Based on personal interview with Sanjay Chauhan, Founder & CEO, MuddleArt, and visit to MuddleArt warehouse, Okhla Industrial Estate, New Delhi, dated 1 December 2022.
Photo courtesy: MuddleArt
Our interest in understanding textile waste led us to MuddleArt, a one-of-its-kind enterprise in India that manages pre-consumer textile waste formally and ethically amidst the widespread malpractices of the textile waste management industry. Based in New Delhi, MuddleArt does the uncommon work of channelising pre-consumer textile waste from apparel brands to upcyclers and recyclers (where it gets recycled into yarn, fabric, and then to clothing or other textile products). In the process, MuddleArt returns textile waste to the economy as raw material and creates dignified jobs for marginal workers. MuddleArt, therefore, is a bridge to link stakeholders in the textile waste management sector, thus closing the loop for a circular economy.
At MuddleArt's warehouse in Okhla Industrial Estate, pre-consumer textile waste is collected directly from apparel brands (textile industries), sorted into categories based on material, colour, and other parameters, and sold to upcyclers and recyclers based on their demand. While sounding simple, this model is anything but easy to execute since unethical practices and human exploitation are endemic to the textile waste management industry, and MuddleArt has to face and counter the challenges at every stage of the work.
Issues in textile waste management
To understand the significance of MuddleArt’s work, we must delve into the background of pre-consumer textile waste in India. 'Pre-consumer textile waste' refers to the textile waste generated during the manufacturing of textile products. It includes leftover samples, end-of-fabric rolls, excess inventory, floor cuttings (chindi), defective fabrics/prints, leftover yarns, and defective or rejected finished products. An estimated 25% of textile wastage occurs at the stage of manufacture, which is a massive amount of waste.
Whereas pre-consumer textile waste is easily recoverable and highly usable, some practical and systemic issues prevent its recovery and reuse in quantities that are realistically possible.
1. Outsourced manufacturing, outsourced waste
The big apparel brands owners (of the West) outsource the manufacturing process to other countries, India being one of them. So all the waste from manufacturing, including pre-consumer textile waste, is generated in the outsourced countries. The actual waste generators, the brand owners, wash their hands of the manufacturing waste, encumbering the outsourced countries with it. India produces humongous amounts of pre-consumer textile waste as it is one of the largest manufacturers of textile products.
2. The gap between manufacturers and upcyclers/recyclers
Upcyclers and recyclers in India have a high demand for pre-consumer textile waste. However, the pre-consumer textile waste generated by the manufacturers does not find its way to them because there are no linkages between the two stakeholders. Instead, the waste is landfilled, incinerated, dumped, or burnt in the open. Due to this gap in the supply chain between waste generators (manufacturers) and end users (upcyclers/recyclers), massive quantities of pre-consumer textile waste remain untapped. There could also be numerous job prospects if this waste were recovered and channelised.
3. The gap between brand owners and manufacturers
The (foreign) brand owners would like to see their pre-consumer textile waste diverted to end users so as not to be seen as mismanaging their waste and hence risking their public image. But since the manufacturing of the textile products takes place in outsourced countries, brand owners neither get to know what becomes of the pre-consumer textile waste nor can do much about its mismanagement.
4. Presence of unethical intermediaries between manufacturers and upcyclers/recyclers
The manufacturers discard the pre-consumer textile waste. From their factories, the informal aggregators (referred to as 'traders' by Sanjay Chauhan) collect this waste and get it sorted with the help of hired workers. The sorted waste then gets sold to upcyclers and recyclers. The aggregators (traders) are known to engage in several unethical practices, which include paying unduly low wages to workers, having them work in appalling conditions (on the streets), subjecting them to other types of exploitation, and engaging minors in sorting.
A glimpse of informal aggregators (traders) making workers sort the pre-consumer textile waste on the streets by hiring them at unduly low wages, Okhla Industrial Estate, New Delhi.
5. Lack of availability of quality raw material for upcyclers/recyclers
Whereas upcyclers and recyclers require only good quality raw materials, the pre-consumer textile waste sold to them by the informal aggregators (traders) is low value, that is, improperly sorted. Such an impediment in procuring quality raw materials hampers the work of upcyclers /recyclers and gives the impression that textile upcycling or recycling is quite complicated and unprofitable.
Innovation and transformation at MuddleArt
Against these problems and ills of the textile waste management industry, MuddleArt is an entrepreneurship for bridging the gap in the supply chain between manufacturers and upcyclers/recyclers, cutting the unethical intermediaries out.
Their process starts with the procurement of pre-consumer textile waste directly from manufacturers; sorting the waste by employing marginal workers, who are provided with decent wages and working conditions; while sorting, the focus is on obtaining quality raw materials for the end users (upcyclers/recyclers); selling the sorted waste (quality raw material) to upcyclers and recyclers according to their specific demands in terms of quality and quantity.
Devoting years to the groundwork, MuddleArt has an extensive network of upcyclers and recyclers so that there is a buyer for every type of pre-consumer textile waste with them.
Workers sorting pre-consumer textile waste at MuddleArt warehouse. In stark contrast to informal aggregators (traders), MuddleArt provides dignified wages and working conditions to the workers.
MuddleArt's work aims to end unethical practices in textile waste management and transform it into a formal, lucrative, and green sector. MuddleArt strives to create more employment opportunities for marginal workers and provide them with proper wages which will draw them away from the exploitative hands of the informal aggregators (traders).