Bernadette Casey is a sustainability advisor and the co-founder of Usedfully, a local organisation campaigning to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill - pushing for change from consumers, the industry and at a Government level. “It’s time to harness that desire for change by taking a system-wide approach to a systemic issue,” she says.
Recently she has been working on a submission to urge the Climate Change Commission to not overlook clothing and textile waste, following the Commission’s draft advice to the Government on climate action and emissions reduction - which did not acknowledge the impact of the fashion, clothing and textile industry. The submission was supported by the likes of Barkers Clothing, Mindful Fashion NZ and Alsco NZ.
For Bernadette and Usedfully, clothing and textile waste should be part of this conversation - and we agree that it’s an important one, for consumers, the industry and the Government.
We wanted to know a bit more about her proposal, as well as the wider impact of fashion and textiles - and how things are changing for the better.
First things first: what is Usedfully?
Most people could probably tell you that the industries that contribute the most carbon emissions are oil and gas and agriculture. What very few people know is that clothing and textiles are next on the list. Did you know that clothing and textiles are responsible for more carbon emissions than global aviation and shipping combined?
Usedfully is an organisation on a mission to radically reduce the amount of waste clothing and textiles going to New Zealand’s landfills every year, by creating a more ‘circular’ system where used textiles can be recycled and re-used in various ways. We work with partners across the industry, from designers and manufacturers, through to retailers and corporate bulk-buyers.
There is a real desire for change within the industry, and Usedfully exists to harness that desire towards the development of real solutions, to advocate to the Government, and to raise awareness of the issue in order to build momentum for change.
What are you proposing in your submission to the Climate Change Commission?
There is a lot of detail in our submission, but essentially what we’re proposing is that clothing and textiles become a priority for the Government’s waste and emissions reduction efforts – because they should be, but right now they aren’t.
For example, the Government has made a list of six priority waste streams (i.e. types) that it wants to reduce through recycling programmes, incentives and other policies. Despite their impacts, textiles aren’t on that list. We think this is a huge missed opportunity, and we’ve raised that with the Commission.
Why are you proposing it? Why clothing and textile waste? And how big of an issue is this here in NZ?
We’re part of a global problem. The advent of ‘fast fashion’ has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of clothing produced worldwide, while the durability of that clothing is on the decline, so it gets disposed of sooner. This means more clothing going to landfill every year, where it decomposes, generating greenhouse gases.
New Zealanders send the most waste to landfill per capita in the OECD, so our footprint is oversized, and we need to reduce it.
And while waste minimisation is on the Government’s agenda, textiles are not currently on the list of waste types they’ve identified as priorities for reduction. We believe that the scale and growth in the problem means that they absolutely should be.
What are some hard facts from a local perspective about all of this?
• Global clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years to over 100 billion units.
• Over 380,000 tonnes of textile products, fabric and fibre are imported into Aotearoa every year.
• Most ends up in landfill (about 220,800 tonnes) creating green-house gases as they decompose.
• Scion’s water quality studies in Auckland found that 87 percent of micro plastic pollution comes from clothing fibres, yet textiles are not included in NZ’s plastic pollution strategy.
• Based on potential to avoid emissions, our waste minimisation priorities should be food and textiles.
• There is a strong appetite within the local industry to improve circularity of textile resources and reduce environmental impacts, but greater collaboration and support from Government is required to support investment in infrastructure and technologies that would enable change at scale. (More detail is available in our 2020 report 'Looking in the Mirror: A Review Of Circularity In The Clothing And Textile Industry In Aotearoa'.)
Often these conversations around textile waste talk about the fault of fast fashion - but is this correct? Is it actually a wider fashion industry concern?
Fast fashion is definitely a major factor in the decline in clothing durability and utilisation that has been accelerating the flow of waste textiles to landfill. But other sectors within the industry, from designer fashion to commercial clothing (think uniforms and workwear) through to home and commercial textiles (e.g. linens, towelling) all contribute to the problem.
But at Usedfully, our focus is on solutions, rather than saying who is or isn’t at fault. The good news is that the kinds of solutions that we could put in place in New Zealand will help to reduce all types of textile waste.
Why is something like this important for a fashion consumer?
Obviously, climate change affects everyone and there is growing awareness of the impacts of what we wear and the choices we make as fashion consumers. As people become more aware of the issue, expectations of fashion businesses (and government) are rising.
People identify closely with what they wear, and they don’t want to feel guilty when they buy their clothes, towels, sheets and so on – or when they have to dispose of them because they are worn out.
But just knowing that things can be done differently – that there are better ways – is inspiring to people. And when we’re trying to make a change for the better, what will ultimately make that change inevitable is when people, as consumers and as voters, demand that it happen.
What about for the industry?
As with many other sectors, the clothing and textiles industry recognises that the time is fast approaching when businesses won’t be able to operate unless they use a model that actively manages and reduces its waste and climate impacts.
In fact, through our work we’ve found that there is widespread desire for change right across the local industry. Most people in this industry are conscientious and responsible – they don’t want to be contributing to unnecessary waste and emissions.
We have industry partners within our programmes who are voluntarily choosing to make changes, and are working with us to track, reduce and manage their textile waste more efficiently. But everyone knows that real change can only happen if everyone comes on board, and that’s best achieved with the help of the Government, so that everyone is on a level playing field.
Why is it important to do this via the Climate Change Commission?
The Climate Change Commission is just one opportunity for the industry to engage with Government about how New Zealand responds to climate change. But for Usedfully, and our industry partners, the conversation doesn’t stop with the Commission. Our next step is a set of recommendations we are delivering to the Ministry for the Environment for improving New Zealand’s management of textile resources.
It’s easy to get cynical about a lot of this, mainly because the issues and things that need to change are so huge and complex. How do you think change can happen?
The thing about textiles is that there are simple and pragmatic steps that can drive major improvements in how we manage the flow of waste. Compared with the challenges involved in making further substantial reductions to carbon emissions in sectors like energy and agriculture in New Zealand, textiles really are the “low hanging fruit”.
And change is already happening, driven by brands and organisations that are part of Usedfully’s programmes. We’ve piloted technological solutions for re-using various types of textiles, and designed what a circular system for textiles in Aotearoa could look like. Essentially, the next phase of change is about moving from ‘proof of concept’ to implementation at scale.
The game-changer will be the Government using levers like policy and regulation to incentivise change across the sector. This would provide the certainty necessary for investment in the infrastructure for large-scale collection, processing and reuse of textile fibres, which would provide jobs and economic returns as well as reducing waste and emissions in Aotearoa.
In the meantime, Usedfully will continue working with our industry partners to design and test solutions, bringing more willing collaborators on board, and raising awareness of the issue among individual and corporate consumers, as well as decision-makers in Government.