In last few years, circular economy has been one of the most discussed topics across the globe. And now in ‘new normal’, when things are very much difficult and survival is the only objective for many, circular economy should be enabled for business resilience. And as far as the apparel manufacturing industry is concerned, now professionals are focusing on every aspect of the entire supply chain. Circular design is also as important as any other initiative or process in this regard. Concept of any apparel starts and finalises at the designer’s table. The design should have a purpose and functionality and this is completely at the end of the designer. At the same time use of raw material by using latest technology, focus on India’s core strength and many other aspects are highly important.
As per Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is based on the principles of designing waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Waste and pollution are not accidents but the consequences of decisions made at the design stage where around 80 per cent of environmental impact are determined.
Looking at the complex supply chain structure of the apparel industry, the issue becomes more important as right from fibre production to apparel manufacturing, use and after use, there are different kinds of challenges be it extensive use of pesticides, chemicals and 85 per cent of garments ending in a landfill.
At the same time, one has to be very much clear that circular economy is not just about materials, recycling environment; it also needs to embrace inclusivity and consider just and fair transition. It is about how the world is producing and consuming. So, the 7Rs (Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Recover, Recycle) of circularity should be implemented to enable circular transition in products and processes in the industry and boost social inclusion.
At the level of material in the textile industry, good progress is there as the use of waste to create new innovative material by chemical recycling is now a part of the mainstream production. Some companies are already doing interesting innovations in this direction.
Anita Chester, Head of Materials, Laudes Foundation says, “Few of the companies are doing good with the use of technology and innovative ideas like natural fabric welding (taking shorter fibre, recycled cotton and stapling them together to produce suitable fibre for garment production), Nanollose (the biotech company developing process of repurposing liquid waste to microbial cellulose that can be regenerated into fibres) to mention a few. There is tremendous scope in India for such technologies.” She also highlights one such example- Full Circle Textiles project and the collaboration of Laudes Foundation, Birla Cellulose, Kering, PVH Corp., and Target for Fashion for Good, to explore the disruptive solutions, to create new fibres and garments from used clothing and ultimately drive industry-wide adoption.
Leading Indian designers are actively concerned in this regard and have a strong focus on the sustainable aspects but they insist to focus on crafts, considering it as the strength of India. Famous fashion designer Ritu Kumar strongly believes in this perspective and insists that India need not follow Europe for domestic market at least as India has different culture, tradition, climate and available resources… “India has around 16 million people associated with crafts as a mean of their earning. Let’s not wear this colonial bag pack and start rethinking that what are we doing. There is enough option in Indian crafts. We need to go back to our roots,” she says. As per her, it is one of the best ways to stop waste as Indian textile products have many reasons to preserve for long. The material and the active involvement of hand-made techniques used in crafts are the best examples of circular economy.
Agreeing with this is Payal Jain, a well-known designer, who sees going back to crafts as the biggest opportunity. But at the same time looking at the overall apparel market size, she believes, “Yes we are a small pie of big piece in export or even within India but we can set that platform as biggest brands come to India for embroidery, for inspiration etc., so why can’t India create good income opportunity for them; we need to see circularity from this perspective.” She also adds that circularity to her comes first through design as a designer when we are creating a collection, we have to think about the life span of a garment, no matter for whatever purpose the garment is used.
Most of the stakeholders of the industry are of the view that focus of the apparel manufacturing companies is now growing towards circularity from their early focus of health and safety, environment. Jason Kibbey, CEO, Higg Co who has seen this transformation closely states that still, the majority of factories across the globe are comparatively at the early stage of following circularity in their ability to make sustainable products.
He says, “Looking at the data and requirement for the industry, Higg Co. also set a tool (Higg Product Tool) for designers that helps in designing the product with understanding as to where is the impact of a particular product and where does it stand from a sustainability point of view, be it kind and quantity of material used in the product.” He also adds that looking at the production for mass markets, efficiency and resource-saving like saving of fabric in cutting are important aspects of the whole circularity journey.
To support industry and particularly circularity aspect, there are institutes like Circular Apparel Innovation Factory (CAIF), helping the industry to manage the different kinds of risk in business to ensure circularity. CAIF works to build the ecosystem and capabilities to accelerate the transition of the apparel and textile industry towards circularity.
Venkat Kotamaraju, Director of CAIF, shares, “As an ecosystem builder by sharing resources, knowledge, facilitating partnerships and network, we support innovators on risks like initiatives risk (risk related to managing the familiar uncertainties of any project), interdependence risk as value chain is quite complex and partners of this value chain work in silos and CAIF ensures mutual coordination across this value chain. Another important focus for it is integration risk which deals with adoption of process or innovation from an integration point of view.”
Across the globe, brands are also taking a lot of steps to support circularity. Not only established and global brands are moving in this direction, but emerging companies like Rimagined are using different kinds of pre-consumer waste (discarded fabric or waste yarn) and post-consumer waste (discarded apparels etc.) in their collections. Still, the consumer mindset is a challenge especially as far as post-consumer waste is concerned. It is also focusing on products which can be created without wastage over consuming virgin resources.
Shailaja Rangarajan, Founder & Director, Rimagined, Bengaluru feels, “We started this initiative 5 years ago with the sole aim of circular economy as the mantra. We strongly believe in sustainable model of consumption which is not just growth-driven. There are challenges in this process regarding scaling up the business, consumer awareness to make an alternative mainstream lifestyle model, and there is also no specific incentive for such producer…” She also adds that as the product has to last for a decade or even more and then there should be scope of repurposing with the same, a lot of thought goes into the design stage as well for making such products. So, this is a slow movement and it will take time and efforts.
One good thing is that this awareness is now growing at every level and circularity is now part of the curriculum. Dr Sanjay Gupta, Vice-Chancellor, World University of Design says, “Circularity in fashion design is very important for us and we are building it in our various programmes and everyday activities. Every fashion student at our university is into circularity movement and sees how it goes. At the same time, making the design for longevity is also a focus for us. As design-educators, it brings us into many things like a design student should think like how to temper long-term goal with some short-term insights of trends and design accordingly.” He is also of the view that proper fit and sizing is equally important keeping in mind the exact use of raw materials, user’s requirements as well as renting. Use of embellishment is also decided as per the concept of circularity and made accordingly.
Like the complex supply chain of the textile and apparel industry, circularity aspect is too vast and keeps evolving as per the industry’s changing scenario. So, every aspect needs to be taken care of by all stakeholders, not just the level of design, use of raw material, etc. Even process design, organisation design, access to the required different kinds of resources as per the actual requirement are also highly important.