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Sustainability, Growth Driver for Fashion and Textiles

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Sustainability in the heart of fashion business helps the world to be a better place in more ways than one. Investing in sustainable practices can deliver never-before opportunities in business expansion and differentiation for products, brands, companies and all partners in the value chain.

Sustainability is clearly a growing area of focus regardless of the industry, civil society, and Governments. It is not difficult to see why 197 Nations signed up for the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, to limit global temperature to within two degrees increase — if not 1.5 degrees — from pre-industrialized levels. Statistical data for similar periods show the critical state of climate distress – in a 17-year comparison, number of floods globally rose from 1200 until CY 2000 to 2800 until 2018.  In a 33-year comparison, droughts rose from 200 until CY1984 to 500 until CY2018. There is much more of such extremely worrying data from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Accounting for 2.4 percent of the global GDP, fashion and textiles are two of the largest industries globally. They touches lives, are media perceptive and prone to NGO scrutiny. They are also some of the most polluting, consumer underutilizing and landfill ending sectors — resulting in huge impacts on the environment. To improve the sustainability quotient of the industry, it is therefore important to understand key parameters across the textile value chain, analyse consumer insights, and view innovative models that build sustainable businesses. 

Sustainability in Fibres

Cotton, polyester and viscose are the top three fibres used in the fashion Industry, and each comes with its unique set of attributes, sustainability challenges and progressive work for betterment. 

Cotton: Cotton fibres are loved for its natural base, comfort and biodegradability and have challenges of conservation of land, water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Cotton uses around three percent of global agricultural land for cultivation with a yield of around 0.9 mt / hectare. India, the largest grower of cotton globally, has a low yield of 0.46 mt/hectare, which needs improvement.  A WRI study shows that a cotton T-shirt of say 0.4 kg consumers a huge 2700 litres of water in manufacturing.  Buyers that are more discernible have been focusing on organic cotton and a fewer ones with BCI. Initially, BT cotton was seen as the panacea for the yield challenge but later results were enriched by plant nutrients, crop rotation and innovative irrigation methods. ROC, practiced by few mills, is one of the best for sustainability in cotton.

Polyester: Polyester, preferred for its ‘wash-n-wear’ qualities, strength and economy, has challenges due to it being made from crude oil, high energy and non-biodegradability — thereby a huge challenge in end of cycle. rPET recycled polyester fibres using PET bottles, form nearly 13 percent and has partly addressed the crude oil challenge. Recycling of clothing-to-clothing polyester articles will be a good step in its sustainability stride to address the end of cycle challenge.

Viscose: Viscose, modal and lyocell brands, popular with consumers for their natural base, fluidity and biodegradability, present challenges in the form of  conservation of forests, use of chemicals, emissions and effluents during manufacture. Responsible manufacturers have excelled by using only FSC, SFI, PEFC certified wood; thus, more trees are planted than destroyed. Birla Cellulose has been a global leader in responsible forestry management. In India, silviculture of the Grasim Harihar unit generates profitable employment for farmers too. Further closed loop and Best Available Technology (BAT) enriched sustainable manufacturing. Lyocell that uses solvent spun technology and spundyed viscose increase sustainability in downstream processes. 

Newer natural fibres such as banana, orange, lotus, pineapple are exotic and gaining attention due to their sustainability credentials. We shall have to wait and see the life cycle assessment of these when they are made commercially.

Dyeing and Finishing Excellence Critical For Environment

‘Wet Processing’ of textiles give fashion a colorful ‘look and feel’, but in doing so, it uses much water, chemicals, steam and energy. Over 2000 chemicals and 60 percent of all coloring matter are used and dispensation of effluents and emissions is a challenge. Globally, 20 percent of all effluents are from the fashion and textile industries. Innovations have led to improvement through technology such as waterless dyeing, central effluent treatment plants, ROs and close looping. Roto spray, reuse of liquids, low temperature processes, enzymatic processes, ZLD are quite in vogue. Technology providers, finishing companies, NGOs like ZDHC have played an important role by collaborating to win.

Clothing Brands’ Leadership

Top clothing brands across the world have taken on leadership roles to make a quantum difference in the sustainability actions of their operations, in retail and to the supply chain. They have embarked on a multi-pronged business improvement strategy led with sustainability at the core. In the design phase itself, more than a year earlier to the merchandise hitting the store, designs are made considering fibres and blends having a better Material Sustainability Score MSI, LCA and bio-degradability. This has improved their merchandise assortment and has created differentiation, both delivering positive business results.

