Some 10+ years ago, the late evenings at the newspaper where I worked would be a cringing experience. We would look at the final set of printouts, and wince in utter disgust. There would be garbage stories on page one, in the inside pages—it would be all over. It was as if garbage was spilling out of the paper. It had to... for the city of Bangalore was drowning in its own filth.
For the while I was with the paper, and my time since as an independent investigative journalist in the city, the waste issue dominated headlines, filled up all pages, and the recalcitrant wastewagon trundled on.
All this while, I was also associated with a magazine meant for the textiles-apparel-fashion industry. But for someone with a keen interest in numbers, writing cover stories would be a nightmare. You simply wouldn’t get the right numbers, the credible datasets, or the latest information. And, there would never be enough of it. You could hardly do in-depth stories, because you could delve only so deep.
So, when I came across what was described as the “first-of-its kind study” on the textile waste scenario in India, I was excited. Both for the industry that I was now involved with, as well as the Bangalore element (as well as Delhi where I lived before this) in the study concerned.
Moreover, the report—titled Wealth in Waste: India’s Potential to Bring Textile Waste Back Into The Supply Chain—was from the Fashion for Good house. The organisation has been doing exemplary work—doing precisely what the fashion industry had needed all these years. It has been boosting cutting edge innovations and supporting on-ground research. It’s one of those few organisations—in an industry steeped in bogus claims—that does real work. Their studies are a treasure trove of information, and they leave little or no room for doubt.
The India project had been announced in November 2021, and I had been eagerly waiting for the findings. The legwork for the texfash.com website, at the time, was on, and such a report would help us in good stead once we were off the ground. We are a sucker for numbers.
I promptly downloaded the report, took out a printout, and feverishly flipped through it. At first blush, I could not find what I was looking for. Then I went through it a bit more patiently and carefully. And there it was on the first line of the second page of the Executive Summary: "Approximately 7793 ktons, or 8.5% of global textile waste, is accumulated in India every year."
Whoa! 7793 kilo tonnes, is it? I looked for the reference #7 in question and found it to have been summarised thus in the Endnotes: "primary analysis." Seriously! There was no calculation provided anywhere in the main report. I paused and gave it a second thought. The entire report needs to stand on this number alone, and it was just a "primary analysis" by the ones who had dug out the numbers. I, therefore, went through the Technical Analysis appendix.
There’s a lot of “SZW and Sattva analysis” in the appendix. Both the sample size and the sample selection leave room for doubt: only 12 textile manufacturers and two brands were included in the survey. That’s too small a sample size to give you an accurate picture—there’s no room even for extrapolation. The consumer survey of only 570 individuals can’t give a detailed scenario for the same reason. In Bangalore alone, there are hundreds of housing societies with headcounts of over 1,000. The garment analysis comes from about 8,000 units collected by one of the study partners in Bangalore.
The problem with the sampling is that it is not even a drop in the vast ocean that is India (yes, terrible metaphor that, I know). According to the 2011 Census, there were 4,041 statutory urban local bodies (ULBs) in the country. All areas under statutory urban administrative units like municipal corporations, municipalities, cantonment boards, notified town area committees, town panchayats and nagar palikas are officially known as Statutory Towns. Additionally, there are 3,784—what are called—Census Towns. That’s the urban landscape for you. If you add the rural/village bodies too, you will agree why the sample size and sample selections of Wealth in Waste are a problem. Numbers are not sacred, it would seem. You can draw out numbers, as if, from inside a hat. Lo, presto, and all that.
Back to the report. The first chunk of the Executive Summary begins: "The Textile and Apparel industry is one of the largest contributors to India’s economy constituting 2% of total GDP, 12% of total exports, 7% of industry output in value terms, while employing over 45 million individuals." If you are in the habit of reading industry reports, like I do, then it would seem familiar. It's a template that's been in use since the last National Textiles Policy was formulated 22 years ago. People keep tinkering around with the numbers, hardly ever attributing them to a credible source.
Oh, but this one had... to the Invest India website which puts the industry share of the country's total exports at 11.4% in 2020–21. But our report rounds it off to 12%. Not much of a stickler for accuracy, are we? And they can't assert that the numbers were updated after the publication of the report. The 29 June shot from archive.org clearly says "12%". But, there's another problem here.
The relevant India Invest archived page of 29 June puts the industry's share in the country’s GDP as 5%, which has only now been revised to 2%. The Wealth in Waste report says 2% (being retrieved much earlier on 6 June), whereas the 5 June and 29 June shots from the Invest India site both say 5%. A 3% drop, and there's no reason ascribed anywhere. Unless the Indian researchers knew beforehand that this would be summarily revised to 2%.
