Towards a circular textiles economy

Can transitioning to a circular economy help lead to a sustainable fashion industry in Australia? Our team thinks it can provide a winning formula in more ways than one.

transitioning to a circular economy

At face value the Monash Sustainable Development Institute's circular economy textile team appears quite an eclectic mix.

Textile lead Aleasha McCallion's life-long affair with the fashion industry has included the polarised experiences of creating her own clothing-design label and a stint at a fast fashion company, before such companies were considered 'fast'.

Julie Boulton is a one-time aspiring journalist, and former lawyer and bureaucrat, who has kept her writing passion alive by authoring a children's series about sustainability that began with the book 'Where did my undies come from?'.

And Jim Curtis is the "methods person and sounding board" with years of experience in applied research projects with industry. He describes himself as the one who is definitely "not a fashion person".

Yet the combination works. McCallion brings industry experience and networks, Boulton connects business and policymakers with the principles of the Sustainable Development Goals and Curtis adds the behaviour science expertise. This teaming of skills and expertise from across MSDI reflects the purpose of the institute's Collaboration Fund, which backed the project in 2019.

This year has been one of success and momentum building for the team, as it explores ways for the Australian textile, clothing and footwear industry to move towards a circular economy, an approach that fundamentally reshapes the way goods are designed, used and disposed.

When the Victorian government released its revised recycling policy earlier this year, for example, the inclusion of textiles as a priority material was in part due to the MSDI team's research, persistence and drive for change.

"We were very hopeful that we might have some impact on the policy development, but we didn't expect we would see textiles named as a priority material," McCallion said.

"But what we are seeing now is that people are really talking about textiles in fashion, clothing and footwear industries as an important sector in Australia across a range of discussions including manufacturing, consumption and waste discussions."
- Aleasha McCallion, MSDI

The project's first phase included interviewing industry players to gauge their understanding of the principles of circular economies and exploring how they could be developed within the Australian fashion industry.

The team designed questions to identify the extent that the textiles waste problem was understood within the industry, what influenced attitudes and behaviour around this, and how government policies could better match industry needs.

"We were trying to understand the needs of the industry and then looking at how those needs aligned to policy and identifying any gaps," Curtis said.

"We were asking questions about ... what were the types of things the industry needed from the government to help overcome certain behavioural and organisational barriers."

Curtis said the interviews revealed that, rather than scepticism or hesitancy, many participants were "quite advanced in their thinking" and keen to move towards a circular economy model.

But, he said there "were a number of influences and factors at play," such as whether there was the customer demand for such products and the necessary infrastructure in Australia. The team would look to address these issues by examining successful examples from around the world that demonstrate the commercial viability of taking a circular economy approach.

With the first phase of research to be published shortly on the Sustainability Victoria website alongside other work that was used for the new policy, Ms McCallion said the team was now looking at "taking what we've learned and working with industry to develop material that helps people understand why it's important to think about circular textiles in Australia".

"Transitioning to circularity in textile materials is a win for profitability, people and the environment. It's a great potential system that we really have to activate in a short period of time. I think we can contribute to that aim in a meaningful way in collaboration with industry and stakeholders," McCallion said.

The impulse to value – and see beauty – in used, ethical and sustainably-sourced clothes came early for McCallion because, as a cash-strapped student and aspiring designer, she "couldn't access new clothes anyway".

"Extending the life of items through buying second-hand, mending and wearing out of clothing is a simple habit or practice that really benefits the environment."
- Aleasha McCallion, MSDI

But, with 6000kg of clothing and textiles dumped in landfill every 10 minutes in Australia, how do you convince others of its importance, particularly those who say that are 'not that into fashion'?

Well, McCallion stressed that, like it or not, fashion touches every one's lives. Channelling the words of British author Lucy Siegle, McCallion said that from the moment you put on a T-shirt, pants, shoes, pyjamas - any type of clothing or footwear - "you are part of the system".

"It's inescapable and I think once you turn that switch, similar to plastics and keep cups, once people realise that they are actually around textiles all the time,  then they can make better choices," McCallion said

That dedication to the cause could be why it pains her to witness what has become of parts of the industry through the consumerism and waste of fast fashion, exploitation and poverty of workers and environmental destruction caused by chemical dyes in water ways.

"The fashion industry provides an immense number of jobs and beautiful products and highlights craft and talent from various areas, but it has escalated vastly out of control to a completely ridiculous system that's taking advantage of garment workers and has a devastating environmental cost," McCallion said.

"It's rarely beautiful anymore at that level, and we can't continue to take part in it that way. Slow and circular is the best opportunity to change course."
- Aleasha McCallion, MSDI

For Boulton, her sustainability journey really began to develop during a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade posting to the Solomon Islands where, in stark contrast to Australia, there were few options to purchase "new" clothing. With three inquisitive children, who asked a lot of questions, she decided to explain, in story book form, the origins of things that we can all take for granted - undies, water, food and even disco dresses.

"With fast fashion. It's just so easy, so cheap, so accessible that you don't stop and think 'why is that T-shirt only $3? There's no understanding of what actually went into making that pair of undies," Ms Boulton said.

"I tried to talk through the various steps that go into making the undies like: cotton is grown and then someone's got to pick the cotton and then you've got to turn that cotton into fabric, then that fabric, goes somewhere else and then it's cut and then it's shipped back again.

"So, at the end of the day, with all those steps that have been involved, do you really need a new pair of undies?"
- Julie Boulton, MSDI

This skill in making abstract concepts more tangible has also been used in this project.

"We are taking big-picture concepts - like responsible production and consumption (SDG 12) and identifying what that really means in the Australia TCF industry," Ms Boulton said.

"This is exactly the kind of work that MSDI does. It enables the link between research and policy so that, together, solutions can be found."

You can keep up to date with the team's work with sustainable fashion and the SDGs on the MSDI website.


Image of Aleasha

Ms Aleasha McCallion

Senior Operations Coordinator

Aleasha has an undergraduate degree in Agricultural Sciences in textiles and previous to MSDI, Aleasha worked with the Accounting Professional and Ethical Standards Board, Ethical Clothing Australia, and taught Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Business.

Image of Julie Boulton

Ms Julie Boulton

Project Manager

Julie holds a Masters in International Development from RMIT and a Bachelor of Law/Arts degree from Deakin University. Julie is interested in promoting Australian expertise, initiatives and technology related to sustainable development. She is also keen to understand how best to introduce sustainable concepts to the community at large.

Image of Jim Curtis

Dr Jim Curtis

Senior Research Fellow

Jim Curtis holds a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Planning and Design from the University of Melbourne and a PhD in Applied Social Psychology from Monash University. Jim has led or collaborated with research and partner teams on more than 100 behaviour change projects and acquired an intimate understanding of how the public sector interacts with research and the different ways that research can inform program design and policy shifts.