Transforming fast fashion: the need of the hour

Have you peered deep into the recesses of your wardrobe lately? You probably haven’t used half the clothes in the last one year. We buy more than we need. We will continue to buy more. But this explosive volume spells enormous environmental and social damages. The scope for and extent of recycling is minuscule. The whole fashion industry works in a linear fashion — take, make, retail — and the consumers are used to it. But what about closing the loop? What about post-retail, post-use future of the fabric? What about moving to a future where 80% of the recycled clothes do not end up in landfills? How about technology that lets us recycle more than the current, microscopic 0.1% of all collected used apparel into new textile fibres?

How do we consume fashion now?

Low prices, greater variety, micro-trends, and seasonal wardrobes make us compulsive buyers. As Marie Kondo fans point out, in 1930, the average woman had 36 items of clothing; today, it’s 150.

The fashion industry sells clothes worth almost $60 billion every year in India. Brands that offer discounts every third month drive the consumption pattern. Log on to Amazon, Myntra or Ajio, for instance. You’ll be spoilt for choice with discounts and offers. The same goes for the brick and mortar stores with their periodic sales.

Factor in population growth, ease of buying, and improved GDP. We are looking at explosive volumes in the near future.

The problem of plenty

Think of the water use, the impact of hazardous chemicals, and the greenhouse gas emissions. If the consumption of even 80 % of the population in the developing countries matches up with the Western world by 2025, then the environmental damage will be even larger predicts McKinsey.

But we are hooked to fast fashion. Zara launches 24 new collections each year; H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly. And we collect them all.

Where does it go? The average brands don’t care about the apparel post sales. The consumer who discards a top after two wears rarely thinks about recycling. There is no incentive to do so. Asking people to reduce the consumption is not pragmatic. In fact, the projected growth in apparel production is 63% by 2030. The need of the hour is to find a new solution. One that works for everyone — brands, retailers, consumers, and the environment.

So, where do we start?

The key areas of impact across the fashion value chain are water consumption, followed by energy consumption, the use of chemicals, and waste management. Ethical practices concerning land use or animal welfare are a problem area. A little less affected, but vital, are labour practices and health and safety standards.

Getting the end of use garments in the loop is the first step in addressing the problem. Imagine, if we can reproduce things from the garments over and over! That would be the best solution. But we are years away from a perfect, scalable, commercial technology.

What we can do immediately is create an organised platform to improve the volume of used garment collection. Once that goes up, it will expedite the R&D to handle the recycling process. This could render the massive landscape of damages more manageable and sustainable.

Recycling: too little and possibly, too late

The conventional systems of recycling cannot unravel this tangled knot.

In the West, recycling is a voluntary action, spearheaded by the non-profits. Some recycled clothes go to the African countries as second-hand clothing. But the proportion is minuscule.

India, by contrast, has very little organised system of collection. But our informal networks ensure a prolonged life. From the travelling Waghri community who trade in used clothes to giving away to domestic helps, clothes do find post-consumption use. But the section this caters to cannot use much of the fast-fashion products. A cold shoulder top will not be of use to the village girl looking hard for a garment under Rs 100. Yes, we do make memes about our purchase-to-pochha lifespan of clothes. But the reality is that less than 0.1 % of clothes sold in India are recovered post usage.

Globally, around 80 % of apparel go to landfills after use. Less than 7 % of the clothes are collected from consumers post-use. Again, only 0.1 % of all clothes collected by non-profits are recycled into new textile fibres. Despite the feel-good factor, and the momentary calming of ethical qualms, charity doesn’t scale.

What can brands do?

The fashion brands must use their influence to push up end-of-use garment collection. A scalable solution is possible only when it is economically viable for all stakeholders — customers, retailers, and recyclers. This necessitates clear metrics like:

• Increasing the volume of used garments collected.

• Implementing design strategies for cyclability

• Increasing the volume of used garments that are resold

• Increasing the share of garments made from recycled textile fibres

Source: Global fashion agenda,2017

Setting up a garment collection scheme is an important actionable step, working towards a circular fashion system. It will allow retailers to form new relationships with customers and future raw material suppliers. We must develop the infrastructure for collecting and processing used garments. By a conservative estimate, the collection of used apparel needs to go up three times to be effective and viable.

The future of fashion

We will see two types of fashion in the future: fast and slow. Fast fashion will have a short lifetime but an efficient recycling system. So, it will not put a significant strain on virgin resources. Slow fashion will not be as easy to recycle, but it will have a very high quality. This means that it will, ideally, not be recycled very often. We need to move away from the linear model. The raw materials that go into our clothes must be recaptured and re-circulated into the supply chain as part of a continual loop.

The first step is to incentivise the return of a fashion product after use and do it profitably. If a program needs to make a meaningful impact, it needs to scale massively.

We have created a tech startup called “Circle” to address this issue. It’s a technology and behavioral platform to increase the collection, sorting and recycling problem for the fashion Industry.

Next time, we’ll look at the incentive system for recycling…

P.S: If you have any suggestion for us, please do comment.