Australian fashion has a problem when it comes to sourcing raw materials

For every brand making a sustainability claim, there is a tremendous amount of offshoring happening behind the scenes.

Earlier this year, the Australian Fashion Council released its 2021 Fashion Industry Report. Beyond reflections on the devastating effects of COVID on the local industry, and a bit of posturing about the significant financial and cultural contributions of Australian fashion, I noticed a rather disturbing statistic languishing among the colorful graphics and quotes. bold: the fact that only 29 percent of our local businesses source at least some of their raw materials from local suppliers.

“The EY 2021 Australian Fashion and Textile Industry Survey found that 88% of companies design their products in Australia, but only 29% have sourced some of their materials from local suppliers,” details the report. “There is a major opportunity for greater domestic supply. Every million dollars of industrial production potentially relocated to Australia – if this is commercially viable – could generate an economic return of around $ 1.2 million.

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Besides the obvious economic benefits of offshoring our raw materials and manufacturing industries, there is also a huge sustainability benefit in such a move – after all, air cargo and transportation pollution adds a sustainability cost to the economy. companies that are desperately trying to improve their green credentials.

So, can we really talk about sustainable local fashion in a credible way, when only 29% of the raw materials come from Australia? There are many challenges for local brands when it comes to sourcing local raw materials and sustainable fibers. As customers increasingly demand that their products be made in Australia, the answer isn’t as simple as “Okay, let’s do more of our fabrics here”. For small brands in particular, the issues are complex and varied.

What are the obstacles to the local supply of raw materials?

“The obstacle would be to be able to allow me to stock up on what I want”, explains Suzan Dlouhy, founder of SZN, a small label based in Melbourne.A lot of times I find something really good, and these companies don’t necessarily want to work with me because I’m too small. Their minimum order quantity can take me out of the game altogether.

During our conversation, Suzan tells me a story of trying to buy a small amount of knitting from a local mill, who told her that they need a minimum order of 1000 yards. This is the reason why many local manufacturers turn to overseas suppliers, as they often do not impose such onerous minimum order requirements.

Even the possibility of participating in a big order with other small manufacturers gets complicated – if you order something unique, do you really want five other Melbourne designers to make similar items from the same knit, over the course of? the same season?

It is clear that Australia has gaping holes in the raw materials processing industry. Maybe some cotton isn’t made here, but the resulting organic cotton fabric is. Or maybe local manufacturers can’t source a certain type of textile locally and have to look to overseas suppliers. This is a problem that often also complicates the highly regarded “Australian made” label – a label that does not necessarily guarantee that 100% of the processes have been completed in Australia.

For starters, the current code is confusing at best – there are six groups of representations, each with their own criteria for compliance, including the most frequently used terms Product of Australia, Made in Australia, Grown in Australia and Made in Australia.

It’s fair to say that the average consumer wouldn’t know the subtle differences between the six groups – and even within these specific groups, the criteria never require that 100% of the product adhere to the label, only “virtually all”. “Or” “significant components.

Support the onhoring cycle

So while even ‘Australian Made’ certification does not guarantee 100% of products made in Australia, how are consumers supposed to support a local industry that appears to be struggling to survive?

“The biggest opportunity is local manufacturing and supporting smart offshoring,” says Elle Roseby, CEO of Country Road. “80% of our customers want to support Australian manufacturing. We send cotton and wool to Vietnam and China to be spun and woven when it could be done here. We all talk about reducing emissions but the current commodity model conflicts with that, we have to support the offshoring cycle.

“For the industry to thrive and be more sustainable, we need to invest in creating jobs in local manufacturing, as well as in technology and sustainability. We have to treat it as a serious industry if we are really going to attract the brightest minds and spur real innovation, ”she explains.

“Australia has a very small old-fashioned industry of making its own fabric,” says Kalaurie Karl-Crooks, creative director and designer of local brand Kalaurie. There are only a handful of knitting factories and weaving factories. It is actually quite difficult to source the tissue grown and ground in Australia. What we are still doing here is very basic.

Bringing the conversation back to sustainability is key to reviving the local raw materials and manufacturing industry here in Australia – especially given the huge shift in momentum we’ve seen in the industry towards labeling and packaging. sustainable marketing. However, transparency continues to be the key to achieving this and consumers should be careful when looking for products made in Australia.

“The fiber is made into yarn, the yarn into fabric and the fabric into clothing – that can literally be the number of times it crosses the ocean,” says Suzan. “So if you buy ‘Australian cotton’ from, say, Kmart, there is no guarantee how many times it has crossed the ocean. It’s not very clear – it’s not the transparency that people want in the supply chain.

Suzan’s point echoes my recent call for blockchain technology to help with tracking and transparency in the fashion industry. Going even further than ethical manufacturing tracing or raw material sourcing, blockchain could also potentially provide industry with an automated sustainability calculator.

Imagine being able to scan two competing garments via a QR code on a tag, and see the relative carbon footprint of both at the same time, calculated automatically by an algorithm running in the background.

Unfortunately, this kind of technology seems far away – after all, historically the fashion industry has not been good at integrating into the tech world, despite the huge opportunity for blockchain to respond to all of these. pressing ethical issues with far fewer resources. – in a heavy way.

“When we decided in the late ’80s and mid’ 90s to source more clothing from overseas and our industries were shutting down, that’s when I think we have limited our technological progress in fashion, ”explains Suzan. “Because if you are a manufacturing company, you are constantly improving yourself with your profits. You can get the next best machine… Our manufacturing has stalled.

So what is the answer to our raw material supply and sustainability issues?

Can we just invest the money in up-to-date technology and training, and hope for the best? “Personally, I think the industry could be revived through grassroots movements, job creation in the sector and awareness,” Kalaurie says.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Australia barely makes fabric and that although the raw materials are grown here, the fabric isn’t actually produced here. Relaunching jobs in this textile industry would be huge to pass the knowledge on to the next generation of fabric technicians to continue transforming Australian raw materials into fabrics made in Australia and then into products made in Australia.

“[But] I don’t think there is anything sustainable about the continued production of products. For me, sustainability is about making do with what you have to create something desirable with as little impact as possible, ”she notes.

This is something Courtney Holm, founder of circular label A.BCH, is also passionate about: the idea that the fashion industry needs to look at its production and start there, if it is to be taken seriously when it comes to sustainability. As part of the community she has built locally, she resells raw materials to other small manufacturers when large quantities of orders would otherwise deprive them of the market.

Interestingly, at the same time, she’s working with the community center and production house, The Social Studio, on a fascinating new project that could change the game of local raw materials.

“They’re doing a big study right now in Victoria on the raw materials that are in people’s warehouses – it’s more like a surplus material situation. We’ve been working on this idea of ​​how to move some of this material forward and actually help with this minimum orders problem.

“There are so many good raw materials made in Australia – hundreds of thousands of meters – that sit in warehouses unused. It’s a really crazy problem that people don’t really know about. There are so many ways that there could be better solutions for small business because they are either lower priced or minimum order quantity to make these really good and big steps in sustainability.

Ultimately, the approach will have to be multidimensional. While investing in our raw materials and local manufacturing capabilities may reduce the impacts of transportation on our sustainability goals, it is a short-term solution that only considers part of a circular environmental impact chain.

“It’s very difficult, and unless you’re totally circular, I don’t think you can claim to be sustainable,” says Kalaurie. “No brand is perfect, there is always room to grow – but doing the best you can is important.”

Learn more about circular fashion here.

About Tracy G. Larimore

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