Fashion is a huge industry, especially in Australia, with Aussies buying around 27kg (59.5lbs) worth of new clothes each year. Unfortunately, textile waste is also prolific, with an annual average of approximately 227,000 tonnes of clothing that are discarded, and only 7,000 tonnes making it to recycling centres, according to the Australian Fashion Council.

In light of Australia’s unbridled appetite for all things new and shiny, how can we satisfy this without endangering the planet?

To put this into perspective, Australia is the world’s second-largest consumer of textiles. Yet, the average Australian only wears around 40% of their clothes, with the rest going to charity or landfills. These waste sites can release methane and microplastics into the soil and water for hundreds or even thousands of years after disposing of materials. Not ideal.

So, what can we do to become more eco-minded fashionistas? Check out this handy guide that’ll help you shop stylishly smart and stay sustainable.

The three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reducing, reusing, and recycling in the fashion industry is crucial for minimising environmental impact and promoting sustainability. Fast fashion and disposable clothing have contributed to significant waste and pollution, but we can make positive changes by adopting these principles.  

The next step in the journey toward becoming a sustainable fashion consumer involves embracing the three R’s: Reduce, reuse and recycle. Here’s what that means in the world of fashion:

1. Reduce

Beyond the Australian market, global textile waste amounts to 92 million tonnes annually, with most of that heading to landfills, resulting in further environmental harm and threatening the health of nearby wildlife who often ingest fragments of discarded clothing.. Surprisingly, the average person only wears around one fifth of their clothes, meaning there are vast amounts of clothing that are thrown out before they are ever actually worn.

A simple solution here would be to actually wear the clothes that have been purchased, but to also continue to wear them for as long as possible, as this would significantly reduce textile waste.  Here’s a great tip: Before purchasing new clothes, use different styling techniques on similar pieces that you already own, as you might find that it satisfies the need for novelty and help scratch that itch in a more sustainable way. You can also rock this step by practising conscious shopping and choosing pieces that will last longer and can therefore be worn more often.

Getting more wear out of our clothes is essential to minimising one’s environmental footprint. There are so many clothes in our closets, including many we love and cherish, so why not show off our favourites whenever we can, which in turn shows loves to the planet.

2. Reuse/upcycling

Upcycling your clothing is another great way to be more environmentally friendly. Unlike recycling, upcycling means creating something new from something you already own and extending the life of an item through a novel purpose (beyond which was originally intended), like reupholstering a chair with denim jeans or turning a dress into a cushion.

So, what are the benefits of upcycling? As noted by Velvety (a sustainable online fashion marketplace), this can include lower production costs (thanks to saving on materials) less clothing and fabric waste, and protection of natural resources.

Upcycling can also be an innovative way to spend less money, gift repurposed garments for family and friends, generate  extended wear out of clothes, create unique or even trendy designs with fewer materials and contribute to a greener carbon footprint.

Skillshare is a wonderful source of inspiration and knowhow for those looking to get started in upcycling, including embellishments like embroidery, patches, paint or tie-dye, and even how to upcycle thrift store items.

The site is also packed with other novel ideas, including ways you can repair old jeans, make fabric scraps into flowers, convert jeans into vests or belts, weave fabric and upcycle old t-shirts through embroidery, tie-dye, applique, and printing.

3. Recycle (or donate)

Donating or recycling your clothes is another awesome way to look after the environment. Second-hand stores, op-shops such as St Vinnies and vintage shops are always on the look out for  wearable donations of clothes and accessories. These items will find a home where someone will love them just as much as you did – a much better fate than simply ending up in landfill!

A shinning example of textile recycling at scale is UPPAREL. The company is a leading textile recycler, operating across Australia and New Zealand, collecting clothes, sorting them into reusable and recyalble items and then supplying them to non-profits, social enterprises, and charities. If the clothing they receive is not fit to be worn, it can still be used again by breaking the item down into what’s known as  UPtex or recycled textile fibre.

And if you’re searching for sustainable fashion brands who already use recycled materials, check out Elk the Label, Adidas, Nique, Bassike, A.BCH, HoMie, BOODY, and Nat V Basics. Plus, others like Cotton On and H&M are working towards providing better quality, more sustainable garments through sustainability initiatives.

But recycling clothing isn’t without its challenges. The Conversation reported that recycling textiles is often problematic because it requires different (and thus more expensive) methods for recycling, whereas wool and cotton can be mechanically recycled. Fabric is shredded and spun into yarn, from which new material can be woven or knitted. According to their research, the process of producing recycled fibres often leads to a lower quality as compared to single-origin textiles. This can be  countered, for example, by adding virgin cotton to recycled cotton. There are also many different methods of recycling each type textile material, and sorting through such a wide array is problematic itself. Separating materials effectively can also be complicated by contaminants such as zippers, buttons, and dyes.

Another significant challenge is the need for more infrastructure for textile recycling. The end-to-end process requires a comprehensive framework to run, unlike paper, plastic, or glass recycling, which have established collection and processing systems. Many communities need more convenient drop-off locations or curb side collections for old clothes and textiles, something that is not yet the norm in most communities. Without accessible options, people often throw fabrics away in the trash, increasing landfill waste volumes.

Quick and easy wins

We’ve compiled a short list of tips to help you become the best sustainable fashion consumer you can be below:

1. Buy used clothing: Visit your local op shop, vintage market, or second-hand store (like St Vinnies).

2. Borrow, swap, or rent clothing: In the modern era, buying, selling, or renting clothing is easier than ever, especially via online services like Facebook marketplaces, Depop, Gumtree, and Asos. Or start by encouraging your friends and family to spin up a local “swap network” to get even more value out of each others’ clothes.

3. Line dry: This helps the colours of garments last longer.

4. Buy from sustainable fashion brands: Boody, Rent the Runway and Happy Earth are great examples of eco-friendly brands. Plus, download the ‘Good on You’ app to find out the ethical ratings for each of your current favourite brands!

5. Avoid waste: Donate clothes, repair clothes using innovative techniques or put them in the textile recycling bin!

6. Look for better quality clothes: Clear signs of good quality clothing include having an extra button, a metal zip, thick material and dependable stitching.

7. Avoid shipping: Buy locally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

8. Buy certified: Look for certifications like PETA, Fair Trade, Fair Wear, SA8000 and B Corp on all future purchases.

9. Upcycle: Give new life to outdated clothes by creating a unique, contemporary take on old favourites. Who wouldn’t want a closet full of personalise garments, tailored to your unique tastes?

Remember the three R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle) when considering buying new or disposing of unwanted clothes by engaging in some of the helpful practices we’ve outlined. Reduce excess impulse-fashion buying, reusing/re-wearing old clothes, recycling clothes in textile recycling bins, re-selling clothes at vintage shops or donating them and re-inventing/upcycling clothes to sell or re-wear. Because every bit helps!

Textile recycling is more than a trend; it’s a colourful, sustainable adventure, an expression of style that’s changing the fashion world one thread at a time. So, join the fashion revolution, embrace textile recycling, and let your old clothes tell a new, eco-friendly story.