Making the case for circular fashion: “T-shirts can’t be sold for $5”

Camille Reed is under no illusions that it will be quick or easy to transition Australia’s fashion industry to a circular economy. But the founder of the Australian Circular Fashion Conference (ACFC) is convinced it’s not only possible but necessary for apparel businesses’ survival.

“There are so many international brands in our market. How relevant are Australian companies going to be in future if they can’t meet the circular market demand?” Reed told IR.

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, due to the use of pesticides in the farming of cotton and fossil fuels in the production of polyester – the most common textile in the world – toxic chemicals in the dyeing process and waste water from caring for clothes post-purchase.

Camille Reed, founder of the Australian Circular Fashion Conference.

This is being driven by the huge consumer demand for cheap, on-trend clothing. Australians on average buy 27 kilograms of new textiles each year, and then discarding 23 kilograms into landfill, according to a 2016 report by Textile World.

But as more consumers and brands awaken to fashion’s negative impact on the environment, the circular economy increasingly is being put forward as an alternative to the current linear consumption model, where resources are used to design, manufacture and sell clothing, and then lost after items are no longer used, or worse, are never used because they didn’t sell.

In addition to efforts to reduce waste from the start, a circular system aims to get the maximum value out of the resources that are used by repairing rather than discarding faulty items, collecting used items and breaking them down into the raw materials to make new items and upcycling old items for new purposes.

Reed said she is seeing a growing level of interest in the circular economy among distributors, wholesalers and even fast fashion companies.

“I met with the CEO of one of the biggest fast fashion brands in Geelong and he recognises that the environmental effects of what’s happening [in fashion] is the next disruptor of retail,” she said.

“If they can recognise that they need to mitigate what that looks like, that goes beyond CSR, it goes beyond sustainability as a ‘trend’. It recognises that we need to reposition the way we’re currently manufacturing to be viable.”

One of the challenges for brands thinking about shifting to a circular model is knowing where to start. Circular fashion has no clear beginning, middle or end. Should brands focus on “closing the loop” and collecting used items from customers so they don’t end up in landfill? Should they focus on using more recycled and sustainable materials in their production?

According to Reed, there is no right or wrong place to start.

“It’s a case by case basis,” she said, “but from what I’ve seen and heard from the apparel and textile industry, the waste challenge is top of mind because it’s the most tangible, and it has the biggest impact on the consumer-facing side too.”

While Reed believes the shift to a circular economy must come from businesses’ internal desire to reduce their impact on the environment, she said there is a huge opportunity for circular fashion brands to align with the growing contingent of conscious consumers.

“The industry is awash with very similar products and messages. Brands have lost their focus with why they’re even communicating with customers in the first place. Why are we even in operation? Who is our customer? How can we reach their goals and their values?

“Sustainability is very much associated with millennials, but these qualities and values are represented in every age group,” she said.

One thing many brands will need to reckon with, however, is price.

“In my opinion, T-shirts can’t be sold for $5. It doesn’t reflect the true cost of the ethical and environmental impact,” she said.

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