Brisbane-based RAIS Industries may be a socially conscious company in an increasingly crowded space, but after a decade spent improving the circular economy for fashion waste, co-founders Razia Ansari and Illiaz Mohammed have struck a chord for profitable sustainability in the sector.
RAIS Industries processes about 50 tonnes of clothing a month from some of Australia’s biggest charities at its facility at Seventeen Mile Rocks in Brisbane’s west with the business estimating it has contributed almost $2.5 million to charities through its programs.
It’s a far cry from when the husband-and-wife team set out in 2013 to divert wearable clothing from landfill, initially chasing items left over from garage sales around the city.
“By the end of a Saturday or Sunday, our car boot and back seats and my lap in the Hyundai sedan would be full of bags of clothes,” Ansari says.
“Our backyard porch and the house would be packed with bags of clothes as we didn’t have a warehouse back then.”
Since those early days when the business plan didn’t seem so straightforward, RAIS Industries has helped divert about half a billion kilograms of textile waste from landfill.
“We believe that clothing has so many more lives before it reaches end of life, and our idea was to give it back to the community by taking clothes from places where they were are not needed to places where they were,” Ansari says. “We have given many of these clothes a second, third and fourth life.”
Ansari, who won the Sustainability & Social Responsibility category of the 2023 Brisbane Young Entrepreneur Awards, says while RAIS Industries remains heavily focused on reusing clothing rather than recycling, the business is continually evolving with plans to expand through sustainable recycling opportunities.
“From the outset we have been focused on more products being reused rather than being mechanically or chemically recycled,” Ansari says.
“Recycling itself is not necessarily circular because a T-shirt might have five more wears in it before it needs to be recycled, whereas some companies in this space go straight to recycling.”
Reuse will remain a key strategy for RAIS Industries which typically diverts 80 per cent of the clothes it sorts through a network of charity-owned op-shops and its own thrift-shop outlets established at Logan in Brisbane’s south.
However, the company, which is accredited by Charitable Recycling Australia, has been collaborating with Queensland University of Technology to convert materials destined for recycling into a product that will be used in the construction industry.
With this technology remaining under wraps for now, RAIS Industries is forging ahead with plans to grow processing volumes through new ties with businesses and through a new door-to-door collection service from households.
The RAIS Industries facility at Seventeen Mile Rocks currently sorts clothing from some of Australia’s biggest charities sourced from Queensland and NSW.
“Charities get first priority for the clothes they receive, but some items may not be usable to them or they get inundated by donations,” Ansari says.
“It’s this percentage that will come to us. We have onshore sorters that put them into categories to either be reused through other resellers such as op-shops, or they are sorted into rags or shredded for recycling.
“Some items may not be useable for charities, but through our network of on-sellers they may find a use for these products. We’re basically connecting the dots to keep these items from landfill.”
Ansari notes that each Australian buys 27kg of clothes a year and that 23kg of that ends up in landfill ‘just because we are over wearing them’.
“Right now, we are a solution for charity groups to become circular by purchasing their excess stock, and for people doing the right thing by giving their clothes to charity, we are helping them repurpose their clothes,” she says.
“But as we have grown, we have become aware that there are so many more clothes out there ending up in landfill. The Australian Fashion Council estimates this to be about 200,000 tonnes each year.”
Mohammed says the scope of waste in the industry is driving RAIS Industries to pursue new partnerships to stem the tide.
“As a business, we’d love to expand further to include even bigger operations,” Mohammed says.
“We are getting businesses on board, especially retailers, with end-of-life products. We are looking to collaborate with these companies to be their preferred solution for recycling clothing products. As we are already connected to some of Australia’s biggest charities, the only way we can expand further is to collaborate with more retailers directly.”
Despite the rise in clothing recyclers entering the market, RAIS Industries has not only managed to create a profitable onshore business but also supports local employment opportunities that the founders say has been built on years of collaboration with charity groups and businesses.
“We have to be viable and profitable to survive,” Mohammed says. “This may be just a tick in the box for some people, but for us, after 10 years in the industry, we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.
“In the last couple of years there have been a lot more companies jumping on board, with many of them focused on recycling.
“I mean, how many bags can you make out of recycling jeans and how many people are going to buy those bags? There are so many other ways to tackle this problem other than this one solution and that’s why we focus on extending the life of the clothing we receive.
“And while we are saving so many clothes from landfill, we now want to educate people to do the right thing.”
Among the bugbears for the couple is the habit of people who think they are doing the right thing by placing old clothes in their household recycling bin.
“This is actually a contaminant in the household recycling process,” Ansari says. “So, to make it easier for people, we have a scheme starting soon for a door-to-door collection service to take textiles from households and businesses.”
Adding to its record of social responsibility, RAIS Industries recently launched a new charity, Guardians of Tomorrow, with a mission to rescue food waste and assist those affected by domestic violence, homelessness and the most vulnerable in our culturally and linguistically diverse community.
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