It may just be the worst-kept secret in Australian fashion. The country doesn’t process its own wool or cotton. Processing skills and infrastructure moved overseas in the 1990s, when tariff protections for textiles, clothing and footwear industries were significantly reduced, and China was able to undercut prices and offer more efficient ways to turn raw materials into marketable commodities.
Three decades on, and despite producing 90% of the world’s fine apparel wool, all but a handful of Australia’s wool processing plants have closed. More than 80% of Australia’s wool clip is sent to China and more than 90% of Australia’s cotton is exported – with the majority processed in Asia. Opportunities for innovation in the local fibre industry have stagnated.
This should be surprising. The Woolmark symbol is a source of national pride, sought after in Parisian ateliers and the knitting mills of Reggio Emilia. Australia has a near monopoly on fine apparel wool, which should make it a lucrative crop, yet the capacity to capitalise on this is limited.
The devastating bushfires of last summer were barely embers when coronavirus hit. In June, citing the pandemic’s impact on supply chains and concerns about Australian reliance on China, the National Farmers’ Federation called for the revival of food and fibre manufacturing, saying the return of value-adding processing would greatly benefit regional economies and protect Australian farmers. Victoria’s minister for agriculture, Jaclyn Symes, has also expressed an interest in local processing.
The pandemic has increased demand for local manufacturing, a welcome change for sustainable fashion advocates. Local production is not inherently more sustainable, but local manufacturers have to comply with Australian environment and employment laws.
Sceptics of local processing point to both as expensive obstacles that sent manufacturing offshore. But David Michell, the owner of one of the few remaining Australian wool factories, has told ABC’s Landline that technological advancements have made it cheaper to process wool locally than in China.
As the price of processing locally has gone down, the value of doing so has risen. Fashion designers increasingly seek to tell provenance stories. Consumers want to know where the cotton in their T-shirt was farmed, and buyers are willing to pay premium prices for products like non-mulesed wool. As the Uighur forced labour scandal exposes companies including Nike, H&M and Uniqlo, industry leaders and consumers alike are taking a hard look at supply chain transparency.
For Australian processing to be profitable, it will have to embrace automation and innovation in niche areas. It will also have to keep up with consumer demand for products manufactured with carbon footprint, human and animal rights in mind.
The global fashion industry is responsible for between 5% and 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With resources running out and carbon emissions on the rise, the switch to best practice is inevitable, making it commercially shrewd for the Australian industry to act on strategic changes now.
One of the most persuasive solutions proposed is the regenerative farming of natural fibres, including wool, cotton, linen and hemp. Regenerative farming is a broad term that includes a variety of agricultural practices focused on regenerating healthy landscape function, with the ultimate goal of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil.
The NSW farmer and author Charles Massy tells me that regenerative agriculture “clearly has the best solutions to carbon drawdown” and scientists have flagged carbon drawdown as critical to meeting the emissions targets of the Paris agreement.
Early adopters are already integrating regenerative farming into their supply chains. Yvon Chouinard describes it as “the number one thing humans can do to combat global warming“. His company, Patagonia, is working with farmers in India to convert to regeneration and has released a collection of regenerative cotton t-shirts. The luxury group Kering (whose brands include Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta) is working with the Savory Institute to increase the regenerative production of raw materials in its supply chain, and on a separate project in China to quantify carbon sequestration in cotton.
This global trend presents an opportunity for the Australian fibre and textile industry to capitalise on the ingenuity and excellence that already exists on Australian farms.
In June CSIRO scientists announced the development of genetically modified coloured cotton, a landmark breakthrough that will limit the environmental harm caused by the dyeing stage of cotton production.
In NSW, a farmer and researcher, Dr Jim Watts, spearheaded breeding the smooth rolling skin merino, a sheep that doesn’t need to be mulesed. There is also a growing movement of Australian farmers employing holistic grazing of cattle and sheep to restore soil health.
Given Australia’s vulnerability to a warming atmosphere, as evidenced by the record fires that ravaged bush and farmland this year, the incentives for investment in regenerative practices and local production are not just commercial. Australia’s farmers and rural communities deserve policy initiatives that would create new jobs, reward Australian innovation and take care of the land.
As the world looks towards post-pandemic life and the Australian government assesses which industries to kick-start with investment, the return of onshore processing of wool and cotton should be considered. It might just mean the beginning of an exciting period of innovation in Australian fashion and textiles.
Lucianne Tonti is a consultant for sustainable designers in Europe, the US and Australia