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Making sustainability fashionable

It was too good a development to last too long. A small reduction in planet warming carbon-dioxide emissions due to lockdowns due to Covid-19 last year is likely to be more than reversed sooner than later unless the world pursues a green recovery path.

A case in point is India’s apparel market, which is expected to stage a strong comeback after the pandemic-marked 2020, according to a recent report from the Boston Consulting Group. In fact, India is projected to be the sixth largest apparel market in the world by 2022, according to an earlier FashionScope report from McKinsey & Co.

The most happening segment of the apparel industry, fast fashion industry, which will be particularly on the high-street to fast forward growth, is expected to cause more adverse ecological impact, too. Fast fashion is about mass producing clothing, leather accessories and footwear out of textiles and related goods at low prices made possible partly by overexploitation of natural resources. So, the other side of the optimistic future outlook for the apparel business is a pessimistic scenario for the planet and people, in the business as usual scenario.

After the oil industry, textile production with its contribution of 8-10% of the world’s planet warming Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, including carbon-dioxide, and 20% of industrial wastewater pollution is already the second most polluting industry globally. Besides, underutilisation of clothes and lack of recycling is estimated to cost another $500 billion every year, according to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, an initiative of United Nations and allied organisations.

Since a large proportion of textiles used in the clothing industry and manufactured clothes come from China and India, which are powered mostly by coal-fuelled power plants, there would be disproportionately high emission of GHGs, too, increasing the ecological impact further.

Sustainable fashion, which is broadly about producing products with ecological integrity and social justice, offers a way out. Given that the scope of the fashion industry extends from production of raw materials and manufacturing of garments, accessories and footwear to their distribution, consumption and disposal, pursuing a sustainable course of action is a natural choice. A sustainable approach would help overcome environmental challenges to a great deal, including reduction in the industry’s waste stream, water pollution and GHGs, as per the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.

The UN alliance is mandated to lead coordinated action in the fashion sector to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 interlinked global goals agreed by heads of 193 countries to build a sustainable world for all by 2030. The UN Alliance is working to reduce the fashion industry’s negative environmental and social impacts by identifying challenges and finding out solutions and informing government policy decisions.

Seized of the environmental challenges, other key stakeholders, too, are playing their role. Globally major fashion retailers have already embarked on to the sustainable fashion bandwagon, but most of them are yet to match up to social and environmental targets of SDGs, according to a recent BoF Sustainability Index by online fashion publication, Business of Fashion. They need to ramp up.

India’s leading and young fashion designers, too, have been taking responsible initiatives. Popular initiatives range from using organic fabrics and natural dyes to engaging in recycling and upcycling. While the material used ranges from banana, bamboo to soyabean, natural colouring uses dyes made from barks, leaves and petals. Others dry naturally and a few are known for plastic-free packaging. While some use only factory waste, others focus on ensuring that no waste is generated at the end of the lifecycle. There are instances of offsetting shipping costs with carbon credits, too.

Indian designers are also in fact mirroring the preferences of Indian buyers. More than 8 in 10 Indians consumers are open to buying sustainable fashion items, according to a survey by YouGov, a consumer and data insights consultancy. Positive communication about sustainable fashion and incentives are desirable. 41% respondents say they are likely to buy more sustainable products if they are well informed about the benefits and impacts of making such choices. Similarly, 41% say that incentives in the form of reward points would encourage them to buy more sustainable products. The icing on the cake would be celebrity endorsement of sustainable fashion, which would prompt more than a fifth (23%) of the respondents to buy sustainable products, according to the survey. The recent public endorsements of using old kurtas, saris and blouse pieces for making masks by film producer Boney Kapoor and actor Vidya Balan should be welcome in this direction.

The government and the fashion industry need to work on such positive sentiments and integrate sustainability in policies and practices. The time is right because the government is establishing seven mega textile parks to make the industry competitive globally. Embedding sustainability in the value chain would make the industry future ready and give it a competitive edge globally. The government can take a leaf out of the UK’s government’s recent plans announced on Global Recycling Day on March 18 to make fast fashion manufacturers responsible for textile waste.

Civil society, too, has its role cut out like in creating awareness in consumers. Reducing emissions at the consumer level holds the potential to make a significant contribution in overall emission reduction. For example, doubling the number of times a garment is worn would reduce emissions by 44 per cent, estimates UK-based charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes circular economy and elimination of waste. Such simple and effective messages are waiting to be relayed. Given the magnitude of the ecological challenge, all key stakeholders from governments, businesses and NGOs to individual consumers need to individually and collectively purse a multi-pronged green approach so that we can avoid an ecological crisis, which threatens to have much larger and long-term adverse impact on the planet and people than Covid-19, and make this would a better place.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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