Sustainability and digitalisation constitute the backbone of industrial R&D

Sustainability and digitalisation constitute the backbone of industrial R&D

In recent years, consumers have become increasingly conscious about the products they purchase, particularly in terms of sustainability and ethical products, says Dr Arindam Basu and Dr Rajendra Kumar Gaur.

Sustainability is a buzzword today for every aspect of life and textile industry is not an exception. Sustainability has become the way of life for human being. Sustainability touches every aspects of life and it leads to secure sustainable future to the coming future generations. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined Sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In the charter of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) sustainable committee, sustainability is defined as ‘the integration of environmental health, social equity and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come. The practice of sustainability recognises how these issues are inter-connected and require a systems approach and acknowledgement of complexity.

Textile & apparel industry is not an exception and is considered as one of the most environment polluting industries. In the textile industry wet processing i.e. scouring, bleaching, dyeing, printing and finishing plays a major role in this. Also fibres used in this industry can help in reducing the pollution in a big way. The major steps recommended under sustainability as well as in circular economy are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Under each step, traceability and management of data become critical and this is the place where role of digitalisation comes into picture.  The steps start from using fibres with low carbon foot print, bio-degradable and low water footprints. Though natural fibres are preferred in these cases uses of man-made synthetic fibre cannot be eliminated. As the man-made fibres are engineered for special purposes in many cases those cannot be replaced in near future.

Northern India Textile Research Association commonly known as NITRA is committed in this movement and are involved in R&D activities in the areas of use of agriculture waste in textiles by converting them into fibres, developing processes where use of water and chemicals are reduced, reduction of energy consumption, reduction of waste etc. Many of the R&D projects undertaken by NITRA has been commercialised and these are now used by the industry in large scale. Some of the notable results of NITRA’s studies are extraction of textile grade fibres from Pine needles (patented), extraction of finer fibres from banana stem, pineapple leaves, indigenous flax fibres, conversion of corn husk, bamboo into textile fibres etc. It has started working on recycling of existing MMF lately. Even for cotton the carbon foot print and water foot print varies from country to country and between varieties. It takes approximately 10,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton and on the other side world is anxious to conserve water and water foot prints. Not only this, hazardous pesticides for used in huge quantity for the production of cotton.  Conventional cotton differs widely from organic cotton, cotton grown under Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and similar varieties as less/nil pesticide is used, less water is used, and these help in making the soil more fertile. Similarly many unconventional natural fibres are grown in India which needs some Research & Development to make them ready for clothing or technical textiles. As these are biodegradable and water footprints are much lower than cotton, these have got high demand in today’s world. NITRA is helping some start-ups who have started using these fibres and could grab good orders.

Due to compulsion by many big brands many industries have started using recycled fibres and environment friendly fibres as part in the blends. But to make these things reliable to the customers, traceability and management of data are very much important. Some sort of system such as RFD, are to be used by the manufacturers so that the enquiring customers can know the source of those fibres, whether they are truly environment friendly or otherwise.  Use of different fibres and coming through different vendors e.g. in the case of product of cotton, the farmers, the ginners, the spinning mills, the fabric making units, wet processing units and garmenting units need to be traced. And if recycled fibre is used in some proportion the traceability for that part becomes more complex. Under these circumstances digitalisation of the system is the only solution. As per Information Technology Gartner Glossary, digitisation is the use of digital technology to change the business model and provide new revenue and value producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business.

In recent years, consumers have become increasingly conscious about the products they purchase, particularly in terms of sustainability and ethical products. This has led to a growing demand for transparency and visibility in supply chains, which has highlighted gaps in the current textile industry. Platform systems and hybrid networks in the textile industry are creating new supply chains that were previously not thought of. Parts of established supply chains are being skipped to put consumers and producers into direct contact quickly and easily. Both business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) options are now available. For example companies such as Spreadshirt in Leipzig, Spoonflower in Berlin and Roostery in Charlotte, California are in direct contact with end users via the web and thus used the transparency in supply chain to ensure their economic success as well as sustainability. In addition customers can act as their own designers, product developers and suppliers all through single platform. One other way to address this is through the use of block chain technology. Block chain allows for a secure, transparent and immutable record of every transaction in the supply chain, from raw materials to finished products. These have been made possible due to digitalisation. Digitalisation has gained paramount importance in every sphere of life, business, environment and society.  Undoubtedly it has changed the way of thinking, doing the business & profession and living.  Digitalisation is becoming a spine for any research, development, improvement and progress.  It is playing a significant role in sustainable development and great impact on human being and society as a whole.

The use of block chain and traceability can also help to combat the issue of green washing in the textile industry. Many brands claim to be sustainable or ethical, but often lack the necessary evidence to back up these claims e.g. recent cases of H&M and SHEIN among other brands. By implementing a block chain based traceability system, it would be possible to verify the sustainability and ethical practices of each supplier and manufacturer, ensuring that claims made by brands are backed up by reliable and accurate data.

Digitalisation opens up options for transparently presenting the origin, ingredients and production routes i.e. the entire journey of a product. It will change the perception and the process of the entire industry. It is not only desired for sustainability, it is also desired for the control of costs and margins within the global supply chain that is driving the turn to resource efficiency and therefore sustainability as well.  Digitalisation is now one of the most powerful tools for influencing the market. 

About the author:

Dr Arindam Basu is a Director General at Northern India Textile Research Association (NITRA). His duties include running both the institutes and arranging funds from various government and private agencies.

Rajendra Kumar Gaur, Assistant Director, NITRA. He has also worked with UP State Yarn, Meja, Allahabad and JK Cotton Spg & Wvg, Kanpur.
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