Priyanka Khanna’s tryst with sustainability began during her MBA at Oxford University. After a few years of working around multiple business disciplines, she moved back to the UK with the intention of working in supporting a circular economy. Once there, she was determined to learn about the circular economy and find a way to contribute. Fast forward to today, Priyanka leads International Expansion for Fashion for Good (FFG), a platform for driving sustainability in the fashion industry through the means of innovation. FFG envisions a world in which fashion is a force for good, promoting people, the planet, and the economy. By bringing together manufacturers, brands, and innovators in the region, she is engaging the Asian textile ecosystem to drive the circular transition of the industry.
A specialist in opening new markets and building new business cases for organisations focused on economic, social and environmental sustainability, Priyanka’s expansive work experience in sustainability span across the globe. Priyanka has worked with ayzh, a US-based company that operates in 20 countries with a vision of improving women’s health worldwide. There, amongst other things, she assisted in launching chemical-free, biodegradable products. She was also consulting Chile-based Algramo, an award-winning company eliminating plastic packaging. Naturally, her powerhouse portfolio spans across entrepreneurship, fundraising, consulting and strategy. She currently supports the fashion industry players become more sustainable.
In her virtual interview with Ayushi Shah, Priyanka talks about the current challenges in fashion Industry and the role of innovation in solving it, gives business advice to entrepreneurs interested in sustainability and shares some tips on building a more sustainable wardrobe.
Ayushi Shah (AS): Could you take us through some of the key challenges in the fashion space?
Priyanka Khanna (PK): The fashion industry makes a sizable contribution to the emission and pollutants that drive climate change. Waste is one of the key problems, fashion waste is a mix of all types of materials natural and synthetics. Fossil fuel-based materials like polyester don’t biodegrade for thousands of years. In markets like India, people don’t throw away as much. However, in the rest of the world, the apparel waste that makes its way either to the landfill or is thrown into the oceans is huge. We know now that microplastics have now been found in the oceans, some of it probably contributed by the apparel waste.
Developing markets like South and South East Asia are manufacturing hubs primarily because of price advantage. Garments produced here gets transported to demand areas. Then, this makes the overall logistics footprint of the industry very high. On the other hand, most manufacturing processes are exceptionally water intensive, which is I believe a much bigger problem. Let’s take cotton, which we consider sustainable natural and probably the better material when compared with petro-chemical alternatives however each kilo of cotton can use up to 25,000 litres of water in its cultivation through to its processing. In organic processes now, that water usage is less, but still overall a really large amount of water being used for a single cotton t-shirt. Which is very scary for the environment right now because the world doesn’t have that much fresh water left. Plus, the chemicals from the processes are released in the water, for which the treatments are still not perfected in the world.
AS: Plus, more issues arise once the product is ready for consumers…
PK: So if I’m buying a formal shirt, it would typically have multiple items of plastic used in its packaging, such as hooks that are keeping stuff together or a hanger which is also mostly plastic. Additional packing is used to make sure it reaches in really good condition to the stores. Not being able to predict user demand is another challenge; any brand or anyone producing clothes will have deadstock, a surplus of items which they haven’t managed to sell, for which they will need to find a solution. Then, there are consumers using things for a short time that later go into the landfill. These are just some of the challenges touched upon very briefly. If you go granular into each of these, they’re actually sub-industries in themselves like dyeing and finishing with different problems like chemicals and energy usage.
AS: So what is the role of Fashion For Good in this crisis?
AS: What are the key things on the company’s radar for 2021?
PK: On the convener of change side, the highlight for 2021 is that we’ve recently launched GROW talent. A programme where we are looking for young creatives who will get the chance to work with an internationally known jury of industry experts and will experiment with innovative biomaterials – turning this into an exhibit. The Museum will open GROW an expo around biomaterials in April and then in October GROW 2.0 opens, which showcases the results of the GROW talent project.
On the innovation platform side, we are developing some very exciting projects to address some key challenges for the industry. We are also excited about two new batches of innovators that we will be supporting this year. One batch in our regional and one in our global programmes. From the regional programme which I drive, we are starting to explore the South East Asia market.
AS: Could you take us through some of your initiatives to facilitate changes in consumer mindsets (B2C)?
PK: We’ve done something as simple as repair workshops and the response is quite phenomenal because at least for the western market, the repair concept is a relatively expensive thing. So, by teaching them these skills, we’re pushing them to say, here’s how you can extend the life cycle of your clothes.
We’ve also created an impact in the one year we have been in South Asia in places like Sri Lanka and India. In India, whether it’s being a part of the Lakme Fashion Week on the sustainability day and talking through circular business model, from how consumers can rent, how they can repair, look at secondhand sale, and the secondhand sale increasing, to actually identifying companies that do recommerce and secondhand sales and helping support them.
We’re seeing a lot of engagement with the customers on our digital channels. There’s a growing number of consumers that care about the planet and want to consume consciously, that are starting to question the brands they buy from. We are looking at investment coming into recommerce and rental companies and users are increasing every month. And that is, I think, a better indicator of consumers changing than anything else.
AS: You lead the South Asia Innovation Programme. What has the experience and the impact been so far?
