The global textile industry has seen unprecedented growth in the past few years, propelled by the demand for fast fashion. With mass production and low costs, fast fashion caters to consumers’ growing appetite for the latest trends, generating a lot of waste. The demand is expected to increase further. In 2019, the global textile industry was valued at $1.9 trillion. It is estimated to touch $3.3 trillion by 2030.
More recently however, there is a global conversation building around sustainable fashion that caters to the needs of not just the people, but also the planet.
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Synthetic fibres, which form nearly two-thirds of the fibre mix used by textile industries, are heavily reliant on intensive chemical use. Even natural fibres like cotton are largely cultivated by methods that include high water and intensive land use. Though cotton cultivation accounts for only 2.4% of cultivated land, it leads to 16% of insecticide and 6% of pesticide use. On its present growth trajectory, characterised by mass production, limited reuse and recycling, the textile industry would have consumed 300 million tonnes of non-renewable inputs, taken up 26% of the carbon budget associated with the 2 degrees Celsius pathway outlined by the Paris Agreement, and added 22 million tonnes of synthetic microfibers to the world’s oceans.
Such grave and imminent impacts of fast fashion have today prompted several industry players to look for alternatives—materials that are environmentally friendly, cost-effective and that can also be produced at scale to cater to the ever growing demands of the apparel sector, a task that is as colossal as it is urgent.
Potential of agro-residues
Leading fashion names like Adidas, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger are backing the search for material innovations and bio-based alternatives. However, most brands are still grappling with issues of scale and cost-effectiveness. Clearly, investments are needed across supply chains to make these new innovations a viable and attractive alternative to the existing textile production systems.
A relatively unexplored option holding great promise is agricultural waste, or agro-residues. India, and Southeast Asian countries, could benefit from such opportunities. Currently, agricultural residues pose serious environmental threats. India generates over 140mt surplus crop residue a year, and farmers struggling to find alternate uses for the vast quantities of residues, often resort to burning. About 92mt crop residues are burnt annually. This has contributed to pollution levels rising incessantly, particularly in cities like Delhi.
Finding good use for these crop residues could thus provide additional income to farmers, sustainable textile fibres for the fashion industry, while protecting the environment. Changing temperature and precipitation patterns are becoming an increasing threat for countries in South Asia including India, as evidenced by a recently released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed. Going forward, it is important to incorporate climate-smart solutions in different, seemingly unconnected sectors like textile manufacturing. Carefully planning to counter climate impacts along the entire agri-value chain can help mitigate and reduce losses and position India as a leader in sustainable fashion.
A recent report has identified a range of agro-residues including husks and straw from rice and wheat, trash and bagasse from sugarcane, empty fruit bunches from palm oil and other fruit-based residues like pineapple leaves and banana pseudo stems, as being suitable for textile fibre production, especially in India and seven other countries in South and Southeast Asia. The study has also explicitly tried to include aspects like cost-considerations, potential for scalability and sufficient availability of these residues, in addition to the competing uses they might be currently used for.
The report identifies several hubs with existing infrastructure, like transportation, processing capacities and other cost-considerations that form part of the textile manufacturing supply chain that can be developed for agro-residue based fibre production. Rice and wheat straw and husks as well as sugarcane bagasse have the most consistent and widespread availability. States like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have been identified as suitable locations for these hubs.
Spinning future threads
Going forward, there is a need for further research on agro-residues to better understand the trade-offs between competing uses, and how to incentivise farmers and enable them to better identify and commercialise their use, with support from global conglomerates. It is essential to enable transparent dialogue and evidence-building to prevent vested interests from putting profit before people and the environment. More robust crop-specific value chain analyses can help understand the economies of scale while ensuring that environmental, social and climate risks are appropriately accounted for. Research emphasizes that accounting for environmental threats and effects of climate change on several of these crops will be a critical and challenging aspect in these value-chain analyses. This can also help attract future investments. In particular, there is a need to curb the tendency to compromise on potentially large future benefits for short-term gains, and the textile industry needs to work closely with the farming communities to develop strategies for a transition from fast to sustainable.
Clothing remains one of the most basic human requirements. While we continue to cater to this need, we must step up our responsibilities, and ensure that we cater to the planet as well. Fast fashion trends may often disappear as quickly as they come, but sustainable fashion is here to stay.
Parvathi Preethan is a senior project associate, and Nambi Appadurai, director, climate resilience practice, at World Resources Institute (WRI India).
Also read | Source: The sustainable edit