Unpacking Australia’s Sustainable Textile Production Revolution

Sustainable textiles are of critical importance in today’s fashion industry, combatting the industry’s notorious reputation for resource-intensive practices and clothing wastage. These textiles also encourage innovation, fostering the development of alternative materials such as recycled, blended, and bio-based fabrics.

“Consumers are increasingly valuing sustainability, and brands adopting eco-friendly textiles gain a competitive edge,” explains Rajesh Bahl, sustainability expert at the International Exhibition & Conference (IEC) Group. “This shift aligns with growing regulatory pressure to mitigate fashion’s negative impact, pushing the industry toward eco-conscious materials.”

The lEC Group are the organisers of the upcoming Global Sourcing Expo in Melbourne, taking place from 21-23 November at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. A core aspect of the Global Sourcing Expo is the much-anticipated Global Sourcing Seminars, presentations and panel discussions from experts that cover the most pressing topics relating to sourcing, retail and product development.

“Sustainability is a huge focus of our Global Sourcing Seminars, and this will be highlighted in the Fibres of Australia panel discussion, where I will be joined by moderator Melinda Tually and panellists Ashley Hollis, Brand Relations Manager at Cotton Australia and Adrian Jones, Co-Founder of textile recycling company BlockTexx to discuss the future of sustainable textiles,” Rajesh says.

“Australia has emerged as a global leader for our ability to produce, in particular, cotton in a manner that reduces water usage and harmful chemicals as well as lowers carbon emissions,” he adds.

Australia’s cotton industry

Primarily grown in New South Wales and Queensland, cotton is a major commodity, representing 30 – 60% of the gross value of the total agricultural production in these regions and employing more than 12,00 people industry-wide.

High water usage remains a major challenge in sustainable cotton production.

Cotton’s average irrigation requirement is 6-7 megalitres per hectare, surpassing the average water usage of fruit and nut trees (5.1 ML/ha) and vegetables for human consumption (4 ML/ha).

After concerted efforts over the last three decades, Australian cotton is now ranked as one of the most water-efficient industries in the world. “Cotton farmers have achieved a steady increase in yield from less water, meaning that they can now grow nearly two 227kg bales of cotton per megalitre of water – almost double the industry average of a decade ago,” says Fibres of Australia panellist Ashley Hollis.

This figure is especially momentous considering that a single 227kg bale of cotton can produce:

  • 2,100 pairs of boxer shorts
  • 3,000 nappies
  • 215 pairs of jeans
  • 1,200 t-shirts
  • 4,300 pairs of socks
  • 250 single bed sheets

“In an average year, Australia’s cotton growers produce enough cotton to clothe 500 million people,” Ashley adds.

Cutting-edge clean technology gives new life to blended textiles

Clothing crafted from pure cotton boasts both a lengthy lifespan and biodegradability, rendering it exceptionally sustainable. However, the same cannot be said for blended textiles.

“Blended textiles are everywhere, and they’re very difficult to recycle as they consist of both synthetic (plastic) and organic materials,” explains fellow panellist and BlockTexx co-founder Adrian Jones.

“We address the recycling challenge by unlocking valuable components in blended textiles. For example, a standard bed sheet is part cotton, part polyester (plastic) and both can be converted into high-value raw materials.”

BlockTexx begins by collecting blended textiles, including uniforms, textiles, and linens, from all corners of Australia. These garments are decommissioned by expertly removing tags, buttons, and zips, done in collaboration with NDIS social enterprises and Queensland Correctional Services, which offers prisoners skill development and income opportunities.

Subsequently, the textiles, now prepared for processing, enter a reactor where polyester is separated from the cotton. BlockTexx then meticulously washes and dries the materials, resulting in two distinct streams: pure polyester and pure cellulose. The cellulose is further processed to remove excess water, transforming it into a thick clay-like substance. The polyester, on the other hand, undergoes additional steps to become recycled PET pellets. These two materials are now primed for reuse, ensuring minimal wastage in the recycling process.

Stronger legislation needed to reduce wastage

While the water usage reduction improvements in our cotton industry and the pioneering textile recycling work done by BlockTexx are huge steps in the right direction, Adrian believes that further legislation is needed to improve the sustainability of Australia’s textile industry and reduce wastage.

“We cannot keep exporting our problem to other countries. The government should follow a similar approach to the rules around the exporting of plastic bottles and tighten up the legislation of textile exports and recycling as well as implementing payment schemes for producers and consumers. People need to start asking questions about where their old textiles go and what happens to them after collection,” says Adrian.

“We believe that in less than twenty years, textile-to-textile recycling will become the norm and everyone will look back on this period of excessive waste and consumption with embarrassment. In the interim, BlockTexx is proud to be part of the solution,” he adds.

‘Tell consumers your sustainability story’

As consumers become more eco-conscious, it’s crucial that brands effectively communicate to their audience the sustainable production and sourcing strategies they employ as a demonstration of their commitment to reducing environmental harm.

These strategies will be discussed in depth in the Fibres of Australia panel discussion, but Rajesh has the following recommendations for brands wanting to get a head start:

  • Tell consumers the sustainability story of the materials used in manufacturing your products. This should be reinforced by documented facts and figures to support your sustainability claims, such as data on resource usage, environmental impact, and the reuse of materials at the end of their life cycle.
  • Utilise swing tags (informational text attached to garment), labels and marketing collateral from fibre producers on your products. This helps reinforce credibility to consumers while a collaborative approach highlights the shared responsibility for sustainability across the supply chain.
  • Educate eco-conscious consumers on the broader economic impact of sustainable sourcing. Sustainable sourcing comes at a cost, and support from consumers is vital for businesses within the textile value chain to remain economically sustainable.

“By implementing these strategies, brands can effectively convey their commitment to sustainable sourcing and build stronger connections with consumers who value sustainable products,” Rajesh concludes.

Unveiling the Fabric Revolution: Fibres of Australia Panel Discussion takes place on 22 November from 10:00-11:00am at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. Tickets cost $40 +gst and can be purchased here:

https://globalsourcingexpo.com.au/visitor/seminars/