How the Circular Economy will become a reality in Australia

How the Circular Economy will become a reality in Australia

We started Seljak Brand to investigate the viability of circular models for textiles in Australia by designing waste-to-resource products and engaging others in our journey. Our closed-loop recycled wool blankets are a vehicle to exemplify these ideas and across the course of our business, our profits went into innovation, exploratory projects, system mapping, collaborations and education to see what was possible.

Over the course of 10 years we’ve learned a lot about the opportunities, realities and limitations for circularity in Australia. As well as our own experiences, we thought we’d also share some broader reflections on how the circular economy framework could be extended to be more inclusive and supportive in Australia.  

Our circular model morphed over time

When we launched, the Seljak Brand model looked like this.

We quickly learned the benefit of working with established mills and the quality of their products. Our recycling solution remained mostly theoretical, at least scale-wise, because our product had serious longevity! 

So we lent further into product life extension avenues rather than just end-of-life recycling, which at the time also had limited local and global capacity. We created care and repair manuals and delivered online and in-person workshops. 

We also introduced a tiered returns system, donating blankets in good useable condition to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), before returning to the mill or other recycling partners, for shredding and remanufacturing. 

Finally, we investigated compostability, testing the biodegradability of recycled and new wool blankets at local community farms to prove biological as well as industrial circularity.

Here’s our circular model evolved with time.

Pushing circularity forward in Australia 

With schemes like Upparel textiles recycling ballooning in recent years, the consumer sentiment for meaningful waste solutions has never been clearer. But there’s still so much work to do to create scalable closed-loop solutions in Australia. This is what we learned needs to happen across industry sectors to create a true closed loop system. 

  1. Establish a strong manufacturing ecosystem: Manufacturing is a huge area of opportunity – and necessity – if Australia is to meaningfully move to a circular economy model. The nation needs to bolster its manufacturing capacity if it expects to be able to re-manufacture waste into high-value materials and products. This includes establishing reverse logistics systems that incorporate sorting and disassembly into its supply chain. Quality must be included in this ethos starting at sourcing materials, like natural and mono- (pure) fibre streams.
  2. Build accessible R&D facilities: Access to R&D (research and development) labs, equipment and skills is limited in Australia, with labs often existing within institutions like universities. R&D facilities need to be commercially-focused with embedded connections to waste suppliers and local manufacturers. Courtney Holm’s reimagined A.BCH studio (Circular Factory) is an example of an open-source maker space as well as studio-for-hire for textiles specifically. 
  3. Introduce incentives for collaborating: All interested organisations and individuals should be privy to circular knowledge gained from pilots programs, case studies and other investigations. A competitive approach results in protectiveness and silo-ing, preventing the entire industry from benefiting from inroads that are made. As with any government-led policies to shift the needle on social and commercial norms, ‘carrots’, or reward incentives, would support a collaborative or ‘pre-competitive’ business environment. These could be tax breaks, incentives for partnering and responsible procurement, and promotional support for product stewardship programs.
  4. Focus on the smaller loops: There remains a strong focus on recycling as the main function of the circular economy, instead of the wide range of ways that  life cycles of products can be extended. Working with loops higher than recycling on the hierarchy, like ‘care’, ‘share’ and ‘repair’ offer business opportunities as well as sustainability outcomes, through models like rent-a-wardrobe, book borrowing as a library member, car and ride share and maintenance or the ongoing servicing of product.
  5. Prioritise a beautiful outcome: More waste solutions need to include a high-value product on the other side, which is part of elevating circularity beyond the recycling conversation. Design philosophy and aesthetic, and customer use cases, should be considered as carefully as the supply chain. Like the slowly increasing value placed on arts in Australia, designers must be included as key stakeholders in the shift to circular systems as shapers of value and culture, as well as problem solvers. 

What felt like a fringe idea in Australia in 2015 has blossomed into ‘the path forward’ for both design and the economy. Circular economy is now on the federal policy radar and fashion industry best practice. The Circular Economy Ministerial Advisory Group is planning to launch the National Circular Economy Framework by the end of this year, and the Australian Fashion Council’s Seamless industry initiative to establish a circular system for clothing stewardship is underway. In order to realise this vision, design and manufacturing need to be integrated and supported to create a robust nation-wide system of circularity that answers to every lifecycle stage of products and services.

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