Toxic chemicals, plastic pollution, fossil fuels and staggering water consumption: the reality of fashion is an ugly one. And it’s an industry that’s only growing, too, with the rise and rise of fast fashion.
This surging demand for the latest jeans, tees and shoes means there’s a growing need for textiles, and considering that 97% of clothing materials are made from virgin materials, the devastation and destruction of our planet is being accelerated.
ESG Mena sat down with Rajesh Garg, Chief Finance Officer of Landmark Group, a UAE-based multinational conglomerate, after an event on textiles circularity, to discuss the industry’s progress on planet protection and what needs to happen to turn pledges into action.
Rajesh, you have a lot of brands under your umbrella, and on the panel, you discussed the control you have across your supply chain. In fashion, when it comes to sourcing, the use of fossil fuel fabrics and plastics is widespread. On sourcing materials, how does the company ensure sustainability and traceability?
We have very deep relationships with our suppliers; we’re a very long-term kind of partner for [them]. So, as our brands are progressing, we have our standards. For example, we’ve issued our chemical management standards, and it’s designed on one of the most stringent standards: to have no hazardous materials in the raw materials or used during the manufacturing process itself.
That then gets tested, it’s certified. So, if you want to be a supplier with us, you have to adhere to a long list of manufacturing standards, and raw material standards, and indicate which material you’re sourcing.
We are on a journey because we can’t switch overnight 100 per cent to be there. But, we are moving fast to make sure that whatever we are selling is being sourced from raw materials that are more sustainably sourced and certified. And now, we’re moving towards having third-party auditing.
We’ve signed up with the best of the best firms, for example, we are working with one firm that has 3100 auditors on the ground across the supply chain.
You mentioned traceability in relation to hazardous materials, but the majority of textiles are synthetic-based. When we talk about the circularity of these fibres and get to the recycling process, and breaking them down, microplastics are a real issue. How are you striving to incorporate more naturally derived fibres and materials in your supply chain, and how will this be scaled across your portfolio?
We are tackling cotton first. With polyester, there are various standards, and it is more challenging to recycle, there’s no doubt, but we sourced 42,000 tonnes of cotton, and if we can deal with that, it’s a huge step forward.
I think the upcycling and downsizing of various other waste materials, which are from blends and polyester, is the direction it’s taking right now.
We’ve just begun the Take Back programme, and we’ve not had that whole ecosystem. So, as we progress, we are very well aware that cotton blends and polyester blends will have to have three different parts.
There is no simple, cost-effective answer, but we are working, researching and innovating.
There are companies that recycle polyester, convert it into pellets, and then ship it and put it back. We haven’t gotten to that yet, but it’s all a journey, and it will come.
Do you have a timeline for this?
We’ve just gone live with our sortation and recycling facility in the UAE. Now, that in itself has been quite a good step forward. That’s a pilot facility, where it can take care of a good amount of the UAE waste that we are responsible for.
So, I think that’s a good start.
In quick succession, we are hoping to roll out having an ecosystem, not all ours, but with partners.
That seems to be the big focus not only at this panel, but at COP more broadly: collaboration and partnership. How do you see the impact of this kind of initiative evolving?
I think it’s fantastic to see such a diverse set of players that form the entire ecosystem: the waste management companies, the Ministry of Climate Change, and then some private players, like ourselves.
Unless all that comes together, we can’t solve this problem ourselves.
In the UAE, we don’t even segregate waste right now.
So, one hopes that all waste will be segregated. Of course, then, textiles or other goods we are into will also be segregated, because clean segregation and sortation are very important, as mixed waste makes almost the entire waste unusable.
Having the awareness to move away from a linear economy to a circular economy will be 70-80% there if there is the awareness and alignment that we need to do this.
On the panel, you spoke of a disconnect between consumer purchasing intentions and action on sustainability. How do we close this gap and ramp up awareness further?
I think things like COP are having a huge impact; the amount of awareness in the region has gone up. I think it is happening; the next generations are far more connected and far more informed.
So, I don’t think we need to worry about that extensively. We need to just make sure they’re aware of how we are sustainably sourced, how we are designed, and how we are a responsible company.
Do you have any awareness or knowledge-sharing campaigns related to this?
As I said, I think the whole ecosystem is going to start making it more visible and more in your face.
If you go to Europe, for example, there are five different coloured bins for waste, organics, separate recyclables, paper, and general waste. Now, that automatically drives people and their behaviour – it’s all around you.
So I think customer awareness is coming. We can do what we do best: transform ourselves and become more sustainable, and then make sure customers know that our brands are more sustainable.
Do the brands under your umbrella lead any awareness campaigns?
Yes, absolutely, even in our stores, and we’ve had some good feedback.
We’ve not done enough, but I’m very happy that we’d rather become more sustainable first and then talk more about it.
And that’s the issue: widespread greenwashing, with companies claiming they’re doing more than they are. We’re slowly seeing a crackdown on that globally. There’s a need to turn pledges into action. So you’re waiting until you have something more solid before conveying the message?
We already have a lot more. To be honest, when we started putting our entire story together at the enterprise level, we found we were far ahead of our peers, and we’re doing a lot of things, which are the hardest.
For example, the product is the most difficult thing to transform, but because we orchestrate the product, we own the brands, and we’ve had our leaders who have been more conscientious than perhaps the average guy is, that’s really let them take steps before this thing became in your face.
So I think we are very fortunate that we’ve already started the journey. And now, we can communicate with confidence and say what the truth really is about our products and brands.
And what are your projections, both for the industry and for more initiatives like this?
I think this is a massive transformation of the planet, and human beings are extremely innovative. Once the awareness sets in, there’s nothing stopping us.
So, here I quote David Attenborough in ‘A Life on Our Planet’ – he said humans didn’t set out to destroy the planet, they were just unaware.
Open any social media, and look around, it seems to be happening.
I hope it happens faster. There are some naysayers and those who don’t believe in it. But that will always be the case.
As long as the majority start moving, this is unstoppable. Yes, it’s slow, but I’m yet to find a person who says we shouldn’t do the right thing, or we shouldn’t become more sustainable.
There’s a necessity to ramp up the prioritisation of the planet over profit.
I think it can coexist. Capitalism has driven so much innovation and driven the world to where we are. We just need to awaken to the impact and fix that, and it can happen.
So, I think they are not two things that need to be separate, they are actually intertwined.