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Home » Clothing Industry Put On Notice as Fast Fashion and Unwanted Clothing Takes Environmental Toll

Clothing Industry Put On Notice as Fast Fashion and Unwanted Clothing Takes Environmental Toll

by Chase Mitchell
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Early in 2023, like millions of other Australians, Kate Hulett made a new year’s resolution.

Knowing it was a pledge she would struggle to keep, she put it on social media, declaring to her 8,000  followers:

“If I write this one out loud, I’ll feel [more] guilty if I break it,” she wrote.

“And seeing as I’m a grown woman, mainly fuelled by guilt, this should prove an effective technique.

“No new clothes in 2023.”

woman looking at black and white top on hanger, with blurred clothes on rail in background
Kate Hulett loves clothes but has become increasingly concerned about the impact of the fast fashion industry. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

It might seem like a small, extremely first-world, gesture.

But for the artist, small business owner and lover of clothes,  it felt like the only useful thing to do in the face of mounting evidence of the cost to the world.

“I think it was mainly the waste that really got me,” she said.

“There were all those images in the media of the masses of mainly western clothes in landfill in poorer countries that have just been dumped.

“And then understanding that most of the people that make our clothes are women and children and they’re paid an absolute pittance in order to make a $20 T-shirt.

Liz Ricketts on the beach in Accra.
Clothing “tentacles” up to 10 metres in length have been found on a beach in Ghana, where used clothes from the UK, Europe, North America and Australia are sent.(Foreign Correspondent: Andrew Greaves)

“I think once you’ve learnt some of that stuff, you can’t unlearn it and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Little discarded clothing recycled

According to a recent report by the Australian Fashion Council, about 227,000 tonnes of discarded clothing is sent to landfill in Australia each year. 

Only 7,000 tonnes is recycled.

On top of that, more than 100,000 tonnes that cannot be sold in charity shops in Australia gets exported overseas each year.

They call them ‘dead white man’s clothes’

For decades, the West’s unwanted fashion has made its way to used-clothing markets in Africa. Now it’s fuelling an environmental catastrophe.

A woman buys clothes in Kantamanto Market, Accra.

Read more

If it cannot be sold there, it gets dumped in landfill in those countries.

Synthetic fabrics can take hundreds of years to decompose.

“Ignorance is bliss and I’m the opposite of that — I’m aware and ashamed,” Ms Hulett said while allowing the ABC to film the subject of her guilty pleasure — an extensive wardrobe of colourful garments that she has bought and treasured.

Retail therapy benefits short-lived

Why the new clothes feeling means so much to people — especially women — is something Ms Hulett has been pondering of late.

“Clothes are, particularly a woman’s, identity, you know — it’s a big part of our lives,” she said.

Wide shot of woman looking at red top on hanger in front of large open wardrobe of clothes
Kate Hulett says she is both aware and ashamed of her extensive wardrobe.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

“There’s a nice feeling of buying stuff online and looking forward to it arriving and opening a package and there’s a whole psychological kind of intrigue in that process.

“Retail therapy is a thing and you feel good when you spend money but it’s such a short-lived thing.

“And so reflecting on it … am I filling a void or looking for some pleasure in a kind of hopeless pursuit?”

Instead of buying new clothes, she is altering some of her existing wardrobe and getting more wear out of the clothes she already has by styling them differently.

“We don’t need to have new stuff to look good all the time,” she said.

“It’s fine to wear a dress 50 times.”

And now she has shared her resolution, momentum is building.

woman looking at red top on hanger
Kate Hulett is restyling her existing wardrobe.(ABC News: Jake Sturmer)

Other women have reached out to say they are taking a similar stand, reducing their fashion footprint.

“Awareness is a big thing. If I tell 10 people and they each tell 10 people, there’s this multiplication effect of awareness,” Ms Hulett said.

But the figures show the scale of the effort needed to turn the fast-fashion ship around.

The cheap clothing problem

Research from the Australian Fashion Council based on 2018-19 figures, shows the average Australian buys 56 items of clothing a year, including socks and underwear, making us among the biggest purchasers of clothing in the world.

portrait shot of Gordon Renouf sitting at table with yellow flowers in background
Gordon Renouf from the website, Good On You, says people are buying much more clothing than they used to. (ABC News: TJ Ailwood)

Gordon Renouf from Good on You, a Sydney-based website that rates fashion brands on their sustainability, says consumer behaviour has changed dramatically as prices have fallen.

“We as households are spending about the same amount of money on average that we spent 20, 30, 40 years ago, but we’re buying four times as much clothing for that money,” he said.

“Consumers have been trained to expect clothes to be extremely cheap and to be able to be thrown away.”