It's a different thing that the Invest India site is not and cannot be a primary source of information, which in case of India can only be the Annual Report of the Ministry of Textiles.
You will be at a disadvantage if you yourself don't know the numbers. But in case you do, you won't have much faith in what you see thereafter. As you zip through the report, you will get a sense of deja vu: of getting the feeling that you have seen the same waaste before. If you have been collating and collecting PDF reports on waste, circularity, recycling, etc, (there are far too many out there, from Ellen MacArthur Foundation to McKinsey to even Fashion for Good), you will be wafting over familiar terrain. Comfortably numb.
Let's go back to Bangalore, for a moment, shall we?
As a journalist, you don't always become an expert on a subject simply if you handle it day in and out. But if you do keep a discerning eye open, and have the propensity to question whatever is thrown at you, then sooner or later you learn how the system works.
Covering the waste crisis in Bangalore meant that you couldn't carry the same kind of news reports all the time. You needed to have well-rounded opinions, analyses and commentaries as well. And, covering waste topped priorities not only because the city was bursting at its seams, but also because Bangalore was not a particularly newsy city, except for those occasional intra-party squabbles, the on and off crime stories, and the swindling of the municipal coffers.
Generating content on waste meant publishing too much of opinion, and precious little of that would be informed opinion. Anyone who was someone was an expert in solid waste management, and had a veritable, fool-proof roadmap for snuffing out the malaise. At one point, we decided to make a list of people we could tap either for invitation articles or just for quotes. I remember it clearly: we ended up with a list of 173 individuals. All experts, you know.
That shouldn’t have been surprising. But with so many experts and also so many organisations working towards a waste management solution, you would invariably wonder why the city is still steeped in waste. Much, relatively, has been tackled, but only because the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s garbage collectors insist on being served segregated waste. But that's another story for another day, and not meant to be a story for this canvas.
The story lies elsewhere. Bangalore, India's so-called Silicon Valley, was the hub of India's Woke Capitalism long before America's Silicon Valley went woke. Our story starts with the constitution of the ambitious Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) by then Chief Minister of Karnataka, SM Krishna. It was a supra-State body that went to re-define the character of the city that used to be intellectually dynamic and culturally vibrant. The BATF folded up in due course, vanished into thin air: today, no papers to that Task Force exist. Certainly not in the public domain.
What the BATF move did was two-pronged: it created a corporate elite [essentially the IT-BT (information technology and biotechnology) sector, and allied/ancillary segments] that would hitherto call the shots and set the urban narrative, and stymied all work of civil society. Since BATF (set up around 1999), a number of these non-State corporate bodies have come and gone. That's politics.
But what also happened as a spin-off was the mushrooming of an ecosystem of corporate-funded NGOs and self-styled social entrepreneurs who simply made hay. Of course, you can't paint everyone with the same brush. But you can, for sure, beg this question: the politician-contractor nexus aside, why is it that the growth of the social sector of Bangalore maps perfectly with the environmental decay of the city?
This growth got a boost when the Companies Act, 2013 provided for corporate social responsibility (CSR) under Section 135. Together with the Companies (Incorporation) Rules, 2014, this meant the floodgates of funds were now open.
At first, corporations in Bangalore had no clue. In the course of an investigation (at our newspaper), we found that companies initially would simply send their employees abroad for higher studies and pack those off as CSR initiatives. They, subsequently, sobered up. The “social sector” boomed.
But little changed on the ground. The recent floods of Bangalore bear testimony to the fact. For ten and half years, I explored this subject [Here’s a plug: work on my book on the subject is still under way]. The answer is simple. The exceptions aside, most of these players were never interested in solving problems. They were here to eke out a livelihood by perpetuating the problems.
This long-winding backdrop is necessary to understand how the ecosystem itself works (or doesn't). And how, the waste ecosystem is a subset of a system that has not been designed to deliver. The Bangalore backdrop is germane to this writeup because that's where the two Fashion for Good India partners make their living from.
This brings us to the two organisations.
The people behind Sattva Consulting are the same ones who once ran a website called The Alternative. In October 2010, the site's editor got in touch with me, wondering if I would write for them. She wrote: "The publication is an effort to bring awareness on social issues to a mainstream audience, and help them contribute positively. We hope to bring to the mainstream information and rigour that exists either in intellectual sector conferences and journals that preach to the choir, or with mainstream media whose development focus is not sizeable, and neither is it independent of business interests." Sounded good, no? But do mark the keywords there.
