Fashion industry airs dirty laundry with 'Seamless' scheme for circular economy

Fashion industry airs dirty laundry with 'Seamless' scheme for circular economy

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek (left) with designer Bianca Spender (middle) and Australian Fashion Council CEO Leila Naja Hibri (right).

A handful of Australia’s largest retailers – BIG W, David Jones, The Iconic, R.M. Williams, Lorna Jane and Rip Curl – are the first to sign a landmark fashion industry deal to address the 200,000 tonnes of wasted clothing that ends up in landfill each year in Australia.

The Australian Fashion Council approached 30 of the nation’s top clothing producers, which collectively make up more than 60 per cent of Australia’s clothing output, to join the national clothing product stewardship scheme and roadmap to clothing circularity, called Seamless.

Each retailer that signs up to the scheme is asked to pay a levy of 4 cents per garment produced and fund $100,000 for the first year while the scheme is established. The NSW Environment Protection Authority is also contributing $100,000 to the transition phase.

A funding pool of $36 million could be raised each year to help transform the industry if 60 per cent of the market by volume supports the scheme, the AFC projects.

Seamless aims to drive the fashion industry towards clothing circularity by 2030. If industry signs up to the scheme, the activities driven by Seamless, stakeholders and citizens are projected to divert 60 per cent of end-of-life clothing from landfill by 2027.

“Australians are buying more clothes than ever. We’re wearing those clothes for less time than we used to, and we’re sending more clothing to landfill than we ever have, which means that clothing is now a significant part of Australia’s waste problem,” Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said in a speech on Wednesday.

“The average Australian sends almost ten kilograms of clothing waste to landfill every year. When you multiply that by 25 million, you’ve got a significant problem on your hands.”

The changing fate of end of life clothing.

Regulation on the cards

Plibersek put out a clear message to Australian clothing retailers that the voluntary scheme could be mandated if not taken up by more businesses during the 12-month transition phase.

“Clothing has been sitting on the priority list for regulation for the last couple of years. That means that government has said to this industry that we’re giving you a chance to get your house in order,” Plibersek said.

“If companies choose to pull out, or free ride on the work of others, then I have no problem stepping in and regulating directly. The alternative to this program isn’t a weaker scheme with a lower levy – it’s government regulation.

“If the voluntary scheme is not viable – if we don’t believe it’s sufficient, or if it’s not raising enough money to cover its costs – then I will regulate.”

‘Major milestone’

Gayle Burchell, chief commercial and sustainability officer of online fashion retailer The Iconic, tells Business News Australia the scheme is a “major milestone for the entire Australian fashion and retail industry”, but notes it requires the “full force” of the industry to make a change. 

“We’re incredibly proud to be joining forces with the other founding members to work alongside the Australian Government to help tackle this industry challenge, and we hope to make genuine and lasting change that will inspire a global shift,” Burchell says.

“We cannot act alone in our journey towards sustainability. It requires the full force of the combined skills, knowledge and agendas that each of the founding members and the Australian Government bring to the table.”

In “an important first step” to address the dire situation in the fashion cycle, Minister Plibersek says the scheme is “about changing course”.

“It’s about choosing materials that can be recycled more effectively. It’s about encouraging businesses that repair, remodel and remanufacture their clothing. It’s about educating people so they can shop more sustainably.”

She congratulated the Australian Fashion Council and its CEO Leila Naja Hibri for their work pulling the scheme together, which was 18 months in the making. “I also want to congratulate the foundation members for leading the way.

“We’ve got some of the biggest names in Australian fashion here. From Hugh Jackman’s leather boots to Australia’s favourite yoga pants. Each of these companies is here, by choice, showing us their environmental credentials.

“They’re walking the walk, proving their commitment to a more sustainable industry. This is the right thing to do, but it’s also smart business,” Plibersek said.

AFC CEO Leila Naja Hibri.
AFC CEO Leila Naja Hibri.


Fashion’s big issue

Australian Fashion Council CEO Leila Naja Hibri says Seamless is the fashion industry’s response to its clothing waste problem that will change the way Australians make, consume and recycle their clothes.

“Some of our industry’s most pioneering and progressive brands and retailers are uniting to do what no single business, organisation or even government can do alone. Seamless will guide the transition from the current unsustainable linear model of take, make and dispose, to a circular economy of reduce, reuse and recycle.”

She explains that Australians need to start transitioning to “the wardrobe of the future, where clothes are acquired differently, loved for longer and recirculated with care”. 

“This systematic and seismic transformation will require courage, creativity and most importantly, collaboration. We need to act now. Our industry, and most importantly our planet, depends on it.”

