Circularity has become a buzzword globally in discussions about sustainability. Every conscious brand wants it to be a key value for their business.
Circularity is when a product is designed and developed while considering its end-of-life (EOL). In a circular economy, the products go back into the supply chain instead of the landfill (referred to as ‘closing the loop’); therefore, no waste is generated. Are the prevalent solutions ‘closing the loop’, and are planet-friendly? Let’s explore these below.
We often discuss circular solutions like reuse, upcycle, thrift, donate, etc. These are all mindful conscious steps brands and customers take to deflect the ‘Use and throw’ mindset propagated by fashion trends.
This ‘Use-and-throw’ mindset encourages a system of designing clothes and trends meant to be disposable within a short duration. Moreover, it leads to business models that thrive on producing large quantities, using environmentally polluting processes and harmful materials and dyes with unfair labour practices. This intent harms the planet and the people: from the collection’s inception to its end at the landfills (where all the clothes end).
Fashion and sweatshops also have a dark reality of poor treatment of workers. The documentary, The True Cost, followed by the Fashion Revolution movement, has created global awareness regarding how the fashion industry systems have encouraged modern slavery in third-world countries. Also, the fashion and textile industry is reportedly the second most polluting industry after automobiles.
Any step — big or small — to break the system of fast fashion trends is a pro-planet move. However, most of the solutions are only ways to increase the lifespan of a garment or textile. So is there a real solution when it comes to ending the life of a garment (EOL)?
The Brands’ Perspective: Solutions and Challenges
There are broadly two kinds of textile waste generated in the fashion industry:
- Pre-consumer waste: cutting room scraps, unsold surplus inventory, and factory-quality fabrics rejected because of errors or mild defects.
- Post-consumer waste: garments, fabrics, and materials already used by people and ready to be discarded.
Waste Management in Sampling and Production
Garment-making generates a lot of waste. Have you ever noticed the floor of a small local tailor shop filled with fabric scraps of varied sizes? Now think of a large factory making clothing in bulk. The higher the number of garments produced, the higher the waste generated in the cutting and tailoring department in the form of big and small textile scraps. Many fabrics also get wasted more in fabric manufacturing units during dyeing, printing and other processes.
At Kaizen the label, we’ve always requested our garment partners to send all of the scraps back to us along with the final finished garments. We’ve been using these scraps to re-design small capsule collections, use them as ribbons, tie price tags, etc., or even in small personal art projects.
Hemp Fabric Lab sells a ‘scrap bag’ consisting of the waste generated in sampling, new developments, and cutting room production scraps of their sister brand, Blabel, that can be a fun option in the market for creators making products like fabric jewellery and hair accessories, appliques and textile waste art.
Suppose a brand makes an effort to gather its scraps and reuse or pass them on to other businesses that use waste as its core raw material. In that case, it might prove relatively easy because even the tiniest scrap can be downcycled in India to make dhurries, etc. Downcycling, as the term suggests, is to convert a product or material into a lower quality or value.
Waste as a Raw Material
Over the last few years, there have been quite a few fashion designers like Karishma Shahani of Ka-sha and Kriti Tula of Doodlage, who have made a name for themselves in the sustainable designer wear sector by upcycling fashion and textile waste. Upcycling refers to repurposing and reusing discarded or old products and materials and creating new products of higher value.
Small businesses like Tukra are working on giving a second life to textile scraps collected from local shops and turning them into multiple products like bags, pouches, jewellery, and hair accessories by a time-consuming yet creative process of cleaning and sorting the scraps according to colour, texture, weight, etc., and finally stitching them.
At Iro Iro, founder designer Bhaavya Goenka uses a technique of cutting fabric strips and using them as yarn to hand weave them into a fabric. The brand integrates waste management alongside preserving local craftsmanship. According to her, many conscious designers today have developed and adopted solutions to design and produce mindfully. ‘There are solutions to make upcycled products but not enough solutions to sell and market them’, says Bhaavya. She further shared that there is a need to educate customers and sell and market upcycled fashion with fresh perspectives. In addition, there is an unfair comparison of upcycled fashion with mainstream fast fashion products: regarding aesthetics, price points, or seasonal timelines, to name a few. This comparison adds up to the challenge of doing things consciously, which can be almost against the norms of the fashion industry most of the time.
Many brands and designers today are willing to divert their route and put the planet and people on the same level as profits. Still, are we ready to look at these products from a different, unique lens and appreciate them for their individualistic nature?
Repair, Return, Buyback and Resale Options
Thrifting as an eco-friendly solution has been gaining popularity and has almost become a buzzword in the sustainable fashion sector. Physical stores like Good Karma in Goa, Bombay Closet Cleanse in Mumbai, and Instagram thrift stores like Susta Act have been tapping into the second-hand clothing space in India.
Interesting start-ups are coming up in India, providing unique circular solutions for brands & retailers. For example, Relove is a circular-tech solution founded by Kirti Poonia and Prateek Gupte that integrates a reselling option on existing brands’ websites. Here, customers can sell their second-hand clothes directly from the brand’s website where they bought. Conscious Indian brands like The Summer House, Love the World Today, The Jodi Life, Suta, etc., are a few famous names that have added the ‘Relove’ option on their shopping websites to allow customers to resell their old clothes belonging to that particular brand.
InfiniteX is another company providing post-consumer circularity services to fashion brands and retailers in India. It has developed an innovative and unique physical ID attached to garments that help with the reverse logistics network and builds an ecosystem of Circularity with partners like recyclers, upcyclers, NGOs, etc. ‘InfiniteX helps brands and retailers to attach unique physical IDs to their garments. Once these garments are sold to customers, post usage, they can raise requests like donations, recycling, reselling, etc. We then collect these garments from the consumers, sort them out and route them to circularity partners. With this, we will ensure that post-consumer waste does not end up in landfills’, says co-founder Garvit Sahdev.
So, Are There Any End-of-life Solutions Available?
The unfortunate answer is currently, not really! The Circularity measures existing today help extend the life of a garment. However, textiles waste in the form of old rags, worn-out non-recyclable clothes and furnishings, used undergarments and activewear end up in landfills!
Circularity measures mitigate climate change and encourage conscious, mindful lifestyles. Responsible production and consumption are sure the need of the hour.
But alongside, the harsh truth is that we need to stop continuing the typical fast-fashion norms immediately if we want to make functional, long-lasting changes. However, is the industry willing to unlearn everything about fashion, textiles, and trends — and find new directions to create less instead of an extra ‘conscious’ collection?
Because in the end, there is no point in talking about ‘saving the planet’ as an industry or using natural materials if we keep producing so-called conscious clothing in bulk, in the same old ways.
This article is authored by Namrata Gohain, a sustainable fashion & crafts professional with 10+ years of experience. An advocate of SDG 12 – Responsible Production & Consumption, she runs a conscious craft-based business called Kaizen, the label. This brand works with artisan communities of mainly Northeast and East India.
She works with other organizations with a similar ethos in multiple domains, including managerial duties for merchandising, operations, creative content and brand building. An avid reader with many questions, she loves research and has a knack for continuous learning. She aims to get Indian artisanal crafts and underdog sustainable natural textiles a better market and bring the dignity of labour to the artisans of India.