The Sankalp Global Summit, one of the world’s largest inclusive development platforms focused on entrepreneurship and impact investing, took place in Mumbai on 19th October 2023. The 15th edition offered more than 25 sessions, hundreds of delegates from India and abroad and a wide social media reach.
The Summit’s agenda was divided into six main topic areas: agriculture and natural resource management, circular economy, clean energy and decarbonisation to net zero, impact entrepreneurship and investing, resilient community and gender & livelihoods. FashionUnited followed the circular economy track with three sessions, as this was devoted to the textile and apparel sector.
The first session posed the question: “Towards a decarbonised textiles and apparel industry in South Asia - what does it take?”. In view of the Paris Agreement’s 2030 deadline for reducing emissions by 45 percent, the textile and apparel industry has committed to drastically cut emissions across the supply chain. However, brands and manufacturers are facing multiple challenges in their decarbonisation journeys, including limited know-how and understanding as well as lack of access and limited awareness of low-carbon solutions.
For Annie George, sustainability leader at Decathlon, it comes down to reducing consumption, using clean energy and off-setting in terms of operations and longevity, repairability and end-of-life considerations on the product side. While alternate components and ecodesign that is designed to the environment is important, she also pointed to a brand’s legacy that designers have to work with. In terms of production, it is about finding new manufacturers or transforming the old ones but in either case, long-term relationships are key.
Nikesh Raj, environment programme manager, climate and circularity at H&M, agreed. For him, innovations start at the product and manufacturing levels, for example with recycled materials and those without plastic that lead to better products. Manufacturing remains a challenge because it is not completely under the brand’s control. Here, three questions can guide the process, namely what ambitions other brands have, if the solution is tested out somewhere else and if it will support a move into sustainability. Shared suppliers can provide many insights and he agreed that long-term commitment is key.
Amit Kumar Singh Parihar, director of the clean power programme at Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation pointed out that coming together is a must when trying to find a holistic solution, also gauging what the required aspects are and if a programme has to be build together with brands.
Akash Singh, senior investment director at Sagana Capital mentioned scaling as one challenging area as well as testing to see if a technology is ready for adoption. “Many start-ups struggle with it,” he said. “In addition, research and development needs to be focused on commercialisation. Brands are the market and can guide,” he added. “Making something circular is hard and requires innovation thinking and responsible end-of-life processing.”
“Remember that there is no option, the move towards decarbonisation is happening but it has to move faster,” concluded George. “Without a circular/sustainable business, we would not survive,” agreed Raj. “Gen Z is asking for it. If we’re not ready now, we will never be ready.”
The second session was titled “Moving the needle: a just and inclusive transition towards circular fashion”, which explored the questions if South Asian countries can afford to be circular and sustainable, if we can save the planet at the cost of people and if we can truly slow down fashion without impacting the income of an enormous workforce. Panelists included insiders from the non-profit, financing and development sectors as well as those who deal with what fashion leaves behind: waste pickers and their organisations.
Mansi Kabra from non-profit labour innovation company Good Business Lab pointed out that in most current business models, a company’s labour or worker is considered a “cost”. “In this model, workers are disadvantaged. One has to show businesses that labour is not a cost but an investment. There is a direct link to business profitability, for example soft skills training for women frontline workers and their managers that leads to an improvement in return on investments,” she explained.
The panel focused on three key areas: empowering female workers, treating textiles as resources and not waste, and reducing consumption and production. For Leena Dandekar from the Raintree Foundation, the solution is really simple as circularity has only three pillars: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. “Reducing should always come first. Then should come reuse and only then should something be recycled,” she cautioned. More details about this panel can be found in a separate article.
The third session was titled “A circular wardrobe: transforming material choices for a regenerative future” and was dedicated to alternative materials such as recycled, regenerative and new generation materials. It also explored ways to balance the business case requirements of the industry vis-a-vis the investment and capacity building support required to scale such materials.
The panelists agreed that given the fact that 96 percent of current materials cause a footprint, “business as usual” will not work. Thus, it takes manufacturers, brands, recyclers, innovators and investors to come up with a solution, which could be the circular wardrobe.
Priya Shah from early-stage climate investor Theia Ventures pointed out that due to consumers and the next generation’s demand, there is a readiness to pay a premium for circular fashion. “There is so much agricultural waste in India; let’s put that in the textile chain,” she suggested and pointed to Theia’s investments in companies like CanvaLoop Fibre Private Limited that develops sustainable fibres and yarns made of hemp, bananas, nettles, pineapple, linseeds and rice from agricultural waste and AltM Biomaterials that repurposes it for liquid formulations.
Shikha Shah, founder and CEO of AltMat, whose key technology transforms agricultural waste into sustainable biomaterials for industries like textiles and packaging, pointed it out that it is a business of fashion after all. “It is about innovation, aesthetics and sustainability, which is usually not at the same table, the onus is on innovators. That means going beyond capsule collections and manufacturing, shifting from efficiency to an innovation mindset,” she said.
KKR Spinning Mills provides solutions for creating high-quality textiles from recycled materials for clients such as H&M and Decathlon. Harshit Kakkar, overseas market manager, admitted that right now, there is still more of mechanical recycling for mass products and less of chemical recycling. “Everyone is doing their own part but people need to come together; the quality and community gap needs to be bridged,” he cautioned.
Asked about the key challenges for brands, Rohan Batra, chief manager, sustainability and CSR at Marks & Spencer, said that brands “cannot just adopt. This works only for designer wear; not for 5 million pieces per month. Marks & Spencer cannot experiment with small capsule collections.” He also pointed to the average age of the Marks & Spencer consumer (41 years in India; 57 years in the UK) as a challenge when pushing innovation. “Education is missing from the customer,” he said.
Shahi Exports works with start-up AltMat and has tested its products with three markets in mind: the US, EU and Australia. For Bheem Kumar, senior manager of the fabric innovation cell at Shahi, science-based claims are key. “We cannot just say ‘we saved 90 percent of water’, we have to substantiate that claim, for which lots of testing and data is needed. In fact, proving a claim can be more expensive than the technology.”
The final question to the panelists was what it would need for brands to be 100 percent circular by 2030/40. For Shikha Shah, it is all about processes, traceability along the supply chain and identifying scope 1-3 targets while Batra sees scalability as the biggest challenge. Kumar would not compromise on quality, which has to meet the requirements of the customers, and translates to getting textile waste from reliable sources. For Shikha Shah, it is all about speed and finances: “It is an emergency, not a question of intent,” she said, adding “goodness does not sustain on its own, it takes money.”
The session ended with a presentation from Graham Ross, co-founder of Australia-based chemical recycling facility Block Texx. Ross started the company five years ago together with colleague Adrian Jones, who also has a background in the fashion industry. Block Texx specialises in recycling polyester-cotton blends, 100 percent cotton, 100 percent polyester and manmade celluloses. “We are a small plant but it is a big step for textile-to-textile recycling,” said Ross.
All three sessions provided new insights and shed light on what it would take to make a circular economy possible. While there was consensus that striving for circularity is the new normal, nobody wants to be left behind but brands, especially larger ones, seem to play catch-up and follow what consumers want rather than being proactive and influencing consumer demand. This drive seems to happen at the innovation level where start-ups are currently taking the lead. However, scalability and proving environmental claims remains a challenge, as well as coming together and working together.