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Carbon Neutral Couture: The Future Of Clothing?

Carbon-neutrality takes into account strict benchmarks related to effluence free manufacturing, fertilizer free crop cultivation and 100 % water recycling to conserve ground water levels and most importantly, the tenets of buy, conserve and compost.

Photo Credit : Sugandha Jindal


Imagine that your chic, semi-luscent, evening gown can only last if you watered it every week. If you subjected it to sunlight for atleast 7-8 hours a day and you took care of it, then it would last you for about 2 months. Once you are ready to dispose of it, you could simply compost it and return it back to the soil without having to populate a landfill or dump it in an incinerator which could set off fumes that cause the AQI of your city to go into a teetering tailspin !

Welcome to the future of apparel. Welcome to bio-garmenting. Canadian-Iranian designer, Roya Aghighi has made a stunning invention. She has developed textiles using algae, which turn the surrounding carbon dioxide in the air to oxygen via photosynthesis in an attempt to lay bare the wanton havoc that fast, impulsive fashion is wreaking to the environment. These clothes are a proof of concept for making textiles, using living, photosynthetic cells ! Although still at laboratory stage, it won’t be long before Aghighi hits the market with a line of sustainable bio-couture for the discerning climate conscious consumer !

A survey by Accenture in 2017 said that 33% of consumers would buy more if they knew the manufacturer’s name. In an industry which is literally flatlining in its carbon emission goals, carbon-neutral apparel is perhaps the best way of getting there without putting a blowtorch to the agenda.

Carbon-neutrality takes into account strict benchmarks related to effluence free manufacturing, fertilizer free crop cultivation and 100 % water recycling to conserve ground water levels and most importantly, the tenets of buy, conserve and compost.

The apparel industry emits 3.2 billion tonnes of CO2e annually, which is 10% of the global carbon emissions and more than 20% of wastewater in addition to 93 million meters of textile waste! While the environmental impact of the airline industry is well known, the fashion industry guzzles more energy than aviation and shipping combined !

It is estimated that it takes more than 70 million barrels of oil to produce all the global consumption of polyester fibres which constitute around 65% of all clothing manufactured in swank factories with weak carbon footprint management systems. While the clothing supply systems in their desperate dash to be more aligned, agile and adapted look at slashing costs as a major parameter to achieving their Grailic goals, the calculus still cuts only one way – the way to environmental perdition.

While polyester products are easy to maintain and are lightweight, yet the carbon footprint from a polyester blended shirt is double to that of a cotton shirt. A polyester shirt would emit 5.5 kilos of CO2e compared to 2.1 kilos from a cotton shirt and it takes hundred of years for polyester to decompose into the soil, sometimes leading to micro-fibers escaping into the air, which can cause debilitating lung diseases – one of the major fallouts of sweatshop economies like Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.

Every year the global fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water —enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people, while a woman in eastern Africa walks 6 kilometers daily for 8 liters of water ! Rainwater harvesting is not a habit amongst most large scale manufacturers, causing groundwater levels to sink to alarming levels and being polluted with toxic effluence from the dyeing processes being absorbed by the soil.

Would bio-couture – which is sourcing alternative textiles from wood, fruit, bamboo, algae be the next frontier for sustainable apparel? It is too expensive for a mass-premium offering and is yet to achieve critical mass in terms of pricing, mass production, evolved supply chains. However like the ubiquitious startup, biocouture certainly is more than qualified to achieve its moment of glory, provided it gets its due filip !

There are alternatives such as online shopping which reduce the carbon footprint of travel, although consumer behavior has changed over the years. Returns constitute almost 50% of online purchases and with failed pickups and late deliveries being factored in, it is cheaper to burn the returns rather than refresh them for resale ! This in turn doubles the GHG( green house gas) emissions from the purchase cycle. A popular alternative in South Asian and European countries is swapping clothes albeit the trend is yet to catch on in India given our choice bias to -used? clothes, unless it’s a premier -hand-me-down? like pashmina stoles or silk sarees belonging to an uber-fashionable aunt or grandma !

It is estimated that more than 10.2 million tonnes of textiles ended up in landfills while another 2.9 million tonnes were incinerated in the US in 2017 ( Source: US Environmental Protection Agency )

The endgame is not visible yet but we are confronted with a herculean task. It is evident that taking a flight is cleaner in CO2e terms than wearing a pair of jeans ! Can we look at conquering our mindsets instead of falling prey to compulsive buying behavior? Can we wear our clothes more than 22 times a year? Can we look at buying something only when we feel the need for it rather than succumbing to impulse and plummeting sense of social seclusion?

The global community has targeted to reduce CO2e emissions to 45% by 2030 and to 0% by 2045. Truth be told, with economies like India, China and Brazil racing to achieve multi trillion dollar GDPs, this is akin to scaling the Everest by doing handstands!

Perhaps we could look at alternative ways of manufacturing? Like the handloom or wind driven looms? India could play a key role here with a village count of 6.6 million populated by a diaspora of skilled weavers, artisans and growers abounding in almost each village.

Coupled with urban exfiltration and genealogical skills, we look poised to lead the charge of the carbon neutral saga into global markets. Given our unique position as both a producer and a consumptive economy, who else, but us could play the role of a global pioneer with Columbic zeal?

Roya Aghighi may be just in time but she would need to test out her invention in the great Indian marketplace to stay relevant and ahead of the pack.. The way forward to wearing -live? clothing is a plausible proposition for another day but certainly cannot be swift-boated out of the horizon.

Thus far and further.

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 noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Arup Datta

Co-founder - KHADDER and the Founding Trustee of the Ranmir Foundation. Is a TEDx Speaker, mentor in the clean water, feminine health and khadi spaces.

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