Seamless CEO Ainsley Simpson reveals how she will lead the national clothing product stewardship scheme, after being appointed to the inaugural position this year.
What was the process for being recruited to the inaugural position of CEO for Seamless?
I have always been passionate about creating a world that is sustainable – for the environment and for people too. One of my very first projects, as a freshly minted environmental consultant in South Africa, was a water supply network in rural settlements which uplifted the health and quality of life for people living in an entire regional council. I could see how, when we look at problems through a sustainability lens, we get better outcomes for the environment and people too.
I honed this approach throughout my career, and this led me to the Infrastructure Sustainability Council in 2016, first to oversee technical and business services, before taking on the CEO role two years later. I knew sustainable infrastructure had to move beyond the realm of technical specialists and procurers, to become a shared language and a shared responsibility. I spent eight years helping to create and communicate a language that is now being learnt by everyone.
The clothing industry is a very different to infrastructure in many ways, but the nature and scale of the global challenge is similar. We need a system-level transformation which considers the whole lifecycle of a product – whether that is a bridge or a blouse.
I was approached about Seamless, an inspired vision and deep intention to transform how clothing is made, used, reused, and recycled in Australia. Drawing in a rich and diverse group of people and organisations, Seamless is weaving a more sustainable future for the clothing ecosystem – and I immediately wanted to be a part of it.
What will be your initial key focus when you commence as CEO in March this year?
Keeping the end in mind – clothing circularity by 2030.
To reduce the 200,000 tonnes of clothing goes to Australian landfill each year will require change at every level. This starts with clothing brands and extends to re-use and recycling operators, government to experts from industry and academia. Most importantly it includes you and me, and anyone who wears clothes.
Ubuntu is an African adage which I live by: “I am because we are”. So my key focus will be listening to people in the current operating environment, and gathering their opinions while acknowledging the myriad of unrelenting demands from looming wage pressure to shifting customer expectations. While I am no stranger to sustainability and circularity, I will be focussed on learning about the complexities of the clothing industry, so that I can be useful, help build new capabilities and find the most valuable ways to weave people together.
Seamless has so far signed on eight members, including Cotton On Group recently. How many more do you wish to sign up?
Our objective is to ensure that, by 2030, clothing circularity is business as usual. That means, 100% of clothing brands operating in Australia will be Seamless members.
There is broad agreement about the problem and the required high-level solutions. We need to reduce the volume of clothing waste going to landfill each year. This will be enabled by defined priority interventions: create programs to incentivise clothing design that is more durable and recyclable; foster new circular business models; close the material loop while expanding clothing collection, sorting and recycling. The fourth priority is the “woolly mammoth” of citizen behaviour change from clothing acquisition, though to use, care, and disposal.
To get started, we need to get granular. This means setting expectations with realistic targets and timelines. Our progress will be practical, for example, developing tools like industry wide design guidelines. I don’t underestimate the scale of this transition and recognise that there will be many challenges – from finding end markets for non-wearable resources, to investment needs for recycling infrastructure. As we don’t have the luxury of time, that means getting comfortable with progress that is lumpy.
Seamless is expected to complete its transition period in mid-2024. What needs to be done by then?
It’s been an important time laying the foundations. We have completed several governance milestones on our staged transition plan – establishing the Product Stewardship Organisation (PSO), appointing a board of directors and interim chair as well as adopting a groundbreaking new constitution. Next is nature. In the coming months, we will appoint a Guardian of Nature to our Board. This role, the first of its kind in Australia, is responsible for advocating for the natural environment in all strategic and significant decisions.
On the tactical side, the next stage is working with the board on our near-term strategic plan that supports the roadmap developed with industry, for industry. This plan is critical for setting expectations and bringing the value chain together for the last phase of the transition. Responsibility and accessibility are not mutually exclusive; we have to tackle these big challenges and integrate into new business models.
Collaboration will enable acceleration as shared investment lightens the load. The focus will be on launching the voluntary scheme, starting with confirmation that the levy is fit-for-purpose. To advance the priority areas, the process for convening working groups will commence, including drafting Terms of Reference.
Outside of the scheme, what key drivers are needed to push for sustainability in Australian fashion?
The financial markets and governments hold carriage of additional drivers.
Financiers and institutional investors play a pivotal role in driving sustainability change, particularly in industries underpinned by manufacturing, where the transition imperative has a high capital cost. This can include renewable energy, waste reduction, ethical sourcing, and worker welfare. There is growing evidence that supports the inverse correlation between transparent ESG performance and the cost of capital. As financial institutions increasingly integrate ESG criteria into their investment decisions, companies that prioritise sustainability stand to benefit from lower financing costs and increased access to capital. This shift in finance incentivises and can accelerate the transition, paving the way for a more inclusive, regenerative and low-emission future.
Government can provide industry with certainty through policy or legislation. Our dialogue has been useful with the emphasis on policy objectives and outcomes rather than hard-line compliance through regulation. This will create a more conducive environment for sectoral leadership, innovation and collaboration. At a business-level this direction and drive informed risk management, continuous improvement and resilience planning.
What are your key goals to reach in your first year as CEO of Seamless?
There are those that I’ve mentioned already: our 12 month plan; launching the voluntary scheme with a fit for purpose levy; and executing priority work plans with our engaged and excited value chain.
I am also committed to continuing to foster our growing relationship with all levels of government. I’m especially looking forward to working with Danielle Kent as she transitions to General Manager: Industry Transformation in March, and together, growing a purpose-led team.
Drawing on my African roots, I see parallels in Seamless and Kente – one of the world's most complex weavings crafted by Ewe and Ashanti artisans in Ghana. The fabric holds significance as a cultural emblem, with each garment and pattern bearing a name and symbolic meaning. While historically reserved for elite individuals and special events, today, Kente is embraced by people from all walks of life. I see Seamless in much the same way. While intricate and distinctive, Seamless embodies inclusivity and we welcome all participants in the clothing value chain to embrace circularity as a culture.
Ainsley Simpson takes on the role as inaugural Chief Executive Officer of Seamless in March 2024.