Let’s take the example of the global textile and apparel industry. Estimated between USD 900 billion to USD 3 trillion (depending on value chain inclusions), the industry directly employs more than 40 million people world-wide (mostly women) – generating significant profits and contributing to overall growth in many countries, more so in South Asia. It is also responsible for 10% of the world’s GHG emissions, uses 5 trillion litres of water for processing purposes and is amongst the top-five components going into landfills and waste streams annually. Also, its dependencies on an increasingly unsustainable fibre mix – natural fibres like cotton and wool, synthetic materials like nylon, polyester and rayon – come riddled with trade-offs. Cotton takes up to 2.4% of arable land globally, 24% of insecticides, 11% pesticides and 3% of global water footprint for crop production. A single cotton T-shirt can use up to 2700 litres of water during its production, while synthetic materials that use less water, end up guzzling two to four times more energy. Fast fashion with its multi-season cycles have boosted consumption by 60% (over the last 15 years) but halved utilisation in the same period – flagging major concerns on the sustainability front.
SDG 12 calls out for bold, radical business model innovation that does not explicitly call out for less access of goods and products to people, but meeting consumer needs in a manner that does not exhaust ecological limits. It calls for measures that maximise the value of production, that stretches the resources at the fullest, keeping things at play longer, and closing the loop. Buzzworthy examples cover the use of circular economy principles, cradle-to-cradle solutions, resource and material efficiency, shared economy, product-as-a-service and so on. Cradle-to-cradle models create avenues to bring back products within the value chain, to be further used as recycled preliminary input. Panipat, Ludhiana and many clusters in North India have established themselves amongst Asia’s largest textile recycling hubs, achieving economies of scale. A closer look at shared economy models have enabled the apparel industry to roll-out repair, re-use, rental and subscription models stretching the utility and shelf-life of clothing, and maximising returns. Tomorrow’s markets and consumers of the twenty-first century are embracing a shared economy, investing in experiences rather than locking assets. Circularity principles also include a larger materials and energy flow conversation, cross-feeding between sectors and streams. In the case of textiles, especially in India, r-PET or plastic collected from PET bottles is increasingly being used for apparel production. Many other avenues including the use of agro-waste, fruit and vegetable waste, offer additional solutions to balance the apparel industry fibre mix. These also bring in a multitude of co-benefits including higher farm incomes, better air quality by avoiding stubble burning, and sustainable disposal methods.
As India progresses to embark upon individual Sustainable Development Goals, SDG-12 becomes even more critical to secure the balance between economic growth and ecological imbalances. The upward migration of socio-economic status due to poverty alleviation initiatives, is already visible in the burgeoning middle class population that is estimated to reach around 475 million by 2030, from a mere 50 million (5% of the population) in 2010; and in turn result in greater consumption needs. This will place tremendous pressures on India’s energy demand, for example in temperature control needs, mobility demand, water and other basic needs. The dependence on the already congested infrastructure and bursting urban centres is thus expected to rise significantly.
The pandemic-recovery process has pointed out early directions towards hyper-local, decentralised, circular economies that hinge on sustainable production which is more localised, franchised; and sustainable consumption which looks at community-based shared models. Further, managing waste locally by incorporating conversion of urban-sewage and water into energy, municipal solid waste into manure and energy, plastics into textiles and similar initiatives will become critical. Therefore, building SDG 12 goals and actions as an integral part of India’s development plans, riding on private sector collaboration and policy enablers will help us steer the course, to become truly resilient. Solutions do exist, mainstreaming of which depend on how soon we are able to de-risk investments, update business models and drive behavioral change.
[This piece was authored by Vivek Adhia, Country Director- India, Institute for Sustainable Communities]
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