Textile Waste: The Unnoticed Hazard

Textile Waste: The Unnoticed Hazard

Kanika Ahuja, Director, Conserve India

Devanshi Bhatnagar, Research Associate, Conserve India


India’s association with textiles dates back to 4000 BC and is among the oldest in the world (Victoria and Albert Museum 2013). Not only have textiles been integral to every aspect of the Indian identity, be it cultural representation, art, royalty; various trade systems were formed based on the export of fabrics of Indian origin. Not only are textiles a representation of the cultural diversity of the country in the form of labour-intensive hand-woven textiles, India is also fairing well in the capital-intensive modern mills sector. Apart from being among the oldest sectors, the Textiles sector’s contribution to the economy has also been substantial. In fact, it contributed 7 per cent to the industry output (by value), 2 per cent to the GDP, 12 per cent to the export earnings and controlled 5 per cent of the global trade in textiles in 2018–19 while also contributing USD 100 billion to the domestic textiles and apparel market in 2019–20 (India Brand Equity Foundation 2021). Simultaneously, the sector also provides formal employment to around 4.5 crore workers which includes 35.2 lakh handloom workers (ibid.).


Textile Waste Generation

With a burgeoning population of estimated 1.39 billion and increased purchasing power, Indians are not only consuming more than ever, but it has also led to generation of more waste than ever. Certain estimates suggest that one fourth or 25 per cent of fabric is wasted during the apparel making process and directly contributes to pre-consumer/industrial waste. The linear approach to manufacturing textiles and increased shift towards fast fashion has resulted in increased textile production and consumption than ever before. Simultaneously, low re-use and recycling of these textiles has also resulted in higher waste generation. Directly and indirectly, this has resulted in increased use of land, water, fossil fuels and amplified air, water and soil pollution. Nearly, 5 per cent of all landfills are consumed by textile waste (which typically takes a century to break down) and about 20 per cent of pollution of fresh water is due to textile treatment such as bleaching, dyeing and finishing (Scott 2015). 

With technology becoming an essential part of our lives, the influence of social media has never been more potent. Capitalistic tendencies and the constant desire for the rich to become richer has resulted in most social media portals subscribing to algorithms that show the consumer exactly what he/she/they want, desire or even think about. In this day and age of fashion ‘influencers’ and ‘bloggers’, their ability to influence large crowds is not unknown and the impact it has had on consumption patterns is daunting. Making fashion available at the click of a button and the ease of trying and returning products, all from the comfort of our beds has resulted in mass consumption of textiles. This, coupled with poor and ineffective labour and environmental laws has allowed conglomerates to employ cheap labour, often under hazardous conditions, with little or no regard for the environment and produce products at throwaway prices, thereby further tempting consumers to consume more. Textile waste is, in fact, the third largest source of solid municipal waste in the country.


Circular Economy

The conversation around textile waste is still gaining momentum domestically. While the western world has accelerated its shift to a more circular model in apparels rather than a linear one, India still has some catching up to do. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines Circular Economy as one that is “restorative and regenerative by design and provides benefits for business, society, and the environment. In such a system, clothes, textiles, and fibres are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy after use, never ending up as waste.” Lack of awareness about the environmental and social cost of textile waste has been a constant roadblock in the move towards a circular economy. Moreover, increased purchasing power, economic growth, and expansion of the middle class has resulted in fulfilment of not just needs but also desires. According to McKinsey & Company, the average consumer purchased 60 per cent more clothing in 2014 than in 2000 but retained it for half as long. However, the impacts of environmental degradation, global warming and overall environmental damage have become more pertinent and thanks to the power of the internet, the need for switching towards a circular economy is getting the attention it needs! The millennial generation is more aware than its predecessors and is acknowledging the need to shift to a circular business model, where not only is the longevity of the garment an important consideration but also the possibility of completely recycling, redesigning or reusing the garment at the end of its life. In 2020 alone, social media platforms like Instagram saw a flood of thrift stores. Similarly, rental and resale models have seen a growth spurt in the last 5 years. However, the end goal still remains blurry since India is currently experiencing a surge in fast fashion and big brands are using this opportunity to their advantage. Initiatives, if any, from their end are not large enough to counter the hazards of fast fashion. 


The Gender Lens

Despite formally employing 4.5 crore individuals in the textiles sector, waste workers who are the main pillar of textile waste management are neither well-represented nor are they accounted for in the organised labour workforce. As awareness about the impact of our consumption habits looms large, sustainability and circularity in the textiles value chain have become active conversations. However, the marked power asymmetry between suppliers and global buyers and a large number of intermediaries operating on thin margins continues to pose road-blocks for this transition (UNEP 2019). About 80 per cent of all people employed in the garment industry are women, many of whom do not have rights and protections and only about 2 per cent of them earn a living wage (BWSS 2019). For centuries, society has been feeding into the gender gap and capitalist tendencies have done nothing to bridge it. If anything, it has widened it further. Women and minors continue to be a vulnerable population and have been denied their rights, sometimes even basic human rights in most garment factories. The switch to sustainable fashion will be good for the environment but may not be equally good for women work-force in general. Unless laws and regulations are predefined and imposed on big corporations, women workers will continue to be vulnerable. Priority needs to be given to stronger governance to ensure industry-wide change.


