Kanika Ahuja from Lifaffa talks to Piyush Dhawan, Cofounder of the Circular Collective where she talks about LIFAFFA's amazing journey and how they are incorporating the Circular Economy principles to their products.
The Circular Collective: Hi Kanika, thank you for taking the time to talk. Could we begin with you telling us a little bit about the work you are doing?
Kanika: We are a social enterprise with a non-profit arm and a for-profit arm. The non-profit works on the research and development of sustainable materials and developing sustainable innovations like plastic-to-fabric, low-carbon textile recycling, zero-waste production methods etc. The non-profit is also responsible for capacity building and empowerment activities of the communities that we work with - the waste-pickers, refugees and low-income artisan groups.
The for-profit arm is responsible for the design and marketing of the products produced by these groups. We are a member of the World Fair Trade Organization and most of our products are exported to Fair Trade buyers in America and Europe. We also have a brand- LIFAFFA under which we retail our products. LIFAFFA has its own webshop and is also sold in other e-commerce portals such as Amazon India. It has got recognition at the Lakme Fashion Week for being a top circular design brand.
Our business produces fashion accessories like bags, wallets, footwear and jackets. The pain points we offer to solve our providing an alternate to Leather, offering guaranteed social protection to our workers via the Fair Trade certification and offering an exclusive range of upcycled products that look trendy and desirable.
The Circular Collective: What does Circular Economy mean to you? What caught your attention to the topic?
Kanika: I am a strong advocate for creating a socially-inclusive and environmentally-sustainable fashion and textile industry. We envision an apparel, accessories and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities. I strongly believe in the ideas of circular economy and fair trade as a means to achieve these objectives.
I plan to contribute to this vision by empowering low-income communities in the methods of sustainable production and selling well-designed environmentally-sustainable fashion products to consumers, thereby helping achieve the SDG 12- Responsible consumption and production from the 2030 agenda. All our fashion products are made from natural fabrics or waste materials, following circular economy principles, while supporting local artisans. I am also keen on introducing end-of-life collection for the products that have been sold but it is currently a challenge as most of our products are exported. I have also created a patented technology to convert plastic waste to fabric and I am currently devising a cross-industry circular economy model for plastics.
I also speak regularly at public and industry events advocating for the more just and sustainable textile industry and to sensitise the audience on issues that are currently prevalent in the fashion industry and how we need to be more conscious about our choices as consumers.
The Circular Collective: What is your most admired natural or manufactured produced that embodies the Circular Economy principles?
Kanika: Born of a desire to reduce India’s mountain of waste, a lot of research, we struck upon the idea of Upcycling plastic waste by washing, drying and pressing plastic bags into sheets of fabric which we call Handmade Recycled Plastic (HRP). HRP is made from polythene bags picked from landfills and rivers. The processes used to make ‘Conserve’ bags and accessories have been specifically developed to be as energy-efficient as possible and to keep out polluting dyes and chemicals. This not only helps the environment, but it also cuts costs, giving the organisation more money to invest in other social projects.
The Circular Collective: Coming back to textiles, what needs to change in the textile industry as a whole for it to become more circular?
Kanika: Change in the textile industry is required at multiple levels -
Raw material sourcing- to use more natural or recycled materials.
Designing for circularity - clothes/accessories/footwear need to be designed for circularity i.e., make them biodegradable or recyclable. For example, avoiding blends like cotton and nylon, designing products for easy dismantling of different materials for recycling etc.
Instructions for end of use - the producers need to educate consumers on what to do when the product reaches it's end of use. For example, return it to the producer for recycling, donate to a charity for store credit, recycle into new products like pencils etc.
Sales - The textile industry needs to stop the sales patterns followed by Fast Fashion. More CE friendly ways of sales are slow fashion, subscriptions, rental etc.
The Circular Collective: Fashion means freshness, do you think Fashion and Sustainability could go together?
Kanika: Yes, I think Sustainability and Fashion definitely go together. Choosing sustainability, some people have gone back to slow, artisan-made, long-term fashion. Ikkats, banarasis, kantha, all are making a major comeback in western cuts. These are crafts that are expensive but the quality of these woven crafts last for years making them long-term sustainable fashion. On the other hand, for people who desire new looks every so often, we have many options for rentals and subscriptions that have come up recently and this market is only going to grow. We can always choose a combination of the two to keep our wardrobes stylish but sustainable.
The Circular Collective: Could you name some companies and designers who are recycling, up-cycling, re-using and re-designing in fashion and textile space?
Kanika: Iro Iro, Doodlage, Bareek, Chindi, Dwij are some of the brands that are in this space while recyclers in Panipat have made Panipat the hub for textile recycling.
The Circular Collective: What could a responsible consumer do? Are there obvious certifications to look for?
Kanika: There are certain certifications like the Global Recycling Standard, Fair Trade or GOTS for cotton but most of the sustainable fashion businesses today are small enterprises and cannot afford these certifications. Therefore, I think consumers should value transparency, product quality and the values offered by the brand and then make their purchases responsibly. Instagram has connected brands with their customers like never before. Brands are using it to tell their stories and customers have an opportunity to get direct answers from a brand in a matter of minutes.
The Circular Collective: What would be your advice to other starters that focus on the circular transition? How can you truly scale up?
Setting up a good supply chain - the challenge with CE comes with the lacking infrastructure to promote CE manufacturing. Availability of quantities of raw materials needed for recycling/upcycling remains a challenge for most CE businesses.
Educating your customer - while sending out communications to your customers, be transparent about your processes while also communicating immediate benefits to the customer of making this purchase.
Build a community - A true CE business is challenging to run in the current scenario, build a strong community of customers, sustainability advocates, grassroots recyclers, industry bodies etc to support you through this journey.
The Circular Collective: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the Indian Apparel & Textile Industry
Kanika: The COVID situation has definitely worsened the conditions of the entire textile industry. Artisans who rely heavily on sales from tourism and exports are finding it challenging to even survive. Textile factories have a big surplus of unsold stock which is now out of season. This has led to big layoffs of employees working at textile units. The only silver lining is that COVID has brought to the limelight the challenges of our current economic system which has accelerated conscious consumerism. People have become more understanding of their needs and realised the wastefulness of most of our purchases. It is a big step in making the most sustainable choice - to consume lesser.