Every school in Australia throws out an estimated 100-200kg of non-wearable uniforms each year
It is estimated that some fast fashion items have a lifespan as short as 7-8 weeks
Schools send an estimated 2000 tonnes of uniforms to landfill every year. New sustainable start-up Worn Up offers to collect this textile waste and transform it into new products that can be used again by students. The company has just built its first school desk using a flat pack panel building product made from old school uniforms in collaboration with the UNSW’s SMaRT centre and NSW Circular.
Worn Up is the sister company of Sustainable Schoolwear, a business that has been supplying schools with eco-friendly uniforms for over five years. These two businesses work in tandem. Sustainable Schoolwear helps schools and students reduce their environmental impact by giving them access to uniforms that are made ethically, locally (wherever possible) and from high quality sustainable materials. When these products reach the end of their life, Worn Up steps in to reform them into new products.
We caught up with Anne Thompson, the woman behind both initiatives, to talk about building a circular model for textile reuse.
Worn Up and Sustainable Schoolwear are the brainchildren of Anne Thompson. Anne started her career as a journalist and went on to work as a change manager for companies like IBM and Optus. When personal circumstances forced her to leave the corporate world, Anne decided to switch her focus to school uniforms. “I could never get to the uniform shop, so I thought I'll put one online and that was how I started,” Anne tell us.
And so, Sustainable Schoolwear was born. This online uniform shop is a little different to the one you might remember from your school days: all products are ethically manufactured in Australia using GOTS certified organic cotton, recycled polyester or a combination of both. After launching with just three schools in 2016, Sustainable Schoolwear has grown to supply 30 school uniform shops around the country.
Alongside managing Sustainable Schoolwear and Worn Up, Anne is currently studying a Masters of Sustainability. Anne’s interest in sustainability came from conversations with her kids. “I have two children, one's 26 and one's 21, and I'd be considered a boomer,” she says “Both of them have said to me, you guys created this issue. And that was when we started to look at the business as a whole and just ask the question, ‘We're a very small business, what can we do?’”
“Sitting above that is optimism about the future for the kids that we work with,” she continues. “I think there's a lot of greenwashing. There's a lot of talk of sustainability — it's another fad, circularity a new [buzz]word. People are eco-fatigued, I think, and it's turning into anxiety with COVID. So we want to be able to show them a very direct link between what they wear and how that can come back as something else — they don't have to put it in landfill.”
When she started working in the uniform sector, Anne quickly realised that there was a false perception around the cost of sustainable alternatives. “What we identified was that there was this false perception of what being sustainable costs you and it was often manipulated by the large suppliers because their margins are so deep,” she explains. “We prove that for $1 extra a metre of recycled polyester, you can make a shirt for an extra dollar.”
The minor increase in the initial price also saves consumers money in the long-run because higher-quality fabrics last longer, meaning they have a higher cost-per-wear (the items price divided by the total number of times you wear it). Extending the lifespan of a uniform ultimately means that less uniforms will need to be bought and disposed of. This higher quality fabric is also easier to reform into new products when it reaches the end of its life. And, selling a high-quality product brings back return customers, so it’s good for business too.
“There's 3,111 something schools in New South Wales and there's 9000 schools nationally, if not more. If you extrapolate that out and there's 400 kids who each wear one polo shirt for 1-2 terms — and a lot of the people that we're dealing with will buy five shirts for a child — it's quite a big problem in terms of what it's made of, it's poor quality polyester,” Anne explains. “What we're hoping to do is help companies and schools understand that if you made things out of a longer polymer, or better-quality fabric, you have a better opportunity at the end of life to turn it into something meaningful.”
While Sustainable Schoolwear tackles the issue of where uniforms come from, Worn Up deals with where they go when we’re finished with them: straight to landfill, for the most part. Still in its infancy, this business was established with the simple goal of keeping uniforms out of landfill. “Our aim is through Worn Up to take 100 tonnes of uniforms — corporate, school, workwear — out of landfill in 12 months,” Anne explains.
Being circular, for us, means anything we make doesn't go straight to landfill. What we take back, we try and give another life to, through either making it into a different product or upcycling into the same product.
Anne made the deliberate choice not to set up a closed-loop fibre-to-fibre system for textile reuse. “I see us as in the reformation,” Anne says. “We will take something right back down to its fibre, composition test and then reform it to completely into a new product.”
While this means that Worn Up is not 100% circular in the way the Ellen MacArthur Foundation might define circularity, it does mean that the company can more readily achieve its goal of diverting and reforming textile waste. “We’re probably three quarters of the way around the circle but we decided to not push for fibre-to-fibre because the technology is not available in Australia,” Anne explains. “Our mission was to get it out of landfill.”
“Both businesses are focused on creating an impact in what we make and how we take back what we make and process it,” she continues. “That's really where the circularity of what we do comes into play because we feel that you can't just have one life for something, it has to have multiple lives. Being circular, for us, means anything we make doesn't go straight to landfill. What we take back, we try and give another life to, through either making it into a different product or upcycling into the same product.”
Worn Up is currently trailing a textile collection system with 30 schools. The schools have been provided with pods that can hold up to 25kg of textile waste. Once these pods are full, Worn Up will take back their contents and reform them into new products. For $87 dollars a term, to cover couriering the product back to Worn Up, these schools can keep textiles our of landfill.
Through a collaboration with NSW Circular and the UNSW SMaRT Centre, the textile waste collected by Worn Up is already being used to build new products like school desks. These desks can then be returned to schools where they will have a second life and help teachers educate students about the process of reforming textiles into new products. Seeing students develop an interest in the impact textiles have on the environment has been one of Anne’s greatest achievements.
“We've seen an overwhelming response from schools, they're hungry for information, and they're hungry for that demonstratable change, like: my uniform straight to a desk,” Anne says. “One little environmental crusader at a primary school — in year three material world is part of their curriculum — stood up and said, ‘My shorts are 50/50 — 50 organic cotton, so they've saved 3000 litres of water, and 50 recycled polyester so we haven't got petroleum in them. So, Mr. Smith, my teacher, what are yours made of? And how conscious are you?’”
Anne’s next challenge is to figure out how the raw material created from old textiles can be used in commercial building projects. Her number one piece of advice to other businesses trying to make the switch to sustainable and circular models is: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. “It's a generational and a global problem. So we need collaboration to solve these problems, rather than just being myopic about it,” she says. “One of the benefits of collaborating over and above competing in these areas is that we can have a completely different perspective from Australian perspective. We're known for our eco-solutions, our good land and great resources and this could be a new way of manufacturing in Australia.”
“Be conscious of what you purchase in terms of textiles, whether it's clothing or tablecloths. Be conscious of what [you’re buying], the amount that you're buying and where that will end up. And then, jump on to find someone like us, like Worn Up, find out what you can do at your school, find out what you can do at your business and either join us or someone else ... Be discerning about when you're being fooled from a greenwashing point of view, look into what actually happens to that end product, don't be superficial in choosing the option that you're choosing.”