What on earth has a proverb that originated with a 12th century Saint got to do with my career, sustainable retailing and the circular economy? The answer lies in deciding to act, not just observe the problem….
I have spent all my adult life being a successful and contented retailer. I understood my job; I had been successful; I enjoyed what I did; I worked with talented people; I met wonderful customers and I travelled to exciting places. I had enjoyed all of it. Over the years, working with teams of talented people, we had collectively created hundreds and hundreds of styles, sold thousands and thousands of units and done our very best to make people look and feel great about themselves. What was wrong with this? Why was I feeling increasingly like I was not doing the right thing?
Whether it was driven initially by the cynicism that comes with age, or whether it was the start of a significant mind shift, I do not know, but I do know, that over the last two years, I had begun to question both the business logic and sustainability of my industry and genuinely questioned whether there was going to be a meaningful industry left for future retailers to enjoy?
Ok, so what I was doing? Every day, I was leading talented teams of people, to design, buy and sell ranges of garments, that we knew would never sell through at full price but would have to end up in the endless ‘discounting cycle’ that is the curse of modern Australian retailing. Virtually as soon as a product was launched it was discounted and most of the garments that people had spent so long creating, were marked down fairly quickly.
Why were we doing this?
We were stuck in the cycle of driving positive like for like sales in a market that had been disrupted, initially by online growth and then increasingly by the growth of the global fast fashion players, who bring scale, volume and prices that we could not compete against. At the same time my costs of rent and labour were increasing, my gross margins were being squeezed and increasingly, retailers of a certain size and scale were failing and going out of business.
It was not just my business life that was offering me insights. Through my voluntary work with several retail charity organisations I was aware of another impact of fast fashion. This was the ever-increasing amount of donations being made to charity stores and their ability to process and sell this stock. I had always believed that the best way to recycle clothes was simply to donate them to the charity shops, as I believed they sold all of these clothes to generate cash to fulfil their primary purposes of social help, disaster relief, etc.
As I researched further, I was disturbed by the findings and this started me on my journey. I discovered that the amounts of donations being received by charity stores in Australia is increasing year on year, but the quality is decreasing. The story just gets more revealing; Australians buy 27kg but then waste 23kg of textiles per person per year; we wear a garment, on average, six times before we dispose of it; charity stores receive 22000 kg of donations every day and can really only sell about 15-20% of this; the rest is ‘ragged’ or exported; this only delays the inevitable; these clothes will end up in landfill, either here or overseas, emitting noxious gases. Finally, for the last few years being told that Australia does not have a meaningful textile manufacturing industry. Well, we still managed to export 94,000 tonnes of textile waste in 2016/17!
I was shocked and, more importantly, I no longer had the excuse of plausible deniability.
Through this journey of self-realisation, I had the fortune to meet a lot of intelligent, well-meaning and hugely well-intentioned individuals and organisations that all agreed that there was a terrible problem; that real and meaningful change was needed and that we could not start soon enough. Once you are aware of something you see it everywhere, as though your eyes are reopened, everywhere I looked, read or spoke all I could see or hear was reference to the circular economy; to recycling; to reusing and how real and significant change was needed. I attended a lot of conferences and meetings where everybody was very earnest that there was a real need for change….and then I always left wondering what that was?
How was I going to change the model to genuinely keep textiles out of landfill?
The recent pivot by China on no longer accepting our waste, had forced state governments and businesses to focus on card, plastic and glass recycling, which are being collected from kerbside and then stored as there are no large-scale reprocessing facilities. Data on textile waste volume collected or landfilled is not consistently measured by government, and there are very few meaningful schemes or processes that actually recycle and divert textiles out of landfill. A lot of schemes are simply delaying tactics but not true recycling processes to unlock the value in the textile waste. For example, the often-heard refrain, ‘if we rag the garment then that is better than landfill’, well yes, for a period of time until the rag is used and then where does it go…. landfill!
So, I could either accept that the world is going to hell in a handcart, or I could do something about it. I decided the latter.
One of the most tenacious and driven people I met on this journey was Graham Ross, who amazed me by his drive and focus in setting up Kusaga Athletic, a textile company that makes four sustainable fabrics, including the worlds greenest T-shirt. Graham had done this because, as an athlete, he was appalled by the waste in the production of so much sportswear. This desire to do something and not simply point out that there is a problem, resonated so closely with my own values that Graham and I are now business partners, at our new business, BlockTexx.
Our aim: Unlock the value in textile waste
I will write further in the coming weeks about the detail of BlockTexx and what we do, as we are on an amazing and truly innovative journey. Each day we drive our decision making by remembering:
Textile waste is growing every day. As landfill in Australia becomes ever more expensive and less available then simply burying it or exporting it is not an option.
Our consumption choices generated the waste, we have to deal with the problem ourselves and cannot adopt an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality
We have to reduce the need for new fibres to have a meaningful impact
To be a significant solution we have to remove the existing friction of joining buyers and sellers, which is why we have built a fully functioning market place.
We are building a real business that provides real solutions
So how does all of this relate back to the 12th century Saint, the proverb, my career and the circular economy?
Hopefully as you have read this you can understand the journey I am on? I have spent over thirty years in the retail industry driving consumption. What I have realised is that this is not sustainable in its current form and a new model is needed. This model is not about asking people to consume less, or to forgo what the previous generations enjoyed, as these tactics will not change the hearts and minds of tomorrow's consumer. We need to see the business model evolving as an ‘And-And’ solution, with positive mutually beneficial outcomes. We need to meaningfully deal with the textile waste mountain with real and innovative scale solutions that actually divert textiles from landfill. Just talking about the problem or operating at a sub scale level will not meaningfully change the situation.
With the solutions we are developing we believe that BlockTexx will provide that breakthrough over the coming years.
To end, the complete proverb has many forms, and I am not invoking religion to prove any point whatsoever, but the whole proverb can read:
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but heaven is full of good deeds”
We want to make a real difference to an industry I still love, so that it has choices about recycled fibres and textiles. This is what today’s and increasingly tomorrow’s consumer will insist on, so really doing something now, will allow that to really happen.