Why Is There an Urgent Need for a New Textile Economy? (Part 2)

Coming from a typical Indian household, my family practised upcycling way before we knew the etymology for it. There was a time when it was usual for us to stitch old clothes as mops/ dusting cloth, old bottles as planters or holders – we would use and reuse everything until we were finally ready to say good-bye to them. 

Sustainability has been a part of the culture in many regions of India for centuries. For example, the use of local resources such as banana leaves as cutlery in south India or upcycling old sarees or fabric to create carpets or covers in rural India.

The concept of ‘reusing the old’ has not been limited to Indian households. Many businesses in India have been working on the concept of upcycling or recycling even before it became a trend. 

A handicrafts exporter in Rajasthan who exports hand-made curios and gifts articles for the past 15 years told me that he only uses left-over wood or textiles waste, sourced from big furniture and fabric manufacturers, to create these articles.

India is the top importer of used clothes. Developed countries such as the US or UK send discarded textiles to developing countries like India, joining a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year. [1]

So how did India start producing 62 million tonnes of waste every year?

Unfortunately, with the rapid economic growth, industrialisation, increasing population and a gap in demand and supply, Indian businesses and households have started shifting away from sustainability. 

Many factors led to this:

  1. New products as cheap as used ones; with a rise in fast fashion and easy availability of fast-moving consumer durables, the recycling/ upcycling industry is declining. The worth of unused items in Indian homes has reached a staggering Rs78,300 crore, according to a 2016 survey by the online classifieds and retail portal OLX. [2]
  2. Dysfunctional waste management system. According to a report in the Down To Earth magazine in 2017, urban India produces 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year—31 million tonnes of this is dumped in landfills. [3] A recent study indicates that India would need a landfill of 88 sq. km, nearly the size of Bengaluru, to dump all its waste by 2030. [4] 
  3. Replicating consumption and production patterns from the West. As the Indian economy and middle class continue to grow, upcycling/ recycling practices will become less attractive, unless a more systematic approach is taken to modernise them and move them up the value ladder.  

Moreover, as India becomes increasingly connected to the global market and its predominantly linear supply chains, economies of scale may pull the country towards the same one-way model of growth that mature markets embraced, further reducing the impact of current circular practices and potentially creating a linear lock-in. [5]

Indian companies need to take a detour and go back to adopt the sustainable ways of doing business and consumers need to start asking why before they buy. 

Many communities, social enterprises and non-profits are paving their way forward by designing cradle to cradle products, reviving indigenous knowledge and adopting a circular economy. Some of them are:

  1. Green by Goonj: Green by Goonj is an initiative by Goonj, a non-profit organisation in India that accepts textile materials as donations. They segregate the textiles based on colour/ type/ material and upcycle or recycle them to create innovative utility products. “With Green by Goonj brand of recycled products we ensure that nothing goes waste – unwearable clothes, torn oversized jeans, old fabric, obsolete audiotapes, unused ties etc”. Donated clothes that are in good, wearable condition are at times sent to disaster-hit areas to meet the basic needs of people suffering from the disaster. Textiles that are not in wearable conditions are upcycled or recycled into mats, quilts, bags, stationery, folders, pouches, etc.
  2. Copper-coated bells by metal artisans across Kachchh: Metal artisans in Kachchh carve to craft copper bells made from scrap metals like tin and iron. Natural resources such as mud, the wood of ‘Prosopis Juliflora’ and water are used for copper bell making. Mud is easily available in the local villages, and water is not required in much quantity. The craft has sustained for more than 40 years in Kachchh with the demand for these bells in the local economy by the pastoralists as well as in the West for the occasion of Christmas.

  3. Kala Cotton Value Chain by Khamir: To sustain the traditional handloom crafts of Kachchh, Khamir’s Kala Cotton Initiative is a reinterpretation of an old craft value chain made for the modern marketplace. This value chain promotes sustainable textile production and preservation of agricultural and artisan livelihoods in Kachchh. After the ease in trade post-1992, the weavers in Kachchh lost livelihoods due to machine-made clothing, more so, some weavers started using inexpensive polyester and acrylic threads to weave textiles rather than using natural fibres due to the price difference and demand for acrylic. The number of weavers in Kachchh declined from over 2000 in the mid-1990s to only 600-700. Small-scale weavers could not buy raw materials in bulk and faced great difficulties in integrating with the changing markets. There was a clear need to develop a local value chain to insulate these weavers from external market fluctuations in raw materials which come from as far away as Australia. The old-world cotton, Kala cotton, is indigenous to Kachchh. It is a rain-fed crop that is sturdy, resilient to diseases & pests and requires minimum water and investment.
    Experimentation and perfecting both spinning and weaving techniques, Khamir began producing the first Kala Cotton goods in 2010. Today, the Kala Cotton Initiative encourages sustainable cotton textile production in harmony with the local ecology. The project aims to create a value chain at multiple levels by working with marginalized communities and promoting locally grown species. To implement this initiative, Khamir and Satvik have created a supply chain between the Kala Cotton farmers, ginners, spinners and weavers to convert raw cotton into 100% biodegradable handwoven products. Today, Kala cotton is also registered as a trademark.

From my experience at Khamir, I realised that creating a truly circular and regenerative economy requires more than just upcycling or recycling resources to create new raw materials or products. Organisations and individuals need to pay close attention to the scale of these circular value chains. It is not just about the end product, it is about a few more important factors that would make the value chain truly sustainable, asking these questions may help in realising whether we are on the right track:

  1. Is the regenerated raw material or product helping the environment in the long run?
  2. Are we using non-renewable energy or are we using renewable/ eco-friendly sources of energy to regenerate?
  3. Is the circular economy strengthening and contributing to our local ecological, social and cultural regeneration?


[1] Kannan, Shilpa. “Where Many of the Clothes You Throw Away End Up.” BBC News, BBC, 12 July 2017, www.bbc.com/news/business-40352910.

[2] Saha, Pradip Kumar. “How Upcycling Can Help Make Our Homes and Hearts Lighter.” Livemint, 29 July 2017, www.livemint.com/Leisure/AMoeAtLDHf3v3LYy2yZQyH/How-upcycling-can-help-make-our-homes-and-hearts-lighter.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bandyopadhyay, Sujeet Samaddar / Ajeya. “There’s Much to Gain from Recycling of Waste.” @Businessline, The Hindu BusinessLine, 28 Aug. 2018, www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/theres-much-to-gain-from-recycling-of-waste/article24802735.ece.

[5] Foundation, E., 2016. Circular Economy In India. 1st ed. [publication] Available at: <https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/Circular-economy-in-India_5-Dec_2016.pdf>.

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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