PK: We officially launched the programme in January 2020. The goal was to tie in more supply chain actors because we realised that while we could bring in a lot of technologies, brands don’t own their own supply chain. So we also needed to bring in the supply chain players as key stakeholders. So that was the idea of building the South Asia programme.
The other part of it was that we knew that a lot of technological innovation happens in Asia, particularly countries like India and China. But the global programme wasn’t very lucrative for them because logistically it was harder, especially in terms of affordability. So, this programme was built to actually capture localised technologies in Asia, and also to tie in the supply chain partners.
A year into the programme, we brought on board Birla and Welspun, two of the largest players in Asia for man-made cellulosics and home textile respectively. And we have brought on board about 18 technologies mostly local and Interestingly, a lot are out of universities in India. And now in 2021, we are focusing on bringing another 10-12 innovators into the new cohort to support and accelerate their growth. Within a year we have seen a lot of piloting activity from our region, in some cases some advanced technologies are also being implemented as we speak. We are now excited to support more technologies from the Asia region in the upcoming batch.
AS: What is the role of sustainable and fashion entrepreneurship in helping solve all of these issues?
PK: I think the role of all fashion innovators /entrepreneurs is to work with the industry as a whole and aim to achieve scale.
AS: How does your professional journey impact your personal choices?
PK: I know so many more alternatives now. So, if it’s a pair of jeans, I could go to a secondhand shop and buy it, I could rent it online, I could swap it, all of these consumer options come are available. And sometimes you still go and buy a new thing, because it’s still so much easier and accessible, but cherish it and keep it for a longer period. But at least you are a little more aware to say here are the options available. And now in most cases, I do choose better options.
AS: What can do in a day-to-day life to have a more sustainable wardrobe?
PK: It’s always good to look at the wardrobe as an asset. Most of the time, I think we just dump things in our wardrobe, and we don’t even know what’s in our wardrobes and a lot of clothing goes unworn or unused. If you keep your clothes well, then why not rent them out? Why not swap them? There are swapping platforms across the world Rental platforms where individuals can rent are also gaining popularity, you can also sell something second hand! And that is way your wardrobe is a source of income. Leverage that as young consumers who have access to technology.
AS: What can brands do to reduce hyper consumption of goods?
PK: Fast fashion is starting to become a taboo word, even in the brands’ dictionary. We’re starting to see a change happening in brand behavior. People are talking about seasonless collections in Fashion Weeks which should be an interesting pivot. There thoughts making higher quality and long-lasting products versus fast fashion. Because the latter is worn for such a short duration and is so cheap, you don’t want the best of the materials in it.
If products are made with better quality and long-lasting materials, they can potentially be bought back, or exchanged multiple number of times. However right now, there are not enough solutions technology-wise to say what happens to these materials. Sometimes when brands take the materials back, it still goes to the global south or the landfill. So newer technologies are being explored to solve this– can we take down the buttons and the threads, which is a completely manual process right now, and recycle them to produce new material? We are at a very early stage in these technology conversations, but the technologies are starting to emerge.
Most brands, especially in the west, care about their footprint. They’re mapping it in their sustainability reporting, they have aggressive targets to be carbon neutral. We are already starting to see steps taken in this process.
AS: Do you think sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand?
PK: Absolutely! Especially industries like ours mostly look at profitability. And if the model starts changing a little, you see that sustainability can potentially increase profitability in the longer run. A good example of that is a secondhand platform. If brands are to adopt taking back and reselling of their products, imagine the difference! Some of our partners are already exploring these business models. Say, if I am a bag company – that one bag gives me the first revenue when I sell it to you as a first product. But then I buy it back from you, let’s say for 25% of the value, but I sell it to someone for 50% of the original value. So, I still have the extra 25% margin. And then these can be sold multiple times This means that one product can give me six or seven times revenue, maybe lesser revenue each time, but that opportunity is available. And this is just one example, there’s many more areas where sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand.
AS: What advice would give to budding entrepreneurs in sustainability?
PK: It is important to learn about the environmental impact of their technology. There are free as well as paid tools for doing this. Ask questions like, what does this actually mean for the whole supply chain? That would be my first advice.
Understanding and testing the scalability of your business is also very important. Sometimes you’re working with materials or technology that cannot be grown beyond either a certain region or a certain quantity. In the long run, that’s not great for the industry and it’s restrictive. So, I think that lens is definitely important.
Other than that, I think it’s important to look at how you plug into the overall industry. A lot of times I see that smaller brands or brands working with new materials, as well as artistic innovators want to independently build brands on their own. While I think that is also fantastic, if you have a novel technology that can be scalable, I think there is no harm in looking at how it can be adopted by the whole industry.
And just some advice for any entrepreneur out there, just stick to what you know and believe in yourself and your technology. That is important because you get so much advice throughout. Don’t pivot, don’t do too many things at a time and focus.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
All images in the article are provided by Fashion For Good. Individual images have been credited and the feature image credit goes to Presstigieux. You can check out the Fashion For Good website to know more and read our other Spotlight interviews on Eco-Spotlight’s website here.
In our Spotlight interview, we have a wide-ranged, in-depth conversation with a green changemaker. The conversation focuses on them, their eco-friendly organization or project and the philosophy that guides them.
Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.