Australians are the world’s second largest consumers of textiles, buying on average 27 kilograms of new clothing and other textiles each year. So what is the environmental impact of this obsession?
Annual production forecasts from PCI Fibres found that while Australia sat just behind North America’s need for new clothing, the amount of textiles we consumed annually was twice the global average of just 13 kilograms per person per year.
According to sustainability consultant Jane Milburn, two-thirds of the clothes and textiles bought are made of synthetic fibres which are derived from petroleum.
This week Ms Milburn will address the Home Economics Institute of Australia conference in Melbourne focusing on Australia’s unhealthy habit of buying new clothes and textiles.
“Fast fashion produced from global supply chains is driving excessive purchasing of affordable new clothing often discarded after a few wears.”
Plastic clothes don’t decay
While textiles made of natural fibres are biodegradable, the majority of “fast fashion” textiles are made of synthetic fibres.
Ms Milburn said these fibres had been shown to shed thousands of micro plastic particles when washed or disposed of in landfill.
“These manmade fibres are effectively plastic clothes that don’t decay readily when they are sent off to landfill and they’re shedding micro plastic particles along the way,” she said.
“There is a huge environmental consequence of our clothes that we are only just starting to come to grips with.”
Ms Milburn also noted the wasteful nature of the fashion industry when manufacturing these garments.
“Up to 20 per cent of fabric consumption is on the cutting room floor, so there’s a fair bit of wastage in the supply chain.”
With wardrobes bulging at the seams, many Australians look to donate their second-hand clothing to charities, however Ms Milburn said those service had their limitations.
“The remaining clothes are used as industrial rags, sent to landfill, and around half of all donated clothes are sent to developing nations.”
Ms Milburn said while she believed developing nations did benefit from these donations, it could also be seen as a way of exporting Australia’s waste elsewhere.
Ms Milburn said Australians needed to start thinking more about how they could reduce their clothing and textile footprint.
“In the same way we have become aware of what we eat and want to know more about cooking and growing food, we are becoming more conscious about what we wear,” she said.
“If we know the basics about how clothes are made, we [can] value them and can make running repairs to extend their lifespan.”