COVID-19’s devastating impact left the textile industry struggling to find its way through. Workers, artisans and other supply chain stakeholders grappled with the multiple blows of unemployment, financial woes and inadequate social security that came by. Shut factories, cancelled orders and reduced demand and pick up played out as factors that aggravated the misery of the entire ecosystem. But Covid also exposed other glaring gaps within the system. Employing close to 60 million people and contributing 2% to India’s GDP, the pandemic starkly highlighted the loopholes existing within the textile industry. This opened the doors for a pressing issue to gain momentum — the need to build socially inclusive and sustainable business models to drive positive change. The lack of transparency in supply chains, in fact, is one reason the informal sector workers don’t get their due and are subjected to exploitative work practices. The ‘invisible’ nature of this workforce makes it difficult for them to get labour rights compliances and other benefits that can come to their aid. However, if a circular apparel and textile industry is the aim, the need to build inclusive businesses will also be the key. Ipshita Sinha, Program Director, Laudes Foundation says that ensuring acknowledgment of informal workers will lead to fair working conditions and an equitable and inclusive supply chain. “One area that we are focusing on is to see how the most vulnerable workers within the supply chain can have access to social protection. In the traditional business models, we find a lot of home-based workers not recognised in the supply chain and as Covid showed, there was no fall back support for them when the tough times came,” she said during the virtual Sankalp Global Summit. Role of tech and consumerExperts say that creating social protection mechanisms which workers can fall back on will be the accurate measure of inclusion in the supply chain. However, while visibility and traceability may still be possible in Tier I and Tier II suppliers, it dissipates with the range of sub suppliers involved later. What then is the way out to take traceability right down to the value chain? Flora Davidson, Co-founder at Supply Compass, a production platform for fashion brands and manufacturers, emphasises on the need of a digital ecosystem. 80243869“What makes fashion supply chains complicated in particular is that in every season, every product in that collection is a whole new supply chain. There are so many components coming in which make it complicated. The challenge is to build that traceability right back to the raw material. It can be accessible and easy if there is a digital ecosystem at the heart, else it would only be retrospectively traced and be incredibly time consuming,” she said. Traceability implies tracing the entire life-cycle of a product, right from the raw material to the consumer to disposal and recycle, if applicable. Such a practice helps to build a more transparent textile supply chain. But while traceability is very important, is it only a brand responsibility or can the consumer also play a role in making this possible? “Consumers are powerful in their influence. If they push, brands will listen. it has got to be brand-led initially. The responsibility has to be spread across and it needs to be a requirement for them,” Davidson added. Experts feel that brands can play an important role in educating the consumer on the significance of such practices. “Educating and creating awareness through products on how it is sustainable, how as a customer you are contributing downstream are dialogues that need to happen. Big brands will play an important role in doing so,” Vaishali Misra, Global Business Leader, IKEA Social Entrepreneurship Initiative asserted. The challenge called CovidThe pandemic created insurmountable difficulties for the industry, and the lack of preparedness threw supply chains out of gear. A report by International Labour Organisation (ILO) in October, which assessed the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on supply chains, factories and workers in 10 major garment producing countries, highlighted how major buying countries’ imports from garment-exporting countries in Asia dropped by up to 70% in the first half of 2020, due to collapsing consumer demand, government lockdown measures and disruptions to raw material imports necessary for garment production. It also noted that worker layoffs and dismissals had increased sharply, while reopened factories were operating at reduced workforce capacity. 80243879But the crisis also showed, how impactful change by policymakers, brands and end users could all play a role in building things up. “Given the scale of the pandemic and impact to date, the global garment industry may in the coming years face a structural realignment, shaped in part by trends that were already disrupting the sector prior to 2020,” the report by ILO stated. Davidson says that a time like this has also helped to identify the real businesses. “One can see businesses for their true colours and how they react when things fall apart. Do they protect themselves only or do they reach out to all partners and work together and explain the situation. Businesses who revealed what they are really like aren’t flourishing. It makes you really think on which business you want to be,” she added. Going to wasteBut the road to sustainability, inclusivity and reconfiguration of the industry cannot be complete without addressing the challenges of textile waste management that have inherently existed. Textile dyeing causes severe harm to the environment and is the second largest polluter of water globally, as per estimates. Not just that. Fast fashion also translates into consumers letting go of their old collections soon enough, which eventually finds their way into landfills. Ann Runnel, Co-founder of Reverse Resources, a tracking and trading platform for textile waste, says they found that 40% of waste in Bangladesh actually gets landfilled just because it’s not possible manually to sort out the good quality waste. “It’s absolutely critical that waste segregation has to be started from the cutting room floor. Factories who really start segregation of waste by composition discover that it’s not so difficult, it is just a matter of closing a bag of waste, when you switch the fabric on the cutting table,” she explained. Runnel adds that this is the start of helping recyclers have access to bring down the cost of sourcing for them, which also influences the prices of recycled materials. “By then, the same manufacturers want to have access to these high-end, recycled materials. And that’s the core of the circular economy. It connects everybody to everybody. And we all need to make little change and resources,” she emphasised during the virtual summit. Taking Runnel’s point forward, Wilma Rodrigues, Founder & CEO at Saahas Zero Waste, a social enterprise offering end-to-end waste management, stated that the policy for textile waste needs to be an inclusive policy which also takes the well being of the waste worker in account. “It is about formalising the informal sector. Minimum wages, labour laws, infrastructure – at times people work on the floor and it’s not even a proper flooring. So minimum infrastructure requires to be put in place, and the responsibility of that should be the producer, original producer and the consumer and, of course, government and industry and everybody else has to enforce it. And that will automatically make the shift from informal to formal,” she asserted.(Illustrations by Mohammad Arshad)