An estimated 20 pieces of clothing are manufactured per person each year. According to a 2018 report in Journal Nature Climate Change, this accounts for 1.2 billion tons of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions globally. Sequestering carbon at this scale would require us to plant 3 billion more trees every year!
The current system of the textile industry across production, distribution and use of clothing is mostly linear. Only 15% of the clothes are reused or recycled, rest landing into incinerators and landfills. According to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, due to lack of recycling and underutilisation of clothing, $500 million in value is lost from the system every year. The environmental and health hazards emanating from the industry are not hidden too. Right steps could accrue economic benefit of $8 billion annually in 2030. Failure could increase the current share of 10% in the global carbon emissions to 16%.
As a result, economic models like circular economy, which has emerged as a repartee to the new needs of the planet, become all the more important in the textile value chain. “Circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continuous use of resources. It employs systems of reuse, sharing, repair, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed loop system. It aims to minimize the use of resource inputs and reduce waste pollution and carbon emissions”.
Bringing circularity in the textile industry would mean that the manufactured textiles are recyclable or are made up of recycled textile material and that the suitable recycling system is put in place. This would also mean extending the product life. Reversal from fast fashion to slow fashion, the latter being more durable and less resource-intensive is also an innovative way of ensuring linearity in the industry.
Any system in transition towards sustainability needs to be inclusive in all its aspects and with the participation of all the genders. Yet so far, the discussions around circularity are largely focused only on the environmental and business aspects of it. There has been little evidence gathering and analysis of the social implications, particularly the role of women in spearheading the much-needed transformations in the circular economy in the textile value chain.
The implications of the degradation of the environment caused by a linear economy are particularly huge for disadvantaged groups of the society. Women tend to be more affected by this, all the more because of social norms under which certain roles like waste management falls under household tasks which are mainly assigned to women. Moreover, the operations of MNCs in the developing countries with less stringent application of environmental standards and increasing feminisation of labour force in the textile industry are the reasons for particular concern too. Women are more often than not major casualties of such developments.
The vulnerability of women is particularly highlighted in the reports on conditions in the textile factories. The focus of the Clean Clothes Campaign in Europe in the early 1990s was to bring to light the universal feminisation of labour in the textile industry and the bad working conditions. Testimony by an anonymous worker from Croatia to the clean clothes campaign effectively highlights this: “My job is ironing. It is very hot there during the summer and the irons are in a part of the factory where there are no windows. It is hot, full of steam. You are in a hurry. You are standing all the time and you are exhausted. So it happens that workers faint. There were days in summer when the temperature in the factory couldn’t be measured with a thermometer.”
A report by The Guardian in 2014 stated that 80% of the 7,00,000 garment factory workers in Vietnam were women. They worked for long hours, were less likely to receive training and benefits than men and earned 85% of the men’s wages. Women also fell prey to the hazardous substances like dyes, primers, retardants, solvents, etc, used in the textiles, both as textile workers and wearers of clothes. Division of work based on gender lines render women in constant exposure to inorganic dust. This has led to the diagnosis of several health conditions like skin allergies, respiratory, eye and musculoskeletal disorders, etc. more often in women than men.
All in all, a keen analysis of the textile value chain through a feminist lens brings to light that women are at the centre, left and right of the industry. They form more than 70% of the total workforce of the industry, are the largest consumers of the textile products and are both directly and indirectly affected by the developments in the sector. Instituting sustainability and circularity in the industry would have infinite positive implications for this underrepresented, yet overworked section of our society. The extra burden of remaining exposed to the hazardous chemicals and raw materials during manufacturing as employees; bearing the brunt of having to manage textile waste as homemakers; having to deal with toxic wastes generated by the textile manufacturing plants as cleaning workforce, would significantly reduce.
Given all this, women have immense potential in playing a central role in the textile circular economy– as consumers, entrepreneurs and as law makers. As consumers, the choice of material, clothing reuse, rental, remanufacturing, resale are the activities that can contribute to the development of local economic activity in the consumption markets. It has the potential in presenting better and changed roles for women working in this industry. Shifting loyalties to more ethical, local brands could help drive change. As entrepreneurs, bringing innovative models for environment and workforce-friendly manufacturing in the textile industry could pave a way for increased share of the reuse market and recycled raw materials. As law makers, producer pays principle, consumer responsibility and proper risk assessment tools in factories could prove effective in regulating the industry.
Transition into a circular economy is possible only when systemic changes are made, which also includes changing consumer behavior. For us, as the consumers of fashion, circular economy in the textiles value chain could mean adopting a change from fashion consciousness to environment consciousness. Living in the circular economy is all about making better choices and being responsible for our purchasing practices. It can be as simple as buying used clothes, renting clothes that might serve one-time purpose and also adopting slow fashion instead of fast fashion that inevitably lasts longer. It is about sharing knowledge and trying to effect change with one’s spear of influence. Being aware of the implications our tiniest of choices could have. Our choices, our fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. Why? As Aracelli Gallego has rightly said, just because there is no planet B!
Aishwarya has a Masters degree in Development Studies from TISS, Mumbai. An aspiring development professional, she wishes to change lives at scale through evidence based interventions. When not imagining herself in Givenchy outfits, she likes to read and binge watch period dramas. She can be found on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: Ethical Consumer