September 2023

Your old clothes are not trash


Circular Apparel Innovation Factory’s (CAIF) program, "Closing the Loop on Textile Waste (CTL)initiative is dedicated to enabling India's Textiles and Apparel (T&A) industry to adopt a sustainable and circular model for managing textile waste, addressing not only the industry's environmental challenges but also the longstanding social inequities within it.

The Challenge

The T&A industry has come under increasing scrutiny for its adverse environmental impact. The sector produces millions of tons of textiles annually, and the fate of these textiles at the end of their life cycle has raised lots of questions about environmental impact and sustainability. India currently lacks a formal infrastructure for the collection, sorting, and sustainable reuse or disposal of textile waste. The absence of concrete policies governing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and waste management compounds this issue. Shockingly, the Indian textile industry generates about 7,800 kilotonnes of textile waste annually 1, most of which ends up in landfills as per the current data available, even when taking into account the robust informal market for textiles and fabrics into account.

CAIF's Innovative Approach

"Closing the Loop on Textile Waste" (CTL) was designed to strike a harmonious balance between improving the environmental footprint of the T&A industry and creating positive social impact. The program seeks to design and validate an integrated Circular Textile Waste Management model that valorizes textile waste while generating green jobs for the underserved waste picker communities who play a central role in the current waste ecosystem. 

CAIF's strategy involves establishing and scaling grassroots, micro-entrepreneurship-led hyperlocal collection, sorting, and selling of textile waste. These hyperlocal centers will play an increasingly critical role in unlocking new green jobs for waste workers while diverting textile waste from landfills.

"Your old clothes are not trash"

Our journey began in Bengaluru with a six-month pilot program with partner Hasiru Dala, aimed at testing hyperlocal collection and sorting of post-consumer textile waste. Two entrepreneurs, Kumudha and Krishna, from the local community, played pivotal roles in this pilot phase. Both were eager to contribute to their communities by leveraging textile waste management for job creation and livelihood improvement. Before the CTL intervention, they had made several attempts to address textile waste but were unsuccessful due to a lack of sustained support in terms of industry knowledge, business assistance, and market access.

These dedicated entrepreneurs and their staff underwent comprehensive training in collecting and managing textile waste, with a special emphasis on sorting it into four distinct categories: reusables, upcyclable, recyclable, and downcyclable. These categories were established after extensive research and consultations to identify various avenues for ‘looping back’ textile waste and testing their respective value realization potential.

It took several months to gain momentum and reach the threshold collection volumes for textile waste. Often, the waste was contaminated by other streams or soiled and deemed unrecoverable. However, with consistent awareness campaigns, the quality and quantity of waste have steadily improved.

Over the course of 6 months, Kumudha and Krishna managed to collect and process around 13,000 kg of post-consumer textile waste. Their zeal inspired six other waste entrepreneurs to start managing textile waste under H&M Foundations’ Saamuhika Shakti program The pilot was an unequivocal success, with entrepreneurs like Kumudha and Krishna continuing to manage textile waste beyond the pilot period and expressing their intent to continue their textile waste management operations.

"I see immense economic potential in being part of the textile waste stream and aim to expand my centre to dedicate more space to textile waste management,” said Kumudha, adding that  she is  actively seeking additional space around her centre to expand her operations."

Krishna echoes this sentiment.

"With plastic waste management becoming mainstream, I was concerned about potentially losing my role in the plastic waste value chain. Therefore, this opportunity to be a part of CAIF’s textile waste management project has come at a good time for us, and I am determined to expand my efforts and focus on achieving business viability."

CAIF has seen from its interactions with several other waste workers their eagerness to handle textile waste, as they find it relatively cleaner and safer than other waste streams.

From Bengaluru to Panipat

While local markets for reselling, upcycling, and downcycling of textile waste were established during the pilot phase, we realized that solutions for up to 70% of the waste collected lay outside of Bengaluru. It became imperative to tap into the recycling markets of Panipat, which held the key to buying and processing the large volumes of textile waste from the waste micro-entrepreneurs.

However, partnering with the Panipat-based recyclers presented a significant challenge. These recyclers have traditionally handled only imported post-consumer textile waste. Their perception was that domestic textile waste would be of inferior quality because of  extensive use before being discarded, and even if good quality waste existed, there was no formal collection mechanism available for them to access such waste. 

The CAIF team visited these recyclers in Panipat multiple times to introduce them to the  program, showcase the quality of waste collected and sorted textile waste by the waste microentrepreneurs in Bengaluru, and understand their specific requirements. Concurrently, the team also  organised in-person training sessions for waste workers and entrepreneurs to sort the waste according to the recyclers' requirements.  A process was put in place through CAIF’s collaboration with Hasiru Dala.

A few months on, we successfully sent our first test batch of sorted post-consumer waste (approximately 500 kg), which was approved by the recycler. This recycler has expressed interest in partnering with CAIF and receiving a regular supply of textile waste from the micro-entrepreneurs supported by the CTL initiative. This achievement marks a significant milestone as we provide a proof of concept to use domestic post-consumer textile waste as feedstock for spinning recycled yarn and inching closer to bringing circularity within the textile industry.

CAIF’s ability to understand the unique needs and requirements of recyclers coupled with the commitment and perseverance shown by the waste entrepreneurs played a significant role in successfully establishing this critical market linkage, which will serve as a use case and foundation as we embark on replicating and scaling the circular textile waste management model.

Scaling CTL

As we enter the support phase, our ambition is to expand the CTL program's reach to 12 more cities, catalyzing a nationwide shift towards circular textile waste management. Our program’s goal is to collect and manage 20 million kilograms of textile waste from landfills, while positively impacting 5,000 lives and livelihoods through job creation, surfacing of new job roles, and building skills and capacities.

With our continued efforts, the program is geared to significantly contribute to the textile and apparel industry’s circular transition.


1 Wealth in Waste: India’s Potential to Lead Circular Textile Waste Management

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