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Sustainable Fashion For The Post COVID World

Sustainable fashion is the need of the hour. The pandemic has also made several textile manufacturers realise the importance of creating multiple sources of supply, more importantly from local and eco-friendly sources

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Apart from fashion labels, the textile industry also has the label of being one of the most polluting and resource-intensive industries. There are multiple staggering figures such as estimated emission of 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (more than airlines and maritime industries combined) and 10000 litres of water required for the manufacturing of a single pair of jeans! However, environmental concerns have not created significant changes in manufacturers’ preference for natural materials such as cotton primarily due to its physical and chemical properties. In Tiruppur, a major textile hub in Tamil Nadu, 700 tonnes of cotton yarn is used every day as opposed to an annual usage of 2000 tonnes of other man-made fibres.

However, in the last two years, the textile industry has been facing a lot of challenges globally. The industry has seen demand shocks followed by severe supply chain disruptions owing to container shortages, worker shortages, port congestions, limited availability of raw materials, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, etc. These logistical challenges are driving opportunistic behaviour among certain buyers, leading to a phenomenon called the Bullwhip effect (Bullwhip effect refers to the increase in the variability in orders upstream due to distortion in demand signals) in Supply Chains, to hoard material which leads to a rise in prices of raw materials creating a vicious cycle of unavailability and increasing prices. The story is no different in India. For instance, the cotton costs have almost doubled in a year - a candy of cotton-29 mm cost Rs. 39,000 in November 2020 but the same cost close to Rs. 1,00,000 in May 2022.

The increasing cost of cotton is making it tough for several Indian textile manufacturers to retain their price competitiveness in the global market. This would be even worse for the manufacturers if the GST rate increases. Owing to strong opposition from the state governments, the GST Council in India recently deferred increasing the tax rate from 5% to 12%.

The confluence of increased environmental consciousness, increased supply chain and regulatory challenges has the potential to be an inflexion point for the industry. Several researchers have been working on finding alternative solutions to reduce this consumption. Now could be the right time to give these efforts a fillip and for manufacturers to make a switch to these alternative solutions which hold the promise of being viable as well as sustainable.    

Sustainable solutions

Apart from being motivated by reducing consumerism, sustainable solutions for this industry revolve around the idea of a circular economy and the use of alternative and eco-friendly raw materials in the production process.

Recycling: According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, 53 million tonnes of fabric is produced every year. Majority of it reaches countries like India as post-consumer waste within a year’s time. Along with other materials like PET Waste, this waste fabric is recycled and used for manufacturing a range of products. For instance, Panipat in Haryana is known for using this fabric for making blankets and bed linen which are consumed not only in India but are also exported to African countries. This waste is also converted to different types of yarn to cater to upstream markets in the textile supply chain as done by Usha Yarns Limited. Several new-age start-ups like Thaely and Neeman’s use plastic waste to create fashionable sneakers that satisfy the fashion needs of the youth in a sustainable way. Global apparel brands such as Nike and Adidas are also producing several products which use recycled materials.

However, recycling is not a complete solution to this problem as there are limits to its viability and sustainability. Textile manufacturers still use only a limited proportion of recycled materials along with fresh resources in their production process. Additionally, apart from compromising the physical and chemical properties of the raw materials, the processing of recycled materials also leads to the release of large amounts of microplastics which pollute the environment.

Upcycling: The concept of upcycling is not new to the world as consumers have always been repurposing old clothes to be used for other household purposes. Upcycling, unlike recycling, does not involve shredding and pulping of raw materials to make it into new products. It is about creative repurposing of the material by merely reshaping the waste into a useful product. Organisations such as Better India, Dwij, and Rimagined upcycle textile waste into innovative products such as tote bags, quilts, clothes, and other furnishings.

Use of Alternative Raw materials: Several alternatives to conventional raw materials have been in experimentation in the textile industry. There is a definite rise in the use of input materials such as agricultural waste, hemp, bamboo, and milk waste by firms all over the world. However, their production is not done in scale to achieve the economies in sourcing provided to the manufacturers using cotton. Further, the technology required to handle such fabric is different from the ones that work with cotton. Companies like Alt Mat and Hemp Fabric Lab in India are working with the textile industry to make these alternative raw materials viable for production on the same machines that process cotton-based fabric thereby ensuring viability. These alternative raw materials are sustainable solutions as they consume less water for processing and possess some hypoallergenic properties.

Sustainable fashion is the need of the hour. The pandemic has also made several textile manufacturers realise the importance of creating multiple sources of supply, more importantly from local and eco-friendly sources. With increasing consumer consciousness and start-ups diving into the sustainable fashion space, there is potential to be hopeful to see less greenwashing and more responsible production and consumption.

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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Sirish Kumar Gouda

The author is Faculty - Operations Management and Decision Sciences Area, Indian Institute of Management Tiruchirappalli, Tiruchirappalli

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Vidhula Venugopal

The author is an independent researcher who was most recently associated with IIMN as Assistant Professor in Strategy & Entrepreneurship

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