Anyway, I wrote for them on environment, human rights, conflict, and what not, till I joined the DNA newspaper in Bangalore. Here, I coordinated, in the very first year, a series on water that culminated on World Water Day. The Alternative generated the articles, and the series was published, but left me with the impression that they could not dive far to deep. I had earlier worked with the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), and knew and understood enough about water. There's a lot of kite-flying about environmental issues in Bangalore, it seemed.
Still enough, the Editor contacted me again in July 2015, asking if I could write about, er, 'sustainable fashion'. I wrote back saying: "I don't look at sustainable fashion as a niche, but as something that the fashion industry itself needs to transform into." That was the last I heard from Sattva.
As for the other organisation, I needed to scratch my head, for I wasn't sure which Saahas was this. I had to Google up to be sure. Saahas is a non-profit working in the field of waste management, and Saahas Zero Waste (SZW) is a waste management company. The founder of the first is a former journalist, who is also the Founder-CEO of the latter. Both organisations work with waste. The former accepts money, the latter makes money. The former doesn't work with people, it works with corporates—it has quite an enviable list of corporations as "partners". The latter provides "services" and lists big ticket companies as "clients". Why both organisations work in the same area can be left to one’s imagination. And of course, the concept of "at arm's length" has been thrown to the winds here. Neither organisation engages with on-ground activists or organisations.
Both Sattva and Saahas are cogs in the same social entrepreneur sector wheel that keeps rotating, but doesn't move an inch ahead.
However, since much of the Wealth in Waste report is rooted in both Bangalore and Delhi/NCR, I decided to have a second opinion on it from two people who have been rooted in waste for a while.
My entry in journalism in 1991 after three years of sales coincided more or less with the birth of the modern environmental movement. The Rio Summit of 1992 was held shortly after I joined the Press Trust of India (PTI). Rio left a mark on me (as it did on most others of my generation), and so it was not surprising that my first job outside mainstream media was with an environmental organisation: CSE (mentioned earlier).
I have found very few people, after all these decades, who know exactly how a given ecosystem works. The first was the late Founder of CSE, Anil Agarwal. The other is Leo Saldanha.
The go-to person in Bangalore for anything environment is Leo. He's the Founder Trustee and Coordinator of the Environment Support Group (ESG). He doesn't need to Google up numbers because he has them at his fingertips. Plus, he’s articulate and perspicacious.
There have been three landmark judgments of the Karnataka High Court which have considerably stemmed the rot in Bangalore. These pertain to waste, lakes and trees. All three judgments were in response to public interest litigations (PILs) filed by Leo. The one relevant here is the one about waste, and Leo has waded through a lot of waste. Literally and otherwise.
I, therefore, bombarded Leo with the PDF copy and a slew of accompanying questions. He got back, contending this: "I found the report reiterating the same ‘facts' over and over. By and large, I have not seen much fabric waste end up in any landfill we have surveyed—and we have surveyed all of them in Bangalore. Almost everything gets recycled in one form or another. Besides, I don’t recall fabric waste being incinerated, as this report says, as a method of disposal.
"The report does not assess the contribution of Pourakarmikas or Safai Karmacharis, who when they collect waste make a serious effort at salvaging clothes and fabric and repurposing it. I am sure there is plenty that they use and send into the market." [The National Commission For Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993: 'Safai Karamchari' means a person engaged in, or employed for, manually carrying any sanitation work.]
He also gives the assessment of a player in Tiruppur: "Never heard or seen incineration or landfilling of fabric waste in Tiruppur. If someone is saying this, they are bullsh*tting. Every cut, somebody buys the waste. Two things happen: the paper industry and automobile industry buy this. Petrol bunks also do. Or, those go into making mats and such other things. Waste is also recycled back into cotton yarn, and there is a separate demand for recycled cotton yarn for garments.”
Leo, broadly, echoes my sentiments: "India’s waste collection and processing system is far too complicated and advanced for us to say from some surveys that it is as poorly handled as this report claims. And I say this high level of upcycling of ‘waste’ is happening without much support from municipal governments or State agencies. This is largely on account of the labour of the poor who are making ends meet by their extraordinary skill and entrepreneurial abilities. The report does not value this contribution. It also does not value the contribution of industry which—notwithstanding the exploitation of labour in some sectors—is not stupid to let a resource rot or burn."
I have seen many studies about waste management/collection, etc, over the years. I have struggled to find credible information about how much of the solid waste generated constitutes textiles/apparel. Why is it so?
Leo answers: "The quantification does not comprehend the fact that poverty forces far too many to scavenge any material of value for a living, and while it finds mention in the report, the assessments don’t appear realistic. Besides, the Indian textile manufacturing sector is highly conscious of cutting costs and won’t leave any material of any value to go to landfills. I have checked with Tiruppur, and am familiar with Bengaluru’s landfills, and I don’t see textile waste dispose at all. There are innumerable ways in which they are recovered and recycled."
