Indian textile makers are trying to survive Covid-19 by launching “anti-virus” fabrics

A new weave.
A new weave.
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
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Textile companies in India are relying on fretful consumers to revive their hobbled businesses

In recent weeks, several firms, including Aditya Birla Group’s Grasim Industries, Mumbai-based textile company Ruby Mills and suitings brand Donear, among others, have launched fabrics that promise to keep clothes virus-free.

On June 19, Grasim Industries launched its “antimicrobial” textile fibre, which it had been developing well before Covid-19 spread in India. “It became more and more clear to us that…perhaps consumers would be looking for this kind of thing now because there is such a pervading fear of catching the disease,” said Rajeev Gopal, chief sales and marketing officer at  Grasim Industries.

“Antimicrobial” fabric is typically used for making bed covers, curtains, and surgical masks used in hospitals as it contains agents that prevent the growth of bacteria and viruses. These fibres typically also contain an additional layer of protection that stops bacteria and viruses from settling on the cloth.

Companies, though, tend to use different techniques to produce such textiles. Grasim, for instance, injects the antimicrobial agent into fibres at the initial stage itself. The agent then becomes an integral part of the textile, Gopal said. This fibre can last up to 50 washes.

Ruby Mills, on the other hand, introduces the antimicrobial agent at a later stage. Its “H+ technology” allows it to incorporate antimicrobial properties on a range of textiles like cotton and polyester when their fibres have already been processed.

“We had been working on such a product since 2016 to prevent the growth of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, so this product is not been an overnight development, but a tweak to our existing research,” said Rishabh Shah, president of Ruby Mills.

Even as the product appears timely, there will be challenges to its success.

Pivot to survive

One of the many challenges facing India’s textile industry, which contributed 2% to the country’s GDP and employed 45 million people in 2019, is that consumers are afraid to step out and buy clothes. “Consumers don’t want to roam around and shop like they used to before Covid-19,” said Avinash Mane, commercial head South Asia business at Austrian fibre company Lenzing, which has tied up with Ruby Mills to introduce an antimicrobial fabric.

Experts, such as Rajat Wahi, partner at Deloitte India, said that the decline in shoppers stepping out has led to a 40% fall in consumption and could cost the textile industry almost Rs1 lakh crore ($13.37 billion) of business this year. “All the inventories of major apparel and textile brands are sitting in the stores,” said Wahi. “These (challenges) will spur innovation.”

For companies, it is a question of sink or swim. “You can survive in this situation only if you make something that is sellable,” said Mane.

But are antimicrobial materials really the solution to revive these businesses?

Many medical professionals concur that it is highly unlikely for the Covid-19 virus to spread through clothes, leaving little room for such products to be useful.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about this virus, and we are learning more about it every day. But this is our current understanding: If you are out for a run in your neighbourhood or making a quick visit to the grocery store, it is highly unlikely that you would contract Covid-19 via your clothes or shoes. We don’t believe shoes or clothing are a significant source of transmission,” Dr Vincent Hsu, MPH, a board-certified internal medicine, infectious diseases, and preventive medicine physician at AdventHealth in the US, told Healthline.

But Deloitte’s Wahi thinks Indian consumers may get lured because “right now everyone’s scared.” Considering the consumer sentiment, if such a fabric is introduced in the market, many might see it as an essential product,” Wahi said. “If these products are genuine and if they are verified by reputed medical organisations, there will an uptick in terms of its usage.”