Updated: Nov 15
The fashion industry relies heavily on biodiversity, predominantly through the production and processing of all the different materials used to make our clothes, as well as the materials used for packaging. The fashion industry has a significant damaging impact on biodiversity, throughout the production process as well as during wear, care and disposal.
The concept of circularity lies at the heart of nature's functioning. Millions of years of tinkering has resulted in the fabrication of a dynamic system which is sustained by a web of organic and inorganic cycles. The three main components of the natural cycle- producers, consumers and decomposers, together form an open, dissipative system(Banwell Elleanor, 2020) that very efficiently disperses biodegradable building blocks and results in a perpetually inexhaustible cycle. A carbon atom that is at present a part of your arm could very well have been a constituent of a mammoth, resident of a different continent centuries ago.
A circular economy is the human attempt to mimic nature's perfect cycle. It offers a means to loop our traditional linear model of consumption into a cycle that's inherently restorative and regenerative. But unlike, nature's perfect cycle, our version does not always form closed loops and is not completely devoid of leaks.
Leaks in the Fashion Industry
The fashion industry has over the years become infamous for causing high degrees of environmental degradation. Its reckless linear model has been the source of 10th of the world's carbon emissions, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined (Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2017). The whole process of textile production is still heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Nearly half of all clothes in the world are made of polyester (polyethene terephthalate) which is a byproduct of crude oil. So unlike in the case of natural cycles where the dispersive nature (Banwell Elleanor) of the material flow contributes in enhancing productivity and building resilient systems, here the primary building block itself acts as a deterrent to productivity and makes the overall resource cycle frangible. So even though the final by-product may be resilient, the process leading up to it isn't.
Cradle to Cradle Approach
The fastest and most economical way for the fashion industry to transition to a self-sustaining circular economy is to work in partnership with nature. Natural carbon-based cycles offer a plethora of biodegradable material to choose from that will not only limit the ill-effects of plastic but potentially reverse them. Apart from the conventional natural feedstock (cotton, jute, silk) there lies a reservoir of downplayed sustainable fabrics that can ensure diversity in the system, making the overall process not just efficient, but much more fluid in its functioning. This seemingly novel idea of tapping into nature-based resources to produce clothes has been tried and tested over centuries across many cultures.
The villages of Thailand and Myanmar for instance, have been weaving luxurious clothes out of lotus fibre for centuries. The fibre is collected out of lotus stem and meticulously woven into fibre whose quality is far superior to any of the contemporary fast-fashion garments (Simone, 2017). Another instance is the use of pineapple leaves. Counted among the most elite of fibres, “Piña fibre” was a highly popular choice among the Hispanic culture and other subtropical settlements before the advent of cheap cotton produce (N.N, 2017). Such traditions across the globe have the potential to translate themselves into sustainable business models that can support a circular fashion industry.
The fashion industry has a valuation of 1.7 Trillion Dollar, 6 per cent of which is accounted for by Indian exports(Government of India, 2020). It also ranks second worldwide in manufacturing textile products and production of man-made fibre(MMF). Despite the discernible presence of the MMF, Indian textile is more or less contingent on agriculture. The cotton yarn which dominates the export market is the product of agricultural output and while cotton is counted as one among the natural fibres, its overall production process is not too easy on the environment. Cotton is a resource-intensive crop that consumes tons of water and deteriorates soil fertility, leaving a long trail of carbon footprint. A sustainable approach to reducing this footprint is to diversify the primary producers. Crops like banana, pineapple, coffee, bamboo are less stringent when it comes to resources and have the potential to produce multi-functional fabrics as a by-product along with their primary produce. With the help of efficient machinery and specialised training, Mr S Prasath an entrepreneur of Erode district in Tamil Nadu earns additional revenue from his banana cultivation, by producing 5 tonnes of banana fibre a month (M.J, 2014). Banana fibre, which is witnessing a growing demand, is produced by utilizing the plant's stem post-harvest. The whole process supports cradle to cradle approach as all the “waste” is employed as a resource and transformed to either biodegradable yarn, non-toxic dye or compost. Furthermore, an additional employment pool is generated to support the expanded need for labour. Such successful accounts of nature-based fabric pose as just the right innovation Indian textile industry, mostly consisting of unorganised segments or small enterprises, needs for a boost in productivity.
The clothing industry is witnessing a steep growth in demand and with that grows the need to build a resilient production system. Nature's lessons have taught us the significance of developing a robust value chain without challenging planetary boundaries. Agriculture in congruence with that goal provides a way to have bio-based feedstock sustaining a closed-loop industry. Regenerative farming, essentially a restorative farming practice, can help boost production of raw material all the while enhancing biodiversity. Unlike the current monocultural agricultural practices, this particular practice is all-inclusive in nature. It incorporates practices like permaculture, organic farming and composting among others, quite nearly mimicking a natural ecosystem and ultimately availing the accompanying benefits. Natural fibres grown using regenerative agricultural methods can build soil, sequester carbon, enhance biodiversity—both above and below ground— support other ecosystem services, and contribute to bioregional economies all at the same time (Banwell Elleanor, 2020). The final product is not only sustainable but of far superior quality. Circular in its true sense.
Nature-based solutions, when applied with the existing technological infrastructure can assure maximum value extraction from any material which is an assurance of great returns on investment. The changing mindset among consumers and investors have already dropped the cost of sustainable fibres substantially and large scale production is sure to lower them further. Big strives are already being made to propel the wheel of circular economy with the Paris Fashion Week hosting its first-ever Virtual reality Circular Fashion Summit. Amidst this evolving environment, Nature-Based Solutions can be the silver bullet that revolutionises circularity in the fashion industry.
About the Author
Ayushi Kashyap is one of the founders of The Green Matter, is an environment enthusiast with an interest in climate change and sustainability and is currently a final year graduating student at Delhi University.
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