The National Clothing Textiles Waste Roundtable marked a special occasion in the history books for the Australian apparel and textile industry.
In recent months, the Federal Government, championed by Minister Susan Ley, has recognised the importance of establishing environmentally sustainable and economical recovery pathways for apparel and textiles waste across the country. A once unidentified waste stream, where very little data had been captured, textiles poses a new challenge on many levels at every stage of the supply chain.
How do we create a circular textile economy in Australia?
For those who may be unfamiliar with the breadth of stakeholders involved, the textile industry is made up of manufacturers, suppliers, compliance, distributors, growers, scientists, academia, resource recovery, and of course the most influential player – retail brands, distributors, industrial, built environment, consumers, medial, furnishings, uniforms and workwear, plus a number more.
Not only has the recognition to treat textiles as a valuable commodity post-life improved drastically, but we’re also currently still managing expectations. As a modern society facing a 4.0 industrial revolution, we are asking questions on ‘how and where to recycle textiles‘ much faster than the technical ability or innovation is able to catch up. For a number of reasons, textile recycling has not reached full maturity locally or internationally and it must be made clear that fashion will be the last to be operationally and commercially recycled.
Why? Because it is by far the most disaggregated and complex textile waste stream. Each garment is made from a multitude of blended fibres, finished with various hardware and trims. The likelihood of collecting, sorting, de-commissioning, and breaking down for recycling is still some way off unless we design for the end-of-life now in preparation for recovery in the coming years. Not to mention, traditionally the fashion industry is not often the most profitable and can easily be affected by external market influences, as we’ve seen during the 2020 disruptions, they do not have the capacity to invest millions into recycling infrastructure.
In the meantime, high-volume industrious textiles, such as hospitality linen, uniforms, medical supplies etc, will be the go-to for building an economically viable and stable recycling industry. These players within this sub-set of textile users, often deal with homogenous textiles fibres and offer better access to resources and capital.
We must also note, that recycling does not create a circular economy, it is merely an option to look at as we move down through the principles of enacting the waste hierarchy to maximise the value and lifespan of any/all textile materials.
In addition, the members attending the Roundtable are those who have been working in the sustainability and circularity space for the longest time in Australia, a strong leadership group that is passionate about overseeing action, effective change, and supporting a healthy local industry that can flourish. Together, we believe Australia can become world leaders in demonstrating sustainable and circular best-practice for textiles.
The Roundtable was a well orchestrated and facilitated event, where members felt satisfied and confident the next steps to pull together a summit with more industry players and stakeholders provided a clear directive to move forward.
The objectives from the Clothing Textiles Waste Roundtable on the day included:
• Potential for a new product stewardship or extended producer responsibility scheme for fashion apparel.
• Aligning objectives to the National Waste Policy (2020).
• Signing a communique (of the collective members attending the Roundtable) to see the industry move forward.
As with any good assessment of an industrial sector looking to pivot, data is crucial.
Data was the first topic to address, while Australia has sorely been lacking in sustainable and/or cohesive data in relation to the current state of textile imports, use/consumption, and disposal in Australia, it was clear it is the best place to start. The charity sector presented several defining numbers on the flows moving through Australia’s most well-established collection network. ACTA has also quantified the figures of clothing material flow which can be accessed via our NSW EPA report, Thread Count here. The latest charity figures can be viewed in their 2021 Impact Report here – however, they are not in line with the National figures.
ACTA reports, Australia imports over 1,000,000 tonnes of textiles per annum and is responsible for sending over 800,000 tonnes to landfill. Note, this is accumulative of all textiles. ACTA has concluded through comprehensive research that apparel makes up around 36-40% of textiles in landfills – the largest textile category, while the remaining 60% is industrious. Charities provide the most reliable collection, logistical and sorting system for unwanted goods locally, and with over 33,000 volunteers (66,000 pairs of hands) there is capacity to innovate and improve upon this.
In relation to key data, how can we offer suggestions to improve and qualify better data from textiles?
As a collective, these points were raised:
• Seeking out better standards, potentially benchmarked by global organisation (i.e Lifecycle assessments).
• More accurate labelling and using labels as a way to provide consumers with information – ACCC standards (and a parallel to food labeling was highlighted).
• Improved auditing systems across local and state governments.
• QR coding or tracing for accurate fibre composition.
• Better tools to collect data.
Alongside the barriers to collect the data, the elephant in the room had to be discussed. What are the current challenges?
While you can imagine, the discussion was lively and colourful, there’s no denying the challenges amidst textiles and the supply chain is a complex one. Particularly fashion, the industry is one of the most layered, fabulous, and multifaceted of all.
We love fashion, the nature and beauty of the industry is powerful and generous. Many business owners are drawn to the industry because of its ability to offer something to each and every individual on the planet, no matter what background or cultural landscape consumers call home. With this comes a myriad of questions, how do we design a circular business model for the sector while maintaining the purpose of fashion?
You can guess off the top of your head several challenges, however, whilst many in the room are early adopters we drilled down to the core challenges:
• Better equip customers with access to and the ability take-back product at end-of-life.
• How to incentivise industry to achieve circular outcomes.
• Inconsistency in Government across all levels.
