The road to a sustainable future will be paved when we start leaving waste in our past.
Sustainability and sustainable development are today at the forefront of research and policy discussions. Sustainability is the property of being able to progress, prolong and protract. The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as the form of progress that meets the needs of the present without compromising on the ability of future generations to meet their requirements. As the rhetoric and action surrounding sustainability touches industries around the world, the fashion industry globally has acknowledged that many of the products it manufactures and markets to consumers have a significant impact on the environment, society and economies.
Worth over US$ 1 trillion, the clothing industry employs around 26 million people and supports a number of economies the world over. Rising consumption, global sourcing and competition have led to a significant environmental and social footprint across its lifecycle. Leaders in the fashion industry are studying their social policies, carbon footprint, and tracking energy consumption and wastes which happen during the course of manufacturing, supply chain, consumer use, disposal and recycling.
In today’s age of social networking and blogging, consumers across the globe are raising questions about the origins and journey of a product to markets, and making choices based on environmental and ethical concerns. Consumer loyalty is increasingly being linked to full supply chain transparency. Companies, too, are rapidly responding to this demand, as these choices begin to hit both their top and bottom lines, and are now publishing data about their social and carbon footprint within their own consumer literature and websites. Thus they are substantially increasing interest in sustainability.
Apparently, even the latest world financial crunch may not stop this shift in sourcing requirements imposed by the buyers, and that corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives are part of long term strategies. Forums have been formed involving government, industry and consumer interest groups that are helping manufacturers and brands think through the environmental impact of clothing, share best practices, and provide environmentally sound options for manufacturing, use and disposal of clothing.
Interestingly and understandably, much of this discussion is happening in Europe and the US, and most directives are emanating from brands and retailers who sell into these countries and source globally. Therefore, as part of the fashion industry in India, we need to understand the issues faced internationally, and how these are beginning to impact us now, and future ramifications. Simultaneously, we need to scrutinise our own fashion culture and market, and consider what our concerns should be, and what issues need to be highlighted or studied further. Here is the synopsis of the eight key issues pertaining to the clothing industry along with some of the best practices in India and abroad:
- Sustainable design
Fashion designers use their products as a way of satisfying the yearning to create, to bring energy and excitement to a situation, and to provoke and reflect contemporary societal needs. Internationally, however, the craze of fast fashion has encouraged high levels of disposal – countries like the UK and the US publish figures of around 30 kg per person sent to the landfill each year. A lot of these garments are in good condition but have been discarded by the user who is always looking for something new.
Sustainable design is designing the right product with the additional impact of longevity in mind. The joy of fashion is its ability to change, respond, mutate and adapt. If these can be incorporated in harmony with the planet’s needs it can wipe out the myth that sustainable design has to be dull and boring.
Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart suggest that rather than trying to minimise a product’s cradleto-grave costs, designers should aim for cradle-to-cradle processing systems in which all outputs produced throughout a product’s lifetime are used as inputs for another product. Their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, calls on design innovators to help make the word ‘waste’ obsolete by designing closed loop manufacturing systems in which waste from one process becomes raw material for another. They suggest that the road to a sustainable future will be paved when we start leaving waste in our past.
- Sustainable fibres and fabrics
Leading companies are looking at innovations in fibres and ecotextiles to be included in their range. Cotton, though a natural fibre, has shown up in bad light recently as toxic material and pesticides are widely used in cotton growing, pretreatment and colouring of fabric. Also, large volumes of water are consumed at this stage.
Regenerated cellulose: It is considered a highly desirable ecofriendly product. For example, viscose and bamboo.
Polyester: It is considered to be sustainable when used well, as it has a long life and garments made of polyester may be used for a long time. Disposal is an issue as it is not biodegradable. Recycled polyester is being used by many brands, though colour matching is an issue. Recycling standards have not yet been established.
Nylon: Companies like Hyosung (Korea), and Unifi (US) have launched recycled nylon 6 yarns.
Organic fibres: The demand for organic cotton grew by 83 per cent last year, according to the Organic Exchange. Production figures show that the organic section is only 2 per cent of the cotton crop.
- Sustainable manufacturing
A key challenge for manufacturers is to make products using a sustainable approach. Manufacturing industries have started recognising that it is their responsibility to design a sustainable manufacturing system which has less environmental impact and social disruption, and promotes wealth. Use of fossil fuels for energy, chemical wastes, and treatment and trafficking of labour are increasingly becoming key issues during this process. Many brands that source garments out of India have CSR departments that focus on these areas. Bad publicity and international public awareness have been key drivers in this case. Manufacturing for the domestic market, on the other hand, is much more disorganised, and brands have little or no focus on any of these areas.
