Episode 76: What the Seamless Clothing Stewardship means for Australian designers
- Overview of the Clothing Stewardship Scheme called Seamless in Australia.
- Description of the vision of a circular economy in Australia by 2030.
- The importance of designing for circularity and its implications for designers.
- Three challenges faced by designers in the industry: industry knowledge, deciphering B2B greenwashing, and getting buy-in from buyers and planners.
- Criticism of the claim that 80% of a product's environmental impact is influenced by design choices.
- The role of buyers and financial targets in the decision-making process for sustainable materials.
- The issue of overproduction in the fashion industry and the need for addressing it.
- Hopefulness regarding the national-level conversation and the government's commitment to the Clothing Stewardship Scheme.
- Conclusion and invitation to book one-on-one sessions or reach out for coaching or design projects.
- Clothing Stewardship Scheme
- Australian Fashion Council
- Amplifying Misinformation in the Case of Sustainability Indices in Fashion
Welcome to episode 76 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. It has been freezing in Melbourne the last few days and winter is well and truly here. Today I wanted to talk about the recent Clothing Stewardship Scheme launched here in Australia recently called Seamless it was released by the Australian Fashion Council but before I get into that a reminder about the 1:1 sessions that I have available, either the “Ask me anything strategy session” or the “Range review” session. It’s a chance to have 1 on 1 time with me to feel confident about your product decisions. You might be an independent retailer stocking brands and want to know what to look for when choosing brands saying they are sustainable, or a recent query was someone moving production offshore and they wanted to know what to look for and steps they can put in place to reduce the risk of things going wrong if that’s something you are interested in head to the shop at belindahumphrey.com.
Today I wanted to talk about Seamless which is a Clothing Stewardship Scheme created by a government-funded consortium led by the Australian Fashion Council. It was commissioned in response to clothing textiles being placed on the Federal Minister’s Priority List for Product Stewardship in 2021, with the industry required to take action to reduce the volume of clothing sent to landfill. Other countries have referred to this as an Extended producer's responsibility or EPR.
The report pitches a vision of what a circular economy in Australia will look like in 2030 which is the date they have set to meet the goals. They paint a picture of our wardrobes containing fewer clothes, most of which will be made to last from renewable fibres, many will be on their second life or come from rental and it will be standard practice for less durable items such as underwear to be made from Recycled materials.
Today I wanted to unpick what this means for a designer and highlight some alternative perspectives and some issues that haven’t been addressed. But let's start at the beginning, What does it mean for designers?
Essentially, it’s a formalised push to design for circularity, meaning that clothing is designed to be more durable and recyclable and made from preferred fibres while minimising waste in manufacturing. This step of the product development phase is an important one as it then enables other uses down the line, such as rental repair and resale creating these loops of use.
But to be honest, I would say a lot of designers have always been okay with using better quality fabrics and already know how to design durable garments which I'll go into later, and I doubt many good designers are excited by cheap materials. While designers might have to brush up on and remember techniques that might have been trained out of them I can see 3 near term Challenges for designers in the industry working towards this goal:
First is Industry knowledge of what circular design means. Even if the designer is versed on what that means, there is a need for key business stakeholders to understand what that means too. Buyers, planners, merchandising, marketing, and sales staff.
The second is deciphering B2B greenwashing. I’ve been focused purely on this space for the last 3 years watching developments in the circular economy movement in Europe and the UK in particular and I’ve seen the language co-opted by businesses to enable greenwashing. I think that is one business need to be careful of too particular when choosing materials.
The third one is getting buy-in from buyers and planners who purely have financial targets. This will be the toughest barrier. I feel for those designers working in those big businesses, getting people over the line with more sustainable fabrics or better construction methods is a hard sell because it usually always costs more.
There is a figure that floats around 80% of a product's environmental impact is influenced by decisions made at the design stage which is often interpreted as fabric or design choices made by the designer when making the product, and in earlier years I have quoted this neat little figure but I’ve since changed my mind for two reasons.
Firstly, Critics of the fashion industry have gone as far as to say that there is no robust independent evidence that preferred materials such as organic cotton contribute to the SDGs or the Paris Agreement. Veronica Bates co-authored a report called Amplifying Misinformation the Case of Sustainability Indices in Fashion where she builds the case that only 10% of the lifetime climate impact of a garment can be attributed to the fibre production of the raw material phase and the greatest greenhouse gas emissions and opportunities to improve it comes from the manufacturing stage and more importantly how the energy is generated. 10% is wildly different to 80%.
Secondly, my experience of being a senior designer in those sign-off meetings with buyers, heads of buyers, and planners, and pitching and trying to propose better quality fabrics for items I was designing, even with all the different angles I would try to influence was a hard battle to win. Buyers KPI’s and bonuses are linked to profit so any material that costs more they are going to be reluctant to commit to and essentially a buyer signs off on a purchase order. I’ve even had experience with a buyer changing materials without telling me during the price negotiation phase. I have a strong reaction when that figure gets mentioned and mainly when I was in a sales meeting and the phrase “product failure” was used for poor sales and it didn’t even land in store the way you designed it.
Can a designer make a more durable product to enable something to stay in use longer? Yes, many already do. Like I said the problem comes with costs. I remember a few years ago freelancing in a large retailer and the buyer was taking off all the twin needle stitching on the kid's wear and replacing it with a single needle to save a couple of cents per garment, to meet an overall pricing target given to them by their manager with no thought as to how that would affect the quality of a garment.
There is no shortage of clothes being found in Africa with the tags still on that haven’t even been worn, even designing to enable repair is irrelevant to a large section of the product, particularly when the cost of repair is more than buying a new one again. It signals to the customer that it isn’t valuable enough to repair. I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when spare buttons and spare yarn or beads would be attached in nice little packages and the buttons were instead sewn onto a care label until finally, I’ve seen them removed completely to save half percent per garment.
Businesses essentially report on profit, they are part of a huge system feeding into another system that monitors GDP for countries. There is no line in a sales meeting that buyers and managers run through listing how people in the supply chain are treated or paid or chemicals are avoided. For me, there are still some missing pieces. Going back to the original need for this program and the government's concerns, it was about the amount of clothing that goes to landfill. I would have liked the issue of overproduction of clothes in the first place by businesses addressed in the framework. I don’t know what that would look like, maybe clothing units produced vs sold at full price? But for me, I think it’s a lot better not to make it in the first place rather than figure out what to do with it 12 months later. It’s the middle of June here in Melbourne and our financial year ends at the end of June so everyone is on sale, trying to offload poor-performing stock and you only have to walk around a shopping centre to see that getting a quantity wrong isn’t a one-off. Judging by the sale banners and EDMs, seemingly most stores are getting the qty wrong on 80% of their store.
All that being said, I remain hopeful, because at least we are having the conversation at a national level and the government has vowed to only allow 12 months for this scheme to prove itself, Otherwise Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has said that “If the voluntary scheme is not viable and if we don’t believe it’s sufficient, or if it’s not raising enough money to cover its costs, then I will regulate. I will impose the system and I will set the levy.”
This brings us to the end of today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. As I said, If you have a question about the circular design or a business challenge you want to nut out you can book and ask me anything in one on one sessions. It is available in the shop on my website belindahumphrey.com and if you are looking to work with me on coaching or design project you can get in touch via email@example.com or DM or message me on Instagram @belindahumphrey and you'll find the show notes and any links on the website belindahumphrey.com in the podcast section. Thanks so much for reading.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate when recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.