Riches to rags: Fashion's waste problem gets a back-to-basics fix

The next time you clean your windows, it could be with a rag once destined to become a designer shirt.

As more designers integrate sustainable practices into their ethos, brands are coming up with innovative ways to acquire and dispose of fabrics.

One brand that has been doing it for more than 12 years is Bassike, which is returning to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia on Monday after a nine-year hiatus.

With an amplified sustainability message, and an injection of colour into  Bassik's resort 2019 range, the timing felt right, says co-founder Deborah Sams.

"We have been a fairly quiet brand," she says. "We have been busy pedalling and doing business. fashion week … hasn't been a priority. We’re ready to talk about [sustainability] and we hope we set a standard for Australia."

Last year the brand used 97 per cent of the jersey fabric it buys, donated 2 per cent to local mechanics as rags and held a small amount in stock. It also donates fabric to fashion schools for students' use and gives past season samples to a company that turns them into cleaning rags.

"The sustainability journey will never end, it’s how we can layer this in every level we run the business," Sams said.

And it's not just Bassike that is spreading the sustainability message. Fashion week has introduced new initiatives including eliminating single-use plastics and partnering with fashion rental business Glam Corner to promote the benefits of the shared economy over buying clothes that will end up in landfill.

Tigerlily, which is returning to fashion week after 17 years off the back of its first sustainability report, has also made massive strides in responsible fabric sourcing and disposal.

Chief executive Chris Buchanan said the brand now makes nearly three-quarters of its swimwear from recycled nylon called Econyl, including the linings. The next challenge is developing a product return scheme so swimsuits can be recycled into yarn for new products, which Buchanan hopes to trial by next year.

He said it's also incumbent on the industry to collaborate to find solutions to sustainability problems.

"When it comes to sustainability there is no such thing as a competitor. We all have an obligation to the environment, ourselves and our customers to work together."

Still, when it comes to sustainability across the fashion, progress is slow. A report this week by consulting group BCG and sustainable fashion groups found progress to reduce carbon emissions and water use, boosting the use of sustainable materials and paying fairer wages was slower in 2018 than in the previous year.

"The industry really needs to pick up the pace. Brands are improving at a slower rate and at the same time we're seeing a huge production increase," said Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer of the Global Fashion Agenda, one of the groups sponsoring the report.

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia runs from May 12-18. mbfwa.com.au.

With Bloomberg

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