When Nitya Chandrashekhar’s mother decided to throw away her decade-old Banarasi silk saree, Nitya decided that she wanted to repurpose it. “The saree had silver work on the border and I did not want to give it away,” she said. She upcycled the saree for her brother’s wedding, and it lasted for another decade until 2019, by when the saree was torn beyond redemption.
“Every saree is a six-seven metre piece of cloth, which, if not utilised to its maximum capacity, is just adding to waste,” Nitya told IndiaSpend. “If you are bored of a saree, why to throw away the cloth when you can always change the design.”
Nitya is the founder of Mumbai-based Anya Designs, which upcycles waste sarees to create new clothes. More than 1 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year in India.
For Nitya, we make too much and buy too much, and so she has incorporated a zero-waste process in her work to minimise wastage in clothes production. Like her, several designers have been exploring ways to upcycle textile trash into fashion items, to shift people’s attitude towards fashion consumption.
This is important for India, among the top five apparel manufacturing markets and one of the top global hubs of manufacturing of fast fashion garments that are exported to Europe and the US. India’s own fashion demand is also growing.
Greenhouse gas emissions by the global textile industry are greater than those from shipping and international air travel combined.
The fashion industry produces about 53 million tonnes of fibre every year, 70% of which ends up in garbage dumps, or is incinerated. Production of fibre is expected to reach 160 million tonnes by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charitable organisation working to promote circular economies, which seek to balance production and consumption by re-using products.
Less than 1% of the fibre is reused to make new clothes, representing the loss of the billions of dollars worth of clothes, which are not reused and thrown as waste, adversely affecting the environment, according to the foundation.
The global fashion industry is also the second-biggest consumer of water, according to the UN Environment Programme. It takes 3,781 litres of water – equivalent to the amount of water a person drinks over a period of three years – to make a pair of jeans, starting from the production of cotton to the retail delivery of the final product, the report stated.
India’s domestic textile and apparel industry contributed nearly 2% of gross domestic product and accounted for 14% of industrial production in 2018, according to a report co-produced by the Indian Chamber of Commerce.
Besides export, domestic demand for fashion is growing exponentially. Per capita expenditure on apparel is expected to reach Rs 6,400 by 2023, from Rs 3,900 in 2018, with the rising income of middle-class consumers a key factor, per the Indian Chamber of Commerce report. India is set to become one of the most attractive consumer markets for apparel outside the West, with more than 300 international fashion brands expected to open stores in India in 2022-’23, per McKinsey.
As we said, in India, more than 1 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year, with most of this coming from household sources, according to the Indian Textile Journal. Textiles make up about 3% by weight of a household bin. Textile waste is also the third-largest source of municipal solid waste in India.
In 2019, the central government launched the project SU.RE, aimed at committing the textile industry to move towards fashion that contributes to a clean environment. Around 16 of India’s top retail brands including Lifestyle, Shoppers’ Stop, Future Group and Aditya Birla Retail pledged to source/utilise a substantial portion of their total consumption using sustainable raw materials and processes by 2025. But the growth of fast fashion in India is set to increase the textile waste India produces, say experts from sustainability initiatives. Designers like Nitya are aiming to be part of the solution.
We reached out to the Ministry of Textile on December 17 for their response on steps undertaken to minimise textile waste and promote sustainable fashion. We will update the story when they respond.
Unsustainable fast fashion
Earlier, the fashion industry ran on two seasons a year, when new collections would be launched: autumn/winter and spring/summer. Manufacturers and designers would work months ahead to plan collections for each season and predict the styles they believed customers would want.
In the 2,000s, this changed, as international fashion brands Zara and H&M pioneered a business model that introduced 52 “micro seasons” a year, which means a new collection is introduced every week. Since then, the term “fast fashion” has been in use, especially in the context of these brands, to describe the high rate of fashion consumption that is fuelled by the quantity of new clothes that go on sale, per the Sustainable Fashion Collective, an online resource group that advises businesses on developing sustainable fashion and textile products.
“Fast fashion was introduced in the Indian context six to seven years back when brands like Zara and H&M entered the Indian market,” said Rekha Rawat, Associate Director of Sustainable Industries practice at cKinetics, a sustainability firm operating out of Delhi and California that propagates and develops sustainable strategies in industries.
“Fast fashion is based on the idea of creating a false demand for fresh looks so that more clothes are produced for sale,” she added. “But when the clothes are not sold, there is massive wastage. The unsold clothes end up in garbage dumps and create a cycle of contamination.”
“The problem is that much of the cost of fast fashion is not reflected in the price tag,” she said. “All of the elements of fast fashion – over production, low quality, competitive pricing – have a detrimental impact on the environment and the people involved in the production.”
“Earlier, consumers used to buy items which were durable, where the normal age of the fabric would be 50 washes-80 washes,” said Rawat. “But now, the excitement for new items or trends have overtaken the quality aspects. As a result, more products are thrown out, several of which are made using synthetic fabrics that are not good for the environment.”
Around 165 companies, mostly fast fashion brands, are responsible for about 24% of textile and apparel sector emissions, said a November 2021 report by cKinetics. About 68% of clothes from brands like H&M and Gucci are made up of synthetic fibres, including elastane, nylon and acrylic. Polyester is the most common, making up 52% of all fibre production.
“The process is also extremely wasteful,” noted Rawat. “Earlier if fashion houses would procure 1,000 yards of fabric in one colour, now they only need 100 yards in 10 different colours as clothes are made for smaller [production] runs. This creates additional pressure on resources – for instance, usage of water and chemicals in dyeing and treatment of cloth.”
“The maximum textile waste is generated at factory floors during cutting, and during the manufacturing process of apparel making, and includes leftover fabric scraps,” said Rawat.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, owing to the sharp fall in sales, an estimated €140 billion to €160 billion worth of clothes remained as excess inventory globally, according to a McKinsey report in May 2020.
Upcycling can help
Fast fashion brands, big or small, are innovating to respond to aspirational Indian consumers, which is leading to more textile waste. “As a response to fast fashion and its wastefulness, the concept of upcycling textile waste has begun to trickle down through many layers of the fashion world,” said Bhavya Goenka, whose venture Iro Iro upcycles textile waste to make textile products that produce no further waste.
“The fashion industry presents a linear business model of manufacture-use-dispose. Therefore, it is an obvious contributor to environmental distress. But there is also a huge untapped opportunity,” said Goenka. Through a circular system of production that promotes repair, regeneration and reuse of product or materials, Iro Iro collaborates with other businesses to upcycle their waste into textiles for fashion and interiors. “So far, we have recycled over 10,000 kg of textile waste,” she added.
Traditional Indian clothing, like sarees, still made up an estimated 70% of domestic women’s apparel sales in 2017, noted the Mckinsey report. Even if India’s appetite for western wear increases, it is still expected that traditional wear will account for 65% of the apparel market by 2023, the report stated. “Traditional wear, like sarees, have a cultural and sentimental value and will never go out of fashion,” said Nitya. “And there is always scope to repurpose sarees and create them into an Indo-western outfit.”
Interest in rental and secondhand clothing is also increasing, and the resale market has the potential to be bigger than fast fashion in 10 years, according to the 2019 McKinsey report.
The idea of sustainability cannot be just enforced by manufacturers, it also depends on customers to be conscious about their choices, said Rawat. “The idea of a closed-looped system is to work towards sustainability through resource efficiency, renewable fuels, and raw materials, which can only be incremental steps in positive directions.”
IndiaSpend contacted H&M and Zara for comment on their efforts to go sustainable. H&M has over 50 retail stores, while Zara has over 22 stores in India. We will update the story once we receive a response.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.