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ESG Outlook: Mukul Agrawal of Aditya Birla on Collaboration & Consumer Action

The Rivet 50 is calling for nominations for leaders in the denim industry in 5 categories: design, influencer, leadership, sustainability and supply chain. Nominations close on May 23.

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Mukul Agrawal, chief sustainability officer of nature-based cellulosic fiber company Birla Cellulose, flagship company of the Aditya Birla Group, explains why companies need to work together toward sustainability instead of racing ahead for a win.

Name: Mukul Agrawal

Title: Chief Sustainability Officer

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last five years?

Birla Cellulose has a vision to be the global leader of sustainable business practices in the man-made cellulosic fiber (MMCF) industry. Our biggest achievement in the last five years is that despite challenges, we have been continually improving our performance thus enabling us to stay true to our vision.

Mukul Agrawal Aditya Birla

Mukul Agrawal, chief sustainability officer of nature-based cellulosic fiber company Birla Cellulose/Aditya Birla Group.

Among the most rewarding are our sustainability forestry initiatives and alternate feed stock innovations. Wood is the basic raw material for the MMCF industry and it is vital that forests are managed sustainably. We are the first MMCF producer to achieve 100 percent certified sources, and we’ve been consistently ranked globally No. 1 in sustainable forestry by the Canada-based NGO Canopy.

In our directly managed forests, we plant almost three times the trees that we harvest, resulting in net-positive forest growth. The carbon sequestered in this net-positive growth is more than the entire scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions of all our 12 manufacturing plants, making us the only carbon-neutral MMCF producer globally. We are very proud of our work on forest conservation and next generation alternate feedstock.

Our circular product, Liva Reviva, made with 20 percent recycled cotton waste, recently won the UN Global Compact Network India award for supply chain innovation. In addition, our work on water conservation helped us establish a new global benchmark for lowest water intensity in viscose production.

What is your personal philosophy on clothes shopping as it pertains to sustainability? 

Having lived most of my life in hot and humid places—India, Egypt and Indonesia—the best clothes are those with good breathability and moisture control like modal, cotton and viscose. I prefer not to wear synthetics as they don’t suit the skin, plus I look for environmentally conscious brands and fabric, so I tend to avoid non-biodegradable fabric.

Sustainability is always at the back of the mind even before I enter a shop. This is even clearer for me as I work very closely with all the leading global brands and know what efforts they are making to improve their supply chains. Selections that display sustainability—attributes such as recycled, made with low water or low GHG etc.—always catch my attention.

What is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

That only brands can make fashion sustainable. Consumers have a larger role to play. While a fashion industry expert can quantify the environmental impact of a particular piece of clothing, it is not easy for the common man to do this without deep analysis, plus, greenwashing is making consumers believe in half truths.

A few changes in personal habits can make a big difference in our environmental impacts. I prescribe three very simple ways that together we can all make a big positive impact on the industry:

  1. Buy good quality clothes that will last long. Always check for strength of fabric, good brand, robust construction and colors that will not fade easily.
  2. Buy clothes made from biodegradable material. This will ensure that you create minimal impact at the end of life.
  3. Buy clothes only when you need them, and after that, donate to someone who will wear it. At every festival, my wife will distribute our used clothing to the poor, and we pass on good party dresses within our family and to younger kids.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

Covid has been hard on India. The biggest learning is that in difficult times, the human side becomes more prominent. During the crisis, we realized the importance of being part of the society. It was a humbling experience how people helped each other when hospitals were full, and oxygen and medicines were difficult to arrange. Our company, the Aditya Birla Group, donated more than $70 million toward Covid relief measures, with a large amount of funds to help employees, contractors, nearby community and migrant labor. Crisis management teams on the business continuity planning side ensured that customers and suppliers received smooth transactions.

What is Birla Cellulose’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

To attempt a zero liquid discharge technology in the viscose manufacturing process. While Birla Cellulose is applying the European norms (EU BAT) to all its sites, wherever they are located, India’s Nagda site would be first site to achieve zero liquid discharge in the viscose industry. The plan is to commission this by September 2021, and it would be another milestone in our leadership journey in the MMCF industry.

What is the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity to securing meaningful change?

The industry needs collaboration. Progressive manufacturers and brands move ahead on sustainability in a race to see who is more ambitious, but transformational changes at scale are much more achievable when everyone works together. Companies need to share ideas, technology and best practices, and pull up those who are left behind.

Brands must support suppliers’ capital expenditures and operating expenses for more sustainable technologies, and this will require the industry to move a little away from the “lowest cost” supplier selection process.

Birla Cellulose’s approach is to learn from everyone and help everyone learn from us. We work with our suppliers and also support innovators through platforms like Fashion for Good. Valuable partnership is one of the core pillars of sustainability strategy.

What are you optimistic about?

I believe that the way that industry is trying to move forward will have great results in the near term.

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