The Impact of Covid

Apart from the slow growth of circular fashion in India and gender disparity within the textile industry, COVID 19 has posed an even bigger problem for the industry. Not only has it disrupted the demand and supply chain for apparels , it has also exposed the terrible reality of the supply chains in fashion and the lack of commitment to the workers on behalf of the employers. While the attrition in almost all sectors was high, the textile industry saw a particularly high attrition due to the reduced sales revenue of the companies. Not only that, the garment workers were not paid their dues which led to the rise of the #PayUp Campaign where big brands like Nike, Amazon among others were called out for shying away from their legal responsibility of paying the dues of the garment workers. As primary profit makers, it is the moral responsibility of big brands to prevent their workers from having to bear the brunt of the pandemic and being vulnerable. However, what transpired was completely different as many workers were laid off and left penniless in the midst of a pandemic. While the pandemic has opened our eyes to the cost we will have to bear if we continue to be cruel to the environment, it has also opened our eyes to the capitalist tendencies of the big conglomerates and how much they value their profits over the needs and rights of their already underpaid labourforce. 


What Can We Do?

Currently, due to the consequences of ‘lockdown’ and social distancing measures, many retailers are facing unprecedented challenges in dealing with the deadstock resulting from clothes and accessories they were not able to sell in time for the intended season. This is all happening at a More than USD 500 billion of value is being lost annually due to clothing underutilisation and lack of recycling Fashion Two circular investment opportunities for a low-carbon and prosperous recovery 7-8 2 time when the massively environmentally detrimental and wasteful nature of the industry is becoming increasingly more urgent and scrutinised.


  • At the Country Level 

There is much to be done on the policy side to incentivize circularity at the systems level. There must be a major shift to incentivize or require the use of secondary or recycled materials, for example by placing taxes on products that use only virgin materials. The UK has taken a step in this direction by introducing a tax on plastic packaging that has less than 30% recycled content.

There must also be a major investment in infrastructure so that recycling can be expanded or even compulsory. To retain the greatest value possible of the material, innovative technologies and processes enabling clothing-to-clothing recycling should be prioritised over those which downcycle materials. For example, through its chemical recycling process, Aquafil group, Italy is able to produce recycled nylon at a competitive price compared to virgin nylon. The proposed European Green Deal sets out many similar policies, including a Circular Economy Action Plan.

As more and more governments introduce policies that encourage recycling and reuse, and as consumer awareness around sustainability continues to grow, companies that adopt circular business models will find themselves at a clear business advantage.


  • At the Business Level 

For companies, the consumption issue is often the “elephant in the boardroom,” as the fundamental principle of most business models is selling more products to more people. Disrupting that mentality will require business innovation, policy support and consumer demand.


We are seeing many new innovative business models shaping up in the textiles and fashion space that address the consumption issue. For example, renting clothes and thrift stores for resale of clothes are becoming popular among the more environmentally-aware younger generations in India. Businesses who are quick to adapt to these new trends are sure to see a positive reflection of it on their cash flow. Many fast fashion brands are quick to realise this and have launched unrealistic environmental targets for marketing gains, commonly referred to as “greenwashing”. For example, H&M’s circularity initiative has set an ambitious target considering the fact that, while the recycling facility has collected around 34,000 tons of waste over the last three years, equivalent to the weight of 178 million T-shirts, H&M as a company currently produces somewhere between 550 and 600 million garments annually. And though in 2015 H&M reportedly produced 1.3 million garments with closed loop material, it has an extremely long way to go before reaching anything close to sustainability. In its “Roadmap towards a fair living wage” H&M promised 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018. H&M happily took the credit for that commitment in 2013, but today not a single worker is actually making a living wage. There are several blindspots in the way H&M works which as consumers we have to be weary of. 


  • At the Citizen Level 
  1. Consume Less – Even the greenest garment uses resources for production and transport to your home, creating some environmental impact. The root of our problem lies in our excessive consumerism: we buy a minimum of 10 garments a year, while our grandmothers bought 2. We need to prioritise “need” over “want” to limit our environmental footprint. Frugality and minimalism are at the core of being a conscious consumer. 


  1. Consume Better 

We not only need to consume lesser, but also consume better. Invest in quality products that are made for longevity and follow an ethical supply chain through its production from fibre to store. Millennials today are catching on to the new trends in textiles and technology. They are choosing garments and materials engineered to last longer. Some of the most sustainable materials are natural fibers (cotton, hemp, linen) and futuristic/innovative fabrics. They are ditching cheap synthetics (polyester, nylon, spandex). These fibers are not grown naturally, and instead come from chemicals and polymers and play a huge role in pollution from microplastics.


  1. Advocate and push for sustainable and socially conscious supply chains. 

Every purchase is a vote for the kind of system we want. We must be vocal about our concerns for the environment and for transparency in supply chains. We must push for systems that are not exploitative of people or our planet. We must do our research and pay close attention to how brands use the term “transparency.” Do they really mean it and prove it? Does the brand take initiatives with the fabrics used? Are they committed to ethical/sustainable practices? 


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