Closing the loop on fashion

Advanced recycling of textile and agricultural waste is needed to transition to circular economy in apparel industry

By Ishani Sonak
Published: Thursday 08 April 2021

In the olden days, the eldest child in a typical Indian family would get a new shirt, and it was passed down to younger siblings and cousins. After that, if the cloth was not in tatters, it would be used as a rag.

Rapid economic growth and a growing middle class, however, have given rise to consumerism. In 2014, an average customer bought 60 per cent more than what they used to buy in 2000. There has been a shift from need-based purchase to aspiration-based purchase.

Previously, consumers were willing to purchase the merchandise of major fashion labels for their guaranteed quality. Today’s consumers, on the other hand, desire the latest trends but are not willing to pay as much because they do not hold quality in the same high regard.

The major operators of fashion retail saw an opportunity in this dichotomy and in an effort to match customer desires, the concept of “fast fashion” was born. It means quicker turnaround of new styles, increased number of collections offered per year and, often, lower prices.

Fast fashion brands such as Zara, owned by Spain’s Inditex, now offer more than 25 lines a year; Sweden’s H&M manages up to 16. Today, a consumer buys double of what she used to in 2000, but keeps each garment for half as long.

From the pesticides poured into cotton fields to the water, energy and other resources required to make the clothes, all are consumed at a much faster rate and reach their final destination, most commonly a landfill, quicker.

According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the global fashion industry produces about 53 million tonnes of fibre every year, more than 70 per cent of which ends up in landfills or is incinerated and less than 1 per cent of which is reused to make new clothes. The overuse of resources and the waste generated from overconsumption are major concerns.

Fashion is slowly poisoning the planet. Global Fashion Agenda estimates that in 2015 alone the global textiles and clothing industry was responsible for the consumption of 79 billion cubic metres of water and 1,715 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

It takes 3,781 litres of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of cotton to the delivery of the final product to the customer, according to figures from the United Nations Environment Programme.

The industry is responsible for 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions, more than aviation and shipping combined. At this pace, the industry’s CO2 emissions are projected to increase by more than 60 per cent to nearly 2.8 billion tonnes per year by 2030.

In addition, fashion is land-intensive. The total area of forested land cleared for agriculture, including the cultivation of raw materials such as cotton and cellulosic fibres, has exceeded the safe operating space by 17 per cent. This is set to double by 2030.

Besides the sheer volume of consumption of clothes, the means of production and processing of raw materials are extremely wasteful and polluting. Dyeing fabrics alone can require as much as 150 litres of water per kilogram, and if discharged untreated, cause water pollution.

About 20 per cent of global industrial water pollution is attributable to dyeing and treatment of textiles. Surprisingly, natural fibres, specifically cotton, silk, wool and cow leather, have the highest environmental impact vis-à-vis usage of water, chemicals, energy and cruelty against animals according to cradle to gate assessment (from resource extraction (cradle) to the factory gate).

Animal rights organisations put pressure on the industry to produce animal cruelty-free products. Thus, synthetic materials gained popularity and entered the mainstream clothing industry.

They come in two common forms, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and Polyurethane (PU). These derivatives of petroleum are cheaper and easier to procure and manufacture than animal or plant-based fabrics. At first glance, they might seem to be the perfect alternative; however, this evolution also has had adverse effects on the environment due to extraction of fossil fuels, abundant water and chemical usage and the non-biodegradable nature of these materials.

Source: Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2017

Synthetic clothing materials are slowly destroying marine life. One washload of polyester clothes can release 700,000 microplastic fibres into the environment. It is estimated that half a million tonne of these microfibres end up in the sea each year, according to Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

Microfibres cannot be extracted from the water and they can spread throughout the food chain.

Closing the loop

The industry needs to step up to the challenge of climate change. Transitioning to a closed loop fashion value chain is the need of the hour, where discarded products substitute for raw materials for production.

In fact, steps are being taken in this direction already. Most large retailers like Levi’s, Nike, Adidas, Zara and H&M are now offering end-of-use in-store garment collection schemes, wherein they recycle old clothes dropped off at the stores by customers (who get coupons to shop for new clothes with the retailer).

