As the 2030 time frame for achieving United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals nears, sustainability has become the topmost priority across sectors. India too has set green goals as a key agenda en route to achieving Amrit Kaal. Industries and businesses, therefore, are making conscious efforts to formulate strategies to walk the fine line between bettering bottom lines and adopting environment-friendly practices.
Applicable also to the Indian textile industry, making sustainability a norm will play a huge role in impacting the environment and driving India towards a tech-focussed, knowledge-based economy. Aptly dubbed the ‘silent cash cow’, this industry accounts for 2% of the nation’s GDP, 4% of global textile and apparel commerce and 7% of industry output in value terms. The textile, garment and handicraft sector provided 11.4% of all exports from the country even in the Covid-affected fiscal year of 2020–21. Additionally, it is India’s second-largest employer.
On the flipside, the production methods in this industry are responsible for emitting over 1.2 billion tonnes of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) annually. In fact, the global textile production contributes to 8-10% of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and 20% of industrial wastewater pollution, making it the second-most polluting industry.
Processes such as dyeing, finishing chemicals in textile substrates, desizing (the process of removing sizing material from yarn), scouring, bleaching, and mercerising (chemically treating fabric to increase affinity toward dye) consume enormous amounts of water. To give a perspective, creation of a single cotton shirt requires as much water as a person would drink in two-and-a-half years.
Synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester use less water during production but emit dangerous GHGs.
The majority of finished goods in the garment industry are manufactured and supplied by China and India, two neighbours whose textile sectors are largely supported by coal-fired power plants. Needless to say, these numbers call for a quick switch to sustainable production methods especially when our country has committed to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030. As the figures stand in direct conflict with the country’s ambitions, the government’s onus on green growth in Budget 2023-24 does not come as a surprise.
A few years ago, the Centre launched the Integrated Scheme on Powerloom Sector that intends to help the industry shift to more energy-efficient modes of production. Additionally, the Ministry of Textiles started a Green Technology Mission to promote the adoption of eco-friendly products and methods. By encouraging the use of environment-friendly materials, dyes and production techniques, the mission seeks to lessen the sector’s impact on the environment. Further, it has set up the National Textiles Corporation to promote the use of sustainable technologies. The corporation provides technical and financial assistance to the industry and has also built the Centre for Sustainable Textiles to promote sustainable practices.
Additionally, the government has been actively supporting Production Linked Incentive (PLI) schemes over the past few years, which has given the textile industry the opportunity to advance India’s sustainability objectives. However, efforts are required in terms of incentives, infrastructure and research and development, even as the industry embraces the already laid out plans.
Consumers, too, are growing cautious of what they wear. Data shows that web searches for eco-friendly clothing have risen by more than 70% over five years. According to McKinsey, three in five people now claim environmental impact is an important factor in making purchasing decisions. The growth of e-commerce has produced a new business model, where the customer is now in control. In order to meet their expectations, manufacturing has also begun to improve as on-demand designs take centre stage. Clothes are ordered before they are made as opposed to being made and then sold.
Reusable, regenerable and recyclable clothing is also proving to be a great alternative. There are a few eco-friendly textile replacements, including those created from recycled materials and agricultural waste. These new textiles offer replacements to biodegradable ones and generate less waste during production. Fabrics made of plastic bottles are increasingly being used to make stylish garments as demonstrated by our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wore a stylish light blue jacket made of plastic bottles at the Parliament earlier this month. Green substitutes for cotton include natural fibres such as hemp, bamboo and ramie, and they too are increasingly becoming popular.
Among a gamut of solutions for more sustainable textiles is the use of biotechnology. This typically involves the application of science and technology to natural fibres to create a variety of textiles.
Textiles can be made from bio waste and are combined with existing fibres using chemical processes. A recent research at IIT Ropar may just have come as another boon to the industry. The team has created an innovative green technology called air nano bubble, which when dispersed in water can cut water use and chemical dosage by 90-95%, thus saving 90% of energy usage.
Though the modern, environmentally-healthy alternatives may cost more as technology is still at the nascent stages, automation and innovation in manufacturing, combined with guaranteed sales, are bound to offset these costs over time. The key stakeholders need to lead from the front and infuse new ideas and talent into the sector for India to make a visible impact in the near future.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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