Australian fashion has a problem with sourcing raw materials
For every brand that has a sustainability claim, there is a lot of offshoring going on behind the scenes.
Earlier this year, the Australian Fashion Council released its Fashion Industry Report 2021. Aside from considering the devastating effects of COVID on the local industry and a little pose about the significant financial and cultural contributions of Australian fashion, I struck a rather disturbing statistic between the colorful graphics and bold pull quotes on: the fact that only 29 percent of our local businesses sourced at least some of their raw materials from local suppliers.
“The EY survey of the Australian fashion and textile industry 2021 stressed that 88 percent of companies developed their products in Australia, but only 29 percent sourced some of their materials from local suppliers, âthe report said. âThere is a great opportunity for more domestic sourcing. Every $ 1 million of industrial production that may be returned to Australia – if it is economically viable – could generate an economic return of around $ 1.2 million. “
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In addition to the obvious economic benefits of onshoring our raw materials and manufacturing industries, there is also the enormous sustainability benefit of such a step – after all, polluting air freight and transport cause sustainability costs for companies that are desperately trying to improve their green credentials.
So can one really credibly speak of sustainable local fashion when only 29 percent of the raw materials come from Australia? The challenges for local brands are common when it comes to sourcing local raw materials and sustainable fibers. While customers are increasingly demanding that their products be made in Australia, the answer is not as simple as “Okay, let’s get more out of our fabrics here”. The issues are complex and varied, especially with smaller brands.
What are the barriers to sourcing raw materials locally?
âThe hurdle is that I can afford to get the things I want,â says Suzan Dlouhy, founder of SZN , a small label based in Melbourne. “Often times I find something that is really good and these companies don’t necessarily want to work with me because I’m too small. Your minimum order quantity can buy me out of the game completely. “
During our conversation, Suzan tells me a story about trying to buy a small amount of knitting from a local factory that told her they needed a minimum order of 1000 meters. This is the reason why many local manufacturers turn to foreign suppliers – because they often do not impose such strict minimum order quantities.
Even the ability to fill a large order with other small manufacturers gets complicated – if you’re ordering something unique, do you really want five other Melbourne designers to make similar items from exactly the same knit in the same season?
It is clear that Australia has gaping holes in the raw materials processing industry. Perhaps no particular cotton is made here, but the resulting organic cotton is. Or maybe local manufacturers cannot source a certain type of textile locally and have to look for foreign suppliers. A problem that often complicates the popular âAustralian madeâ label – a label that does not necessarily guarantee that 100 percent of the processes were carried out in Australia.
At the beginning the current code is confusing at best – there are six groups of representations, each with their own compliance criteria, including the most commonly used terms Product of Australia, Australian Made, Australian Grown, and Manufactured in Australia.
It is fair to say that the average consumer does not know the subtle differences between all six groups – and even within these specific groups the criteria never require that 100 percent of the product conforms to the label, only “almost all” or the “essential” Components.
Support of the onshoring cycle
So if even Australian Made certification doesn’t guarantee products are 100 percent Australian made, how are consumers supposed to support a local industry that seems to be struggling to survive?
âThe greatest opportunity lies in local production and the support of intelligent onshoring,â says Elle Roseby, Country Road CEO. â80 percent of our customers want to support Australian-made. We send cotton and wool to Vietnam and China for spinning and weaving when possible here. We’re all talking about reducing emissions, but the current commodity model runs counter to that, we have to support the onshoring cycle.
âIn order for the industry to flourish and become more sustainable, we need to invest in job creation in local manufacturing, as well as in technology and sustainability. We have to treat it like a legitimate industry if we really want to attract the brightest minds and drive real innovation, âshe explains.
“Australia has a very small industry from the old days of making its own fabrics,” says Kalaurie Karl-Crooks, creative director and designer of the local brand Calaury. “There are only a handful of knitting and weaving mills. It is actually quite difficult to source materials that are grown and ground in Australia. What we still mill here is very simple. “
In order to revive the local raw materials and manufacturing industries here in Australia, it’s important to get the conversation back on sustainability – especially given the tremendous momentum we’ve seen in the industry towards sustainable labeling and marketing. However, transparency remains key to achieving this goal and consumers need to be careful when looking for products made in Australia.
âThe fiber becomes a yarn, the yarn becomes a fabric and the fabric becomes an item of clothing – that’s how often she literally crosses the ocean,â emphasizes Suzan. âSo if you buy, say, Kmart ‘Australian cotton’, there is no guarantee of how many times it has crossed the ocean. That’s not very clear – that’s not the transparency people in the supply chain want. “
Suzan’s point of view echoes my recent call for blockchain technology to help with tracking and transparency in the fashion industry. Blockchain even goes beyond ethical manufacturing tracking or raw material procurement and could potentially also offer the industry an automated sustainability calculator.
Imagine if you could scan two competing pieces of clothing via a QR code on one tag and at the same time see the relative carbon footprint of both, which is calculated automatically by an algorithm working in the background.
Unfortunately, this type of technology still seems a long way off – after all, the fashion industry hasn’t historically been particularly good at embedding itself in the world of technology, despite the great opportunity for blockchain to answer all these pressing ethical questions with far fewer resources – difficult way.
“When we decided to source more clothing from overseas in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s and our industries closed, I think we limited our technological advancement in fashion,” says Suzan. âBecause if you are a manufacturing company, you are constantly increasing your profits. You get the next best machine … Our production is stagnating. “
So what’s the answer to our raw material sourcing and sustainability issues?
Can we just pour money into updated technology and training and hope for the best? âPersonally, I believe the industry could be revitalized by grassroots movements that create jobs in the industry and create awareness,â Kalaurie says.
âA lot of people don’t know that Australia hardly ever produces any fabrics and that even if the raw materials are grown here, the fabric is not actually produced here. The revitalization of jobs in this textile industry would be enormous, to pass knowledge to the next generation of fabric technicians, to continue turning Australian raw materials into Australian-made fabrics and then into Australian products.
“[But] I don’t think it’s sustainable to continuously produce products. For me, sustainability means getting along with what you have to have in order to create something desirable with the least possible impact, âshe notes.
Courtney Holm, founder of the circular label A.BCH, is also enthusiastic about it – the idea that the fashion industry has to look at its output and start there if it wants to be taken seriously when it comes to sustainability. As part of the community that she has built up on site, she sells raw materials to other small manufacturers when large order quantities would otherwise price them out of the market.
Interestingly, she works at the same time with the community hub and the production house, The social studio, on a fascinating new project that could transform the local resource game.
âYou’re doing a big study in Victoria right now about what raw materials are just lying around in people’s warehouses – it’s more of a material surplus situation. We have been working on this idea of ââhow to get some of this material moving and actually help with the minimum order problem.
âThere are so many great raw materials made in Australia – hundreds of thousands of meters – that are just lying in warehouses and not being used. It’s a really crazy problem that people don’t really know about. There are so many ways that small businesses could have better solutions because they are either priced or have a minimum order quantity to take really good, big steps towards sustainability. “
In the end, the approach has to be multi-layered. While investments in our raw materials and local production capacities can reduce the impact of transportation on our sustainability goals, it is a short-term solution that only takes into account part of a circular environmental impact chain.
âIt’s very hard, and if you’re not completely circular, I don’t think you can claim to be sustainable,â says Kalaurie. “No brand is perfect, there is always room for growth – but it is important to do your best.”
Learn more about circular fashion here.