Climate Change: From H&M to Zara, how fast fashion hurts the environment

When Nitya Chandrashekhar’s mother decided to throw away her ten-year-old Banarasi silk sari, Nitya decided she wanted to reuse it. “The sari had silver work on the border and I didn’t want to give it away,” she said. She recycled the sari for her brother’s wedding, and it lasted for another decade until 2019, when the sari was ripped beyond redemption.

“Each sari is a six and seven meter piece of fabric which, if not used to its maximum capacity, only adds to waste. If you are tired of a sari, why throw away the cloth when you can always change the design, “Nitya told IndiaSpend. Nitya is the founder of Mumbai-based Anya Designs which recycles scrap saris to create new clothes. More than 1 million tons of textiles are thrown away in India every year.

For Nitya, we produce too much and buy too much, so she has incorporated a zero-waste process into her work to minimize waste in making clothes. Like her, several designers have explored ways to recycle textile waste into fashion items, to change people’s attitudes towards fashion consumption.

This is important for India, among the top five apparel manufacturing markets and one of the leading global manufacturing centers for fast fashion exported to Europe and the United States. India’s fashion demand is also growing.

The greenhouse gas emissions of the global textile industry are greater than those of shipping and international air travel combined.

The fashion industry produces about 53 million tons of fiber every year, 70% of which ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Fiber production is expected to reach 160 million tonnes by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity working to promote circular economies, which seek to balance production and consumption by reusing products. Less than 1% of the fiber is reused to make new clothes, which represents the loss of billions of dollars of clothes, which are not reused and thrown away, negatively impacting the environment, according to the foundation.

The global fashion industry is also the second largest consumer of water, according to the United Nations Environment Program. It takes 3,781 liters of water, equivalent to the amount of water a person drinks over a three-year period, to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the retail delivery of the final product, the report said.

In India 1 million tons of textiles are thrown away every year

India’s domestic textile and clothing industry contributed nearly 2% of gross domestic product and accounted for 14% of industrial output in 2018, according to a report co-produced by the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

In addition to exports, domestic fashion demand is growing exponentially. Per capita spending on clothing is expected to reach Rs 6,400 by 2023, up from Rs 3,900 in 2018, with rising middle-class consumer income a key factor, according to the ICC report. India is set to become one of the most attractive consumer markets for clothing outside the West, with more than 300 international fashion brands expected to open stores in India in 2022-23, according to McKinsey.

According to the Indian Textile Journal, as we said, more than 1 million tons of textiles are thrown away every year in India, most of which comes from domestic sources. Textiles make up about 3% by weight of a domestic bin. Textile waste is also the third largest source of municipal solid waste in India.

The central government in 2019 launched the SU.RE project, aimed at engaging the textile industry to move towards a fashion that contributes to a clean environment. Around 16 of India’s leading retail brands, including Lifestyle, Shoppers’ Stop, Future Group and Aditya Birla Retail, have committed to sourcing / using a substantial portion of their total consumption using sustainable raw materials and processes by 2025. But the fast fashion growth in India is set to increase Indian textile waste, say experts from sustainability initiatives. Designers like Nitya aim to be part of the solution.

We contacted the Ministry of Textiles on December 17 for their response on the measures taken to minimize textile waste and promote sustainable fashion. We will update the story when they respond.

Because fast fashion is unsustainable

Previously, the fashion industry ran over two seasons a year when new collections would be launched: fall / winter and spring / summer. Manufacturers and designers would work months in advance to plan collections for each season and predict the styles they thought customers would want.

In the 2000s, this changed as international fashion brands Zara and H&M pioneered a business model that introduced 52 “micro seasons” per year, meaning a new collection is introduced every week. Since then, the term “fast fashion” has been used, especially in the context of these brands, to describe the high rate of fashion consumption fueled by the amount of new clothes that go on sale, according to the Sustainable Fashion Collective, a group of online resources advising companies on the development of sustainable textile and fashion products.

“Fast fashion was introduced into the Indian context six to seven years ago when brands like Zara and H&M entered the Indian market,” said Rekha Rawat, associate director of sustainable industries operations at cKinetics, a sustainability company. which operates in Delhi and California and which disseminates and develops sustainable strategies in industries. “Fast fashion is based on the idea of ​​creating a false demand for fresh looks so that more clothes are produced for sale. But when the clothes are not sold, there is a huge waste. The unsold clothes end up in landfills and they create a cycle of contamination, “he added. “The problem is that much of the cost of fast fashion is not reflected in the price tag. All elements of fast fashion – in addition to production, low quality, competitive prices – have a detrimental impact on the environment and on the people involved in the production. “.

“Previously, consumers used to buy durable items, where the normal age of the fabric would be 50-80 washes,” Rawat said. “But now, the enthusiasm for new items or trends has outweighed the quality aspects. As a result, more products are thrown out, many of them made with synthetic fabrics that are not good for the environment.” About 165 companies, mostly fast fashion brands, are responsible for about 24% of the textile and apparel sector emissions, according to a November 2021 report by cKinetics. About 68% of clothes from brands like H&M and Gucci are made up of synthetic fibers, including elastane, nylon and acrylic. Polyester is the most common, making up 52% ​​of all fiber production.

“The process is also extremely expensive,” Rawat noted. “Previously, if fashion houses procured 1,000 meters of fabric in a single color, now they only need 100 meters in 10 different colors as the clothes are made for the little ones. [production] runs. This creates additional pressure on resources, such as the use of water and chemicals in dyeing and treating fabrics. The maximum amount of textile waste is generated in the factories during the cutting and garment manufacturing process and includes leftover fabric scraps, ”said Rawat.

According to a McKinsey report from May 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to the sharp drop in sales, an estimated 140 to 160 billion euros worth of clothes remained as excess inventory globally.

Upcycling can counter the waste of fast fashion

Fast fashion brands, large or small, are innovating to meet the aspirations of Indian consumers, which is leading to more textile waste. “In response to fast fashion and its waste, the concept of textile waste recycling has started to spread across many layers of the fashion world,” said Bhavya Goenka, whose Iro Iro company recycles textile waste to make textile products that they no longer produce waste. “The fashion industry presents a linear business model of production-use-disposal; therefore, it’s an obvious contributor to environmental hardship. But there’s also a huge untapped opportunity,” Goenka said. Through a circular production system that promotes the repair, regeneration and reuse of products or materials, Iro Iro collaborates with other companies to recycle their waste into fabrics for fashion and interiors. “We have recycled over 10,000 kg of textile waste so far,” he added.

Traditional Indian clothing, such as saris, still accounted for about 70 percent of domestic sales of women’s clothing in 2017, notes the Mckinsey report. Even as India’s appetite for Western clothing increases, traditional clothing is expected to account for 65% of the clothing market by 2023, the report said. “Traditional clothing, like saris, has a cultural and sentimental value and will never go out of style. And there is always room to reuse saris and create them in an Indo-Western dress,” Nitya said.

Interest in rental and second-hand clothing is also on the rise, and the resale market has the potential to be bigger than fast fashion in 10 years, according to the 2019 McKinsey report.

The idea of ​​sustainability cannot only be imposed by producers, it also depends on customers who are aware of their choices, said Rawat. “The idea of ​​a closed loop system is to work towards sustainability through resource efficiency, renewable fuels and raw materials, which can only be incremental steps in positive directions.”

IndiaSpend reached out to H&M and Zara for comment on their efforts to go sustainable. H&M has over 50 retail stores, while Zara has over 22 stores in India. We will update the story once we get a response.


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