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Climate Change: From H&M and Zara, how fast fashion damages the environment
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Climate Change: From H&M and Zara, how fast fashion damages the environment

Nitya Chandrashekhar was inspired to repurpose the decade-old Banarasi silk scarf that her mother, Nitya Chandrashekhar, had given away. “The saree had silverwork on the border and it was too precious to give away,” she stated. The saree was upcycled by her brother for his wedding. It lasted for a decade more until it was finally torn in 2019.

“Every saree consists of a six-seven metre length of cloth. If it isn’t used to its maximum capacity, it is just adding to the waste.” IndiaSpend’s Nitya explained that if a saree is worn out, it is best to throw it away. Nitya, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, is the founder of Anya Designs. They upcycle sarees and create new clothes. India throws away more than 1 million tonnes worth of textiles every year.

Nitya believes we make too much and purchase too much. Therefore, she has adopted a zero waste process in her clothing production to reduce wastage. Many designers are also exploring ways to recycle textile waste into fashion items to change people’s attitudes towards fashion consumption.

This is important for India as it is one of the top five apparel markets and a major global hub of fast fashion garment manufacturing. India’s own fashion demand continues to grow.

The global textile industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than shipping and international flights combined.

The fashion industry produces 53 million tonnes annually of fibre. 70% of it ends up in the garbage dumps or is burned. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an international charitable organization that promotes circular economies, production of fiber is expected to increase to 160 million tons by 2050. According to the foundation, less than 1% of fibre can be reused to make new clothes. This represents a loss of billions of dollars in clothes that are not reused or thrown away, negatively affecting the environment.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water. The report stated that it takes 3,781 Liters of water to make a pair of jeans. This is equivalent to the amount of water one consumes over three years.

India throws away 1 million tonnes of textiles each year

According to a report jointly produced by the Indian Chamber of Commerce and (ICC), India’s domestic apparel and textile industry contributed nearly 2% of India’s gross domestic products and accounted for 14% of all industrial production in 2018.

Domestic demand for fashion is growing at an exponential rate, and this is not just because of exports. According to the ICC report apparel spending per capita is expected rise to Rs 6,400 by 2023 from Rs 3900 in 2018. The rising income of middle-class consumers is a key factor. McKinsey predicts India to be one of the most desirable markets for apparel, with more than 300 fashion brands opening stores in India between 2022 and 23.

According to the Indian Textile Journal, India throws away more than 1,000,000 tonnes of textiles each year. The textiles account for about 3% of the household bin’s weight. In India, textile waste is the third largest source municipal solid waste.

In 2019, the central government launched project SU.RE. This project aimed to encourage the textile industry towards fashion that is more environmentally friendly. 16 of India’s most recognizable retail brands, including Lifestyle and Shoppers’ Stop, Future group, Aditya Birla Retail, have pledged to source/utilise a significant amount of their total consumption of sustainable raw materials and processes by 2020. Experts from sustainability initiatives warn that India’s fast fashion industry is likely to lead to more textile waste. Nitya, a designer, is trying to be part of the solution.

We reached out on December 17 to the Ministry of Textile for their response regarding steps taken to minimize textile waste and promote sustainable clothing. We will update the story if they respond.

Why fast fashion is not sustainable

The fashion industry used to have two seasons per year. New collections were launched in spring/summer and fall/winter. Designers and manufacturers would plan their collections months in advance and predict what styles customers would like.

In the 2,000s, international fashion brands Zara & H&M introduced 52’microseasons’ per year. This meant that a new collection was introduced every week. The term “fast fashion” has been used, especially in the context these brands, to describe high fashion consumption. According to the Sustainable Fashion Collective, an online resource group that advises companies on sustainable fashion and textile products, the term “fast fashion” has been in use since then.

“Fast Fashion was introduced in India six to seven year ago when brands like Zara, H&M, and H&M entered Indian market,” Rekha Rawat (Associate Director of Sustainable Industries Practice at cKinetics), a sustainability company based out of Delhi and California that promotes and develops viable strategies in industries. “Fast Fashion is based on the idea that there is a false demand for new clothes so that more clothes can get sold. The clothes that aren’t sold end up in huge wastage. The clothes that aren’t sold end up in trash dumps and cause contamination,” she said. The problem is that fast fashion’s high cost is not always reflected in its price tag. All elements of fast fashion, such as low quality, high production and competitive pricing, have a detrimental effect on the environment, the environment, and the people involved in production.

Rawat stated that earlier, consumers preferred durable items, which could last 50-80 washes. “But now, the passion for new items and trends has overtaken the quality aspects. Many of these products are made with synthetic fabrics that are harmful to the environment and are being thrown away. According to a November 2021 report from cKinetics, around 165 companies, mainly fast fashion brands, are responsible in part for 24% of textile and apparel industry emissions. 68% of clothing from brands like H&M, Gucci, and Gucci are made of synthetic fibres. This includes elastane and nylon, as well as acrylic. Polyester accounts for 52% of all fiber production.

Rawat noted that the process is also very wasteful. “Previously fashion houses would have needed 1,000 yards of fabric in a single color. Now they only need 100 yards in ten different colors. [production] runs. This puts additional pressure on resources, such as the use of chemicals and water for dyeing and treating cloth. Rawat stated that the maximum textile waste is created at factories during cutting and during the manufacturing process for apparel making. This includes leftover fabric scraps.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, owing to the sharp fall in sales, an estimated €140 billion to €160 billion worth of clothes remained as excess inventory globally, according to a McKinsey report in May 2020.

Upcycling is a way to counter the wasteful fashion industry

Aspirational Indian customers are attracting more fashion brands, large and small, to invent. This is creating more textile waste. Bhavya Goenka, who runs Iro Iro, a venture that upcycles textile scrap to create textile products that are free from waste, said, “As an answer to fast fashion and it’s wastefulness, the idea of upcycling textile was started to trickle down through many layers in the fashion world.” “The fashion industry presents a linear business model of manufacture-use-dispose; therefore, it is an obvious contributor to environmental distress. Goenka said that there is a huge untapped potential. Iro Iro works with other businesses to create textiles for fashion and interiors using a circular production process that encourages the repair, regeneration, and reuse of product or material. She said that she has recycled over 10,000kg of textile waste to date.

According to Mckinsey’s report, traditional Indian clothing like sarees still accounted for 70% of domestic women’s apparel sales in 2017. The Mckinsey report stated that even though India’s demand for western wear is increasing, traditional wear will still make up 65% of the apparel industry by 2023. “Traditional wear like sarees have a cultural and sentimental significance and will not go out of fashion. Nitya said that sarees can be repurposed and made into Indo-western outfits.

According to the McKinsey 2019 report, second-hand and rental clothing are also growing in popularity.

Rawat said that the idea of sustainability can’t be enforced only by manufacturers. It also depends on customers being conscious about their choices. “The idea behind a closed looped system aims to achieve sustainability through resource efficiency, renewable energy, and raw materials. These are only incremental steps in positive direction.

IndiaSpend reached out to Zara and H&M for comments on their efforts towards sustainability. Zara has more than 22 stores in India, while H&M has over 50 stores. Once we get a response, we will update the story.

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