Middle class India before the turn of year 2000: I remember my growing years when we would wait to lay our hands on new clothes stitched for us during Diwali or Dusshera. This would usually be four to 3-4 new dresses which would be worn for the first time offered to gods before wearing it. Beyond that we did not buy clothes apart from school dress bought during school year beginning.

Occasional visits from relatives would give us a dress or two. Other than that, we were happy with our limited set of clothes. Play clothes usually stitched at home by our moms or the neighborhood tailor. We were a happy lot – wearing then till they tore! If in still good condition, we would give it to our maids and I distinctly remember my mom trading her our family clothes to buy utensils!!

Hand-me downs in my family were usually accepted willingly for gently used clothes – especially if someone in the family was abroad as it gave us access to western fashion and higher quality clothes! Wedding trousseau for girls usually comprised of mom’s sarees kept lovingly plus a few lovingly chosen new pieces!

How things have changed – The clothing industry in India had undergone a major shift as rising disposable incomes, increased in online e-commerce-based brands are disrupting how people in India buy clothes. The Indian fashion industry is the second largest contributor to the retail industry after food and grocery.

Mindset shift from frugality to fashion consciousness; fueled by millennials need for instant gratification, access to international brands and more organized corporatized retail, societal image conscious tech savvy millennials have led to increased buying in comparison to the earlier generation.

It is growing at a CAGR of 9.7% and poised to reach 115$ billion by 2026. Favorable government policies have seen penetration of international brands in India and given rise to increased corporatized/organized retail. Indeed, a very interesting time to be in the Indian apparel market!! Post 2000, India saw a rise of malls and we have seen a phenomenal rise in clothing brick and mortar retail stores – such as Westside, Pantaloons, Globus, Max, FBB and similar rise of online brands such as Myntra, Bewakoof, Jabong etc..!!

The middle class has become more affluent and is fueling a huge demand of clothing in the mid-market segment. The lower strata of the Indian society still buy clothes from local shops and for the richer – access to haute couture international brands has never been easier.

Fast fashion seems to be here to stay….will slow conscious fashion rise to combat the detrimental impacts of fast fashion?


Alarm Bells Ringing : Indian Textile Sector

India has been confronted with pollution issues and the textile industry especially is plagued with many challenges. Tirupur in Erode district in the south, Vapi in Gujrat face heavy water and air pollution. These are hotspots for pollution. Unlike other major textile-producing countries, India’s textile industry is comprised mostly of small-scale, nonintegrated spinning, weaving, finishing, and apparel-making enterprises.

This unique industry structure is primarily a legacy of government policies that have promoted labor-intensive, small-scale operations and discriminated against larger scale firms. Moreover handloom – the oldest cottage industry known for creative traditional designs are currently dying out due to regressive government policies. The use of synthetic yarn in the place of natural fibre and using power looms to produce well-recognized handloom products has played havoc with regional identities.

Traditionally handlooms used natural resources and local skills to produce fabrics. Natural dyes such as natural indigo and alizarin have been replaced by chemical compliments. Power loom cheaper imitations have spoilt the market and the users nowadays do not have a discerning eye for understanding traditional handloom fabrics.

Largely unorganized: Inefficient machinery, unorganized labour, harmful chemicals and hazardous dyes, use of diesel generator sets for powering looms, use of GM cotton, polyester based yarns, untreated effluent, erroneous working methods – moving away from traditionally ecofriendly methods (such as handloom, natural dyes, short staple cotton) has led to massive environmental pollution in this sector.

The key sustainability challenges are: liquid wastes from textile mills – due to untreated waste water leading to exceedances in all water quality, exceedances in noise, air pollution due to noxious fumes from hazardous chemicals, exhaust gases from drying and curing, diesel usage for powering looms and transportation, lint waste, human occupational impact of chemical additives etc.

All these are impacts of the manufacturing process. Due to rising demand for clothing and adoption of use and throw mentality, wardrobes are being turned around at an alarming rate – while this seems to be good at the outset – due to more sales…we find a lower value for used clothing due to poor quality as a result clothes head for the landfill or open incineration


Role of the Government: What More Needs To Be Done

Government implements various schemes to promote production of all the raw materials for textile industry which includes promotion of R&D, technology upgrades, skill upgrades, infrastructure support towards rearing sheds, testing labs, etc. Government is also providing support for the production of raw jute under I-CARE project.

With specific attention to waste water pollution from textile sector the government of India – Ministry of Environment and Forests – had issued in 2015 the Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) notification. Proper monitoring by the concerned authorities is important to ensure that the mandate is followed by all and the purpose of issuing the mandate is met.

However, the implementation of ZLD has been a challenge :

  1. Due to high cost of investment, and high maintenance of the same.
  2. Residual sludge disposal is an issue that needs that needs thorough thought.
  3. The ZLD plant consumes huge power and fuel leading to pollution of the environment.

Instead of end of pipe treatment holistic changes in the process of manufacturing and adoption of green practices such as bioremediation will lead to mitigation at source. Government needs to finance R&D for sustainable manufacturing in this sector, protect the handloom sector, sensitize on use of renewable energy for production and enable this through viable schemes.

Another major area of intervention is for cotton production which is plagued with rampant use of chemicals – pesticides, and GM cotton which need more water and costs higher. Government efforts need to be directed for helping farmers grow indigenous cotton which need less water – such as kala cotton which will reduce stress on environment, improve livelihood and promote welfare.

The implementation of Goods and Service Tax will result in ‘Fibre-neutrality effect’ on the Indian textiles sector, according to the Ministry of Textiles, that means all man-made and natural fibres will be treated equally from the tax point of view. This is a huge setback for the handloom industry and those who are trying to revive natural dyes, organic cotton, and ancient textile techniques. This will indirectly encourage product diversification in the industry as larger manufacturers will consider blending synthetic fibres with cotton fibres.

This would indeed be a setback for the purist form of textiles.

Another alarming fact is that there is no centralized government guideline for the pollution prevention and abatement in the textile industry. The only state government that provides a guideline is Rajasthan. In absence of a central guideline the IFC guidelines for this sector is a good starting point for all players in this sector.


Slow Change for the Better……

I see few major changes in Fashion scene – that are taking place in India :

  1. Rise of eco consciousness – This has led to creation of niche market based on high quality organic natural fabric, natural dyed, upcyled products.
  2. Rise of corportised retail – with some brands focusing on better cotton initiative and sustainable measures in operations and value chain.
  3. Rental or hiring of clothes – Circular business models that allow people to sell branded clothes/hiring for weddings and occasions is also being considered a viable option in India.


Circularity in Textile Sector

The apparel sector also has seen heightened awareness of interrelations between business and its impact on society and environment. There has been a rising sense of awareness and growing momentum across the world to embrace circularity in businesses. Circularity holistically means how the loop can be closed bearing in mind the entire process of sourcing, manufacturing, and logistics is done in environmentally friendly way.

Government can set the tone by enabling the right policies and show commitment to circularity. Industries can take the lead for enabling ecofriendly business practices, collaborate with other businesses and NGOs and invest in circular business opportunities. Multi-stakeholder conversations are key to circularity, and the critical key in this ecosystem is the design community that basically drives the fashion consciousness of India.

And while we have a long way to go it’s heartening to see the slow rise of #slowfashion : The newer lot of designers like Doodlage (working with industrial waste), Crow (working with handloom), Ek Katha (working with kala cotton and natural dyes), Indigene (all things handmade!!), Naushad Ali (handwoven fabric) given hope to the rise of eco-fashion consciousness in India! Slow conscious fashion where people focus on quality and source of fabric is slowly taking its hold on the conscious lot.