There's post-industrial textile waste and there's post-consumer apparel waste. But what's the take from the ground? "The post-industrial textile waste does not reach landfills in the scales claimed in the report. Having studied landfills of Bengaluru in 2010 and again in 2018, we have not found textile manufacturing waste reaching landfills. It gets picked up for alternative uses immediately. True, post-consumer apparel waste does reach landfills, but only when it is mixed and disposed of. Across India, there is a very well organised praxis of bartering old clothes for useful things—kitchen utensils for instance. And it is thriving even in this age."
Coming back to the Wealth in Waste report. Much of what appears in it is widely known (at least in the textile waste space). Very little seems to be actual groundwork. Such reports don't help matters, do they? Says Leo: "A thorough report would produce evidence of field work undertaken, and also methodologies adopted in sufficient detail, so that contestations and arguments over facts and analysis can be addressed meaningfully. This report does not provide essential evidence of methodological rigour and effort in collating reliable and verifiable data."
Yes, the kite-flying I mentioned earlier.
Far up north, in Delhi, is the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, founded by Bharati Chaturvedi. Bharati starts off on a sedate note: "For most part, it appears to be a primer for someone who knows nothing about India or material flows here. That’s because a lot of the content is common-sensical for anyone from South Asia. For example, we know a lot of our post -consumer textile waste is recycled into low grade fillers. What is different about the report is how well organized it is, particularly via excellent infographics and flow charts. This makes even the better-known information accessible."
Then, she has the same problem I had: "I began reading the report one evening after work, excited about the opportunity to think along with the researchers. Then I began to discern the only flaw I see in the report: credibility of the numbers."
Bharati makes her point: "Consider the cultural framework. The use of the term downcycle might make sense in other geographies, but in India one can question whether converting one piece of workwear after its active life is over into a duster is a loss. It is in fact, the celebrated jugaad at work, unless you frame each new avatar of a textile merely as the sum of its economic outcomes. [From Wikipedia: Jugaaḍ is a colloquial Indo-Aryan word, which refers to a non-conventional, frugal innovation, often termed a "hack". It could also refer to an innovative fix or a simple work-around, a solution that bends the rules, or a resource that can be used in such a way.]
Perceptions of textiles matter because behaviour shifts, and policies are most effective when predicated on cultural norms. I am reminded of how old towels and worn-out bedsheets and cotton sarees were converted into diapers. Sure, these oft-washed goods were finally discarded, but is this a case of only reuse or also upcycling, or even, downcycling? You could apply some of these rigid classifications and ideas to plastics—newer materials with less cultural and historic footprints. I’m unsure whether or not these rigid terms are helpful for a much older material like cloth. It is utilitarian in one form and deeply ritualistic in another."
Whatever "data" is there in the report is agnostic, almost cut off from the context. As Bharati says: "Absence of nuance renders the data shaky. If you don’t have some grasp of the socio-economic value of used cloth, or textiles, then how do you build a methodology for data? Some of this could have been averted if a wider as well as somewhat older, ethnographic literature review informed the study.
"Even well-known work like that of Lucy Norris could have enabled the researchers frame better questions and numbers. I looked for it in the references, I couldn't find it. Other references to the specific communities that recycle post-consumer textiles also takes away from the report for the same reason: it gestures to a very superficial understanding of this fading occupation. The clothes for steel-utensils exchange have dramatically shrunk across India. To give this an important place distorts the picture."
Reverse Resources (RR) used, as the report mentions, primary and secondary data to analyse the quantum and categories of pre-consumer textile waste in India. RR's analyses would be as strong as the strength of the data they would have got. Also, RR is not being explored in this piece.
Bharati continues: "This is why I would hesitate to quote the data—I can’t be sure it has been collected with a sharp sense of the ecosystem. If the report states that precisely 41% of one stream of textile waste is downcycled in India, I would also expect a more robust methodology as well as a less copy-and-paste definition. If the report claims, the barter systems handle 30% of the textile waste, I would ask for way more national evidence. But most of the ground level data in this order of waste is from two large metros—Delhi and Bangalore. While the initial data from these two cities is interesting, it is also misleading because it draws from a significantly narrow base."
She concludes: "In an ideal world, this report expects to impact policies. In terms of being the first of its kind in India, one wonders what entirely new ideas it brings to the table. Reports are a product of their times—and this is a first, if at all it is, because of global interest. Being first or not should not take away from its value as a base source and for the big picture. It is useful for brands trying to make sense of their impact and for global players who hope to glean some strands of the post-production textile economy. For robust data, we must wait for the second of its kind. I hope the authors embark on it soon."
