Growing up in a small Tamil Nadu town, I remember that we were happy to use outfits of our older cousins once they outgrew them. We didn’t mind it at all. I also recollect that it was quite common for old bedsheets, sarees to be exchanged for cooking vessels with itinerant hawkers passing by our house.
This is not something that happens today, probably not in urban India. As Indians get richer, they own more clothes than ever before. A study by the Indian Chambers of Commerce suggests that our per capita spend on clothes will go up to Rs 6,400 in this year, up from Rs 3,900 a few years ago, that is up 64 percent. Feeding this trend is fast fashion where the big labels now introduce new styles not seasonally but even on a weekly basis. [i]
With such trends, even more pre-owned clothes will head to landfill unless we do something to re-purpose what we use and so quickly discard. Studies suggest in a few years’ time, India may well be the world’s biggest consumer of fashion outside of North America. One can only imagine the sheer volumes of discarded clothes that we have to deal with in order to manage the situation. India currently, recycles a meagre 15 percent of clothes discarded.
India has a huge opportunity to also be a global pioneer for sustainable recycling. Handling recycled materials creates its own supply chain, and the need is for entrepreneurial ideas to create viable income streams. We are seeing this in both the brick-and-mortar space, and online. In Bengaluru, The Preloved Co by Meghna Khanna operates an upmarket second-hand clothing and accessory brand. There are many online buying sites such as Vintage Laundry and Bombay Closet Cleanse. Such initiatives can change the narrative that using second-hand is unfashionable. There are many interesting stories emerging from every corner of the world even differing in scale and outcome. In Kenya recently I had the opportunity to speak with Henrich, the founder of Mikono Africa which makes jackets using pieces of old indigo denim. About two years ago, Fashion for Good, an international initiative for recycling launched the Sorting for Circularity India Project aimed at understanding both the pre-consumer and post-consumer textile waste streams in India, and to pilot sorting and mapping solutions.
A way of business
If recycled clothes is to be brought mainstream, business and government has a lot to do to make this accepted way of life. Here are some ways to make a start:
Establish a national mission for recycling textiles
Mandate a percentage of recycled content in textile items of mass use
Encourage the entry of startups into clothes and textile recycling
Offer tax breaks to NGOs that recycle textiles and promote repurposing.
Specify targets for textile recycling as part of our Net zero goal
At JLX Studio, the team has devoted time to the larger sustainable narrative around recycling. We did a two-year study on the Kaudis of North Karnataka, patchwork quilts that have stood the test of time. We continue to work with the Eri silk weavers from Meghalaya and desi wool weavers from Kutch who make textiles using materials sourced locally and process them with hand-made tools. We can draw ideas from traditional heritage to give recycling positive momentum. All these efforts will help make our planet a better place, use
resources wisely and achieve environmental justice.