Why Is There an Urgent Need for a New Textile Economy? (Part 1)

How many of us have clothes in our wardrobe that we haven’t ever worn? That one dorky t-shirt that is out of fashion or a dress that hasn’t seen the light of the day. 

Fashion is a vibrant industry that employs hundreds of millions, generates significant revenues, and touches almost everyone, everywhere. Since the 20th century, clothing has increasingly been considered as disposable, and the industry has become highly globalised, with garments often designed in one country, manufactured in another, and sold worldwide at an ever-increasing pace. This trend has been further accentuated over the past 15 years by rising demand from a growing middle class across the globe with higher disposable income, and the emergence of the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon, leading to a doubling in production over the same period. [1]

Growth of clothing sales and decline in clothing utilisation since 2000
Growth in clothing sales and a decline in utilisation, Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation


While the rise in consumption may sound like a boon for the economy, it is far from the truth. 

An estimated USD 500 billion value is lost every year due to clothing being barely worn and rarely recycled. The fashion industry is also one of the top causes of pollution on the planet. The industry’s current take-make-dispose model is the root cause of its environmental problems and economic value loss. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. Washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. [2]

Detailed photography of seawater contaminated by microplastic, Source: Google

How are microplastics harmful to the environment and the health of all living beings?

Microfibres are likely impossible to clean up and studies show they may be entering food chains and drinking water. If you’re wondering whether microplastic is harmful to our health, “In animal models and in epidemiological studies in humans, we have a correlation between plastic exposures and known health hazards,” says Frederick vom Saal, a distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Missouri. [3] 

There are some incredible and mind-boggling facts about how the production of your synthetic clothes curated in the report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, ‘A new textile economy’

Negative impacts of the textile industry
Negative impacts of the textile industry, Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

This eye-opening report suggests that “The textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources – 98 million tonnes in total per year – including oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibres and textiles. Textiles production (including cotton farming) also uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, contributing to problems in some water-scarce regions. With its low rates of utilisation (leading to high levels of throughput) and low levels of recycling, the current wasteful, linear system is the root cause of this massive and ever-expanding pressure on resources. 

The industry’s immense footprint extends beyond the use of raw materials. In 2015, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from textiles production totalled 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”

Are my 100% natural fabric textiles also causing problems to the environment and well-being of living beings?

This depends on where your natural fabrics come from and where they end-up once you discard them. 

Textile industry uses significant amounts of resources, Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

It is not just the micro-plastic, but also the chemicals dyes used for your fabric that contaminate our groundwater if the used water is not treated and recycled before disposal. 

Therefore, if you want to consume consciously, you ought to know where your fibre and fabric is coming from and who is making it, in case it is a new buy. Having a more transparent supply chain may help users make more informed decisions about their textiles. Using upcycled, recycled, renting clothes can reduce your carbon footprint. But using recycled polyester is not a long-term solution either as synthetic fibres take eons to get decomposed. Natural fibres are better in this case, as they biodegrade faster, but one pair of cotton jeans can take up to 10,000 litres of water. [4] 

To add to this, some people suffer from impulsive buying disorder, some people associate clothing with self-esteem and let’s not go to the trite phrase, ‘I have nothing to wear’. A lot of psychological, social, economical and cultural factors chime-in when we talk about clothing. 

Clothes have become one of the most basic necessities for humans today and we wouldn’t want to put an end to their use, but we can definitely revolutionise the textile eco-system.  

How might we ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their needs and desires’? [5]

Creating a new textiles economy, Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Khamir, the organization I served for the past 10 months as an AIF Clinton Fellow, and some other organisations across India are bringing about a change in the Indian textile economy. How?

Read more about the indigenous textile economy of Kutch and other sustainable practices in my next blog post.


[1] Circular Fashion – A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future.

[2] “Make Fashion Circular Report.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/our-work/activities/make-fashion-circular/report.

[3] Heid, Markham. “Should You Worry About Plastic Particles In Bottled Water?” Time, Time, 29 May 2019, time.com/5581326/plastic-particles-in-bottled-water/.

[4] The Logical Indian. “It Takes Upto 10,000 Litres Of Water To Make One Pair Of Jeans, Know How It Affects The Environment.” The Logical Indian, The Logical Indian, 3 Feb. 2017, thelogicalindian.com/environment/jeans/.

[5] “Sustainable Development.” International Institute for Sustainable Development, 23 July 2020, www.iisd.org/topic/sustainable-development.

Aishwarya is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Khamir in Bhuj, Gujarat. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a unique range of craft products and publicity materials to support local artisans reach new markets, increase their income, and secure their livelihoods. Born and brought up in a small town, Aishwarya always questioned the increasing dichotomies between the developed and developing world. To channelize her curiosity for social impact, she decided to pursue her graduation in mass communication. During her undergrad, she participated in the YES Foundation Media for Social Change Fellowship to learn about the impact of social media in the development sector. She did an internship with the Indian Express as a journalist and photojournalist, where she covered issues ranging from mob lynching to climate change. A stint at TEDxGateway 2018 gave her an opportunity to work with inventors from around the world, learning aobut the power of storytelling as a medium for change. Aishwarya made a documentary on the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 to study the increase in juvenile crime rate and the discrepancies between the act and implementation. In 2018, Aishwarya participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey across rural India to meet social change-makers who enlightened her about the balance between social impact and profitability. This experience also made Aishwarya look at her hometown in new light: she learned about problems related to declining tourism and waste management. She founded her own nonprofit, ARTC Foundation, to solve these issues. In her free time, she enjoys reading, travel, and photography. Aishwarya is honored to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow to expand her horizons in the development sector.

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