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Textile waste: Why good intentions are not enough

Having spent more than 30 years in executive positions in the fashion and retail sector, I was a seemingly very settled retailer, quite happy with my life until an awareness of the issue of textile waste kicked in, and then there was no going back.

Throughout my career I was lucky to have great customers, travel to exciting places and work with incredibly talented people to produce and sell thousands of units of clothing of a broad range of styles to make people look and feel wonderful about themselves.

Yet, as I got older I started to question the sustainability and logic of our industry, and there was a voice growing louder inside of me wondering if I was doing the right thing.

I was participating in a sector that promotes the designing, buying and selling of garments we know will rapidly be marked down, quickly disposed of and ultimately become landfill. Once I understood that, I knew there needed to be change and innovation.

Fast fashion in numbers

The retail sector is now in a cycle where it is trying to compete with the growth and shift to online shopping and the growth of fast fashion players flooding the market with clothing, which is both low in quality and price.

As I worked with a number of retail charity organisations, I grew more aware of the ever-increasing levels of donations of fast fashion items, which they couldn’t sell because of the sheer volume and poorer quality.

Some research revealed:

  • Australians on average buy 27kg of textiles (clothing, etc) annually.
  • We waste on average 23kg of textiles per year per person, second only to the US.
  • Australians wear a garment an average of six times before disposing of it – either by putting it in the rubbish or donating it to charity stores.
  • Australian charity stores receive 22,000kg of donations daily.
  • Charities are generally only able to sell 15-20 per cent of donated clothing.
  • Australia exported 94,000 tonnes of textile waste in 2016-17 and this is growing annually.

I became more engaged and involved in the “circular economy” debate and had the pleasure of meeting many intelligent and well-intentioned people and organisations looking to be a part of the circular economy, a movement to increase the reuse and recycling of raw materials, including textiles, rather than depositing them in landfill.

The challenge facing the retail sector is twofold. Firstly, it needs to continue to engage with a much broader audience than itself and ensure it appeals to all consumers in a practical and meaningful way. Secondly, it needs to present business models which drive real change, supporting the development of the circular economy.

Simply talking about change will not drive it, actions are needed and scale solutions are required.

The macro picture

The recent policy decision by China to no longer accept contaminated waste from Australia has caused an upheaval in the publicly visible areas of waste collection and management, as their traditional market is now effectively shut.

This has caused significant issues at a state level regarding the collection and storage of plastic, glass, and cardboard and significant financial subsidies to help with the recycling of this waste.

Textile waste still has not hit the radar of many governments, even the quality of data of textile waste collected or sent to landfill is not consistently measured by government bodies making policy development and implementation difficult when the scale of problem is not even visible.

The public perception of textile waste is also complicated by our relationship with our clothing. We know plastic does harm if in the ocean, so we recycle plastic bottles without thinking, but we dispose of our textile waste by donating it ‘guilt-free’ to charity stores.

Clothing, just as much as plastic bottles, needs to be reused or recycled into fibres, as charitable donations merely delay landfill, they do not stop it.

There is now technology available in Australia, allowing textiles to be recycled into fibres. For this to happen at scale, we need to see government initially support this process and there to be increased public and consumer awareness of the need to do so. Then there will be real change.

Author: Adrian Jones has more than 30 years in executive positions with companies such as Myer, Next, Marks & Spencers, WH & Smith, and APG and Co, an Australian retail business that owns and operates Sportscraft, Saba and JAG brands, to name a few. Adrian is now a co-founder of BlockTexx.

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