The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent episode ‘Dead white man’s clothes’ provided a first-hand view of Ghana’s second-hand clothing trade and its ethical and environmental implications — both good and bad.

What was not made clear is that just 33% of all second-hand clothing donated to charities by Australians is exported for international reuse.

Considering the national goals to see 80% resource recovery by 2030, eroding government and consumer support of clothing donation services is the most damaging thing we can do. Clothing donation services remain the largest volume aggregation tool for unwanted clothing in Australia and this is a reminder that rebuilding this from the ground up will delay us a decade, and that’s time we don’t have.

Recognising success

Most products face the behavioural challenge of training consumers into reusing items rather than recycling them (think reusable coffee cups and refillable water bottles). But uniquely, embedded behaviours around clothing start at reuse — and we work both upstream (design intervention) and downstream (recycling) from there.

To scale sortation and recovery, we need to first see volume in our clothing re-aggregation system. Steady supply makes transport efficient and validates the investment in sophisticated manual and automated sortation systems.

In the Sydney region, close to 60,000 tonnes of clothing is donated, while just 52,000 tonnes of textiles (clothing is just a part of this) is disposed of by kerbside systems. Given no motivation other than general goodwill, consumers are more likely to deliver their unwanted clothing to a donation point than throw it away in the bin at their front door. Indeed, the charity sector collects 310,316 tonnes nationally of what the Australasian Circular Textile Association estimates to be ~385-400,000 tonnes of clothing consumed in Australia each year (based on 2015-2019 average clothing imports) — an impressive capture rate of around ~75%.

By any measurement, this level of participation in a voluntary collection service is not only exceptionally high but also self-funding, which is often overlooked.

Valuing the service

We can generalise across metro Australia that textiles currently comprise 4-6% of the kerbside waste stream and cost councils and residents ~$250/t to dispose to landfill. Around the same amount is currently donated by residents. Were clothing donation services removed, or consumer access meaningfully reduced (due to export market uncertainty or otherwise) we could expect the textile component of the kerbside stream to double, which at a Sydney regional scale would incur additional costs of disposal of $15,000,000.

Although rarely published, a conservative market price for exported second-hand clothing might be 80c/kg. At these rates charities and clothing exporters in Australia already justify the costs of an awful lot — placing and servicing clothing bins in communities, dealing with inevitable illegal dumping, landfilling an estimated 14% of donated items unsuitable for recovery, and lastly, containerising/shipping the garments destined for export. In doing so, this yields revenue of approximately $800/tonne, with profit the net of incurred costs.

Now, think of a bundle of clothing totalling 1 kg you might collect at your local op shop — one pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a sweater. It seems very reasonable to pay $15 for that, and if we can agree there, then we can agree that revenue from domestic clothing resale should be at least $15,000/tonnes. That is more than 15x’s greater than export.

For policymakers, we can add to that the recent findings of Charitable Recycling Australia which showed that the current system has the additional benefits (not priced in here) of; reducing 1.5 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of clothing recovered, and, providing 46% more jobs than the landfill base case — especially for individuals facing barriers to employment.

Building viable onshore solutions

We established above that there is greater revenue re-selling clothing locally — but this does not always translate to profitability. As policymakers, intervention should be focused on the shared objectives of; greater local resale revenue and reduced costs for operators, and responsibly managed clothing end-markets for the rest of us.

Crudely, that means overcoming three primary barriers. Referencing Charitable Recycling Australia’s National Textile Reuse Policy Recommendations we can identify several suggested actions:

International clothing export

Documenting the relative economic viability of clothing export and domestic resale in more detail remains essential. These drive the underlying incentives of stakeholders in this space, and by better understanding these we can better identify the market conditions where domestic clothing reuse becomes the preferable (profitable) operating model.

Acting with immediacy

While we focus above on the opportunities for improvement, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the risks of offshore clothing reuse. Recent years and the COVID-19 pandemic have seen recurring disturbances in major African end markets create price volatility, and regulatory risk does pose a longer-term concern for the global second-hand clothing trade. On the contrary, research by a collective of Nordic countries suggests that offshore reuse of quality garments still has substantial emissions benefits globally — by which many of Europe’s environmental leaders justify their continued involvement in second-hand clothing export.

Pragmatically, and to be agnostic to social and environmental impact for a moment, managing diversifying any substantial end-market reliance is wise. Further, we must ensure that consumer confidence in clothing donation is preserved in order to drive an orderly transition to a new normal. Effective collection systems precede scalable sortation, which in turn will allow the industry to realise greater local resale revenue, better manage any unintended consequence of offshore export, and deliver the pre-processing required for recycling.

It is up to us to take this chance to be proactive before we are forced to be reactive.



For more information on clothing disposal and charitable donations, read ‘Examining textile waste from brands and charities’ here.

ACTA is leading the first textile apparel Product Stewardship Scheme in Australia, you can read more on Circular Threads here.

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Original article written by Blake Lindley.