Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Reimagining the future of fast fashion: Tackling post-consumption textile waste for sustainability

With the proliferation of cheap fashion and throwaway culture, textiles compete with plastics as the top contributor to our landfills. Can a trifecta partnership between the government, textile industry and consumers be achieved to take concrete and urgent measures towards creating a circular economy?

Published: Feb 2, 2024 12:33:06 PM IST
Updated: Feb 2, 2024 12:45:25 PM IST

Reimagining the future of fast fashion: Tackling post-consumption textile waste for sustainabilityIndia is among the world's largest producers of textiles and apparel, contributing 2.3 percent to the country's GDP. Still, if we want our growth to be inclusive and sustainable, we must reimagine how we approach textile waste. Image: Shutterstock

India has always been a leader in textile recycling, even before sustainability was a buzzword in the industry. Panipat emerged as the recycling hub in the mid-1990s, producing cheap, shoddy yarn from recycled wool. The textile industry took off in Panipat, clocking over $300 million. But that has changed in recent years. Today, textile mills in Panipat are struggling as demand for cheaper and lighter polyester substitutes has increased with wholesale buyers. The demand slump has also hit revenues, with annual revenues falling to $62m.

India is among the world's largest producers of textiles and apparel, contributing 2.3 percent to the country's GDP. The sector aims to achieve $250 billion in textiles production and $100 billion in exports by 2030. Still, if we want our growth to be inclusive and sustainable, we must reimagine how we approach textile waste. We produce 7,793 kilotonnes of textile waste, of which 3,944 is post-consumer textile waste. Nearly 34 percent or 1,347 kilotonnes of post-consumer textile waste is in landfills. Depending on the nature of the fabric, some textile waste can take over 200 years to decompose in landfills.

Dealing with the complexity of blended garments

A recent study revealed that consumers prefer cotton clothing, with almost 84 percent of respondents favouring cotton or poly-elastane garments. Blended clothing emerged as the second most preferred alternative, chosen by 63 percent of respondents. Silk and polyester garments constituted smaller proportions of the pie at 24 percent and 15 percent, respectively, compared to cotton and blended textiles. With nearly 63 percent of respondents purchasing blended garments, India currently has limited capacities and capability to process blended waste.

During a recent meeting with officials from the Indian Textile Ministry, it was revealed that there are no current schemes to address post-consumer waste. So, the need of the hour is to build the infrastructure and sorting mechanism to handle blended garments. The biggest challenge to making recycling a reality is to simplify the complexity of sorting and separating reclaimed textiles for recycling. Blended garments often contain several other fibre types and contaminants from dyes and finishing chemistry. The demand for cheap fast fashion, largely made using blended fibres, is multiplying rapidly. To meet this demand, cotton mills blend viscose and polyester into cotton to remain economically viable due to shortages and contamination.

Also read: Waste is a material of choice for an Indian fashion brand Urban Darzi

The rise of throwaway culture

The proliferation of fast fashion has fueled a throwaway culture. Over 80% of consumers surveyed in the top 6 metros in India buy at least one new piece of clothing every month. What then happens to unwanted clothes? While most donate the clothes they no longer want to wear and a small percentage upcycle, at least 17% dispose of their clothes in the trash. With seasonal styles launched every few weeks by fast fashion brands, customers are encouraged to upgrade their wardrobes constantly. Retailers are doing little to take back out-of-season or sparingly used clothes.

Sustainability rating for clothes

As per the study, 68 percent of the respondents were conscious of the environmental crisis triggered by garment waste, and 80 percent were willing to support sustainability initiatives. While 68 percent are eager to purchase upcycled clothes, nearly 60 percent are ready to pay a 10-20 percent cost premium if the garment is sustainable. However, no mechanism exists to identify which garments are sustainable or earth-friendly. While buying an electrical appliance such as a refrigerator or an air conditioner, we can quickly gauge energy consumption through Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) ratings.

In the textile industry, a notable absence persists—a lack of a comprehensive rating system akin to those found in other sectors. Establishing a similar rating system for clothing can empower consumers to make informed and conscientious choices while safeguarding against deceptive greenwashing practices. Crafting a sustainability rating for each garment requires thoroughly examining certain important factors. This includes assessing the recyclability of the fibres employed in garment production, scrutinising the use of organic and natural dyes, and quantifying the environmental impact through considerations such as CO2 emissions and water consumption during manufacturing.

