Australians putting brakes on fast fashion

Glenda Kwek –
In a small shop along one of Sydney’s busiest streets, Sarah Freeman is encouraging Australians to slow down and break their addiction to fast fashion.
Shocked by the speed at which Australians buy and throw away cheap garments, she is trying to harness an ancient concept — libraries — to persuade shoppers to rent instead of purchase clothes.
“Today’s society wear clothes once and they throw them away,” the passionate vintage-garment lover said at her Clothes Library in the inner suburb of Potts Point.
“That’s not how clothes are supposed to be designed. The clothes nowadays are manufactured for six wears, I think, which is terrible.”
Globally, clothing production doubled from 2000-2014, with the number of garments bought each year by consumers soaring by 60 per cent, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
A booming part of the industry, including in Australia, is fast fashion, where catwalk designs are quickly turned into apparel sold at low or ultra-low prices and easily accessible via online sites.
In Australia, where the demand for textiles is one of the highest per capita in the world, the fast fashion sector grew by 19.5 per cent over five years to $1.4 billion in 2017-18, research firm IBISWorld reported.
A recent YouGov survey also found that almost a quarter of Australians have thrown away an item of clothing after wearing it just once, and four in 10 admitted they had binned unwanted garments, adding to landfill.
“They don’t always see it as something that is a valuable product to keep in your wardrobe,” Alison Gwilt, a sustainable fashion expert and researcher at the University of South Australia, said.
At the Sydney distribution centre of St Vincent de Paul Society, a major charity recycling clothes, manager George Blakely has seen the longevity of some donated items decline in recent years.
“Some products only last two or three washes, which is not favourable… The volume they get through here is usually increasing, because people are turning over products in their own home more quickly,” Blakely said.
The rock bottom prices for consumers contrast with the high cost paid by the environment.
Tonnes of cheap clothes are churned out every year in developing countries, using up copious amounts of energy and resources and polluting waterways near factories with toxic chemicals.
The materials used are often synthetic and non-biodegradable, meaning even washing can be hazardous, with some textiles shedding plastic micro-fibres that make their way to water catchments and oceans in consumer countries like Australia.
In recent months, the devastating impact of waste has made headlines after China, Australia’s biggest market for recycling waste, cracked down on foreign imports.
Beijing’s restrictions on “contaminated” recycled materials, including fabric, has forced Australians to think about how much waste they produce and galvanised efforts to explore more sustainable approaches.
Producers have been proactive with natural fibres — Australia is a key supplier of wool and high-quality cotton — Australian Fashion Council chief executive David Giles-Kaye said.
Retailers, including major player Cotton On, are pledging to make their manufacturing chains transparent and ethical.
At Melbourne’s Deakin University, researchers won support from Swedish mega-retailer H&M to develop “circular denim”, where old jeans are used to colour new ones, reducing the impact on landfills and of dye run-off.
St Vincent’s has joined the efforts at the recycling level, examining better ways to sort donated clothes into different fibre types and repurpose garments to extend their life-cycle.
“We have to become a lot… smarter and really use technology to try and break things down into their base form so that things can actually be reused and we can become a true circular economy,” the charity’s retail development manager Jacqui Dropulic said. — AFP