Sustainable Fashion and Indian Textile


With rising awareness of fast fashion and its impact on the environment, brands and manufacturers are willing to make a shift to circularity. But what does this mean and what steps are being taken towards it?

India feels the adverse social and environmental impact of ‘fast fashion’; however, this may change soon.

India is a global manufacturing hub for textiles and apparel, coping with growing international and domestic demand. The global textiles market is projected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2025. Similarly, the domestic market for apparel is estimated to reach $59.3 billion by 2022 and that for textiles to grow to $223 billion by 2021. The industry is also critical in terms of income and employment generation, contributing to 5 percent of India’s current GDP.

Yet, there is a serious cause for concern. 60 percent of Indian textiles are cotton based, and cotton cultivation consumes 25 percent of the world’s pesticides. The wet processing of textiles generates an enormous quantity of waste sludge and chemically polluted waters. In addition, textile is the third biggest contributor of dry waste in most Indian states.

However, with rising awareness of these challenges, globally and in the Indian context, brands and manufacturers are willing to make a shift to circularity. But what does this mean and what steps are being taken towards it?

Indian brands, manufacturers and retailers are increasingly willing to join the global circularity movement
A new level of ambition among global industry leaders is preparing for the end of ‘fast fashion’. Tragedies like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, where over 1,100 factory workers died, have raised global awareness. An increasing number of consumers are also pushing for change with their buying behaviour.

Hence, forward-looking industry players are preparing themselves for ‘self-disruption’ to build a 'Circular Fashion Industry' globally. This would mean building a fashion industry that can phase out substances of concern, increase clothing utilisation, improve recycling and efficiently use resources. This trend has led to an increasing number of industry-led initiatives such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of leading brands, retailers, manufacturers, non-governmental organisations, academic experts, and government organisations who developed numerous solutions.

Simultaneously for the Indian industry, the local environmental challenges coupled with a globally dispersed value chain embracing circularity, has brought them to the brink of circular innovation. Hence, organisations have started experimenting and innovating towards the circular textile economy goals.

Embracing innovation is fundamental to making this transition
Indian corporations committing to circularity have begun to view startups as inspiration for new technologies and business practices. India has also become a hotbed for circular startups, where innovations range from alternative materials to innovative retail models. Brands like LoomPeople are trying to reduce and replace the use of cotton in textiles with hemp fiber, while some are using using blockchain technology to improve transparency and traceability in the supply chain. Startups innovating with new retail models of rental and second-hand clothing respectively are beginning too. These innovative enterprises, along with others, have had a significant impact on the circularity agenda already.

Corporate-startup partnerships are becoming more commonplace as both stakeholders begin to see the benefits of collaboration. While corporations require large-scale organizational innovation to make an impact, startups are agile and can respond to challenges with individual or small scale innovation.

This is a strong indication that the textile industry is beginning to embrace the circular economy through serious intent and not just an ephemeral sentiment. The movement is set to remarkably influence and shape the core value system of the industry over the coming years.

The idea of sustainable fashion does not often ring a bell in policy corridors. The government is rightly bothered about more pressing concerns. Sustainable fashion is considered to be a past time of elites and holds little value in the eyes of policy stakeholders. Sustainable fashion is not taken seriously because people who have forayed into the space have not made a compelling case of why it is important and how it does not deflect, and rather supports the national priorities—economic development, resource efficiency, and cleaner environment.

The fashion industry has some startling statistics on environmental degradation.

For instance, it can take 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single T-Shirt.

As per World Resources Institute, 5.9 trillion litres of water are used each year for fabric dyeing alone.

Around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from treatment and dyeing of textiles, and about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textile.

 As per another report, every second, an equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is either burnt or landfilled.

 With India’s high share of global population and increasing purchasing power, it would be quite soon that India starts accounting for a major share in these statistics. Besides, there is no credible recycling chain for the billions of tonnes of fast fashion items sold every year. Majority of them are made from nonbiodegradable fibres.

While India may not have mainstreamed sustainable fashion, there are some efforts happening without the ‘explicit’ mention of the term. For instance, Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is doing a good job in promoting khadi products. They have tied up with leading brands—Arvind Mills and Raymonds—and are also working with Air India to promote khadi products.

There is a compelling case for sustainable fashion in India which can achieve resource efficiency, reduce waste and minimise carbon emissions—all this while supporting India’s economic development. What are the ways in which the government and industry can partner for this cause?


First, sustainable fashion should find a seat whenever textiles industry is brought to the table.

Second, the government can suggest and industry can voluntarily comply posting the details of resources consumed while producing a particular product. Indians have always been conscious consumers, and this will automatically lead to sensible consumption.

Third, the government can keep re-plugging the campaigns such as #wearlocalgoglobal or #Indiaforindigenous which will promote local textiles.

Fourth, sustainable fashion can be used as a lever for FTAs as the West continues to push for better working conditions and resource efficiency. Sustainable fashion can, over the years, emerge as India’s competitive advantage.

 Fifth, some behaviour changes should be championed by both the government and the industry. If we use products such as bamboo, khadi, hemp, etc, we might not need to wash our clothes often and the same can be communicated by the government.

Lastly, we should highlight how states like Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have policies geared towards sustainability, like ones on hemp production, and encourage other states to follow suit. Hemp is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics, uses less water and can be cropped multiple times a year. This will help in doubling farmers’ income, too.

Mainstreaming the issue is the first, and possibly, the toughest, task of policy making. If there are clear benefits, we can start holding dialogues on this issue to better understand the contours of sustainable fashion. Issues of sustainability can be easily part of mainstream agenda if they do not hurt the economic development. Prima facie, it seems that the sustainable fashion industry will only aid the economic development in India and also with multiple causes in the long run.


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