The apparel industry should play a pivotal role in protecting the planet and leave it as a better place for the generations to come. At present, it is majorly accused of polluting the environment with its unsustainable practices. The numbers are quite alarming:
- Despite all the efforts across the globe, currently only one per cent of global clothing is being recycled and 99 per cent is going to landfill.
- The consumption of apparels is increasing substantially. As per estimates, around 107 billion units of apparels are being consumed every year and it is expected to grow at an average rate of 12-13 per cent Y-o-Y.
- The fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.
- The average American is said to throw away about 37 kg/81 pounds of clothes every year, as per a survey conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
According to WRAP, the global production of clothing has doubled between 2000 and 2015, while the average number of times clothing is worn has fallen by 36 per cent, thanks to big brands launching hundreds of collections every year along with low-priced, affordable garments flooding the market. Hence it’s no surprise that the fashion industry is accused of contributing to pollution massively. What’s surprising is that of the total textile/clothing waste generated annually in the world, 95 per cent can be reused or repurposed and each garment resold saves six times its weight in CO2 yet, despite all the hype, the fashion industry majorly falls prey to less efforts in this direction.
Upcycling will become mainstream and it’s just a matter of time. Just like recycling plastic bottle is now a growing trend, while few years back it was not so common.
India – which has a large apparel production as well as consumer base– generates massive amount of leftover products from factories as well as used products from consumers. The use of more sustainable methods can be a solution to this wastage issue; however, it’s not like that the industry isn’t paying attention to sustainability at all. There are brands and companies that are embracing circular economy concept – all thanks to rising consumer awareness for eco-friendly products.
Framework required for sustainable fashion
According to Kaustubh Korde, Senior Director (Product Development and Sourcing), Myntra, the framework of brand building in the sustainability state contains a three-pillar strategy: material sustainability, process sustainability and social sustainability which is the key. The sustainability framework using all these pillars should be made in a way that the end result should help people and bring up their lives to a new level.
While talking about her point of view of sustainable framework, Shivangini Padhiyar, Founder, The Summer House, commented, “Sustainable fashion, the word itself, is an oxymoron in reality. Even the most sustainable fashion is so resource-heavy and labour-intensive. The framework of sustainable fashion, for me, is kindness to the planet, kindness to the people making it and consumer at the end, so they get products that last long and kindness to the businesses to create a system where we make money while being kind. A lot of technicalities, but at the end it comes down to one word – kindness.”
Traditionally, sustainability, in broader terms, was always believed to be a combination of 4Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover, while, as clarity on sustainability is increasing amongst the industry stakeholders, it’s become 4R+1U where U represents upcycling that’s an important pillar of sustainable framework. And this is a concept the millennials have already started using, as says Instagram hashtag #upcycling that has over 4.40 million posts. So, seemingly the consumers are already aware of upcycled fashion, the only thing that needs to be pushed is broader usage of the same in different demographics.
“Sustainability has to start with a habit, a mindset that has to be inculcated. Initially, as Indians we were sustainable, we always wanted to use, reuse or give it. But with times, economies have scaled mass production and we got used to producing everything in mass and creating some waste. And now, as a circular loop, we have to go back to history and be very mindful of the waste that we are creating. And we have to understand that the waste that we have created is the money that we have paid which is going in waste. Once we have this mindset, whatever we create will create less waste. And once we have created a product which has the least wastage, then we go to the next step to ensure it doesn’t go to a landfill, it is used to the maximum lifecycle and then it is decomposed giving back to nature,” – Suvidha Chopra
Why upcycling has an edge over other concepts such as Recycling?
Usually consumers and the newly entrant companies in fashion business confuse between upcycled products and recycled products. But there is a difference between both the terms. Recycling process breaks down old, worn garments and textiles into materials based on their fibre composition, structure and colour so that they can be reused to create brand new apparel or textile.
On the other hand, upcycling process gives the whole discarded garment a new life by fixing, and improving the ‘same garment’. Upcycling is emerging as a preferred option as the creative reuse of a garment or repairing pre-owned clothes, or refurbishing through dyeing, bleaching and washing methods is becoming consumers’ choice now! These repurposed garments have less impact on the environment in terms of energy, water consumption, fewer chemicals and harmful gas emissions as compared to other sustainable concepts such as recycling. Some international brands have undertaken the post-consumer upcycling initiative with wearable waste through the take-back schemes.
