Sustainable fashion: What India must do for the textiles sector

February 21, 2020 5:30 AM

While India may not have mainstreamed sustainable fashion, there are some efforts happening without the ‘explicit’ mention of the term

Each year, about 60 million tonnes of new fibers are used to make garments, and no plausible concept exists on what to do with them when they are no longer needed. (Representative image)Each year, about 60 million tonnes of new fibers are used to make garments, and no plausible concept exists on what to do with them when they are no longer needed. (Representative image)

By Devashish Dhar & Nitij Singh

The idea of sustainable fashion does not often ring a bell in policy corridors. The government is rightly bothered about more pressing concerns. Sustainable fashion is considered to be a past time of elites and holds little value in the eyes of policy stakeholders. This belief reflects in countless national policy documents which make no mention of sustainable fashion. These documents, after all, are serious documents which should make tangible impact in lives majority of Indians. Sustainable fashion is not taken seriously because people who have forayed into the space have not made a compelling case of why it is important and how it does not deflect, and rather supports the national priorities—economic development, resource efficiency, and cleaner environment.

The fashion industry has some startling statistics on environmental degradation. For instance, it can take 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single T-Shirt. As per World Resources Institute, 5.9 trillion litres of water are used each year for fabric dyeing alone. Around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from treatment and dyeing of textiles, and about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textile. As per another report, every second, an equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is either burnt or landfilled. As per Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the global textile industry emits 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per-year, close to the level of emissions from the automobile industry.

With India’s high share of global population and increasing purchasing power, it would be quite soon that India starts accounting for a major share in these statistics. Besides, there is no credible recycling chain for the billions of tonnes of fast fashion items sold every year. Majority of them are made from non-biodegradable fibres. Each year, about 60 million tonnes of new fibers are used to make garments, and no plausible concept exists on what to do with them when they are no longer needed. As a result, three-quarters of these products are disposed off in landfills or incineration plants.

While India may not have mainstreamed sustainable fashion, there are some efforts happening without the ‘explicit’ mention of the term. For instance, Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is doing a good job in promoting khadi products. They have tied up with leading brands—Arvind Mills and Raymonds—and are also working with Air India to promote khadi products. Khadi is seeing its own ‘yoga moment’ on the back of internationalisation of demand, undergirded by demand from millennials and rising awareness. Likewise, NITI Aayog’s Forum for North East has highlighted the role of bamboo in the development of North East. Over 60% of India’s bamboo is grown in the North East and the government recognises its role for development of the region. There are certain bamboo products such as bamboo charcoal fibre that can be used in the fashion industry.

There is a compelling case for sustainable fashion in India which can achieve resource efficiency, reduce waste and minimise carbon emissions—all this while supporting India’s economic development. What are the ways in which the government and industry can partner for this cause?

First, sustainable fashion should find a seat whenever textiles industry is brought to the table. Second, the government can suggest and industry can voluntarily comply posting the details of resources consumed while producing a particular product. Can a T-shirt mention it used x litres of water to be produced? Indians have always been conscious consumers, and this will automatically lead to sensible consumption. Third, the government can keep re-plugging the campaigns such as #wearlocalgoglobal or #Indiaforindigenous which will promote local textiles.

Fourth, sustainable fashion can be used as a lever for FTAs as the West continues to push for better working conditions and resource efficiency. The textile industry operates on the back of global supply chains—where Vietnam and Bangladesh account for 6% of the market share, China for 34%, while India accounts for 4%. Sustainable fashion can, over the years, emerge as India’s competitive advantage. Fifth, some behaviour changes should be championed by both the government and the industry. If we use products such as bamboo, khadi, hemp, etc, we might not need to wash our clothes often and the same can be communicated by the government. This fits squarely with the Jal Shakti Ministry’s vision on conservation. Lastly, we should highlight how states like Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have policies geared towards sustainability, like ones on hemp production, and ecnourage other states to follow suit. Hemp is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics, uses less water and can be cropped multiple times a year. This will help in doubling farmers’ income, too.

Mainstreaming the issue is the first, and possibly, the toughest, task of policy making. If there are clear benefits, we can start holding dialogues on this issue to better understand the contours of sustainable fashion. Issues of sustainability can be easily part of mainstream agenda if they do not hurt the economic development. Prima facie, it seems that the sustainable fashion industry will only aid the economic development in India.

Dhar is public policy specialist, NITI Aayog and Singh is co-founder, ASLEE

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