Textile waste in the spotlight

textile waste

It’s time to shift the paradigm and create a fashion industry where economic growth is decoupled from resource use, according to the Australian Fashion Council (AFC).

The AFC, leading the development of the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme (NCPSS), has set a bold target of achieving clothing circularity by 2030.

Claire Kneller, Sustainable Business Advocate and WRAP Asia Pacific Managing Director, admits it’s an ambitious target, but says it’s one that must be set. 

Speaking during a virtual town hall recently, where the NCPSS released its plan for circularity, Claire said it’s time to rethink what successful looks like.

“We need to engage the entire industry from clothing brands to retailers and consumers to play a part in reducing the environmental impacts of clothing, and to consume in a future fit manner,” she said.

Australians bought 383,000 tonnes of new clothing in 2018-19 – about 56 items per person. Of that, only 210,000 tonnes of clothing are donated or re-used annually, and very little recycled sourced fibre is used in clothing fabric production.

According to a report in October 2022 by Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI), global apparel consumption is estimated to reach 102 million tonnes, an increase by 63 per cent from 2015. 

The current model of textile production and consumption, such as fast fashion, is putting unsustainable pressure on planetary health, contributing to water shortages and pollution, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and climate change.

Professor Rob Raven, Deputy Director (Research) of MSDI, and an expert on sustainability transitions, says fashion and textile industries need to become more sustainable.

“This is a hard nut to crack due to international value chains and intimate connections to individual expression and lifestyle,” Rob says. “But we can no longer afford to ignore the social and environmental impacts and need to find more comprehensive and inclusive solutions.”

textile waste
Julie Boulton, Sustainable textile expert and report co-author.

Report co-authors and sustainable textile experts, Julie Boulton and Aleasha McCallion, both agree that government support is one of the things needed to avert the current trajectory and help build a system that can drive industry efforts towards sustainable change at speed and scale.

“We have a massive production and consumption problem, which ends up creating a massive waste problem,” Julie says. “We need everyone in the supply chain thinking differently about all items of clothing.

“Shifting the entire fashion and textile ecosystem will require work across multiple fronts. It will also need a co-ordinated effort involving government, industry (in all its forms), researchers and citizens to implement a transition to a sustainable, future-focused industry.”

Danielle Kent, Director for the AFC, agrees collaboration is a key to drive change.

She says while there are successful initiatives being introduced by brands and individuals within the industry, grass roots action can only go so far. A national framework will amplify efforts.

Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia is among a growing number of brands using recycled materials in its clothing, including cashmere, nylon from fishing nets, polyester, and wool.

In Australia, Myer has engaged Textile Recyclers Australia to collect textile waste, such as off-cuts and samples, from merchandising teams at its head office. The materials are upcycled into furniture filler, diverting them from landfill.

And on its website, fashion chain Zara states that more than 50 per cent of its collection is now made according to its Join Life requirements, a traceable system for garments using processes and raw materials that have a lesser impact on the environment.

“Individually, brands and retailers are actively involved in this space, but you need a system in place, you need pathways, recycling and remanufacturing infrastructure,” Danielle says.

“It’s not just all about the stewards. When you look at the whole circle of the supply chain, everyone needs to play their part for it to work.

“We’ve found everyone is keen to be involved, but the movement has hit its natural limit where there’s no systemic  approach.”

textile waste
Danielle Kent, Director for the Australian Fashion Council.

In a bid to provide that systemic approach, clothing waste was put on the Minister’s Product Stewardship Priority list in October 2022 and the government is funding the NCPSS.

The scheme is being led by the AFC with a consortium that includes Charitable Recycling Australia, Sustainable Resource Use, Queensland University of Technology and WRAP, along with collaborators from the Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence, Australian Retailers Association, Australian Council of Recycling, National Retail Association, Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association.

Claire says the consortium combined learnings from other product stewardship schemes, both nationally and overseas, to create a best practice scheme for the unique Australian context.

She’s confident the scheme is a world-leader for making clothing circularity a reality. 

“It’s about systemic change,” she says. “Thinking about the products, right from the beginning of their life, as conceptualised, to how are they designed, how are they brought to market and how are we extending their life for as long as possible and responsibly disposing of them at end-of-life? Whole system change needs to happen, that’s why we have such a broad group of stakeholders. It’s not just about clothing businesses.

“We’re addressing the challenges that nobody can do on their own.”

The scheme is modelled off four key pillars – design for circularity, circular business models, closing the material loop and citizen behaviour change.

Claire says industry needs to introduce circularity at the beginning of the process to ensure clothes are designed for the best possible outcomes. That includes looking at what fabrics, fastening and accessories are used, to where products are sourced.

“This is not one-size-fits-all,” she says. “It’s about finding solutions that speak to lots of types of businesses within the sector.”

Circular business models and how clothing is brought to market will also play a role. Industry should not only be looking at clothing reuse but other business models such as clothing rental, subscriptions or made-to-order. 

Closing the material loop takes in collection and sorting end-of-life clothing to be reused into high value recycling, either closed loop to become other clothes, or open loop, providing feedstock for other high value uses.

Underpinning all of those is citizen behaviour and changing the way people behave around clothing. 

Claire says the use of the word citizen, rather than consumer, is important.

“We want to move away from the idea that we’re just here to consume clothing. We need to have better citizenship,” she says. 

textile waste
Closing the material loop is one of four key pillars of the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme.

“How do we buy better, take care of our clothes, use them longer and what do we do better with them at their end of life?”

Revenue for the scheme will be raised through a four-cent contribution on each item of new clothing placed on the market. 

Claire says contributions are calculated on what funds will be required to deliver the scheme’s objectives.

While many businesses consulted during the design process preferred a government-regulated scheme to prevent free riders, Claire says the scheme will start on a voluntary basis.

“Regulation is a complicated beast, and the industry doesn’t have time to wait for any potential new regulations to come into place,” she says. “We’re recommending that we go ahead. If in the future there’s a compelling case to shift it to regulatory then that process can happen, but we can’t wait for that to be done.”

Key to the NCPSS plan is the recruitment of foundation members during 2023 that will fund the transition phase and help shape the scheme and its establishment.

Leila Naja Hibri, Australian Fashion Council Chief Executive Officer, called on Australia’s major fashion and clothing players to commit to change.

“Australia’s top 30 clothing brands and retailers bring in at least 60 per cent of the 1.5 billion units of clothing that are imported into our market each year,” Leila says.

“By becoming foundation members, these brands have the opportunity to transform the way Australia makes, consumes and recycles clothing.

“Together we can do what no brand or retailer can do on their own. Together we can start our industry’s journey toward a circular economy that eliminates clothing waste by 2030 and net zero by 2050.” 

 For more information, visit: www.ausfashioncouncil.com


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