Danielle Kent, program director for Seamless, says the scheme is about addressing the root-cause of the problems in the clothing cycle while working with brands to be more accountable for the products they’re putting out in the market.

Rather than focusing on downcycling, recycling and clothing collection, she says real change will happen when products are designed more efficiently to produce less waste in the first place and keeping clothing at its highest value for as long as possible.

“It’s about looking at the way we design clothes right from the very start to be more durable, more recyclable, and looking at circular business models. It’s also about introducing and starting to build a market for textile fibre-to-fibre recycling, which at the moment in Australia is non-existent,” she tells Business News Australia.

Kent says it’s necessary to help Australians consume less and make better buying decisions to shop for clothes that are more durable and made of good fibres that can be recycled.

“It’s not just about the point of purchase, it’s about how you treat your clothes, how you make them last longer, share them, swap them, donate better, wash and wear, getting longevity and loving the pieces that you have.”

The wardrobe of the future.

‘We needed regulation yesterday’

Zoltan Csaki, co-founder of custom made-to-order circular clothing brand Citizen Wolf, tells Business News Australia the 4-cent levy is a very minimal price to pay to generate the funds required to kickstart a much-needed recycling model in Australia. 

“I applaud what they’re doing at the AFC and I fundamentally believe it’s a good idea,” he says. “But we can’t solve climate change without actually changing the business model that’s at the heart of the fashion industry.”

The sustainable clothing co-founder believes that relying on retailers to self-regulate won’t work and encourages the government to take action. “We needed regulation yesterday,” he says. “I think she [Plibersek] should have already regulated, because this problem is out of control and it compounds every year.

“The biggest and most profitable brands in the world are not going to disrupt themselves to change the way they do business to save the planet. The system and the model has to change.

“In order to change the system we need to create this coalition of brands that are willing to change the way that they do business,” Csaki says.

Landfill piling up

Due to overproduction of clothing in the fast fashion industry, one in every three pieces of clothing made every year goes into landfill without getting into the hands of the consumer.

“Thirty per cent of the supply of all the clothing annually goes straight to landfill unsold. Every year that we delay we’re talking about something enormous – 30 billion garments worldwide that are made,” Csaki says.

“The reality often doesn’t match the projections so the result is that brands are left with stock they can’t move. The reality is that stock ends up in landfill eventually.

“All of those input costs and all of the dubious ethical practices that go on in the fashion supply chain offshore only to dig a hole in and basically put it back in the ground, basically it’s insane.”

On a global scale, 92 million tonnes of clothing end up in landfill, and only 20 per cent of textiles are collected for reuse or recycling globally, latest statistics reveal. 

“The industry over the last couple of decades has trained the customer into devaluing clothing. In a world where people think it’s OK to buy it once, wear it and throw it out, that’s an indictment on the industry’s decision to pursue low cost and maximise profit.”

Supporting ethical business practices

The Citizen Wolf business model makes returns that are four times lower than the average e-commerce Australian business due to its ethical practices, while seeing three-and-a-half times better repeat purchase rates from customers.

The company offers made-to-measure and tailored clothing made from natural fibres, where excess cut-offs are spun into new yarn to knit new fabrics, and its customers are offered a cost-neutral takeback scheme where old clothes can be turned into new Citizen Wolf clothing.

“We exist to prove that there is a different way of making clothes at scale based around made-to-order and made-to-measure. There’s a real fundamental behaviour change we’ve identified in terms of tailoring and made-to-measure,” Csaki says.

“We made that decision to not ever produce something with plastic in it because we think that’s fundamentally the most sustainable and the best solution, and that allows us to have a completely circular model today.

“Natural fibre is relatively easy to recycle, but the problem is that most clothing is not made of natural fibres, with something like 60 per cent of every piece of clothing made containing acrylic and petroleum or blended cotton polyester. Those blended fibres present the true challenge at the recycling level.”

Renewable ocean plastic company ULUU co-founder and co-CEO Julia Reisser tells Business News Australia that the plastic problem is “one of the biggest crises we face as humanity” and one we must tackle now as a collective. 

ULUU is working on creating natural polymers that have the potential to permanently replace many of the plastics used in clothing and accessories today. “Creating a fibre made to replace plastic in textiles and clothing is closer to reality, and we’re actively working with our R&D partners at Deakin University to make a variety of ULUU pellets for fibre production,” Reisser says.

“Seeing over 30 major fashion brands unite to tackle Australia’s clothing waste crisis is a great step forward in our journey to a post-plastic future,” Reisser adds.

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