Onus being placed on clothing industry

It’s that mindset that the Fashion Council will try to tackle in a new product stewardship scheme that has been funded to the design stage by the federal government.

The scheme, being unveiled in coming weeks, will primarily focus on the massive landfill problem both here and overseas.

And although part of it will be a national awareness campaign for shoppers, it will also place the onus on the clothing industry to transform itself.

A graph
A graph from the Clothing Data Report showing the enormous waste from Australia’s clothing industry.(Supplied: National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme)

The Australian Fashion Council’s Danielle Kent says all stakeholders in the clothing supply chain will be targeted in the new scheme.

“We can’t just keep using resources as if they are infinite,” Ms Kent said.

“Whatever comes into the Australian market new, we need to be responsible for it until the end of its life.”

Voluntary garment fee proposed

Clothing brands both in Australia and overseas will be invited to be part of the scheme, by paying a fee for every garment coming onto the market.

A black and white head shot of Danielle Kent from the Australian Fashion Council.
Danielle Kent says Australia needs to take responsibility for every new clothing item that comes on the market, until the end of its life.(Supplied: Danielle Kent)

The funds will be funnelled into strategies that boost the reuse and recycling of clothes and the increased use of recycled materials and organic yarns.

The scheme will initially be voluntary.

“We really are sort of also saying to government, we need it to be co-regulated, that’s where we know you get the maximum impact when everyone’s onboard,” Ms Kent said.

“And then there’s no free riders.”

Elly Sumner sitting in front of her collection hanging in the background
Perth based designer, Elly Sumner, would like to see some Australian regulations to make the industry more sustainable as a whole.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

For up-and-coming Perth-based designer Elly Sumner, the scheme is a good first step. 

“I think it’s a good initiative, but who knows if the big corporations are going to embrace it,” Ms Sumner said.

“It would be nice to have a bit more reinforcement on it, so that everyone is toeing the line.”

Ms Sumner’s garments are homemade using linen, a natural fibre that’s biodegradable.

If she cannot reuse her offcuts, she composts them.

She makes clothes according to orders so there is no waste.

woman cutting green fabric with scissors on bench
Elly Sumner keeps her waste to a minimum by either reusing her fabric offcuts or composting them.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

She can’t compete with fast and cheap fashion but would like something closer to what resembles a level playing field.

Spreading the message about the need for sustainability is just as important to her as the creativity of the job.

“I like to pride my business on selling the process just as much as the product and educating the public on why it’s important to spend more money on a product,” Ms Sumner said.

“For every dollar that you spend, that’s a vote to keep something in the planet.

“To value what you have rather than just be like ‘I’m going to willy-nilly buy this, not really think about it and throw it out.'”

woman sewing zip into linen garment at old sewing machine
Elly Sumner says a big part of her job is spreading the word about the need to make sustainable choices in clothing.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

While the new scheme will focus on reducing clothes and textiles going to landfill, there are other big priorities that need to be addressed according to Mr Renouf.

Over the past five years, his Sydney-based website has rated about 4,500 fashion brands globally according to their impact on the planet, people and animals.

Greenwashing concerns

Mr Renouf believes Australia needs to consider following Europe, the UK and US in examining regulations to force the clothing industry to reduce its carbon emissions and abolish worker exploitation.

“We need laws that ban the least-acceptable practices, that ban certain types of chemicals, certain types of labour exploitation,” Mr Renouf said.

“Secondly, we need laws that require brands to be transparent and very specific about what they should disclose.”

a group of people with placards surrounding a young woman with a microphone
Supporters promoting the new Fashion Worker Act in New York last year. (Supplied: Reed Young)

He said this accountability was vital to consumers’ understanding of the impact of what they were spending their money on.

“Basically, more brands are actually putting information [on sustainability] on their websites for customers to see,” he said.

A mountain of clothing in a landfill site in Ghana's capital Accra.
Clothing piled up in a landfill site in Accra, Ghana’s capital.(Supplied: OR Foundation)

“From 33 per cent of brands not publishing any information, that is down to 15 per cent.

“But as brands are recognising that there are more and more customers who areinterested in their sustainability performance, we’re seeing an increase in greenwashing.

“And that’s a big concern.”

Plibersek warns fashion industry

Asked whether the federal government was considering regulating the clothing industry in Australia, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek issued a broad statement saying she was putting industries on notice generally about their product stewardship.

Person holding shopping bags, legs only
Fast fashion companies rely on shoppers buying into trends and consuming more than they need.(AAP: Ellen Smith)

The minister said she had convened a meeting of the country’s environment ministers last October about the need to design out waste and pollution and achieve a “circular economy” by 2030.

“I’m putting industries on notice for their product stewardship,” Ms Plibersek said.

“If industries don’t step up, I’m not afraid to take stronger action.”

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