Backed by a $1 million grant from the federal government, the AFC plans to speak with farmers, retailers, manufacturers and other organisations about textile waste, and ultimately, make a number of recommendations for a National Product Stewardship Scheme for clothing in March 2023.
“It’s very much on consumers’ minds and the industry’s mind, so I feel like we really started working on this program at the right time,” Kellie Hush, the AFC’s acting CEO, told Inside Retail.
The AFC is working with the Australian Retailers Association, the National Retail Association, the Australian Council of Recycling and Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association Australia to ensure all perspectives are heard.
“It’s about how we can all come together and have a joint conversation to come up with not just one solution, because there won’t be one solution, but with lots of recommendations about the way forward,” Hush said.
“Australia promotes to the world that we’re this clean, beautiful country, and I think we have the opportunity to be world leaders in this space if we do it right.”
We recently spoke to three experts — sustainable business coach Dr Clara Vuletich, sustainability strategist Anna Forster, and founder and CEO of textile recycling start-up Upparel Michael Elias — about the biggest roadblocks that need to be addressed to solve the problem of textile waste. Here are their thoughts.
On the environmental impact of textile waste
Anna Forster: “Fifty per cent of a product’s emissions come from its raw materials. Reducing that footprint, which every brand needs to do on their journey to net zero, requires innovation around keeping resources alive for as long as possible.”
On the challenge of clothing takeback schemes
Dr Clara Vuletich: “The sticking point and the barrier is that there’s not enough solutions for end-of-life. A lot of retailers are really seriously considering introducing a customer takeback scheme, but they’re just not sure what to do with [the clothing] once they’ve got it.”
Anna Forster: “The topic of taking back products, and pretending everything’s being recycled just to give customers a good feeling when they come in [to get them to] buy more, is fallible.”
On the false promise of charity shops and donation bins
Michael Elias: “Are people aware that 90 per cent of what they drop off at a recycling bin or charity shop doesn’t actually make it into an op shop, but gets sent offshore? Taking your old T-shirts to Salvos, all you’re doing is passing on the problem.”
On the gold standard of textile recycling
Dr Clara Vuletich: “There are quite a few start-ups around the world doing chemical recycling of mixed fibre textiles, where they take a poly-cotton T-shirt, break it down into essentially a kind of mushy fibre, and then they can separate the polyester from the cotton. What they’re trying to do in the northern hemisphere is respin those components into new fibre. That’s the ultimate gold standard — fibre-to-fibre recycling. But that’s so challenging, and it’s not going to happen for five to 10 years.”
On the need to reduce consumption
Anna Forster: “At COP26 in Glasgow, the fashion people were all talking about degrowth. How can you actually stop making so much stuff? Retail is going to be really interesting in the next 10 years.”
On the need for multiple solutions
Dr Clara Vuletich: “Apparel as a product is so complicated, there’s not going to be one answer for everything. You’ve got to create multiple channels, and I think that’s what brands are doing. They’re all getting their heads around it and understanding what their current options are. Who would have thought five years ago that fashion brands today would be thinking, ‘We are now responsible for this, and we’ve got to have end-of-life recycling practices.’ It would have been unheard of.”
Anna Forster: “Consuming less is the best approach, but so many resources have been converted into a product already, [we need to use] all the circular ‘Rs’ — rental, resale, recycling — to keep those resources alive for as long as possible.”
Michael Elias: “For us, it’s not about being the only answer. People who we had previously flagged as competitors today are partners of ours, where we’re working together to make a difference.”