Australians Top Global Rankings in Fast Fashion Consumption, Fueling a Growing Waste Crisis

women sitting on bed with a credit card and her phone, surrounded by clothing.(credit oksana krasiuk)

46% of respondents identified petroleum as the source of polyester, and only 27% knew that more than half of the clothes sold in Australia are made from plastic. (Credit Oksana Krasiuk)

by | Jun 4, 2024

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According to new research by the Australia Institute, Australians buy more clothes per person than any other country, fueling a fast-fashion waste crisis. Australia now leads the world in textile consumption per capita, with Australians purchasing an average of 56 new clothing items each year. This figure surpasses that of the U.S. (53 items), the UK (33 items), and China (30 items).

The environmental impact of this consumption is stark. Over 200,000 tons of clothing are discarded into Australian landfills annually, equating to almost four Sydney Harbour Bridges in weight. This substantial waste highlights the urgent need for effective policies to curb fast fashion’s detrimental environmental effects.

Proposed Solutions

The Australia Institute’s research outlines several policy measures to address the fast fashion waste crisis:

  1. French-Style Fast Fashion Tax: Implementing a tax similar to France’s could discourage the production and consumption of low-quality, disposable clothing.
  2. Export Ban: Banning the export of textile waste within five years to ensure Australia manages its waste domestically.
  3. Garment Repair Incentives: Providing government-funded discounts for repairing old garments to encourage sustainable fashion practices.
  4. Investment in Circular Economy: Federal investment to develop an Australian circular textiles industry, promoting recycling and sustainable manufacturing.
  5. Support for Recycling Initiatives: Increasing support for community op shops and recycling initiatives to reduce the volume of clothing sent to landfills.

Public Perception and Responsibility

Australia Institute polling indicates strong public concern about textile waste, with nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents expressing worry about its environmental impact. Additionally, 71% believe businesses should be responsible for eliminating textile waste, followed by consumers (57%) and the government (54%). However, awareness gaps remain; fewer than half (46%) of respondents could identify petroleum as the source of polyester, and only 27% knew that more than half of the clothes sold in Australia are made from plastic.

Expert Insights

Nina Gbor, Circular Economy & Waste Program Director at the Australia Institute, emphasizes the need for drastic action. “Australians are the world’s biggest consumer of clothes, shoes, and bags per capita. We’re addicted to stuff that is harming our health and the environment,” Gbor stated. She advocates for penalizing brands that mass-produce low-quality clothing, often discarded after minimal use.

“The Federal Government has proposed a 4 cents per garment levy under its Seamless scheme to cut clothing waste and fund domestic recycling initiatives. This is a good start, but the levy is too low to change brand behavior. It should be increased drastically to at least 50 cents per item,” Gbor added.

Economic Implications

According to Gbor, companies like Shein and Temu are expected to make over $2 billion in combined sales this year, representing significant opportunities for government intervention. Redirecting some of these profits could fund domestic recycling initiatives and the development of a circular textiles industry, mitigating the fast fashion waste crisis.

Circular Economy Goals

The Australia Institute’s discussion paper, “Textiles Waste in Australia,” co-authored by Gbor and Anne Kantor Fellow Olivia Chollet, underscores the need for robust policies to create a circular economy. Recommendations include:

  • Establishing a fast fashion tax on items sold locally.
  • Implementing labeling standards to educate consumers about the ecological footprint of their purchases.
  • Banning fast fashion advertisements.
  • Subsidizing textile repairs to promote sustainable consumption.
  • Setting a goal to ban textile waste exports within five years.

Australia’s status as the world’s largest per capita clothing consumer underscores the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address the resulting waste crisis. By implementing stricter regulations, encouraging sustainable practices, and investing in recycling infrastructure, Australia can mitigate the environmental impact of fast fashion.

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