Sustainable Fashion© Unsplash/Instagram

Is India The World’s Next Sustainable Fashion Leader?

As the fashion industry faces increasing pressure to address its environmental and social impact, India has emerged as a potential leader in sustainable fashion. With its rich textile heritage and commitment to innovative solutions, India holds the key to revolutionising the industry. In an exclusive interaction with Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canopy, a renowned solutions-driven not-for-profit organisation dedicated to protecting forests, species, and climate, we explore India’s potential to become the next sustainable fashion powerhouse.

Canopy has collaborated with more than 900 companies to develop cutting-edge environmental policies that transform unsustainable supply chains, spark innovative solutions, and protect our world’s remaining Ancient and Endangered Forests.

Striking a Balance: Revolutionising the Textile Industry and Preserving Resources

According to Rycroft, “As a rising economy, the use of new clean technologies can make India a preferred sourcing region for textiles that don’t cost the Earth and meet environmental laws at home and abroad.” Given that India is already a major supplier of textiles and garments for the global fashion industry, she emphasises the opportunity for India to shift away from “raw materials commonly used to make textiles like man-made cellulosic fibres (including viscose, rayon, lyocell and modal).”

Rycroft suggests innovative approaches such as using cellulose recaptured from the millions of tonnes of discarded cotton textiles or growing cellulose with microbes on food waste, or using cellulose from agri-waste.

“And it’s not just the textiles themselves but the boxes and mailers that textiles are shipped in can also be part of this transformation. India is already the second largest producer in the world of pulp and paper made from agricultural residues. India is poised to significantly scale up production of non-wood pulp and paper to supply the global and domestic fashion sector with lower impact shopping bags, shipping boxes, envelopes and hang tags.” she says.

“Textile recyclers, farmers, citizens and businesses all can gain from a shift to lower impact Next Gen alternatives for fashion textiles and paper products. There is a whole new ecosystem of green businesses that are waiting to be scaled,” Rycroft adds. These alternatives would significantly reduce the environmental footprint of textile production in India, while creating a sustainable fashion ecosystem.

Addressing Sustainability Challenges

Rycroft acknowledges that the sustainability challenges faced by the Indian textile industry are shared globally. She highlights the need for a collective effort, stating, “We are drowning in waste globally—100 billion items of clothing are made annually and 60 percent of them end up as garbage within a year. This garbage is washing up on beaches, clogging landfills, and degrading into the marine and land environments.”

She also highlights the significant environmental footprint attributed to unsustainable raw materials, “The use of oil products for synthetics and high-carbon and biodiverse forests to make viscose are significant contributors to the fashion industry having a heavy environmental footprint.”

Moreover, Rycroft emphasises the need for change in manufacturing processes, remarking, “The use of toxic chemicals to convert raw resources into textiles such as polyester and rayon as well as for dyeing and finishing.”

To tackle these issues, she suggests moving away from linear supply chains, stating, “Linear, extractive supply chains still dominate textile and clothing production. These ‘Take, Make, Waste’ production systems are relics of the 20th century. By embracing circular manufacturing, low-carbon supply chains, and Next Gen viscose production, India will be a leading climate-resilient manufacturing centre.”

The Role of Government Policies and Regulations

Government policies and regulations play a crucial role in fostering a sustainable revolution in the textile industry. Highlighting the success stories of countries like China and the EU, where supportive legislation and incentives have driven the adoption of renewable energy and sustainable practices, she states, “Legislation and consumer preferences provided impetus for the surge in affordable renewable energy,” and suggests that India can learn from their experiences.

Rycroft believes that India’s government can play a powerful role in enabling the country to become a leading next gen textile hub by implementing supportive policies that incentivise sustainable manufacturing and discourage imports linked to deforestation.

Embracing the Circular Economy

To minimise waste and maximise resource efficiency, Indian textile manufacturers can adopt circular economy principles. Rycroft suggests that manufacturers collaborate with government bodies to incentivize environmentally efficient technologies, establish feedstock supply chains for recycling old textiles, and develop green tech recycling facilities. These initiatives would not only reduce waste but also create local economic value and secondary businesses like textile recycling.

Harnessing the Potential of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy holds great potential for the Indian textile industry. Rycroft recommends co-building renewable energy capacity alongside retrofitting or building new textile manufacturing mills. This shift to renewable sources of energy would not only benefit the industry but also help transition India’s power supply away from coal, contributing to a greener and more sustainable future.

“With the Next Gen textile mill as an ‘anchor’ electricity buyer, the renewable energy provider can then build additional capacity to also sell green energy to the grid so that India’s power supply can be transitioned off of coal,” she says.

Driving the Circular Economy: Lessons from Indian Innovators

Rycroft highlights Birla Cellulose as an Indian textile company that has successfully implemented sustainable practices. By avoiding Ancient and Endangered Forest fibre and manufacturing MMCF/lyocell, Birla Cellulose has earned preferred supplier status from renowned fashion brands. According to her, “Birla Cellulose has shifted its raw material sourcing... to avoid any Ancient and Endangered Forest fibre in their viscose and textile production.”

She also mentions Flipkart and House of Anita Dongre as Indian brands that have partnered with Canopy to develop commitments for sustainable packaging materials. These examples demonstrate how early adoption and such efforts bring tangible value to businesses in a competitive market.

Promoting Sustainable Fashion

To promote sustainable fashion, Rycroft suggests leveraging the influence of celebrities and influencers who understand the impact of climate change and pollution. She proposes, “all eco-fashion lovers can post social media content showing how they’re contributing to the Next Gen transition - be it clothing swaps with friends, ensuring they’re recycling old clothes, or supporting brands who are leading with Next Gen adoption.”

Through India-specific awareness campaigns, social media engagement, and showcasing early adopters of green solutions, India can encourage and inspire consumers to make eco-friendly choices. Rycroft also emphasises the importance of government policies that inhibit imports of unsustainable commodities, which will help industries using sustainable materials within India to be competitive.

The Bottom Line?

India’s rich textile heritage, combined with its potential to embrace sustainable practices, positions the country as a leading force in the global fashion industry. By leveraging innovative approaches, adopting clean technologies, and implementing supportive government policies, India can become a sustainable fashion leader.

The transition to circular manufacturing, renewable energy, and low-carbon supply chains will not only minimise the industry’s environmental impact but also drive economic growth and foster greater social value creation. India’s journey toward sustainability offers a powerful model for other countries and sets a new standard for the fashion industry as a whole.