A robust sustainability rating system can guide consumers towards environmentally responsible fashion decisions by addressing these key elements. Interestingly, nearly 50 percent of the respondents in the study agree that a 'sustainability rating' might influence their purchase decision. So, this could potentially hold the key to boosting the demand for sustainable garments.

Also read: Thoughtful consumption: The "last mile" in well-being and sustainability

If a circular economy in fashion has to be developed, a trifecta partnership between the textile industry, the government, and consumers is needed. Immediate steps that could be taken are:

  • Consumer awareness: Key stakeholders, including textile manufacturers, government, recyclers, and upcyclers, will have to collaborate to educate consumers on the impact of fast fashion on landfills. However, awareness efforts should not be limited to education alone; concrete steps such as implementing sustainability ratings and improving traceability of textile waste post-donation are essential.
  • Channelising post-sale consumer waste: Textile manufacturers and the government must collaborate to review and upgrade the infrastructure and technological platforms used for collecting, sorting, and recycling waste for value realisation. Setting up a dedicated recycling infrastructure for clothing by offering recycling channels to customers—takeback models in-store, pick-up services, feedback into second-hand, and material processing for new items are all potential measures that can be taken. Additionally, the government must implement support and incentive programs to attract investment and foster innovation sustainably and circularly initiatives.
  • Connecting with the fashion ecosystem: The fashion ecosystem must collaborate to make sustainable fashion initiatives a reality. For example, horizontal and vertical e-commerce players should join forces to provide discounts and cashback for exchanging old garments and delivery. Industry bodies should also unite to reduce the prices of sustainable clothes, making them attractive enough for consumers. Special incentives and subsidies will give the retailers an impetus to build sustainable networks for buy-back schemes and optimise manufacturing and distribution practices. This will also go a long way in fostering a culture of circularity within the retail sector.
  • Government regulations: Pricing negative externalities such as carbon emission in the manufacturing process and synthetic fibres in weaves in the form of taxes or fines would discourage their use, lead to innovation and accelerate the adoption of natural materials. For example, a governmental committee in the UK has recommended a tax on virgin plastic (that would cover polyester). When extrapolated for the fashion industry, this would increase the price of synthetics, making natural materials more attractive.

By understanding the current costs and business viability of the key stakeholders across the textile waste value chain, it is possible to identify the potential opportunities for intervention and investment in textile waste management in India. For example, using the currently available data, it can be estimated that an initial investment of 80 lacs to 3 crores is required to establish a textile waste collection and sorting business in India. Factors like technology, logistics, and municipal support influence this cost.

In analysing the potential impact, we focused on processing one metric tonne per day of post-consumer textile waste, recognising that approximately 80 percent of this waste can be reused, recycled, or upcycled. As a result, we anticipate a significant reduction in landfill waste—about 250 metric tonnes can be diverted yearly from ending up in landfills. These findings underscore the transformative potential of embracing circular fashion practices and actively managing textile waste streams.

The urgency of the climate crisis calls for accelerated progress towards circular fashion. With the right measures, it is possible to build a model that delivers inclusive and sustainable growth that the rest of the world can learn from and replicate—a model of sustainable fashion that future generations will look at with pride and reverence.

Acknowledgement: This article is based on research conducted by Indian School of Business (ISB) students to understand customers' shopping preferences and their awareness of sustainable fashion options. The study was conducted across six key metros with a sample size of 140 individuals. The study was part of the Action Learning Project of the Emerging Leaders Programme at ISB's Executive Education.

Anjal Prakash is a clinical associate professor (research) and research director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business (ISB). He teaches sustainability at ISB.
Lalitha Yalamanchi is the head of Corporate Communications & Brand Marketing at Facilio.
Naveen Tammina is the Marketing Head at Biofac Inputs Pvt. Ltd.
Prashant Shetty is a Vice President at SBI Life Insurance Co. Ltd., driving strategies for the bancassurance business with Regional Rural Banks and on the YONO platform of SBI.
Sooraj Divakaran is the Director of Marketing at MaxVal Group, Inc.
Tejal Pallan is the General Manager for category product development at Welspun Global Brands Ltd.
Vijay Kumar is the Vice President of Operations at Nutaste Food and Drinks Labs Pvt. Ltd.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from the Indian School of Business, India]