How fast fashion contributes to waste and a wearing down of skills

DISPOSABLE DRESSING: Big brands have new clothing lines introduced on a weekly basis. Photo: Shutterstock
DISPOSABLE DRESSING: Big brands have new clothing lines introduced on a weekly basis. Photo: Shutterstock

In 2019 fashion is more disposable than ever. Big brands have new clothing lines introduced on a weekly basis, while materials become increasingly synthetic, and Australians are throwing away clothes at alarming rates.

"A third of clothing is wasted," says sustainability consultant Jane Milburn. "While there's no definitive figure on this, my own research on available information shows that Australians are buying an average of 27kg of clothing and textiles each year. We're the second largest in the world after North America."

Of that 27kg of textiles, ABS figures show Australians are sending, on average, 23kg to landfill each year. "We are buying a lot, but throwing a lot away and we've become complacent."

There are several factors contributing to this extreme turnover according to Ms Milburn. "Around 90 per cent of clothing comes in from overseas. A lot of this is produced cheaply in factories using exploitative conditions," she said. "We also know two thirds of it is made from synthetic fibres made from petroleum.

REUSE: Sustainability consultant Jane Milburn wearing upcycled crochet. Photo: Charmaine Lyons

REUSE: Sustainability consultant Jane Milburn wearing upcycled crochet. Photo: Charmaine Lyons

"When you combine these changes - cheaply made clothes and changing fibres, it has led to a two-to-four times increase in consumption. As a consequence we've got more waste happening and we are also losing the skills and knowledge associated with making and caring for clothes."

Because we now have so many clothes and they are of such poor quality, Ms Milburn says its normal for people to have very little attachment to them.

"We've got to go back to seeking value," she says. "Clothing made of natural fibres, in simple styles that suit us, they aren't just transient with the season. So if we buy better quality we'll look after it. This was the old way, and many would argue it's the better way in the long term."

However she's not advocating we all rush out and buy new sustainable and ethical items. "The most sustainable garment you own, is the one already hanging in your wardrobe," Ms Milburn says. "Most people already have a lot of clothes and it's about re-looking at what you've already got, why you aren't wearing it and what you can do to wear it.

Really we can't keep up with this endless consumption business.

Jane Milburn, sustainability consultant

"Does it need to be shortened so it's better for your body shape? We're all differed heights, with bumps in different places, so we need things to work for us because then we are more likely to value and hold onto them."

Ms Milburn is an advocate for people learning to repair and modify their own clothing themselves and she'd love to see more people honing these skills.

"Then we can have autonomy and change things ourselves," she says. "These are every day life skills we think we don't need anymore, because we can just go buy a new one if a button's missing. But that's not very satisfying - it's wasteful and leaves us feeling a bit empty. We're not working with our hands in the way nature intended."

However she does acknowledge not everyone has the time or the inclination, and in that case Ms Milburn says looking around your local community for someone with the skills is the way to go.

"That might be your grandma, or it might be someone who is a seamstress or a tailor," she says. "You might even find someone who can teach you to sew. It's a return to localism. We've done globalism, and there are some efficiencies there, but we are recognising we need to really value our local communities and connections.

CONTRIBUTORS: The factors contributing to increased consumption of textiles. Picture: Jane Milburn, Textile Beat.

CONTRIBUTORS: The factors contributing to increased consumption of textiles. Picture: Jane Milburn, Textile Beat.

"Often places like your local dry-cleaners will offer a making and mending service, and some of the better quality clothing stories will have someone who can make alterations to a garment."

And if alterations aren't going to salvage the item, Ms Milburn suggests engaging in clothes swaps, with family or friends. "It's another aspect of taking community action."

When it comes to caring for your clothing, Ms Milburn says it's hard to go past the simplicity and effectiveness of gentle hand washing in cold water. "Washing by hand shouldn't be underrated, if you really want to care for your clothes."

She also cautions against overwashing. "Really clothes should only be washed when they look dirty or smell dirty. We really overdo the washing. It wears clothes out quicker and it's also shedding fibres."

This of course isn't a huge issue if the fibres are natural, but more often than not they are synthetic. These fibres, which are essentially tiny pieces of plastic, are then entering the ecosystem and failing to break down.

But the solution isn't to simply replace all synthetic fibres with natural ones - we don't have the land space for all those crops.

"Really we can't keep up with this endless consumption business," Ms Milburn says. "In a finite world, it just doesn't add up."

Jane Milburn's slow clothing manifesto

  • Think - make thoughtful, ethical, informed choices
  • Natural - treasure fibres from nature and limit synthetics
  • Quality - buy well once, quality remains after price is forgotten
  • Local - support local makers, those with good stories and fair trade
  • Few - Live with less, have a signature style, minimal wardrobe, unfollow
  • Care - mend, patch, sort, sponge, wash less, use cold water, line dry
  • Make - learn how to sew as a life skill, value DIY and handmade
  • Revive - enjoy vintage, exchange, pre-loved and swapping
  • Adapt - up-cycle, refashion, eco-dye, create new from old
  • Salvage - donate, pass on, rag, weave, recycle or compost

Jane Milburn started noticing fashion waste around 2011, and set up Textile Beat in 2013 to begin a conversation about clothes. She's particularly interested in natural fibres, which links back to her education in agriculture, and also in upcycling - how to reuse existing resources.