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Impacts of farm-closet: A Collective Responsibility

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The fashion industry produces about 53 million tonnes of fibre every year, 70 per cent of which ends up in garbage dumps or is incinerated, adversely affecting the environment

By N Bobo Meitei

Last December, when Delhi breathed comparatively less polluted air, the Yamuna, often referred to as the capital’s lifeline experienced the ecological assault of sewage and industrial effluents. A government report indicated that the pollutant load in the river had increased substantially over the last five years. Then, like any other year, in the soft mountains of pink candy foam rising from the grey surface of the river, devotees gathered to dip to mark Chhaath puja. Every year, the Delhi government shuts down supplies of sizeable water treatment plants because the level of ammonia generated by industrial waste becomes higher than what they can treat. Last year, for more than 33 days, the level of ammonia in water remained above treatable levels, impacting over a third of Delhi’s water supply.

The toxic foam that engulfs the river for large parts of the year is linked to the phosphate content of detergents in the wastewater of cloth manufacturing units. Several such units are scattered throughout the region, and drains that carry these effluents run through villages, polluting potable water.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry produces about 53 million tonnes of fibre every year, 70 per cent of which ends up in garbage dumps or is incinerated. The UK-based charitable organisation says that the production of fibre is expected to reach 160 million tonnes by 2050. It further claims that less than 1 per cent of the fibre is reused to make new clothes, representing the loss of billions of dollars worth of clothes that are not reused and thrown into waste, adversely affecting the environment. This reality demands that we look harder at the impacts of farm-closet.

Cotton

Fluffy fibre is the second most used raw material after polyester in the fashion industry. Indian cotton, which is the cheapest, enjoys strong demand. However, it is a thirsty crop and requires lots of water. According to the Water Footprint Network, producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water. This is roughly the quantity required to make one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.

Its cultivation degrades soil quality as it involves the use of substantial fertilizers and pesticides, thereby threatening the quality of soil and water and the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. In India, ranked by World Resources Institute as 13th among the world’s worst-affected nations facing water stress, the little-known fact is that the garments and textile industry are adding to this stress, and the role that fashion brands are playing precipitates the crisis.

The impact goes beyond the cotton fields and water stress when cotton becomes a textile. The garment and textile industry further exacerbates water scarcity by contributing substantially to water pollution. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water annually which is sufficient to fill 37 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Then there is dyeing, which is one of the most polluting and energy-intensive processes. Huge amounts of water and chemicals are used during dyeing, ensuring that the colours will bind to the fabrics and not fade or wash out, but not without making a river like Noyyal in Haryana almost dead.

Alternative to cotton 

As sustainability has become the cornerstone of the industry, hemp is the new fabric that has emerged as an alternative to cotton. It’s less water-intensive than conventional cotton production; it can rely on rainwater.  Furthermore, hemp crops don’t require extensive use of fertilizers as it helps replenish the soil and can produce up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton.

According to Chirag Tekchandaney, co-founder and chief executive officer of Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO), “It’s durable and requires 400 times less water and time than cotton to be produced. Its durability is such that after every wash, the fabric gets softer without breaking down the tensile strength of the fibre. Further, it is antibacterial and offers protection against UV rays naturally. Its anti-microbial and porous nature makes it exceptionally breathable, and the excellent dye retention capacity gives an appreciable color-fastness to the fabrics. Hemp is the best of both worlds; it absorbs moisture and is odor-resistant, making it cool for the body even in summer. On the other hand, hemp knits act as a good insulating material during winter.”

Hemp has numerous environmental benefits that promote sustainability: the hemp plant grows like a weed, eliminating the need for most pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides; thriving on less water than most crops, says Chirag. “Because of its resiliency, it has also been flagged as a natural way to clean up soil pollution. Hemp absorbs carbon dioxide while it grows through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon negative from the get-go.”

Between 2019 and 2020, Levi Strauss and Co. partnered up with the Swedish recycling textile technology startup Re: NewCell to produce Levi’s Well Thread collections featuring cottonized hemp. But it was found that cottonized hemp felt too coarse on the skin for unaltered use in denim; the denim wear company worked to produce a softener hemp fabric so that it feels like cotton.

Although he doesn’t share the names of his clients, Chirag claims that the client basket is huge, ranging from individuals walking the path of sustainability to budding designers to well-established brands and companies!