• Lack of local production > what would it take to reinvigorate a new workforce?
• Effective consumer education campaigns.
• Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) > similar to France, multiple collection points across the country.
• Apprenticeships to bring back local skills.
• Lack of care and repair > Mending/Repair/Customer Care.
• Cost per wear for apparel – change design.
• Reframe how we talk about the clothing and textile industry, it’s not just fashion, textiles are bigger than fashion.
• Action and speed for change.
• Establishing competitive markets for recycled materials > High minimum order quantities in supply chains.
• The volume of product in market.
Where there are challenges, opportunities can arise.
With solid representation from the apparel and fashion industry in the room on the day, the opportunity for change was palpable, as mentioned before, fashion is currently the most difficult textile waste stream to handle through a recycling system. Immediate opportunities which ACTA strongly suggested areas of focus for the industry right now; consider the circular design model, to design for end of life, educate customers because they have a direct line of engagement to the vast majority of consumers, look at integrating resale models into existing businesses, transparency into supply chains and efforts to lower impact – but, most importantly, education, education, education – the consumer cannot get enough of it and brands need to step into that space.
In unilateral agreement across the roundtable, the apparel and textiles industry looked to equal opportunity for action and change, top level this included:
• Sharing data along the value chain.
• Corporate targets / collective industry goals.
• Recognition of the SDG’s #12 and #17.
• Set of curated design principles/industry charter.
• Strong data (business cases) will support profitable systems and financial outcomes.
Minister Evans capped off the discussion by emphasising the importance of the Government’s role. The government has provided greater access to funding and some ease to communicate effectively across all levels in relation to textiles, but most importantly – Minister Evans emphasised the recognition and direct focus on textiles, which now Government has made with clear intention; to offer funding for the clothing industry to seek an Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme (EPR) or potentially Product Stewardship.
He echoed the strong opportunities we’d brought to the table; obtaining better data and the ability to share this information, strive for better research and development, more focus on clear and effective education and consumer awareness, a more considered approach to the industry in national harmonisation when referring to textiles, and the real complexity which clothing and textile pose – but we also have a multitude of tangible solutions available.
It was not missed, during the day, Minister Ley had announced her intent to add Clothing Textiles to the National Priority Waste List. From a National level, this means a pathway forward to continue bridging the gap between industry and government, as cooperative action will lead to co-designed targets to the benefit of industry.
An exciting time for industry to determine the success and long-term outcome for themselves, an element of blue-sky thinking and setting aspirational targets was raised, so the next steps are developing a follow-up event to embrace the wider market of textile users at a summit in several months time.
Please read the Clothing Textiles Waste Roundtable Communique informed by participants.
NATIONAL CLOTHING TEXTILES WASTE ROUNDTABLE
Agreed Communique – 26 May 2021
Industry and a number of other key stakeholders came together on 26 May 2021 for Australia’s first National Clothing Textile Waste roundtable, hosted by the Australian Government at Parliament House in Canberra.
Participants from across retail, fashion, charity, production, environment, research and waste management discussed the key challenges as well as the opportunities to reduce the approximately 800,000 tonnes of textiles waste Australia generates and sends to landfill each year.
The roundtable signals the start of a collaborative effort, drawing on a diversity of expertise across Australia to create action to reduce waste from clothing textiles going to landfill.
Australia is the second highest consumer of textiles per person in the world, after the United States of America. Each Australian consumes an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing per year and disposes an average 23 kilograms of clothing to landfill each year, or 93 percent (93%) of the textile waste we generate.
Participants agreed that a circular economy for textiles is critical to achieving a sustainable textile industry in Australia. Textile circularity provides a significant opportunity to drive innovation, better design, create new Australian jobs and recover valuable resources from items currently going to landfill.
They noted and welcomed Minister Ley’s announcement of her intention to include clothing textiles to the Minister’s product stewardship priority list and a commitment of up to $1 million in funding to support product stewardship efforts on clothing textiles waste.
There was broad agreement to hold a National Summit later this year to develop a set of product stewardship goals for a circular economy for clothing textiles. The summit will focus on collaboration and action by industry and governments, that could also inform action on textiles in a broader range of products.
An industry working group will be established to set the agenda, identify invitees and develop proposals for discussion and endorsement at the summit. Ongoing discussions will involve contributors across the whole life cycle of clothing textiles.
Signatories to the communique (in attendance at the Roundtable):
• Australasian Circular Textile Association
• Australian Council of Recyclers
• Australian Fashion Council
• Charitable Recycling Australia
• Circular Centre
• Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
• Cotton Australia
• David Jones & Country Road Group
• Institute of Sustainable Futures
• King Cotton
• Kmart Group
• Monash Sustainable Development Institute
• Planet Ark
• Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence
• Queensland University of Technology
• Raw Assembly
• Salvation Army
• Southern Cross Recycling (SCR) Group
• The Iconic
• SRC Group
• Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of NSW
• World’s Biggest Garage Sale
For more information on the Minister’s media release, you can read it here: Clothing Textiles Waste Roundtable and Exhibition.
ACTA is leading the first textile apparel Product Stewardship Scheme in Australia, you can read more on Circular Threads here.