Two sustainable fashion leaders, Graham Ross from BlockTexx and Dr Alice Payne from Queensland University of Technology share their insights.

The word is in from the front-lines of textile waste in Australia. Behaviour change will be equally as important as new technologies on our journey to a sustainable future. Beyond the fashion industry and consumers, governments, charity organisations and thought leaders will have key roles to play.

Graham Ross and Adrian Jones, the brains behind recycling innovator BlockTexx, transform discarded items into high value recycled materials which can then be reused and repurposed by any industry. Where others see textile waste, Ross sees an incredible opportunity, stating “We need to look at waste like we would look at a mine. It’s a resource that can be mined and reused.” He says there’s great potential for Australia to export quality recycled raw materials for use in sustainable textiles, as many brands globally are committing to 100 percent recycled textiles by 2025.

BlockTexx’s practice belongs to the circular economy model, an entirely new philosophy of manufacturing where materials are reused infinitely. One actor does not need to complete or dominate the entire circle. Ross explains,

“You don’t have to start at the start, you don’t have to be at the end. What’s exciting about the circular economy is where you start to collaborate with many stakeholders and that’s where you start to have most influence …there’s basically circles within circles.”

Dr Alice Payne, Associate Professor in Fashion at Queensland University of Technology, forecasts divergent ways a circular economy could play out. She says there will be a continued local/global dynamic, as well as a return to on shore production and the development of re-manufacturing industries. New garments will be created from existing fibre stock already in circulation. Payne envisions a circular fashion model repairing, restyling and remaking. She also signals challenges expected for a circular economy in Australia. Fibre spinning infrastructure is non-existent and making 100 percent recycled natural fibre textiles is presently unachievable without regular injections of virgin fibre to maintain strength and quality.

BlockTexx has a solution for the latter challenge, although for now it is only ‘artisanal’ in scale. They have pioneered a brand new chemical recycling process which takes polyester/cotton blended fabrics and transforms them into virgin quality cotton cellulose powder and regenerated polyethylene terephthalate (rPET).

Ross bemoans the fact that polyester isn’t included in government recycle schemes. He says polyester makes up two thirds of the 75 million tonnes of PET manufactured each year, while plastic water bottles come from the other one third.“We care more about our unwanted plastic bottles than we care about our favourite T-shirt,” he says. But Ross forecasts this is changing, predicting there will be council rubbish bins dedicated to textile waste within the next five years.

Charity organisations are unexpected frontrunners of the textile waste issue. All over the country charity shops are in crisis with donations far outnumbering those being sold. Donated garment quality has lowered since fast fashion has saturated the market. However, both Ross and Payne believe in the sector’s ability to adapt and be forward thinking. Payne says if charity organisations could connect with producers, then products could be designed with end of life in mind at the beginning.

Governments can also push the management of this issue forward through thoughtful policy maneuvers. A recent example of this occurred in early 2019 when the United Kingdom proposed a push for a one penny tax for every new garment made. The projected profits are to be put towards a national recycling program.

Necessary mind shifts must be made along with the above mentioned technological and structural advances. Payne foresees the rise of alternative modes of self-expression and self- styling that don’t come solely from clothing. “How do you fashion the body and the self when it’s not connected to this idea of progress and continual improvement?” she asks. “You find other kinds of symbolic meanings that aren’t about the newest or the latest.”

Monika Holgar, PhD candidate at the Queensland University of Technology, has recently found a way to help people move beyond the desire for constant newness. Holgar interviews people about their wardrobes and through the mere act of speaking about their clothes, the participants are then actively practicing sustainability. Holgar’s findings show that through this process, participants discover how they evaluate a need for constant ‘newness’, as they come to better understand their clothes already hold personal symbolic power.

There are many angles to attack the issue of textile waste and key developments may come from unlikely corners or unexpected partnerships. Payne says it’s an issue which must be approached both proactively and reactively. Ross says he finds it heartening that in the last twelve years there has been a societal shift towards sustainability. He looks forward to a future where textiles will be smart and able to inform users when they are ready to be recycled.“I think in fifty years sustainable won’t be a word we will even use.”

This article first appeared in Frocket Zine issue 1, a publication which educates and provokes interest in fashion activism and textile education.