The Shift to Natural and Bio-Degradable Fabrics

The textile and fashion industry is at the forefront of the climate change debate. According to recent estimates, the entire life cycle of garments i.e. production, use and disposal, contributes about 8% to the global GHG emissions. So, how can the journey to decarbonization be started?

Mr. Dilip Gaur, Managing Director of Grasim Industries a flagship company of US$44.3 billion Aditya Birla Group says, “We supply natural fibre to the fashion industry which is made from wood sourced from sustainably managed forests.

Hence, we call ourselves a forest to fashion company.” The net positive growth of sustainably managed forests is a great sink for carbon. Mr Gaur said that more than 3.4 million tonnes of carbon sequestered in year 2019 in the forests directly managed by Birla Cellulose, the pulp and fibre business of Aditya Birla Group.

Birla Cellulose is the first viscose producer globally to achieve carbon neutrality as its scope 1 and scope 2 carbon emissions were completely neutralized by the carbon sequestered in its managed forests. It is also the first viscose producer to do a comprehensive evaluation of its indirect emissions which are defined as scope 3 emissions. Further, the company is investing in renewables as well as technologies that increase the efficiency of its energy usage.

Mr Gaur says, “We have a vision to be the global leader in sustainability business practices in the viscose industry. Our philosophy is that a piecemeal approach will not do! We need an end to end approach, which is why we have created a 5-pillar strategy that touches the entire viscose value chain. This consists of sourcing, manufacturing, products, partnerships and social responsibility”.

The sustainability strategy of the company was formed by conducting a materiality assessment and then aligning the important parameters to the United Nations sustainable development goals. To begin with Grasim focused on the use of sustainable raw materials sourcing. Then a rigorous system of policies and governance mechanisms were put in place to ensure sustainable sourcing of raw materials, especially wood.

In the latest Canopy Hot Button Report published in December 2019, Birla Cellulose has been ranked No 1 globally in the sustainable forestry practices and is one of the only two companies globally that have been accorded a “green shirt” ranking, confirming that there is a low risk of sourcing wood from ancient and endangered forests when consumers are using Birla Cellulose fibres.

Grasim is also leading the conversation with customers on substituting other fabrics with a more sustainable choice of fiber – viscose. Since viscose has plant-based origins it bio-degrades in 4 to 8 weeks, i.e. essentially anything made out of viscose gets absorbed into the soil.

At one point in time there were significant concerns on the manufacturing process of viscose. This was considered to be highly polluting with usage of chemicals and water pollution. However, over the past 5 years, several big manufacturers such as Birla Cellulose have now significantly improved these and several certifications have emerged that certify that these fibers are made from sustainably grown forests and closed-loop manufacturing processes.

According to the head of Sustainability, Mukul Agrawal, “Birla Cellulose also leads the industry in water consumption and has set new benchmarks in specific water consumption within viscose industry, which is very important for the water stressed geographies. Viscose with its lowest carbon footprint, very low water consumption and low chemical consumption, is one of the most sustainable choice for the fabric available today.”

However, Dilip Gaur says, “One thing is certain, we need better design of end products to be sustainable. Design not just of core products but processes and materials that enable the change towards the circular economy.” Over the past several decades, synthetic fossil fuel based fibres have ruled the roost in terms of easy availability, price and durability.

While all these have been good for consumers, i.e. making products available at lower prices, the environmental damage has truly been horrific. Vast tracts of land across the world are dedicated to landfills where lie mountains of clothes and other products that will take years to degrade. Oceans, rivers and water bodies are polluted with microplastics when synthetic garments are washed.

He highlights the fact that, “One of the biggest problems that we are facing is that of unsustainable materials. This is why we need to shift to natural and bio-degradable fabrics like viscose and design and designers have an important role to play in this”.

In conversation with Managing Director of Grasim Industries. For the Responsible Future blog