In today’s Finshots, we look at the latest report from the World Economic Forum to tell you how personal care brands and fast fashion can do their bit to undo the environmental damage they cause.

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The Story

Fashion and consumer care brands are like environmental parasites!

Okay, that’s a bit harsh but hear us out.

A basic cotton t-shirt guzzles 2,700 litres of water. A pair of denims need around 40% more water, if not more. And even your shampoo is basically 80% water with chemicals.

Not to forget the amount of trees that are cut to make certain products. For instance, palm oil goes into detergents, chocolates and cookies. Cultivating palm oil has resulted in the razing of massive forest cover. According to the UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), palm oil cultivation alone caused an average 629,000 hectares of deforestation each year from 2000 to 2018. For context, that’s the size of over 11.7 lakh football fields!

Finally, when we dispose of all of these products and their packaging ― it piles up in some landfill and pollutes the earth.

Now you probably already know all of this if you’re a Finshots regular. We wrote about it in a story about forever chemicals and fast fashion destruction.

But we want to highlight something else. You can make consumer products without affecting the environment as much. Products can actually become nature-positive.

You can create new things, regenerate ecology and not destroy what's left.

But to do this you have to identify the problem. And the problem is that we’re all good at sucking out resources. Just turn your clothes inside out and look at the white label inside that lists all the materials that went into making it. You’ll probably find a lot of polyester and cotton as these are the most widely produced fibres in the world.

But they aren’t the most sustainable fabrics.

See polyester comes cheap and easily blends with other fibres. So manufacturers seem to naturally like it.  But polyester consumes a lot of energy because it’s a synthetic material made from plastic. That’s why it has wrinkle-free properties and lasts longer. You may not have to discard it as quickly as a cotton shirt. But when you do, it could actually take anywhere between 20 to 200 years for it to decompose depending on the fabric it’s blended into.

On the other hand, cultivating cotton itself is problematic. It chugs water. Over 70% of the world’s cotton is grown on irrigated fields. You have to redirect surface or groundwater to grow the crop. And this eventually leads to its own set of problems.

So what’s the way out, you ask?

Well, what if brands don’t start from scratch every time? Maybe they actually pay more attention to recycling.

You see, less than 1% of textile polyester is actually recycled. Instead, we rely on plastic waste to get the output. Now that still sounds like a great idea. Who doesn’t want to recycle plastic? But the unintended consequence is that it could encourage plastic production. People might think, “Hey, if plastic is being recycled, we can produce more anyway.” And that sets a bad precedent.

So companies have to step up recycling used textiles itself.

Fast fashion giant Zara has actually put this into practice. A couple of months ago it launched its new recycled fabric collection. They’ve rolled out a range of clothes with up to 50% recycled fibre. And this is quite important because every tonne of recycled polyester saves over 11,000 kWh of energy — equivalent to two years of energy consumption for an average household.

Another interesting example is Gucci's new fragrance. This luxury fashion house has used alcohol made out of captured carbon emissions. They decided that ethanol isn’t the best choice because it’s a derivative of sugarcane. And in parts of Brazil, there has been massive deforestation to make way for sugarcane. So just capture carbon and convert it instead.

But that’s not the only way to go about reducing resource consumption.

Because it’s not just about how brands make their products, but how you and I care for these products too.

If you’ve looked at a pair of Levi’s jeans, you’ll find a Water<Less label on it. That’s actually a dyeing technique that uses up to 96% less water in the finishing stages. And the brand claims to have saved about 172 million litres of water that way. And to take it a step further, Levis has been trying to educate customers on how to use less water while caring for their garments too. Now, you might think this is trivial. But incorrect garment care can do a lot of damage. And that’s because wearing and washing clothes often releases tiny little threads called microfibres into the environment.

You see, textiles are actually responsible for over a third of the microplastic pollution in oceans, in the form of synthetic microfibres. But when you use a washing machine at its full capacity, opt for shorter wash cycles and lower temperatures it could actually reduce microfibre shedding by up to 30%. So when brands invest in consumer awareness and education, it adds up in helping everyone reduce their environmental footprint.

And we know most of this discussion focuses on textiles. But you could do the same thing with personal care and beauty products as well. Take The Body Shop for example. If you buy a product from them, you can always drop the empty containers at their nearest stores. It also runs a program that connects the organisation to waste pickers and sources materials from them for recycling. L'Oreal has this too. When brands develop reverse logistics such as recycling and take-back programs, it could prevent nearly half of the annual plastic waste from reaching the ocean. Even if just 10-20% of the packaging is reused.

And just like that, if fashion and personal care decide to source responsibly, reduce water dependence, educate customers and introduce circularity, it could make a huge difference. The unfortunate bit is that only 5% of Fortune Global 500 companies have targets for biodiversity loss.

So maybe it’s time to talk a little more about being “nature positive” in the fashion and personal care world. Or else, the way human consumerism is growing, it could be too late to save the planet.

Until then…

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