Shortly after the publication of this report, Fashion for Good released a similar one from Europe. That project was a 16-month endeavour across Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. That's about 1,488,302 sq km with a population of 264,757,280.
India's land area, in sharp contrast, is roughly three times the area of those six countries, and the population, at a rough estimate of 1.3 billion, is close to six times that of the six countries. And yet, given the chaos that is India, the waste management experts of Bangalore were able to quantify the waste and produce a report in less time—in about half the time. Kidding, are we?
I, of course, needed Fashion for Good's responses to my queries. I shot off a brief questionnaire and the response came from the India office.
I had asked them about the criteria for choosing Sattva and Saahas. The responses I got would be the same that you would find in the "about us" sections of their respective websites. So, I am leaving those out. The other responses are as under:
* The report states: "7793 ktons, or 8.5% of global textile waste, is accumulated in India every year". The figure does not seem to be accurate. This is attributed to "primary analysis" under #7 of the Endnotes. How was this number arrived at? No calculations are provided.
The calculation on Indian waste quantity is elaborated in the Technical Appendix available on the last page of the report upon scanning the QR code. The amount of total textile waste globally (92 million tonnes) has been taken from the Pulse of Fashion Report 2018. This is a widely quoted number in the ecosystem and hence was taken as a reliable base. As for the Indian data, the report mentions that it is the first of its kind effort to estimate the total quantity of textile waste and all assumptions and calculations are explicitly called out in the Technical Appendix. The report does not claim to have the accurate numbers but ballparks/estimates and hence has put all details in the backend which can be discussed and improved in subsequent versions.
* Much of the report contains elements that are already in the public domain and is common knowledge. Comments, please.
That is correct. The purpose of the report is to pull together the data and make sense of what it means from the industry. No report exclusively does their own research, they look at existing data (secondary research) and collect primary data (primary research). The research collates findings from both secondary and primary sources. Hence, yes, a lot of this knowledge is already in the public domain and have been duly referred. However, most of the studies done earlier have focussed on specific geographies and waste streams (pre-consumer, post-consumer domestic and imported). This study brings all the 3 waste streams together and has taken a pan India approach. Apart from knowledge consolidation and representing field insights, the new value addition by the report is in the following:
1. Estimation of textile waste quantities, how much is ending up where and what are its end uses
2. Waste value hierarchy (in Part 5 of the report)
For most part, it appears to be a primer for someone who knows nothing about India or material flows here. Would you like to comment?
Most people don't know the material flow. As this report has been reviewed by the textile ministry, Export council and multiple brands and manufacturers, there has been unanimous appreciation that it has brought forward some numbers and some semblance of what is really happening in the industry. The purpose of the report is to create awareness of the material flow, composition and opportunities. This helps understand what kind of technology solutions, systems and infrastructure can be brought forward.
This report is to serve all types of audience. To elaborate, we wish to target the following segments:
- Public/layman/consumers who do not understand/have never dealt with the textile waste ecosystem
- Global brands that are highly involved in the Indian manufacturing and retail landscape but do not have a context on how their waste is being dealt with
- Indian manufacturers who sell their waste but don't have a context on what is happening with it further (In our experience very few knew about the journey of this waste outside their factory)
- Philanthropy and funding ecosystem who are interested in sustainability and circular economy but do not have full visibility on value chain, existing and emerging bottlenecks and points of interventions.
Apart from the material flows, this report has attempted to put data/numbers to these qualitative conversations. This will be helpful for anyone planning an intervention in this space.
Unfortunately, not every interview transcript can be put in a report. The report is a summary of our estimates based on the research done by us and our opinions on what is needed in the industry.
It is true that this is the first time that an attempt has been made to quantify the textile waste situation in India, and also look at the prospects of making use of this waste. But it's not perfect (nothing ever is); and is on the contracy riddled with loopholes.
The contention that just because it is and will remain the only one in the market for a while should mean that we need to accept it as the gospel truth is fraught with danger.
The closest analogy one can find is the argument over the Higg MSI. The proponents believe that while it is not perfect, the Higg MSI is the only such tool currently available, and hence we must live with it. The argument against is that since it is flawed, it does more harm than good because it entrenches a false benchmark and renders it difficult to make course corrections later on. My point about the Wealth in Waste report is something akin to the latter.
There is nothing for me to doubt the intention of the study—it's all bona fide. But, Fashion for Good could do well to plug in the gaps, relegate this to a Beta version or something like that, and come up with a study that is rock solid. That will serve the Indian textiles industry in good stead. Millions of lives depend on it.