, explains what they do and how it helps solve many of the issues the fashion industry faces.

“We use a disruptive technological process that we have copyrighted — JITGM (just in time garments manufacturing), which reduces the waste of resources such as water, warehousing space, energy and time. Customers place orders with us via AR (augmented reality) images, which offer them multiple ranges of patterns, sizes, fabrics, colours, designs, prints and embroideries. The garment is produced within 48 hours after a customer places the order and is shipped to the address,” he says, pointing out that the process makes garments in-stock always and new designs can be created every day without stocking any inventory.

IBA Crafts seems to have addressed some of the key issues that the global apparel industry faces. Kapoor says that most e-commerce models are inventory-led, leading to wastage of unsold inventory and outdated styles.

The unsold inventory increases warehousing costs and is liquidated at throwaway prices, and when it is not sold, it gets dumped and wasted, leading to the textile industry becoming the biggest polluter in the world after oil.

JITGM eliminates the need for huge spaces, staff, power, service and security expenses. “Clothing being produced only when required saves water usage, textile waste and reduces the burden on the environment.” IBA has shipped over 2,00,000 garments and accessories globally and says it has received positive reviews from over 40 countries with repeated purchase.

Meanwhile, there are others who are looking at India to convert its large quantities of agriculture residue into textile fibre. Recently, Fortum India, a Finnish clean energy company, signed an MoU with Chaudhary Charan Singh, Haryana Agricultural University (HAU) in Hisar, to research paddy and paddy straw. Fortum already has its IFC technology which it would like to use in India. Through the technology, cellulose fibre is made from waste straw (rice or wheat). In this process, urea (which is harmless to the environment) and cellulose react to form cellulose carbamate, which is further processed to produce fibre filament or staple fibres.

“The main advantage of our technology is that there is no usage of any environmentally toxic chemicals such as carbon di sulphide (CS2). Water consumption is also less as we make fibre from waste straw where the aim is to see that much of the water is recycled,” says Faizur Rahman, Head, Bio2X & Legal, Fortum India Private Ltd. Fortum has already showcased garments under the technology in Vancouver and hopes to do it in India in partnership with HAU.

On the global front, the race against time is on to keep both the 2030 and 2050 deadlines. In December 2019, at COP 25 in Madrid, fashion industry signatories reiterated their commitment to climate action in a communiqué.

But they also stated that current business models and solutions were “insufficient to deliver on the climate agenda,” and there was need to scale low-carbon solutions and go for a deeper, more systemic change.

It may also be prudent to follow fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s advice to consumers, “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.”

Published on March 11, 2020

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