What fashion can learn from India’s cyclical heritage
What we need is for apparel manufacturers and retailers to reduce their environmental impact and make better quality clothes that last longer
I grew up as one of five siblings, often wearing hand-me-downs from my three older sisters. My mother used to darn my torn dresses, replace broken buttons and open hemlines to extend the life of my garments.
Our clothes were also passed on to our house helps children. For those that could not be passed on there were other uses like turning them into a quilt or a mop or a duster. Not much got discarded.
However, over the last decade we are getting more in sync with the Western worlds use and dispose lifestyle. A telling sign is the high growth of fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M and Forever 21.
Then there is also the advent of online shopping with etailers like Myntra and Jabong who stock almost every brand from Nike and Puma to Mango and Benetton and often offer steep discounts.
Globally, in the last 15 years, clothing production has approximately doubled, whereas the number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by over a third, according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2017 report, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. Brands like Nike and H&M are the foundation’s members.
This has huge environmental costs for our planet. An equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned every second. Moreover, most clothes are made from materials like polyester, which is cheaper than natural fibres like cotton. These clothes have a shorter shelf life and recycling them is not economically viable. At the given rate, the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
Yet, given the abundance of choice—Zara has something new in its stores almost every two weeks. At H&M, it’s every other day. And the cost—a new t-shirt is cheaper than a McDonald’s meal. Going back to our old ways is not easy.
All the same, we need to change.
Most large retailers like Levi’s, Nike, Adidas, Zara and H&M are now running their own recycling programmes in which consumers can come and drop of old clothes and get coupons to shop for new clothes with the retailer. Most of these programmes are yet to be launched in India.
Recycling, though is not a permanent solution. What we need is for apparel manufacturers and retailers to reduce their environmental impact and make better quality clothes that last longer.
Last year, two India-based garment manufacturers, Cotton Blossom and Pratibha Syntex started on this journey. These manufacturers were among the first companies to get the Gold level Cradle to Cradle (C2C) fashion garments certification. The certificate is an independent, third-party verified programme that assesses products and materials for safety to human and environmental health, design for future use cycles, and manufacturing methods. T-shirts from these brands retail in Europe at prices of Rs550-650 on an average.
When the t-shirt can no longer be worn, and no easy recycling options exist, it can be composted in home-composting units and will decompose in less than 12 weeks.
As consumers, we too can play a small role. On an average we keep a piece of clothing for three years. Only 15% is donated or recycled. Keeping a piece of clothing for just nine months more can reduce its environmental impact—CO2 emissions by more than a fourth, water use by a third and waste by over a fifth, according to a January post by The Cleanest Line, a blog by apparel company Patagonia.
The other part is being thrifty. If we use hand-me-downs or even buy used apparel, a thriving business now globally, we can help the earth by extending the lifespan of the clothing by 2.2 years, according to a report by online store ThredUp.
For India, staying true to our heritage makes economic sense as well. A circular economic trajectory could bring India annual benefits of Rs40 trillion or $624 billion by 2050, and would in addition reduce negative externalities.
For example, greenhouse gas emissions would be 44% lower in 2050 compared to the current development, said a 2016 report Circular Economy in India: Rethinking growth for long-term prosperity by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with the support of ClimateWorks and UNCTAD as knowledge partner. Perhaps there is both wisdom and money in reverting to our old ways.
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