In India, H&M is the only international brand to have come out with such a scheme till date. Indigenous brands, on the other hand, are taking the lead but are yet to enter the mainstream fashion market.

Recycling fibres would mitigate much of the environmental impact of raw materials, but current technology can cause a 75 per cent loss in value during the first cycle itself. Even though recycling reduces 75 per cent of the energy needed and 40 per cent of the CO2 emissions compared to virgin polyester, there will be little headway until the numbers (of value loss) change, as estimated by California-based eco-friendly apparel brand Patagonia, which recycles nylon and polyester fibres for producing outdoor apparel.

The economics of recycled materials are unappealing at present; recycled polyester, for example, is 10 per cent more expensive than virgin material. The need of the hour is innovation, collaboration and supporting regulatory action till technology breaks the barrier for large-scale recycling.

Several nature-based and plant-based alternatives exist today. These satisfy the consumer’s desire for virgin raw material while being environment-friendly. To begin with, there are the heritage natural fibres like linen, hemp, flax, bamboo, organic cotton and even nettle, all of which are biodegradable and require less water and fertilisers and are making a comeback through new and innovative uses.

Then there are novel bio-based raw materials. Lyocell consists of cellulose fibre made by dissolving pulp, for instance from wood (Tencel®) or bamboo (Monocel®).

Bio-based nylon (one name is rennlon®) comes from glucose and other renewable feedstock and is in the early stages of commercialisation. For instance, in 2016, Adidas brought out footwear featuring a fully biodegradable, protein-based yarn named Biosteel® that relies on nature-based finishing.

Other promising areas include research on and prototyping of entirely new kinds of fibres, such as a merino wool-like yarn made of gelatin (undergoing trials at eth Zürich), and leather-like material made from agriculture waste material such as pineapple leaves (Pinatex from the start-up Ananas Anam) or cork tree bark (from Portugalia Cork).

These excellent materials already exist, but for them to become mainstream requires mindful collaboration. Studio Beej is one such brand in India which is working with new-age materials in synergy with local communities and international suppliers.

Arundhati Kumar, its founder, believes in mainstreaming sustainability and creating durable supply chains. They use plant-based, cruelty-free fabrics such as Desserto (from Mexico, where it is made from cactus pulp) and Pinatex. They also use fibre made of cork bark.

“The cork we work with comes from Portugal. The bark of the cork oak is harvested every nine years, which is then used to make the fabric. When harvested responsibly, the tree absorbs up to five times more CO2 while growing, thus playing a major role in reducing greenhouse emissions.”

All the fabrics are certified and responsibly harvested with low environmental footprints and are 100 per cent recyclable. The zippers used in the bags are from Japanese brand YKK, made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (pet) plastic. Kumar said she was conscious of the carbon footprints generated when importing materials. Therefore, Studio Beej has incorporated Indian options into the range.

The bags are lined with a fabric which comes from a weavers’ community outside Bengaluru called Khaloom. They recycle post-consumer yarn to create new fabrics. They are also sourcing Khesh, a material upcycled from old cotton saris whereby saris are torn into strips, turned into yarn and then rewoven, from Amar Kutir, a cooperative society based in Shanti Niketan, West Bengal.

When asked about the demand for her sustainable products, Kumar believes that there is a small but perceptible shift towards use of sustainably sourced materials.

The fashion industry presents a linear business model; therefore, it is an obvious contributor to environmental distress but is also a huge untapped opportunity. If the industry manages to fully close the loop between the end-of-use phase and the raw materials phase, find new age raw materials with cutting edge technology and increase energy efficiency, environmental footprints will be drastically reduced and a 160 billion Euro-a-year opportunity for the world economy will be created.

This type of circular model will harness the passion and creativity which the fashion industry is famed for and which has always allowed it to thrive. As far as a consumer is concerned, we must not over consume, even if we are indulging in sustainable fashion. We must move away from fast fashion to mindful fashion.

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