“These waste pieces here, we use it in a better way, instead of throwing it away as waste on the roadside and polluting the environment. We collect it in the right way.” This explanation comes not from a brand’s sustainability manager but from Jency, one of the many women textile waste sorters working at Enviu’s sorting centre in the Indian city of Chennai.
“I have not studied enough to become a manager; I have been educated only till 10th grade. (Babu) Sir made me the second supervisor. He also told me that I have a career path to grow,” beams Jency.
As Enviu’s Reweave program team recently visited the all-women sorting centre, which is part of its Uptex venture, such stories of empowerment came tumbling out.
For instance, 31-year-old Sarla beamed how she enjoys training and supervising new joiners, patiently explaining the cloth differences, and the processes, and thereafter letting them try and learn.
Lakshmi, Nagamma, Rajeshwari, and Valli, too, are among the women workers who are joining the force to create a strong value chain for textile waste in India.
“These are some of the great success stories that we are looking to build upon to create more such cases and opportunities for other women,” said Vivek, as he explained why a philanthropic foundation like the IKEA Foundation partnered with Enviu’s Reweave program.
“Caring for people and the planet is part of Enviu’s purpose,” said Shyam Sunder, a venture builder with the Reweave program. “This purpose has been guiding us in finding solutions for waste and waste workers, which are scalable, impactful and profitable.”
Focusing on the Global South
Apart from India, Enviu’s Reweave program also runs similar initiatives in Kenya. Soon, the program will make its first foray into Bangladesh, too.
Reweave focuses on textile hubs in the Global South that face a double burden of their own domestically generated waste as well as waste exported from other countries.
These countries have done well in terms of building local supply chains to manage this waste, Reweave has now stepped in to help them better organize this, as well as to meet the textile industry’s growing needs of organizations, traceability, and technology solutions. Connecting local systems with global supply chains is, therefore, a key pillar of the Reweave program.
Organizing the value chain for textile waste
“If you draw a map of the value chain of the textile waste in India, you will find there are many spots where there is very little knowledge of where the waste is coming from, and where it is going,” noted Vivek.
One of the traditional challenges in creating a waste-proof value chain is organizing informal workers in the whole ecosystem, so that they, too, see the business potential of textile waste. Then comes finding the right technology that can meet the evolving challenges such as blending textile waste into a virgin quality fabric.
“How do we bring the private sector on board? How do we work with governments to create more conducive policy frameworks to go from successful pilots to a large scale?” Vivek raises a few points. In the absence of that knowledge and awareness of the entire value chain, it becomes difficult to think about a textile waste value chain that works, he said.
Addressing these conundrums is a herculean task, especially in a country like India, which is one of the largest producers, employers, and consumers of garments and textiles. Besides, the waste economy in India is informal and unorganized, where the local recyclers and aggregators tackle the additional burden of second-hand clothes and rags exported from other countries, including the US.
However, it is not an impossible task either, as Enviu has been able to demonstrate through its Reweave ventures. Through the Reweave program, Enviu has been focusing on building venture models that are sustainable and replicable.
Collaboration and partnership for change
Enviu has been collaborating with funding partners such as GIZ and IKEA Foundation, and industry partner Circular Apparel Innovation Factory (CAIF) to build long-lasting and innovative solutions that turn waste into resources and waste workers into entrepreneurs. The partnership has been plugging the existing gaps in the value chain and building a domestic supply chain in India, Kenya, and Bangladesh. This new supply chain will take care of domestically generated pre-and post-consumer textile waste, while creating better quality livelihood for the waste workers. The outcome is promising so far.
While Enviu implements a top-down approach (focusing on building the venture), our partner organizations such as CAIF follow a bottom-up approach, which is skilling and capability building for waste workers. Our technological partner has been ensuring that almost all types, sizes and colors of textile scraps are converted into yarns, which, in turn, are used to make new clothes. With each step, the team is building that ecosystem, or a model, so that more brands can plug into it, more waste management teams can learn from us and replicate this model, and more recyclers and solution providers can enter the Indian market.
“We also see interesting opportunities in closing the textile waste loop for industries; for example, in hospitality, healthcare, and manufacturing sectors, which use large quantities of textiles that are disposed of. There is a great potential to offer textiles as a service, rather than as outright purchases. So, following the cradle-to-cradle approach is especially important when the textile ecosystem is just getting established in India,” says Shyam.
Connecting the dots in an otherwise fragmented textile ecosystem
This article was first published in Enviu Impact Magazine 2022.