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Climate Change: How fast fashion can harm the environment – From H&M to Zara
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Climate Change: How fast fashion can harm the environment – From H&M to Zara

Nitya Chandrashekhar was inspired to repurpose the decade-old Banarasi silk scarf that her mother, Nitya Chandrashekhar, had given away. She explained that the saree was silver-worked and that she didn’t want to throw it away. She upcycled it for her brother’s wedding and it lasted another decade until 2019, when the saree was beyond redemption.

“Every saree, a six-seven-metre piece of cloth, is just wasteful if it is not used to its full potential. IndiaSpend spoke to Nitya, who explained that if you get bored of a saree you can always alter the design. Nitya is the founder and CEO of Anya Designs in Mumbai, which recycles sarees to make new clothes. India throws away more than 1 million tonnes worth of textiles every year.

Nitya believes that we make too many clothes and buy too many. To reduce wastage in clothing production, she has implemented a zero-waste approach. Many designers are also exploring ways to recycle textile waste into fashion items to change people’s attitudes towards fashion consumption.

This is important because India is one of five top apparel manufacturing markets. It also happens to be one of the most important global hubs for manufacturing fast fashion garments. These garments are exported to Europe, the US, and other countries. India’s fashion demand is also increasing.

The global textile industry emits more greenhouse gases than shipping and international air travel combined.

Fashion industry produces approximately 53 million tonnes of fiber each year. 70% of this ends up in landfills or is incinerated. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a UK-based charity organisation that promotes circular economies), production of fibre will reach 160 million tonnes 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 by the Indian Chamber of Commerce, India’s textile and apparel industries contributed almost 2% of India’s gross domestic product and accounted in 14% of industrial production for 2018, according to ICC.

Domestic fashion demand is increasing exponentially, in addition to export. 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 estimates that India will be the largest consumer market for apparel outside of the West. More than 300 international brands are expected to open stores there in 2022-23.

According to the Indian Textile Journal, India throws away more than 1,000,000 tonnes of textiles each year. About 3% of household bins are made up of textiles. 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 substantial 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 and other designers are trying to be part the solution.

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

Why fast fashion isn’t sustainable

In the past, there were only two seasons in the fashion industry: spring/summer and autumn/winter. Designers and manufacturers would plan their collections months in advance and predict what styles customers would like.

This all changed in the 2000s when international fashion brands Zara & H&M introduced 52’microseasons’ per year. This means that there is a new collection 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 used since then.

“Fast fashion was introduced to India six to seven years ago when brands such as Zara and H&M entered Indian markets,” Rekha Rawat, Associate director of Sustainable Industries practice at cKinetics. This sustainability firm, based in Delhi and California, promotes and develops sustainable strategies for 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. She said that the unsold clothes end in garbage dumps, which can lead to contamination. The problem is that fast fashion’s high cost is not always reflected in its price tag. All elements of fast fashion — low quality, high production, and competitive pricing–have a negative 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. H&M and Gucci have 68% of their clothes made of synthetic fibres like nylon, nylon, and elastane. Polyester, which accounts for 52% all fiber production, is the most popular.

Rawat stated that “the process is also extremely wasteful.” “Earlier fashion houses would need 1,000 yards of fabric in one color. Now they only require 100 yards in 10 colors. Clothes are made for smaller sizes. [production] runs. This puts extra pressure on resources such as water and chemicals used in 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 wastefulness of fast fashion

Small and large fast fashion brands are constantly innovating to meet the needs of Indian consumers. This is resulting in 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 stated that there is an untapped resource. Iro Iro uses a circular production system that encourages repair, reuse, and recycling of product or materials. They also collaborate with other businesses to recycle their waste into textiles for fashion, and interiors. She added that they have recycled more than 10,000 kilograms of textile waste so far.

Mckinsey reported that traditional Indian clothing, such as sarees and kurtas, still accounted for approximately 70% of domestic women’s apparel sales. The Mckinsey report stated that even though India’s demand for western wear is increasing, it is still expected traditional wear to account for 65% in the apparel market by 2023. “Traditional wear, such as sarees and kurtas, have a cultural value and will never go obsolete. Nitya said that sarees can be repurposed and made into Indo-western outfits.

Interest in secondhand and rental clothing is increasing. According to the McKinsey report 2019, the resale market could be larger than fast fashion in ten years.

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 of a closed looped is to work towards sustainability through resource efficient, renewable fuels and raw materials. This can only be incremental steps in the right direction.”

IndiaSpend reached H&M and Zara to get their thoughts on the sustainability of their stores. Zara has more than 22 stores in India, while H&M has more than 50 retail stores. Once we get a response, we will update the story.

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