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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Recycling clothes - the solution to fast fashion?

‘Our responsibility’: Fashion retailers poised to pay landfill levy

A new program hopes to make $36 million a year to fund clothing recycling schemes, and to reduce waste where it begins.

Australia has a fashion crisis. More than 1.4 billion pieces of new clothing are imported each year, half of which typically end up in landfill, contributing to a carbon footprint that might be as high as 13 million tonnes a year, if current estimates are correct.

And while recycling and upcycling programs exist to extend the life of garments, these are expensive and don’t get to the heart of what is really needed, which is to produce less, Australian Fashion Council chief executive Leila Naja Hibri says. A 4 cent per garment levy on every new product made or imported in Australia may be a big part of the solution, she adds.

Michael Scott, chief customer officer at Rip Curl. Jamila Toderas

“This is a significant mindset and paradigm change,” Ms Naja Hibri said. “We need to shift responsibility from end-of-life to beginning. Makers are responsible for what they make.”

The fashion council this week announced an initiative called Seamless, which will impose a levy of 4 cents an item on clothing importers and those who make garments in Australia from July next year.

Membership is voluntary, with six foundation members – The Iconic, David Jones, RM Williams, Lorna Jane, Rip Curl and Big W – contributing $100,000 to the scheme initially, from which their tariffs will be deducted, should they choose to sign up for the scheme long term.

So far, no company has formally signed on for the agreement, but Ms Naja Hibri hopes that the 30 biggest clothing retailers in the country, who are responsible for approximately 60 per cent of garments sold, will sign up within the next 12 months.

Michael Scott, chief customer officer at Rip Curl, will be part of the advisory board drafting the policies of Seamless. While Rip Curl has not yet committed to pay the 4 cent garment tariff (none of the foundation members have), Mr Scott said it was a serious consideration for the business.

“The fact that we as a nation send hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste to landfills annually is pretty compelling,” he said. “We are a business that’s borne of the ocean. This is our responsibility. We are hopeful that we are among the first [to pay a levy] and that others join in.”

‘I will regulate’

Commenting on Seamless earlier this week, Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek said that the fashion industry had a choice to either do this now, or have regulation forced upon it.

“I’ve been really clear that this is too big an environmental problem to turn our backs on. I want to see industry leadership. I don’t want to be making these decisions for you. But if I don’t see enough movement in a year, then I will regulate.”

Ms Naja Hibri conceded moving to a circular economy would be expensive at first. “The funds from the tariffs will be used to create better recycling programs and to offer rebates for companies that recycle and upcycle clothing.” she said. Modelling from the AFC predicts that $36 million can be generated annually from the scheme if companies sign up.

Aleasha McCallion, strategic projects manager at Monash Sustainable Development Institute at Monash University, said the fashion industry “needs greater policy intervention to create and support systemic change”. She said she was excited by the news but urged the need for policy to enforce action.

“The shift from linear to circular is a collaborative one,” she said. “Government has an important role in recognising that this industry is important economically, so transitioning in the right way is important. It’s our responsibility to take care of the waste we are generating as a nation.”

The scheme is the first of its kind in Australia but follows other countries in demanding change from manufacturers.

In California and New York, separate bills have been introduced proposing companies for their own textile recycling. In May, the European Union voted to ban the destruction of unsold clothing. Ms McCallion said it was all part of a wider move to place responsibility for waste on those who produce it.

“There is a great opportunity for Australia to leapfrog on what is happening overseas,” she said. “These things are known to take a long time. But right now we have momentum, and momentum leads to change.”

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