It starts with quality raw material and designers’ involvement
To ensure the maximum use of an apparel, it’s the raw material that’s of utmost significance and has a crucial role to play. To make upcycling a mass market focus, there is a need to promote upcycled product and platforms required for this. Designers should take part in the upcycling process as they can ensure better use of the used product. Even while designing a new product, designers should think from upcycling perspective which is something missing today.
“How do we benchmark ourselves in measuring the sustainability initiatives is the key point. Only 1 per cent of the line is recycled! Can we get the target of 2-5 per cent getting recycled? While designing, we have to make sure the entire loop is completely closed – designing perspective to the recycling perspective, upcycling perspective and ensuring that we have proper traceability of the excess inventory getting into landfill. It is not just the designer front but also the product sustainability as well as the process where people and stakeholders are involved,” emphasised Ajay Ravuri, Head of Quality and Sustainability, Arvind Fashions Ltd.
Customer’s push will work
There are shops such as Lomi Preloved Thrift, Preloved Finds, All Things Preloved, Rebrand(ed) focusing on upcycling and aggressively promoting the concept on a platform like Instagram. And it is bringing change as there are people who prefer to buy second-hand clothes too. But all this is not on a very high scale. Overall awareness about sustainability and upcycling needs to increase as majority of customers are concerned about sustainability but they are not aware about various aspects especially the use of hazardous chemicals and dyes, etc. The customers have to realise that they have invested a certain amount on clothing and lifestyle has to be in a way that it should ensure maximum use of any apparel. It will be a big push to the efforts regarding sustainability and upcycling.
- Infrastructural changes are required
The torch-bearers of sustainability have to make sure that the infrastructure for second-hand/pre-loved/pre-owned garments needs to be built at mass level as everything today is about consumer experience. “As a consumer, most of us want to wear a new apparel every day, so if there is system/technology which ensures that the second-hand garment is fine from all perspectives, nothing’s better than that,” asserted Suvidha Chopra, Sr. Manager (Product Development), adidas.
Apparel stores should have a repair centre where reused garments can be returned back and can be worked on to be able to resale in the consumer markets.
Apart from all these parameters, what needs to be looked at is the economic aspect that can be a major push for upcycled products as such garments are cost-effective also. “We all like sustainability as a concept, but we don’t want to pay for it. Therefore, a sustainable garment, upcycled product to be precise, should be made more affordable,” mentioned Kaustubh.
More thrust on certification and traceability will also be helpful in this entire process. “Comparing the yesteryears where the quality of product and cost were of paramount importance. So these were the aspects that the customers across the supply chain would consider, but today sustainable fashion is a word which is added on to this, wherein processes, the people associated with it and the 360 degree impact of what goes in to producing the fabrics and the garments is in the interest of climate,” – Shailesh Kumar Sharma, Director-Connectivity and Products, SGS India Pvt. Ltd.
How upcycling is making fashion industry more sustainable?
As the pressure to adopt sustainable practices increases, brands and retailers are finding ways to introduce upcycling. Names like RE/DONE (focusing mainly on denim); Urban Outfitters (it has its very own upcycling spin-off called Urban Renewal, which uses surplus materials or deadstock and transforms it into fashionable clothing); Asos (Asos Reclaimed line is influenced by classic shapes, style icons and old-school street brands) and Zara (that is reselling clothes by upcycling them) are just cases in points.
It’s not just the global biggies like H&M, Zara and Urban Outfitters amongst others, the Indian fashion industry has also hit upon this new drift now as many are embracing the principles of upcycling with a newfound vigour. Take, for example, sustainable fashion brand Doodlage (which claims 100 per cent of its collection is upcycled or recycled), Bengaluru-based ethical fashion brand Pomogrenade, Gujarat-based label RaasLeela, The Second Life, Patch over Patch, etc.
Another emerging Indian sustainable brand The Summer House has a platform (Relove) where customers can buy and sell verified pre-owned (pre-loved) garments purchased from The Summer House. That’s a commendable effort towards ensuring upcycling gets more mileage. “5 per cent of our sale is of Relove garments. Our customers can send us back the used garment from their purchase history,” commented Shivangini.