Fast fashion 

The last decade has witnessed the emergence of fast fashion which is, as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) puts it, new season, new styles, buy more, buy cheap, move on, throw away: the pollution, waste, and emissions. What props the $2.5 trillion fast fashion industry is the high volumes of clothes produced and sold at low prices. But the low prices can only be guaranteed by ensuring that the production costs are low, and it comes at the expense of the environment and workers’ rights. As countries in which most of these retail brands are based have developed stringent regulatory frameworks with respect to pollution and labour rights, they outsource production to countries such as India, China, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where labour and compliance costs are far lower, and as a result, end up paying environmental prices.

According to The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a truckload of abandoned textiles is dumped in landfill or incinerated every second. Meanwhile, people are estimated to buy 60 per cent more clothes and wear them for just half as long.

The solution lies in the little we do. This could mean buying less, choosing ethical brands, buying second-hand clothing, renting clothes for special occasions, reusing, repurposing, up-cycle and donating unwanted clothes. H&M claims that if the clothes or textiles are not suitable for re-wear are turned into other products, such as remake collections or cleaning clothes. Levi’s launched Levi’s Secondhand, an e-commerce site for previously worn Levi’s jeans and denim jackets.

In India, Relove encourages customers to resell pre-owned clothes which they call ‘preloved items’ in 60 seconds. The online platform says that purchasing a used item reduces its carbon footprint by 82%, reduces wastage of inventory with minor defects, improves your profit margins and empties out precious warehouse space.

Leather

The Indian leather, leather products and footwear industry occupy a significant place in the country’s economy. Leather production starts in farms, where cattle are raised and slaughtered and the hides are sold to tanneries, which are scattered across the world. It is often heavily criticized for the environmental impact of the tanning process. According to the World Resources Institute, the industry is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions, as well as 36 per cent of deforestation between 2001 and 2015. Beyond CO2 emissions, the tanning process is another major concern due to the use of harmful chemicals, such as chromium, which can lead to the release of toxic waste into the environment.

The Leather Working Group (LWG), a not-for-profit membership organization, has set a standard and audit system for chemical management in tanneries and now certifies around 20% of global leather production. Despite the effort, the sector is still far from ensuring a real supply chain sustainability system. Explaining his brand’s sustainable target, leather goods brand Hidesign’s Founder Dilip Kapur says, “To replace all materials in production that are not sustainable and ecological, (we) continue further research in vegetable tanning.”

Sharing its efforts to make your brand more sustainable, Kapur maintains, Hidesign has since its inception been looking at crafting in a sustainable manner. Ecology and innovation have been part of its DNA since its inception much like hand craftsmanship. The Hidesign atelier is built on seven acres of reclaimed land, where a majority of the land has been converted into a natural evergreen grove with water bodies to act as a natural catchment for rainwater. The grove attracts birds and animals and has become a mini sanctuary. The buildings are made from earth dug up from the ground and compacted and baked into bricks on site. The Hidesign atelier is completely solar powered.”

Its leathers are all vegetable tanned using locally available barks and seed, the founder of the Puducherry-based brand adds. “The fittings are solid brass handmade using 1000s of years old sand casting traditions learnt from the temple bronze casting masters. The sand casting uses fine river sand and brass is recycled from scraps. Hidesign has stopped using plastic bags to pack its bags and instead packs them in cloth dust covers when shipping them across the country. Hidesign stores make use of reclaimed wood.”

But Kapur admits that the brand faces challenges in becoming greener because of staying price competitive and finding materials that are ecological and still glamorous. And on the awareness of sustainable products or brands among Indian consumers, he maintains that it is rising rapidly but is not a deciding factor in immediate purchases.

Several major firms, including H&M Conscious, Adidas x Parley and Zara Join Life, have launched “eco” collections which use organic and recycled materials. But critics are of the view that they are not doing enough to address the problem, of overconsumption which they are accused of promoting.

Globally, the UN has also launched the #ActNow Fashion Challenge to highlight how industry and individuals can help improve fashion’s environmental impact. Meanwhile, we have seen the emergence of many slow fashion companies, but the fixation of the consumers is on what’s affordable. The responsibility also lies with consumers. It’s a responsibility for all, and we should understand it better if we are not to meet the Native American saying: “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish been caught, will we realize we cannot eat money.”

This story was first published in Images Business of Fashion magazine (January 2023 edition)

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