The fashion industry (apparel, footwear, and accessories) is huge with a market size of around $2.4 trillion-a-year and growing exponentially. USA and China are the among the largest markets for clothing with India not too far behind at around $108 billion-a-year and India also amongst the world’s largest producer and exporter of textiles valued at around $36 billion. Given that this is a multi-billion-dollar industry with appetite for more, India is in the spotlight to be a ‘responsible’ fashion consumer and producer.
Synthetic versus Natural fibers:
Majority of the garments and textiles made today are from fabric fibers that are synthetics (polyester, rayon, acrylic etc.) due to a booming demand for affordable and fast fashion. Easy to mass produce in factories, synthetic fibers are cheaper, stain and water resistant and most popular. However, these synthetics slowly break down into smaller pieces called micro plastics and make their way into our oceans, our own food and water supplies. Severe health issues arising from ingesting these tiny micro plastics has been well documented along with negative impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife and biodiversity.
Natural fibers (cotton, silk, wool) are far more eco-friendly having a smaller environmental impact with fewer chemical additions and more durable, absorbent, and anti-bacterial making them ideal for sensitive skin. But natural fibers are also not truly sustainable. Let’s take cotton as an example that needs massive amounts of water to farm and produce cotton. It takes an average 10,000 liters of water to cultivate 1 kilogram of raw cotton and 2700 liters of water to produce a cotton t-shirt.
Textile dyeing and finishing:
Extremely a thirsty business, the fashion industry uses 1.5 trillion liters of water each year. Textile manufacturing uses more than 8000 chemicals in various processes from the fabrication of yarn to finished product and water is the main ingredient to wash off chemicals and dyes. Textile mills discharge millions of gallons of effluents as hazardous toxic waste, full of color and organic chemicals from dyeing and finishing salts. According to evaluations of the World Bank, around 20% of all present water pollution is solely induced by coloring and finishing patterns. Nearly 72 unique toxic synthetics are stated to be available in water only for coloring patterns.
Tiruppur, India’s most famous textile city is an environmental dark spot with the city’s dyeing and bleaching units that add color and flair to its apparel turning the once-beautiful Noyyal river into a toxic sewer, and destroyed vast areas of agricultural land the water body once sustained. Industrial pollution has ensured agricultural farming operations are unsustainable due to extensive groundwater contamination.
Let us look at some trends that could help save water, less pollute and are more sustainable:
- Reduce Impulse buying: Shopping over the internet has taken impulse buying to a whole new level where we have a hunger for newness and buying new clothes is also a way of self-appreciation. Forcing ourselves to give away, reduce clutter and understanding the concept of ‘less is more’ and fashion minimalism is a good thing. Iconic Paris fashion brand YSL famously states: ‘fashion fades but style is eternal’ and so getting creative by picking up a needle, getting crafty, investing in an automatic sewing machine and repurposing or adding some fancy patterns to our clothes are great concepts. Here are some neat ideas for creative clothing designs.
- Move from fast fashion to slow fashion – ‘Slow’ fashion is made of quality material that is made to last from locally grown materials often domestically manufactured or sourced on a relatively small scale. India’s leading luxury fashion designer Sabyasachi talks about how fashion fulfills the role of functionality, helps you express your dreams within a budget and how to consume less but the best fashion.
- Sell what you have in your cupboard: Used clothing in good condition (referred to as pre-loved) can be sold on social platforms like Poshmark India as an example. Instagram has several thrift stores selling used clothes, home décor and new beauty items and very appealing to people who are increasingly becoming conscious of their water and environmental impact. The second hand/resale market is expected to double in the next 5 years.
- But wait, there’s more! Here is a link to a fashion footprint calculator that looks at your fashion habits and indicates your contribution to carbon emissions.
To align with the goal to limit global warming to around 1.5-degrees Celsius targeted by the Paris Climate Change agreement by 2030, it is imperative that our fashion industry must focus on transparency and traceability of products, chemicals and materials being used including production practices such as sorting, remaking and recycling and more importantly efficient re-use of water.
Adapting to a circular economy for fashion, where products and their materials are designed and manufactured to be disassembled so that they can be reused, remade, recycled, and – where applicable, and after maximum use and cycling – safely composted. Thus a ‘zero-waste’ fashion economy will contribute to a resilient and thriving industry helping regenerate the environment and saving water for generations to come.
Remember the 7Rs of sustainable fashion: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose, Repair, Research & Rent.