When it comes to creating a circular fashion economy, Ragtrader founder Fraser McEwing argues that the eradication of fast fashion is not the solution.

While the disturbing facts relating to textile waste are indisputable, ‘fast fashion’ has become the favoured punching bag, even though the term is undefined.

There are several solutions mooted, the chief of which is laid out in a lengthy report called ‘Seamless’, put together by an industry think tank headed up by the Australian Fashion Council. You can read the condensed report here. It has the endorsement of Tanya Plibersek, Federal Minister for the Environment and Water. In fact, she has threatened the fashion industry with mandate retribution if it doesn’t embrace Seamless – or something similar. She wants the industry to voluntarily support the scheme to the tune of four cents per garment under the noble heading of ‘stewardship’ and payable by the Australian manufacturer or importer. In many cases that will mean big apparel retailers paying disposal contributions for garments they import directly.

We have to ask ourselves whether a full industry participation voluntary system could work. I have serious doubts, knowing the industry’s super-sensitivity when it comes to costs, especially in the budget sector. I also suspect that Tanya is not quite as forthright as she makes out. Legislating would be a long-winded nightmare for the government. Moreover, whether Seamless is embraced voluntarily by the industry or not, somebody will have to chase the money and settle disputes over who should be paying. Four cents doesn’t seem much until it is consolidated on the bottom line of a volume business. Then it appears as significant.

Let’s look at some facts about what textile-to-garment production is doing to the environment. Dyeing and finishing alone accounts for three per cent of global CO2 emissions and more than 20 percent of water pollution. Water usage is mammoth. To produce one t-shirt uses 2700 litres of water to say nothing of the 20,000 litres it takes to grow one kilogram of cotton.

If you play the textile recycling card, you’ll find that less than 15 per cent of the world’s used clothing is being recycled. While the technology exists to extract specific fibres for reuse, it is not a paying proposition compared with the cost of purchasing new fibres. Currently, recycling is only viable when supported by government or industry subsidies.

In Australia, the growing consequences of indigestible quantities of discarded clothing simply can’t be ignored. The Australian Fashion Council says that about 210,000 tonnes of clothing are thrown away every year in Australia alone, and another 200,000 tonnes is donated – which will be eventually thrown away anyway. Australians buy an average of 56 items of clothing a year coming from local and imported sources. They total around 1.4 billion units.

There is nothing environmentally positive in the production cycle of clothing. Worldwide yearly garment production exceeds 100 billion units of which 92 million tonnes is sent to landfill. And the leading villain behind all this waste is conveniently sheeted home to fast fashion. This assumption is curious because there is no agreement on what fast fashion is. Once, it was accepted as the speed at which an haute couture trend could be copied and marketed using budget textiles and hasty sewing. But now the negative consequences of fast fashion have been extended to all low-priced clothing. Along the way the consumer psyche has changed to a much bigger appetite for ‘something new’ and the clothing industry has obliged with supplying just that – spanning budget to designer sectors. Ironically, consumers are now reaping what they have sewn by their world becoming choked with textile waste. The garment discard time has shortened by around 36 per cent in the last 15 years. And there is no point in accusing fast fashion of ruthless exploitation because the market only ever produces what the consumer wants.

The stage is set. Governments, environmentalists and the industry itself know that the garment waste problem has to be dealt with. The alarming facts are well publicised. And for once, funding isn’t the main issue. Rather, it is what to spend the money on.

One obvious solution is to reduce consumption, which cannot help but reduce waste. That’s one of the planks of the Seamless proposition. Somehow the consumer must be weaned off excessive numbers of new clothes and settle for remodelling and repairing much of what is already in the wardrobe. The industry at large, which is currently fixated on growth, will have to be content with businesses centred on replacement of irreparable clothes rather than relying on throw-away whimsey. Fast fashion would be phased out. All this is morally praiseworthy, but it doesn’t fit our current free enterprise system or consumer sentiment. I’d love to believe that the Seamless target of the industry becoming ‘circular’ (self-sustaining) by 2030 was feasible but I think that is several bridges too far.

The villain is not clothing per se, but the fibres that go into the textiles from which it is made. Polyester and polyamide take more than 200 years to biodegrade. Acrylic is almost as bad. This means that the most popular synthetic fibres are with us for lifetimes. At the other, ‘good’ end of the scale, are natural fibres like cotton, linen, and wool, along with the cellulosic group that includes viscose, silk, hemp and bamboo. When they become landfill, they merge with the soil in a matter of months.

Attractive as the idea of a circular industry is, the change from the current system, as Seamless suggests, would be too radical to succeed, especially by the year 2030. Much better to let fast fashion rage and discarded clothing continue as landfill but as long as the landfill is confined to rapidly biodegradable fibres. The principle of stewardship payments would be retained to cover the cost of stripping down clothing to fabric only and disposing of buttons, zips and the like. Anybody producing clothing from fabrics containing non-biodegradable fibres would be hit with eye-watering penalties.

Now, we might well ask, how could the industry get on without its polyester? Polyester has led the wash and wear revolution and is the basic blend fibre. There is an answer. A biodegradable polyester called Celys has been developed that claims to out-perform original polyester. The fibre’s developer, Intimiti Australia, claims that within 6 months in a proper composting environment, Celys biodegradable polyester will decompose into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass at a rate of over 95 per cent. The composted material can then be used as a nutrient-rich fertiliser.

Fibre biodegradability should become a technology focus and levy funded, rather than trying to make the industry circular by 2030.

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