Clothing obsession causing mayhem at landfills

The global symbol of recycling – the iconic Mobius Loop – was created in 1970 and it’s everywhere worldwide. When we see that symbol, the vast majority of us envision paper, plastic or glass being recycled. But, what about clothing and textiles? The Australian textile industry in 2018 generated close to one million tonnes of waste. That year, it also had the second lowest waste recovery rate in Australia. This resulted in 77 per cent of textiles ending up in landfill. This begs the question, “Why aren’t we putting out our council controlled ‘clothing recycle bins’ every Thursday evening?”

I’ve been involved in the clothing industry most of my life. I love producing a piece of fashion – from concept to store – and feel tremendous pride when I see a one of my customers wearing a piece of my collection and showcase it as a part of who they are. This is what gives me and my brand purpose and meaning.

Australians have become obsessed with new clothing. The Australian fashion industry generates $27.2 billion annually and produced more than 1.6 billion garments in 2021 in a tidal wave the industry calls ‘fast fashion’. The term fast fashion was first heard in the mid 1990s, when brands like Zara were on a mission to take less than 15 days to produce a garment from design to sale. At first it was sexy innovation, and consumers loved it. It was a supply chain, delivery model that was different from the seasonal ranges we were used to producing twice a year. This fast fashion process has been copied by thousands of brands across the globe including those based in Australia. 

Australians purchase annually, on average, 27kgs of new clothing per person, while throwing out 23 kgs each year. This means Australians are disposing of around six tonnes of textiles every 10 minutes. Statistics show that Australia is the second largest consumer of textiles per capita in the world, second only to the United States. 

Recently, two new terms became stitched into the Australian textile industries mainstream ecosystem and will change the way we all operate – sustainability and circular economy. These two terms will define what the textile and clothing industry looks like in the future. 

On the 26th May 2021, Sussan Ley, Minister for the Environment, hosted Australia’s first Commonwealth-led Industry Clothing Textiles Waste Roundtable and Exhibition at Australian Parliament House. Industry leaders discussed the ways business and government could work together to realise and deliver innovate solutions to combat the increasing amount of clothing waste being sent to landfill. 

In November 2021, $1 million was awarded to the Australian Fashion Council through the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund (NPSIF). The scheme will bring together fashion designers, manufacturers, retailers, charities and the recycling sector to help tackle the mountains of clothing and textile waste reaching landfill in this country.

This is the beginning of what will be a positive chain of events, as the clothing industry focuses on reducing textile waste by adapting to a sustainable, circular economy.

Consumers must be encouraged to look for quality and longevity in a garment, wear clothes longer and purchase less. Statistically, only 55 per cent of our wardrobe is worn regularly with 10 per cent worn once or not at all. Collectively, wearing our clothes twice as long can reduce our environmental impact by 44 per cent.

Should brands driving sustainable supply chains and using natural or recycled materials be incentivised? If yes, by who? Textiles made from recycled materials are mainstream today however recycled plastic being made into a fabric suitable to wear has been around since the early 1990s. It’s important consumers support brands using these types of materials as they generally imply those behind the brand focus on a sustainable managed production and supply chain process. 

The government should be supporting upcycle enterprises where garments and fabric are given new life within a circular economy. It’s these enterprises that will defy the industry for the future. Businesses such as BlockTexx, the Circular Centre and Worn Up are game changers and are focused on repurposing fabrics, both natural and synthetic, across the textile industry. Not only are they reducing landfill they are creating a sub industry that will open up Australian employment opportunities and strengthen the local economy. 

Australian made

Today, textile and clothing brands are fortunate because they have a number of countries they can choose to produce their products. With each location there are pros and cons. What is most important for Australian made is that making locally supports local industry, improves quality of specialised textile workers, supports the community and encourages economic growth. 

Australian made is also better for the environment. Let’s face it, clothing does more travel than you and me these days and that’s even before it’s purchased. Producing locally reduces each garments carbon footprint, which overall is better for the environment.  

Brands should encourage C2C resale networks or consumers should donate to charity before throwing away. However, they must be respectable when donating to charity by ensuring the clothing donated is useable. Unusable donations are sent to landfill, which costs charities up to $13 million a year.  

We must remember the environment is a shared responsibility. Our choices and our habits, no matter how small, impact the environment and our planet’s future. There is nothing wrong with selling new clothing or clothing being purchased, but we need to pay special attention to brands with a sustainable purpose and brands choosing sustainable methods when it comes to producing products and focusing on a circular economy 

Australian clothing brands spend billions of dollars on traditional and digital marketing every year encouraging us to buy their products with just a few clicks. However, some of this marketing budget should be set aside to educate the consumer on where the garment comes from, how it was made, what it was made from, and most importantly, what we need to do with the clothing at the end of its life. 

We’re slowly moving into a circular economy. We must choose brands with a sustainable purpose. The ripple effect starts with you.

Simon Webster is a director of tscudo, a company that specialises in making sun protective garments from recycling plastic bottles.