This post originally appeared on the June 2015 issue of Apparel Magazine. Authored by Pankaja Balaji.
When people predicted the end of the world in December 2011, there was as much curiosity as there was disbelief. While the world is obviously still spinning on its imaginary axis, a few people continue to ponder about its impending doom. Sooner or later, this end is expected to come through a gradual but detectable poisoning called climate change.
THE CLIMATE STORY
Climate change is on everybody’s lips, especially since unseasonal rain and extreme temperatures are cancelling more cricket matches and holidays than is comfortable for the common man. Within India, the situation is not rosy. The country is quite vulnerable to the impact of climate change, with challenges like water availability, changing rainfall patterns, resilience capabilities, and disaster management already rearing their heads. Worryingly, the findings of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) say that productivity of most crops will decline by 10-40 per cent by 2100, if the predicted temperature increase takes place, thereby significantly impacting businesses that are highly dependent on these ecosystems.
THE BUSINESS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The above mentioned factors will directly impede manufacturing and affect businesses across all sectors, with some being more vulnerable than others. Textile, with its large dependence on plant based raw materials and water intensive processes, is one of the more susceptible ones. Although there is cause to be concerned, diminishing these damages is still possible, if we maintain an economic advantage. For instance, negating practices such as the overuse of fossil fuels, lack of water treatment provisions, improper sewage disposal, use of toxic chemicals, etc., over a period of time, will allow the industry to fight environment degradation while simultaneously improving operational efficiencies and thereby profitability.
CAN TEXTILES WEATHER THE STORM?
In the April (Hemp - The Wonder Plant) and May (Saving Fashion with Sustainability) issues of Apparel, there have been references to the need to maintain ecologically sustainable practices throughout the production/manufacturing line, from sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing only the required amount. Bringing about environmentally amenable changes is wholly possible, but the only conundrum here is where to begin! Internationally and nationally, it is being understood that reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) is the ultimate launch pad to becoming truly sustainable. Vivek Adhia, Head, Business Engagements, WRI India, explains the straightforward economic benefits behind this, “Apart from understanding the climate change impact, GHG accounting also acts as an important diagnostic tool for businesses to identify hotspots/improvement opportunities within their operations, product performance and the supply chain.” The first tool to measure GHG emissions - called the GHG Protocol - was given by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
It is currently being used by more than 85 per cent of all Fortune 500 companies globally. Indian companies have been benchmarking against these very same measures. Since they have been established within a global milieu, it has caused estimates to be off by 10-15 per cent when calculating the base emissions. Thus, there has been an observable gap between the theoretical levels, and the emissions were being measured at the ground level.
THE INDIAN CONTEXT
This is where WRI India, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) came together and stepped in with their unique approach of voluntary participation. They launched the India GHG Program with a simultaneous focus on both environmental and economic wellbeing. The Program advocates newer, alternative approaches by using individualised economic models instead of relying solely on protracted policy initiatives.
The India GHG Program has a two pronged structure. One focuses on providing tools and guidelines to measure emissions, and provide training to corporations to chart their own progress using the tools and guidelines. This allows Program participants like fashion and apparel brands to manage their own emission parameters without outside intervention and regulation. In this way, young entrepreneurs, start-ups, and small, family-led textile businesses can easily become eco-friendly without the added expenses.
The second aspect focuses on creating a pool of resources and best practices to be shared among the various participants of the Program, fostering collaborative efforts towards climate change instead of competitive rivalry which might lead to unethical practices. The long term goal is to ultimately bring various public and private sector stakeholders to a single table and initiate policy level transformations and a standardised industry response to climate change.
For long established businesses that find their green horizons cloudy because of too much confusing GHG data, the sharing of the platform with other business owners will allow for concrete discussions, keeping in mind the various constraints of running a business which sometimes escapes the environmental brigade. For new entrants to the industry, the sheer combined experience of those on the table will provide a good source of expert practical knowledge that will help them. “For a vertical textile manufacturer such as us, sustainability needs a holistic approach. A part of it is making better products, which not only serve customers’ needs but also help in resource minimisation,” expresses Shreyaskar Chaudhary, Managing Director, Pratibha Syntex, and one of the founding partners of the India GHG Program.
GHG AND THE CONSUMER
The consumer is a major stakeholder within the apparel and textile industry. While some seek to know the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of product creation, others are largely indifferent. However, amongst the many concerns of becoming greener, fashion brands have mentioned that consumers are not sufficiently cognisant of production processes to appreciate positive changes, thus bringing no value addition to the product. Bridging this knowledge gap will require awareness building, which does not fall within the end goal of the brand.
Interestingly enough, among the GHG Program’s repertoire for the textile sector, there is one idea that helps manoeuvre this tricky curve of the brand’s purpose versus the brand’s scope. WRI India, with its partners within the India GHG Program, is in the final stages of developing an advanced tool to measure the total emissions of each individual product by the end of its production life cycle.
According to Pragnesh Shah, CEO – (Cotton and Agri Business) and Head of Sustainability, Arvind Ltd., “It is necessary to understand the breakup of GHG emissions and other environmental impacts over the lifecycle of the product. It is essential to educate the users about the manufacturing footprint and the potential footprint during use.” This emission data, when provided to the consumers, will allow them to make an informed choice while simultaneously building awareness. This result in customers buying more products from the brands which provide such information. This will also promote transparency, an essential aspect of becoming accountable for sustainable practices.
Sustainable practices require change, but brands and textile companies are burdened by a production chain which cannot be tinkered with. Thankfully, this does not negate the possibility of becoming eco-friendly. The Program additionally offers the alternative of offsetting emissions where reduction is not possible. The proposal is to make the production line inputs green, rather than completely overhaul the production chain. Using renewable energy, making energy usage lean, redesigning the process, and rehauling equipment are all ways to compensate for the emissions. Dr Jagadish Barik, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP - Business Excellence of Textiles, Acrylic Fibre & Overseas Spinning Business, Aditya Birla Group, backs up their strong support for sustainability. “I strongly believe that commodities as we know them today will not exist in the future, because sustainability issues will translate into product attributes. We will move from the system of commodities being priced according to the cost of production to a value added system. There could be a shake-out period for companies that score poorly on sustainability.”
The issue of the market for eco-friendly apparel being niche is very true. But the reason is usually the cost of the final product. By simply being more efficient, systematic and making a one time investment in better quality equipment, brands can join this niche market with a progressively affordable apparel choices. These changes will result in lower costs in the long run, the creation of a new loyal customer base and economies of scale.