Future proofing Australia’s fashion and textile industry with the circular economy

By Tamanna Wadhwani  November 8th, 2022

A new report from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute highlights Australia’s transition pathways for a circular fashion and textile industry.

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The Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI) recently published its latest research report Textiles: A transitions report for Australia. The report explores the opportunities and pathways for a sustainable transition of the Australian fashion and textile ecosystem and is a culmination of a four year long research study into the Australian market, done by the MSDI CE Textiles group. The key learnings are summarised into three sections and seven transition pathways needed to begin this transition. 

Textiles: A significant contributor to Australia's economy and carbon footprint

The Australian fashion and textile industry contributes significantly to the country’s economy through employment, imports and exports and represents approximately 1.5% of Australia’s GDP. This contribution is set to grow within the next ten years, delivering an additional $10.8 billion in economic gain and creating a multitude of jobs.

However, with this growth and productivity comes a sizeable environmental impact. Australia is a world-leading consumer of raw materials and the second-largest consumer of textiles globally. The average Australian purchases around 27kg of new fashion and textiles each year. Around 93% of this is thrown away every year and only 7% is recycled. The textile industry has a significant global environmental impact, becoming the fifth-largest contributor to global carbon emissions. 

The seven transition pathways

Using the findings from their study, the MSDI identified seven transition pathways in the report that Australia can focus on to help bring change towards a circular fashion and textile industry. To reduce their environmental impact businesses can:

1. Reduce overall consumption of resources across the product lifecycle

The fashion and textile industry must reduce the number of virgin resources being extracted and used for production. According to a report by Earth Logic, a 75-95% reduction of resource use is imperative for these sectors to meet current climate targets. To achieve this, we need to:

  • develop and set clear goals for the industry

  • use more sustainable fibres and alternatives in production

  • refrain from using non-renewable and hazardous materials  

  • extend the use phase of clothing wherever possible. 

2. Ban the destruction of fashion and textile 'finished goods'

Australia generates extremely high amounts of fashion and textile waste and when this is destroyed or sent to landfill it contributes heavily to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. To meet our climate targets, we need to reduce carbon emissions from textile waste, which can be achieved through methods like:

  • prioritising the recirculation of products after their end-of-use

  • establishing structured onshore and offshore waste management systems

  • banning the export of materials overseas that solely go for disposal

  • banning the destruction of materials through landfill disposal and/or incineration. 

3. Invest in education on responsible and sustainable industry practices 

There needs to be more investment to support the delivery of educational and upskilling programs that focus on the sustainable practices needed in the fashion and textiles industry. These programs must then be made available to all stakeholders, including industry professionals, all levels of government as well as the wider community to understand the importance of responsible production and consumption.

4. Accelerate sustainable government procurement 

A priority step for governments to focus on should be the design and implementation of sustainable government procurement guidelines (across federal government as well as state). Since governments have huge purchasing power, a step in this direction could then encourage the private sector to follow in their footsteps and encourage investment into sustainable production and consumption models.

5. Incentivise the use of recycled, non-virgin materials

For businesses to increase their uptake of recycled and recyclable materials during the production phase, we must invest into and build robust technical systems that can support such secondary markets and innovation. This includes the infrastructure and technology to boost the collection, sorting, processing, manufacturing and recycling processes to produce fashion and textile items.

6. Increase and regulate textile transparency, traceability and verification

A review of the existing global best practice guidelines and standards for fashion and textiles must be conducted with an aim to adapt them and implement transparency and traceability within the Australian market. This is imperative to ensure clarity on any environmental claims, being truthful about products as well as the entire product lifecycle and in considering health, social and ethical issues as being part of the overall sustainability umbrella. 

7. Increase support for the development and execution of clothing extended producer responsibility (EPR) 

EPR is a concept where the financial or physical responsibility of products introduced into the market, including their recovery, repurposing and recycling at end-of-life, is placed with the manufacturer or producer. To ensure that this improves sustainability outcomes, it is important that governments increase their support for EPR and the required systems. These schemes must also be developed with the circular economy principles in mind (such as waste prevention, product life extension, and finally recycling).

Next Steps 

The report concludes by providing two main action areas to focus on as next steps for a successful transformational change. These are:

  • build a ‘coalition of the willing’ by bringing together various relevant stakeholders across industry, government, academia and the community, and

  • design a ‘shared vision’ to harmonise goals across different sectors in alignment with planetary boundaries.

For a detailed explanation of the seven transition pathways for the fashion and textile industry, read Textiles: A transitions report for Australia

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Tamanna Wadhwani

Tamanna moved from India to Australia to pursue a degree in environmental science and conservation biology. After learning about the concept of a circular economy in 2020, she worked with various organisations in this sector and is interested in solving complex climate change and waste management problems. She loves to communicate with people about all things sustainability or animals. Outside of work, Tamanna is a budding hip hop dancer who also loves travelling, cat cuddles and reading.

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