The State of Circular Innovations in the Indian Fashion and Textile Industries
The Indian fashion and textile industry contends with challenges that mirror those in the global landscape. The importance of the industry to India’s socioeconomic advancement cannot be overemphasised. It currently employs over 45 million people, contributes 15% of the country’s export earnings and 7% of the country’s industry output.
Unlike other countries where the predominant focus is on consumption, India is taking on dual roles as both a producer and consumer. As India further adapts from being solely a hub of manufacturing to also becoming a key consumption region, there is clear recognition of the opportunity to side-step the challenges faced by consumer-driven economies and propel the industry towards sustainability.
Innovators play a key role in this process as they provide the services, products and system-level solutions that corporate players can invest in and scale. This is most critical as, on the consumer side, there is a comparatively slower but rising consciousness of sustainability in the fashion space. And, of course, as many of the innovators in this report show, sustainability often also makes plain business sense.
While the search for circular innovations to address the critical industry challenges is ongoing in India in tandem with similar efforts in the global landscape, contextualisation factoring in the uniqueness of the local landscape will be crucial. This means exploring opportunities in both directions: top-down in a conventional sense via brands, but also bottom-up via manufacturers.
Our research finds that while circular innovations have the potential to drive efficiencies and enable the industry to transition to sustainability, there exists significant variance in the degree of momentum and level of technical maturity among different supply chain steps. Key takeaways for each of the supply chain steps detailed in this report are provided below:
STEP 1: RAW MATERIALS
Natural fibres form a key focus area of innovation in India. However, most of the innovations in the form of new fibres, such as regenerative protein fibres, as well as innovative technologies are currently at the lab level or early stage with limited access to the industry. In contrast, the man-made cellulosic fibres space has witnessed innovations that have secured wide industry adoption and scale. Additionally, this space is experiencing significant activity in the form of process innovations. Moreover, biosynthetics as a new area of raw material innovation is nascent and relatively unexplored in India.
STEP 2: WET AND DRY PROCESSING
This stage of the value chain exhibits significant innovation activity, primarily focused on reducing water usage, driven by an increasing appetite from Indian textile manufacturers for adopting more sustainable pretreatment, dyeing and finishing products and processes. While many of these innovations are still scaling up, some are already commercially available. Maturity in natural dyes and pigments has emerged but use in terms of scale is limited. In general, green chemistry solutions are a top priority within the industry. Besides this, digital printing, which represents a more sustainable alternative to traditional water-heavy dyeing processes, is another growing area.
STEP 3: CUT-MAKE-TRIM
Overall, cut-make-trim innovations are still emerging in the value chain. To date, the focus has been on mass customisation such as digital design and e-commerce solutions. Innovative technologies such as zero-waste manufacturing and additive manufacturing are emerging but are yet to witness accelerated adoption and scale.
STEP 4: RETAIL AND USE
New circular business models such as rental, rework and re-commerce focused on extending the useful life of clothes exhibit significant potential in India. Significant activity is visible in the rental space, albeit limited to luxury wear. Innovators are attempting to leverage India’s existing ecosystem of rework service providers to create products. Digital solutions enabled by technologies such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, aimed at increasing efficiencies and enhancing customer experience in both e-commerce and traditional retail, are also emerging in India.
STEP 5: END-OF-USE
This phase is dominated by mechanical recycling in India for managing textile waste. Chemical recycling and automated sorting technologies are yet to find traction. Mature innovations exist in the space of non-textile to textile recycling, primarily in recycling of PET into polyester fibre.
We are in a transition towards a circular apparel sector and the role of frontrunners who innovate across the value chain cannot be underestimated. By pioneering with circular solutions, they show what’s already possible and collaborate with relevant stakeholders to integrate their solutions in the value chain.Saskia Werther, Programme Manager, DOEN Foundation