Discarded fashion and textile items can be repaired, refurbished and remanufactured to improve sustainability and generate revenue for charity organisations.

A UNSW researcher is exploring ways to translate fashion and textile waste into new products for resale through the not-for-profit sector.

Charities receive a huge amount of damaged clothing stock through donations, which is often destined for landfill. “And, of course, they have to pay the landfill costs for this waste,” says Associate Professor Alison Gwilt from UNSW’s School of Art & Design.

“We are examining how damaged and discarded textile items can be reused for different high-value products. This means exploring new redesign processes so that we can create value-added textiles, homewares and fashion products.”

A/Prof. Gwilt is collaborating with long-term partner AnglicareSA to investigate the possibility of a social enterprise model that would provide a revenue stream for charities. The project would also increase access to much-needed clothing for lower socio-economic groups and promote more sustainable textile practices.

Each year 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created annually. Clothes take decades to degrade. In the process, they emit greenhouse gases. The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global CO2 emissions.

95% of those textiles could be reused or recycled. Additionally, one in eight adults and one in six children do not have adequate access to essential clothing.

“Here we have an opportunity to bring value back to damaged items, so they are truly valuable to the people that receive them,” the designer and practice-led researcher says. 

The research will establish a sorting methodology to evaluate a product’s potential, assessing factors like a textile’s fibre content, quality and faults. “It's not just about assessing an item for the level of damage. Some materials are blended and highly complex to manage, which makes them difficult to repair, so we have to find new re-use routes for those materials,” A/Prof. Gwilt says.

Clothing items that are lightly damaged will receive simple repairs or embellishments and be redistributed, while more complex problem items will be repurposed to create new products, such as textile fabrics, jewellery, accessories, lighting and homeware items. These higher-end products could be resold through design retailers, such as JamFactory in Adelaide.

Dr Zoe Veness, a designer/maker and practice-led researcher from UNSW Art & Design who specialises in contemporary jewellery and art objects, would help develop these limited line products.

“Reinventing these items and reintroducing them to the consumer market will demonstrate there’s significant value to be gained from sustainable practices,” says Dr Veness.

Shifting consumer emphasis from replace to repair

Sustainable investment within the fashion and textile industries has accelerated rapidly over the last five to ten years. There has been significant funding, for example in Europe, to develop technologies capable of recycling clothing in huge volumes, A/Prof. Gwilt says.

“In Australia, there is a real motivation to tackle our waste problem and companies, such as BlockTexx, are making great progress in new innovations to recover valuable textile raw materials at scale,” she says.

Traditionally chemical and mechanical recycling breaks down textile fibres so that new materials can be created, with the majority turned into low-value products, such as cleaning rags. While these systems address the high volumes of textile waste the issue is they also allow us to continue to consume at the same rate, she says.

“The circular economy cycle means that we must eliminate waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. Although textile recycling may tick the boxes, it does not, in terms of consumption, encourage us to buy less or better.”

A/Prof. Gwilt is more interested in how we can intervene before we get to recycling. Her research looks at how we choose, use and maintain our clothes, and how we activate clothing users to engage in repair and maintenance strategies for themselves.

“We’ve become passive consumers. This means we tend to use things without engaging with the maintenance strategies that help us keep products in use for a long time. Much of this happens because clothing users struggle with a lack of motivation, skill, and time to maintain items effectively,” she says.

While all items need preventative care and maintenance to keep them in use for as long as possible, “most clothing users habitually do not repair damaged clothes, except for fixing hems or sewing on buttons,” she says. The appeal of new clothes often wins out over a lack of repair skills and the expense and effort of outsourcing, she says.

A/Prof. Gwilt’s work with AnglicareSA will extend to explore the impacts of hosting workshops for clients and volunteers to teach them clothing repair and maintenance. “Being able to help organisations put into practice what I talk about is really important,” she says.

“Volunteers are critical to charitable organisations. I’ve seen volunteers give wardrobe advice, help people make small alterations… Their engagement with the client adds incredible value to the services.”

Not-for-profit organisations are important players within the circular economy, but they are often under-resourced, she says. “Research can play an important role in promoting re-use within the circular economy and provide really critical information to give social enterprises, NGOs and the charity sector the leverage to become a more equal player.”

Her research also engages with AnglicareSA’s mobile wardrobe service, examining why people choose the garments they do. Data around clothing users’ behaviours can inform design practices to promote and engage with methods that keep clothing in use, she says. The wardrobe is run in partnership with Thread Together, an organisation that redistributes end-of-line clothing stock to people in need.

AnglicareSA deliver brand new clothes to people in metropolitan and rural South Australia, including those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, Aboriginal communities, refugees, survivors of domestic violence, bushfire-affected communities and the long-term unemployed.

“Collaborating on research that has real-world impact helps us make a difference to the communities we work with,” says Ms Sue Christophers, Head of Social and Economic Wellbeing at AnglicareSA. “We’re driven to enrich the lives of people in need for the long term.”

Sharing repair and maintenance strategies across networks like these is another mechanism for change: “I do believe in incremental change… small changes can create impact,” she says.

Equally, with today’s students destined to be tomorrow’s designers, manufacturers, producers and consumers, education is critical, she says. A/Prof. Gwilt’s sustainability research has informed international curricula, in collaboration with circular fashion peak body Redress in Hong Kong.

“UNSW has recently invested in our textiles workshop to provide the resources that enable us to refurbish and remanufacture existing waste into new textile materials. This focus underpins all our textile courses,” she says.

Embedding repair and reuse within the textile value chain

Research into user behaviour can help the industry develop products and practices that benefit both people and the environment, she says.

Prioritising quality and maintenance would keep products in use for longer, reduce the volume of new textiles produced, and open up the potential for new sustainable businesses and services, she says.

“And that's where repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing really comes into play. We know that waste resources exist, but we need the expertise to sort, dismantle and re-manufacture materials to keep them in use. That's the real focus of our project.”

Sustainability is a shared responsibility, she says. “Consumers, industry, charitable organisations and textile waste management companies must work collectively together in a circular economy. You can't expect consumers or industry stakeholders to solve the problem alone. Everybody needs to work together.”

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison
Deputy Head of School (Design) Zoe Veness
Deputy Head of School (Design)