- Transportation and logistics
Today, each stage of the supply chain occurs in the part of the world that has the most effective and economical process. The fibre for a t-shirt sold in Nevada may have been grown in Turkey, shipped to India for yarn spinning and knitting, sewn into garments in Bangladesh, and shipped back to the US for retail sales. Labels, hangers and the like are often manufactured in Hong Kong, and the distances travelled by each garment are often as much as 15,000 miles. Fuel consumed in this process is being scrutinised as an environmental hazard, and is beginning to be considered when sourcing decisions are made.
As calculated by the New Scientist Weekly, air miles expend as much as 105 times the energy as that of sea. In India most clothing products today are sourced from within the country, but this too is slowly changing with big players like Reliance needing to look at economies of scale and optimum sourcing.
- Sustainable retail
The process of retailing can also be looked at from an environmental view point. Excess packaging, electricity consumption, cooling, non-sustainable materials are areas being explored and monitored by retail companies. Marks & Spencer, Walmart and Tesco have converted their regular stores into green stores. For example, M&S has reduced carbon emission from their stores by 55,000 tonnes, and saved 1400 tonnes of packaging in the 2007-08 fiscal. In India we have not yet seen a shift towards sustainable retail, although the first signs are visible in the IT industry.
- Consumer use
A garment is worn, washed, tumble dried, and often ironed. Nowadays, garments are washed more to increase freshness rather than for actual cleansing. Research shows that a washing machine consumes upto 15,000 gallons of water per year. Apart from water, fuel is burnt to create electricity for washing machines and dryers. Internationally, 80 per cent of the energy consumption during the life of a garment has been attributed to consumer use. Taking India as a whole, the use of a washing machine and drier is much less evident, but the market is growing every year, and many middle class households will fall into these categories in the coming years.
- Reuse and disposal
Historically, a garment in India was used by many people while it was in wearable condition. Clothes were handed down from sibling to sibling, or given to younger cousins; fathers gave their suits to their sons, and mothers treasured their saris to give to their daughters. When they could not be used any more, the garments were converted into quilts or dusters. Today’s fashion consumption cycle is veering more and more towards trends, and clothing is purchased on an impulse and to fulfill a whim rather than for its durability. Increasingly, garments are worn a few times and then discarded. Younger siblings now prefer to make their own purchases, and children in general have become brand conscious and particular about wearing fashionable products.
However, there are still sustainable processes in place where clothing, when discarded by the first user, is handed down to a maid or helper, or to a bartanwali in exchange of new vessels. These garments are further sold or handed down to others, and when the garment is not wearable any more it is torn into strips to be used as rags or dusters. What we need to be aware of is that these processes, which were de rigueur within most households, are now determined more by one’s economic status.
There are traditional cottage industries which recycle textile products and convert them into rugs, artifacts, etc. There has not been much development in these industries, and many of them are closing down due to economic reasons. Ineffective product development by craftsmen and increased interest in ready-to-wear by the domestic consumers have led to a fall in the business, and we will soon see many of these processes disappear. The recycled polyester industry is more organised, and is developed by Reliance Industries among others.
Internationally, brands like Patagonia and Sears use recycled polyester in their garments, mostly for outerwear like jackets, wet suits and mountain equipment.
The carbon footprint of the country’s apparel industry and market is currently impacted by three influencers. The quantum and impact of all these influencers will grow in the times to come. Driven by greater awareness, and increasing focus on a greener future and global well being, it would be in the interest of industry to proactively innovate in this area.
- Pressure from international partners
Led by the consumer’s insistence on transparency, apparel buyers have laid out clear guidelines of expectations from their suppliers. Exporters working for brands like M&S, Walmart, Gap and Nike are regularly audited for social compliance, and are feeling the heat of environmental audits as well. Collaboration is essential for brands to achieve their sustainability objectives, and companies are working at building strategic partnerships to accelerate solutions. Exporters and other raw material suppliers like Prathiba Syntex, Alps Industries, and Alok Industries, among several others, have already begun their journey towards being socially responsible and carbon positive. Their experience is worthy of emulation.
- Corporate ideologies
Large corporates with a presence in the apparel industry have CSR and environment in their missions and policies. An example is ITC (Wills Lifestyle, John Players), which seems committed to its triple bottom line. In accordance with stringent G3 guidelines of global reporting, ITC was audited by Price Waterhouse Coopers, and was certified as carbon positive, water positive, and zero waste corporation. Arvind Mills has shifted from LPG to natural gas, and focuses on effluent treatment, afforestation, and rain water harvesting. Pratibha Syntex’s Vasudha project for organic cotton farming covers 125,000 acres, and Raymond has long had a sustainable viewpoint. These companies will continue to have environment friendly initiatives. A point to note is that even though information is available on their websites, and shareholders are probably kept in the loop, none of them have yet thought of selling sustainability as a USP to the apparel or fashion consumer.
