Can India Quench Fashion's Thirst Sustainably?

Cotton farming

A simple cotton t-shirt requires up to 2,700 litres of water…

India is becoming to fashion what Silicon Valley became to the modern day tech monarchs. From cotton farming to spinning textiles, the country is busy churning out fashion with accelerated speed. The ‘Make in India’ initiative, launched in 2014 by the Modi government, specially fostered this growth as the textiles industry opened up to receive up to a 100% Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). Since then, big international fashion houses as well as smaller sustainable brands from across the globe, have looked towards India as a key business partner to source, manufacture and sell fashion. While this recent growth boom in the textile space is certainly a promising news, there comes a certain unwanted side-effect with it. Earlier this year, a number of industry experts and media members got together in Berlin, at a sustainability fashion fair called Neonyt hosted by MesseFrankfurt, to discuss the topic of water consumption. It should not come as a surprise to know that India and surrounding countries form the core of all these conversations, considering how much of the real action is happening there.

India’s major role within the fashion industry is economically great news but fashion industry happens to be one of the most thirsty industries, one that consumes a lot of water without properly replenishing it. From the moment a seed is sown, up until the point where the final product is packed and transported to its final destination, a lot of fresh water is consumed and polluted, which we commonly refer to as the ‘Water Footprint’.

Taking into account that India is one of the largest producers of cotton, the pressure on its limited water reserves is immense. The crop dwells on significant amounts of water and pesticides.

According to a research published by the Water Footprint Network, a pair of cotton jeans consumes roughly 8,000 litres of water, equivalent to filling a bathtub 50 times.

Even a simple cotton t-shirt, something we all have in abundance, requires up to 2,700 litres of water.

Neonyt’s director Thimo Schwenzfeier elaborates the role of water in the manufacturing process, “Water is an integral component in the processing of textiles – from the dyeing process to the finishing to the everyday washing. According to the Global Fashion Agenda, the water volume consumed by the fashion industry was enough to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools in 2015. During these processes, chemicals and microplastics are often released into the water – thus making it unusable and further contributing to the problems of water scarcity. According to the World Bank, 20% of all industrial water pollution is caused by the dyeing and treatment of textiles.”

The problem is specially heightened in countries like India where water management laws are still shaping up gradually. According to sustainability consultant, Sameer Safaya, one of the biggest challenges in India lies in the lack of transparency in water management. This is closely followed by an absolute scarcity of freshwater. As a result of both, there is an unchecked pumping of groundwater.

“Water is a finite resource but it is not treated like one. Water bodies should insure that water is properly allocated and not left at the disposal of the end-user.”, he says.

With the country’s existing problem of limited natural resources, high population density and lack of water treatment laws, it is imperative that the fashion industry steps-up and takes on the arduous but critical task of incorporating sustainable practices at every level, to ensure a reduction in its water-footprint. Good news is that some companies have already managed to significantly reduce their water consumption and are slowly paving the way for the rest to learn and follow suit.

Living Color, a biodesign startup from Netherlands, is currently exploring a new method of using a specific class of pigment producing bacteria to dye the textile in a more natural way. If the technique could be scaled for commercial usage, it has the potential to save 70% more water than any other sustainable dyeing process.

Laura Luchtman, one of the two Living Color founders, advises to look beyond merely finding more sustainable solutions but more towards investigating the repercussion of each step in the process.

“When thinking of a new sustainable solution, it is important to consider all areas of impact that a solution might have, because you don’t want to create a new problem." she says.

One of the projects that Thimo Schwenzfeier feels thrilled about is the surfing and skating label Langbrett’s ‘washing machine bag’, that filters out the tiniest microfibers released from the textiles during the washing process. Some other labels that he finds equally interesting are Spanish label Ecoalf, that recycles the ocean waste to create new high-tech materials, which are then used to make modern athleisure wear. And the Dutch label Rhumaa, that impressed him with a collection inspired by the artistic prints from a photographer, whose pictures are drawing attention to the pollution of the beaches in South Africa.

Ultimately, we as end buyers are one of the key stakeholders of this industry and therefore have the power of influencing effective change. This does not require us to understand the depth of water footprint and the technicalities of fashion supply chain, but to inculcate small and simple alterations in our mundane routines.

  1. Mindful-consumption are two beautiful words, when said one after the other. Conventionally, fashion ran on on two major seasons- Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter but fast fashion brands now update their collections on weekly basis. It should not come as surprise that a large proportion of clothes purchased are never worn. Thimo persuades consumers to inform themselves by asking the manufacturers and retailers the right questions, and consume more consciously. “It’s totally up to them who they buy from, what they buy and also how much they buy.”, he adds.

    Saying that, one must not refrain from consuming and it is in fact essential to drive a sustainable economy as Sameer Safaya explains, “Within the bounds of sustainable system, we are expected to consume and we must consume but within the realms of well-defined limits. Any drop of water being used outside the realms of that system is unsustainable.”

  2. Reuse, recycle and repeat, just like our grandparents did. The strength of good quality fabrics and materials lies in their longevity. They don’t easily break and can always be put to another good use when their current form no longer makes sense. A strong focus on creating circularity in everyday life will prolong the life cycle of the purchased products. A good anecdote here would be to look for fabrics that are not mixed with other materials such as polyester as the technology needed to separate two different materials is still not a common métier.

    Opting for natural fabrics is one of the best ways of contributing to a cleaner anthropogenic footprint. Hemp, linen, jute, lyocell, pinatex, cork are just some of the materials that love the nature. Safaya agrees and suggests looking for brands that focus on recycling and upcycling fashion or use organic fabrics or both.  

  3. Support local makers first before looking out for imported alternatives. India is where the world comes to make. The country has all the art, techniques and right materials available, to create a la mode. Not only will we be supporting the local populace, we will also be contributing to a smaller carbon footprint because of the lower distance our clothes will cover to get to our wardrobes.

  4. Avoid clothes that can only be ‘dry-cleaned’ and to go easy on laundry in general. Hygiene is important but the ease of modern laundry has resulted in a higher frequency of ‘washing’. This increased frequency, combined with chemical based detergents and unnatural fabrics, greatly adds to water pollution.

And as Sameer Safaya says, “Sustainability does not and should not be about no consumption. One should consume, but without jumping the sustainability threshold.”