In the land of natural fibers, fashion is slowly evolving to become more inclusive and sustainable across India.
India has been endowed with an abundance of natural fibers. Considered the backbone of India’s textile industry, despite competition from synthetic versions, the demand for natural fibers is increasing steadily. Natural fiber composites have varied uses in the textile, packaging, furnishing, building, and construction industries. Among numerous natural fibers, cotton, silk, jute, wool, and linen are said to hold immense potential for Indian agriculture.
The Shift Towards Natural Products
From the Indian fashion standpoint, a close relationship exists between natural fibers and responsible, sustainable textile production. In recent years, the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’ have become buzzwords for the fashion fraternity. As a result, some brands have committed to being 100 percent organic by using natural fibers.
Coming to consumption trends, a diverse consumer base is shopping for natural fibers. In a developing nation such as India, end consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the concept of sustainability, triggering a perceptible shift in buying patterns toward natural fibers. Furthermore, buyers (especially in urban areas) are more conscious about a product’s source and its entire source-to-consumer lifecycle. They wish to know about the source of every item and the process deployed in turning the raw material into an end product.
Considering the burgeoning demand, manufacturers, producers, and designers are encouraged to focus on clothing made out of natural fibers. The garment manufacturing industry has experienced renewed growth recently as retailers have increased the sourcing of sustainable fashion products/items. With growing awareness about environmental concerns and drastic climatic changes, people are realizing the importance of sustainable living. Beyond clothing fabrics, natural fibers are found in products ranging from personal care to home furnishings as well
Key factors such as geography, land, soil, climatic conditions, and market trends have all contributed to the steady growth of India’s natural fiber industry. Rising awareness regarding sustainable textile production to meet the environmental and social aspects along with increasing demand for natural fabrics is expected to be a key factor driving the market growth.
Ethical Fashion and ESG
The increasing numbers of environmentally-conscious consumers, along with government initiatives such as a ban on SUPs (single-use plastics), indicate the sustainable fashion sector’s growth prospects are promising. In context, a ResearchAndMarkets.com report reveals the global ethical fashion market was valued at almost $6,349.9 million in 2020 and is slated to reach $10,109.9 million in 2025 at a CAGR of 9.7 percent. The ethical fashion market is based on designing and manufacturing clothes while also caring for the people involved in the process and curbing the ecological impact.
In line with global trends, including adherence to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) norms, Indian companies across industries have begun improving their compliance standards, as per rating agency CRISIL. Since investors rely increasingly on ESG metrics for investment decisions, the financial risks of non-compliance are apparent to all, fashion entities included. On the back of these tailwinds, natural fibers are gradually gaining prominence.
Fast vs Slow Fashion
A couple of decades ago, however, natural fibers played second fiddle to synthetic yarns. Despite India’s rich natural heritage, the fast fashion industry had gained ground, giving rise to the widespread use of synthetic cotton, silk, and other artificial yarns. Not surprisingly, textile mills soon emerged as one of the top industrial polluters, accounting for one-fifth of global industrial water pollution.
But as the severe consequences of climate change became clear to all cohorts, including policymakers, there was a steady shift from fast fashion to slow fashion in the new millennium.
Coined in the 1990s, ‘fast fashion’ refers to the speedy manufacturing of the latest style trends, which are then marketed at affordable prices. Yet, when a new fashion trend arrives, these garments are soon discarded. Ironically, though not manufactured as long-lasting items, the garments don’t decay for years in landfills due to the high amount of synthetic material used.
Conversely, slow or sustainable fashion using natural fibers and other environment-friendly materials has a comparatively carbon-neutral process in manufacturing garments, thereby leaving a lower carbon trail. Consequently, slow fashion remains aligned with the nation’s 2030 SDGs (sustainable development goals), which include the sustainable management of water.
Given the above circumstances, manufacturers of natural fiber products have been providing consumers with eco-friendly alternatives that are biodegradable and use less water and fertilizers during production. Moreover, since natural fibers are grown in remote regions and other hinterland areas of the country, their cultivation and use offer gainful employment and entrepreneurial opportunities to people even in small towns and villages. As the natural fiber segment employs skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers, its contribution to generating jobs in rural regions cannot be overlooked.
Incomes of all the stakeholders across the ecosystem can be augmented and a substantial social impact can be created at the grassroots level by ensuring all waste is used or recycled during the life cycle of natural fibers. Recycling waste on farmlands can take many forms.
Let us take an example of a silk supply chain - at each stage of silk yarn production, there are certain by-products generated that have specific usage.
Consider mulberry twigs, which are waste generated at farms. Traditionally, these were burnt by farmers, who did not see any possible use for such waste. Some companies are now sourcing these twigs from farmers as they can be essential raw materials in the medicinal, cosmetics, and FMCG industries. Today, farmers are benefitting from the waste that they earlier simply threw away.
Similarly, pupae (waste generated at silk reeling units) can be used as poultry and fish feed. Silk waste and cocoons (generated at reeling units and farmlands, respectively) are used to extract a protein called sericin, which is used in the packaging and pharma industries. In packaging, sericin enhances the shelf life of foods. Sericinhas unique antioxidant, anti-aging, moisture retention, and depigmentation properties, which also makes it an ideal ingredient in any skincare line.
Gradually companies are making a conscious effort in reducing and recycling waste to extract value from them. In this manner, companies with end-to-end supply chain solutions can help monetize waste by-products during the manufacturing process.
To build demand for recycled materials, governments and businesses must not only reinvent themselves, but they must also reinvent their relationship, especially when it comes to economic problems that neither can solve alone.
Fortunately, Gen Z and millennial shoppers also seek to support brands working towards sustainability as they understand the benefits of slow fashion and are making ethical fashion and sustainability part of their overall values.
Undoubtedly, as the world races to combat the aftermath of climate change, it’s time for all cohorts to help connect the dots from a fast and wasteful fashion to a slow and mindful fashion that advances the well-being of both people and the planet.