- Conservative culture
India as a nation has conservation embedded in its culture. Our religious and cultural practices promote interdependence with the ecosystem that people live in as opposed to looking upon the earth as a biosystem, to be used for the benefit of human beings. For generations families have conserved their resources and lived in harmony with and appeased nature. Clothing has been cared for and used by many people in a family, before being cut up and converted into patchwork quilts, cushion covers and rags. Textiles are counted among heirlooms to be passed down over generations. But as the culture of consumption gains strength, clothing is being discarded well before its time. Children, exposed to media and commercialism, want to buy theme merchandise, and do not want to wear handed down clothes. This trend is good for both the industry and commerce, but one has to be aware of the impact this may have on the environment in the years to come.
- Fair Practice
The Ministry of Child and Women’s Development is in discussion with NGOs and corporates on how to address issues of child labour and exploitation in the apparel industry.
The ministry, along with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and private corporations like Gap, Impulse, Next and Orient Fashions, has initiated a public private partnership think-tank, which has started awareness campaigns and training initiatives. These aim at eradicating child labour, and training and empowering exploited labour to become self sustainable. Labelling of garments with a `Free of child labour’ tag, and working with source regions are other initiatives in the pipeline. The Ministry of Environment is also facilitating and monitoring applications for carbon credits due to reduced emissions. Arvind Mills and JCT are examples of textile companies that have reduced their emissions and are registered on the exchange.
A study of the market shows that even though there are fashion brands that use sustainable materials (currently Guess has four products, Tommy Hilfiger two, Raymond many), and focus on sustainable processes (ITC, Fabindia, USI), no clothing brands are using `sustainability’ as their USP. Some designers too are bringing out eco-friendly ranges. This is in vast contrast to the west where clothing brands and retailers are actively vying for a share in the consumer’s perception of being a responsible brand (M&S, Nike, Patagonia, Tesco, Walmart, Gap). The elusive Indian consumer is totally responsible for this situation.
The sustainable Indian
In a survey conducted by the National Geographic (Greendex), on the sustainability front, the Indian consumer tied for the first place with Brazil out of the 14 countries surveyed. A closer look shows that this is due to the relatively lower environmental impact from housing, and an above average performance on transportation and food. Indians tend to repair, recycle and highlight the importance of the environment to their daily lives. These same consumers ranked last in a quiz on environmental knowledge, indicating that the green Indian is inherently so because of his lifestyle, and not because he is making conscious green choices.
What may be possible
It is possible that the sustainable Indian will in time evolve into the sustainable consumer. The transition depends on three Cs: convenience, cost, and concern for the environment. The perception that green makes business sense is slowly gaining ground. Energy-saving lights, organic foods, ban on plastic bags and replacement with bags of jute and cotton, eco-tourism and environment friendly residential complexes — the fashion industry may decide to follow suit, and nudge consumers into buying products that are good not just for them but also for the environment.
Clothing brands may rightly ask whether cultivating sustainability aware consumers is worth all the trouble. Once businesses remove the obstacles between consumers’ desire to buy responsibly, and the actual follow through of those sentiments, sustainable products could experience explosive sales growth. Innovators may initially lead a lonely path, but in time will gain a first mover advantage. Apart from that, by building a responsible reputation, a corporation can attract talented employees, inspire loyal customers, and in time charge more for its products.
Tips for apparel companies
- Understand sustainability: It is important for apparel brands/industry to understand sustainability variables from design to manufacture, from retail to disposal.
- Have a point of view: Brands need to have a point of view on the elements of sustainability that are relevant to their brand and their market. They need to decide as to what their stand is on issues such as environment and CSR. A time may soon come when consumers would want to know, and brands will have to be proactive in their responses.
- Get your house in order: Brands that aspire to be sustainable must get their house in order. They should make themselves aware of the issue, track supply chain practices, and invest in improvement. Indian brands and retailers currently place little importance on the working conditions and environmental impact of the factories they source from.
- Realise that sustainability is not enough: The environmental/sustainable message of brands today must be combined with the more traditional consumer touch points, such as style, price, etc.
- Know that sustainability is personal: Communicate to the consumer on a personal level – CSR and sustainability are personal decisions that consumers make. Political/ legal influences may increase awareness, but commitment to purchase is a personal one.
Don’t greenwash: With the aim to get on the sustainability bandwagon, there has been a tendency among international brands to try to differentiate themselves through promotional communication, but not really investing in sustainable development. This makes the consumer distrustful, and has a negative effect in the long run.
The transformational challenge for apparel companies is to make the word ‘responsible’ a part of their DNA, in much the same way we have made globalisation and digital technology a part of nearly every business consideration. The saying, “today’s best practice is the standard of tomorrow”, would hopefully prompt today’s successful sustainable strategies to fast become the standard – and promote long term benefits for businesses and for generations to come.