The merchandise, whilst adhering to the seasonal trend requirements, is also focused in detail on the within-season mini cycles to help reduce markdowns (the biggest bane of any clothing brand). Here clear agreements introduced with the supply chain to hold intermediate inventories facilitating quick turnaround time for second and third drops into stores.  Trend forecasting tools and real-time digital-led analytics, more so post the Covid-19 pandemic, have also helped. Also, avoiding air shipments have helped to boost both sustainability and profitability.

Very few fashion or textile companies practice optimization of garmenting waste and inputting that to circular models. Packaging and accessory usage is an area where biodegradable, renewable, reusable, lighter materials are used less per unit. Channels have helped in retaining of safety and aesthetic performance without a tradeoff through active participation.

Digital Traceability of the entire supply chain is on the rise for endorsing claims on sustainability throughout the process. Life cycle assessment LCA is another tool that is encouraged and analyzed to be sure of the products sustainability hot spots and roadmap for improvement. The marketing campaign of merchandise have been fine tuned to be sustainability educative, consumer terminology inclusive and which relate to apprehensible metaphors. For instance, share process water saved in terms of drinking water made available per person per year instead of stating the litres of water saved. For example, one global brand promises to plant 10 trees for buying merchandise and thereby reduce carbon footprint. 

Retailing — be it physical or e-commerce — has its nuances. Stores have done work mostly on organizing visual merchandise with savings in energy by using LED lighting and for green building concepts; e-commerce is yet to succeed in its reverse logistics optimisation, which plagues its otherwise rapid growth. 

The Greenhouse Gas challenge

According to a McKinsey research, the textile and clothing industry released 2.1 bn tons CO2 equivalent of GHG in 2018, a big enough figure to take action for reduction. Upstream actions in bulk relate mostly to cleaner and renewable energy usage. India has done reasonably well with solar forming 3.6 percent and wind 4.7 percent of the energy basket in India in 2020. In retail, multiple actions by global brands from designing to retailing can help in 25-30 percent reduction. Post-consumer usage such as washing, drying, ironing and disposal form a reasonable part too in boosting sustainability practices.

Emergence of Circular Business Models

A global study finds that in USA, consumers throw away 60 per cent on their clothes in the first year. This means that globally 18 million tons of clothing will be consigned to landfills. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that only one percent of clothing is recycled and unless action is taken, nearly 150 mn tons would reach landfills by 2050. Circular business models that include many Rs — reuse, reduce, refurbish, rent, recycle — have renewed wings to take flight.

Indians have culturally been more prone to reuse rather than dispose, clothing not being an exception. Hence, they do not see landfills, early in the cycle. Most end up in alternate use for cleaning material for industry and households with some change in configuration. 

Mechanical recycling of cotton clothing is deep in India, who is the global leader for that, though the quality is lower when compared to the original. Birla Cellulose has pioneered chemical recycling of cellulose fabric waste into viscose fibre of equivalent quality with the brand Liv Reviva. rPet is manufactured using waste PET bottles by manufacturers such as Reliance and Polygenta. 

Global brands have offered exclusive collections in the refurbish model in which they collect used clothing sold earlier, refurbish them and offer in the stores afresh. Brands have also been a source of collection for any old clothing, which thereafter are refurbished, packaged and re-exported from the Kandla port in Gujarat.

Fashion rentals have also grown well as they offers a choice of non-ownership-led usage of multiple brands and styles — a way of staying fashion fresh at all times.  The biggest challenge would however be fast fashion and reduction in usage since it affects both businesses volumes and the consumer appetite for fashion.

Consumer Behaviour: Impetus for Sustainability

Consumer behavior is changing due to rising evidence of climate change. Global research shows that 88 percent consumers would prefer sustainable clothing. Our research in India shows, quite hearteningly as well, that 49% of Gen Y and millennials have profound inclination towards sustainable practices and products during fashion purchases. ‘Tell us what is sustainable in your products and help us participate in it’ is what they say.

Beware of Greenwashing

The consumer needs to be wary of the sustainability claims of certain brands who promote campaigns that may not necessarily adhere to those practices. The consumer who has a heart to buy sustainable products should carefully study the product and process claims, update knowledge and avoid falling into any green washing trap.

Sustainability, the Heart of Fashion

Sustainability in the heart of fashion business helps the world to be a better place. It offers a a phenomenal opportunity to excel and differentiate a brand or a manufacturing company, its products and services in the market place. Business excellence cannot be achieved without sustainable practices for sure in the future and we shall be hearing about this more intensely, as the years go by.

( This article is written by Manohar Samuel, Advisor Sustainability, Grasim Industries Ltd.)