Sustainability Conversations

8 Important Things in Fashion's Journey to Responsible Production and Consumption

In conversation with

Manu Kapur

President & CEO - Home Textiles at GHCL Ltd.

Adapted from a talk on Responsible Consumption & Production in the Textile Industry – Opportunities & Obstacles by Manu Kapur, President & CEO – Home Textiles Division, GHCL

I want to start with an image of a white coloured dog who happened to fall into a river that flows through West India and is home to many textile mills. The dog came out blue, a deep colour blue. So what does this tell us? I’m sure you know about this in large part.

  1. Production, use and distribution of garments and textiles, is mainly linear. It follows the Take, Make and Dispose model. An immense 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources are consumed annually. It is likely to go up to 300 million tonnes in case the industry goes on without making any changes.
  2. The fashion industry’s water consumption is about 93 trillion litres annually. So to put things in perspective, that’s the equivalent of filling water in 38 million Olympic sized swimming pools. Just less than 1% of garments are recycled into new clothes every year. 20% of industrial water pollution is a result of the textile industry.
  3. The textile industry’s contribution currently to the carbon budget is 2%. If things are not changed dramatically and fast, we could likely go up to 26% by 2050 — a real catastrophe! Over 10% of the global carbon footprint comes from this industry. It is more than all aviation and maritime activities put together.
  4. The clothing production currently sits at about 60 million tonnes of garments a year. And this figure is likely to go up by three times by 2050. So, what exactly is putting this huge demand? Mainly fast fashion which is inducing a lot of impulse buying.
  5. Fast fashion is accelerating consumption. Fast fashion primarily comes with two parameters in it. One is low prices. The other is the frequent changes that induce customers to buy more. Till some years back, they were mainly two seasons for buying garments – spring-summer and autumn-winter. Now there are over 50 micro seasons a year. We are on a consumption treadmill, with most retailers inducing sales through advertising, great in-store material, point-of-purchase. bright lights, loud music, wide aisles, well-assorted range, discount coupons, vouchers, brochures, catalogues and more.
  6. Over 50% of fast fashion is disposed-off in the year that it is purchased. That is truly alarming. The extent of usage of a garment has gone down by 36% over the past 15 years. Not using garments to the full capacity or their full utility leads to a value loss of $500 billion a year! 1.8 billion kilogrammes of waste in landfills comes from the textile industry. That’s about 5% of the total landfill space and makes it the second most polluting industry in the world.

How does this impact production? In several ways.

  1. Exploitative labour practices are common. Most factories that fast fashion uses globally are not their own. Workers work in conditions that are exploitative with hardly any rights — toiling long hours for very little pay. What comes to mind immediately is the tragedy of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where 1100 people lost their lives because of structural integrity issues in a building.
  2. Cheap materials that do not biodegrade are commonly used. Materials like virgin polyester dominate fast fashion. So, the fact that virgin-polyester is non-biodegradable and has an enhanced carbon footprint makes it extremely problematic. Plus quality and durability of garments are largely compromised. Moreover, when synthetic clothes are laundered they release microplastics. About half a million tonnes of microplastics wind their way into the oceans, get ingested by fish and eventually end up into the human food chain.

So what can one do in terms of adhering to responsible consumption?

  • Be Mindful. The first thing is to be mindful of what we’re buying. To love what we’re buying and not be carried away in terms of randomly picking up pieces that would eventually end up in our wardrobes.
  • Checking tags is crucial. What I mean here is checking the tags to figure out what the fibre composition of the fabric is. It is common knowledge that BCI cotton organic cotton is better than conventional cotton. Recycled polyester is better than virgin polyester. Brands also need to be asked those tough questions also- where and under what conditions were the garments made.
  • Check the seams. It is also equally important to check the seams of garments. The seams of garments will tell you the quality of the garment. In other words, the durability and longevity of clothing.
  • Cost per wear. Finally, it’s essential to think in terms of cost per wear and not just the absolute cost of a garment. For instance, an organic cotton top could cost Rs 4000, and you could wear it 20 times. The cost of being 200 rupees versus a virgin polyester top for 1500 rupees worn just five times by you- which is 300 rupees per wear.

The industry needs to move towards a circular economy; towards a restorative and regenerative system. Creating designs that minimise waste is the place that one needs to start with, because, to reuse as much material as possible, one needs to begin with design. Designers can ensure that recyclability, longevity and quality of garments are taken care of by using sustainable, low impact fibre that results in reduced emissions and minimises water and energy consumption. Phasing out harmful substances is of crucial importance for humans, life in general as well as the planet.

Further, it is crucial to steer the increase of clothing utilisation- the number of times that you wear a garment. Of course, there are other models that work really well. The restorative model, the garment restoring model, or the rental model, apart from the usual hand me downs. A couple of cases that come to mind immediately are the Patagonia model. You could wear their outerwear, use it as long as you want, send it back to them and get store credit for it. These garments are sorted, refurbished and rented out or sold on their website at substantially lower prices. Urban Outfitters has what’s called the rent a runway model, where for $88 a month, you can rent out six garments.

The effective use of resources moving as much as possible to renewable inputs is of crucial importance. But the key obstacles to achieving sustainability has been the fact that consumers have not been consistently factoring sustainability into their purchase decisions. But things are changing in some segments. For instance in some parts of the world, millennials are moving towards asking tough questions and are very conscious about what they purchase.

Overall though, the scale is not enough!

There is a lack of awareness on the enormity of the issue. The textile industry has such a significant role to play in terms of where we are today as a planet but the organisational strategy has not integrated sustainability in many organisations. The triple bottom line approach with profits, people and planet are not taken into consideration. Companies like IKEA do a fabulous job at all points in time, and the triple bottom line approach is on top of mind. In several other cases, retail buying decisions are disconnected from the organisation’s sustainability roadmap.

There is a misnomer that compliance equals sustainability. Sustainability is a lot more. There is a lack of clarity on where to start and what all to implementation. There is a very complex network of production globally. Dual pressure on costs and lead times causes substantial issues.

GHCL has launched some pathbreaking initiatives in terms of responsible production. We lauched, Rekoop a sustainable bedding solution last March. This solution uses recycled polyester from post-consumer PET bottles. The fibre comes from Reliance and is forensically traceable with DNA to secure provenance and supply chain traceability of the recycled polyester. The concept is circular. Used sheets, through a return programme that a retailer runs can be brought back to us. We partner with a Japanese company that has factories globally. And using their expertise, we depolymerise the intimately blended fabric. The cotton becomes a biofuel, and the recycled polyester becomes the raw material for re-manufacture. It is re-tagged with DNA and is produced into sheets again.

GHCL works with Chemistree in a way that is different from the way that most in the textile industry are working. We’ve moved from having 29 suppliers for all our chemicals to having a single supplier who manufactures 70% of what we use and trades for the balance 30% on our behalf. The supplier is based out of China.

  • The mandate given to the supplier called transfer chemicals is to ensure that every single chemical that we use is sustainable, truly sustainable, not just compliant. To prove the sustainability, we’ve asked them to ensure that every chemical sits on one of the three top sustainability platforms. -The Bluesign of blue finder, or ZDHC Zero discharge of hazardous chemicals or eco passport by Oeko-tex.
  • The other mandate is SKU reduction.
  • The third mandate is a reduction of the absolute amount of chemicals per kilogramme of fabric processed year on year.

We would love to share this with the industry. And this is not a competitive advantage for us. We’d love for you to replicate what we’re doing.

This is for the planet!