A Wellington couple passionate about sustainable textiles are leading an industry government partnership next month - the first collaboration of its kind.
The textile industry is the third biggest carbon emission producer – behind oil and gas, and agriculture – but a textile reuse business called Usedfully say it's one of the "low hanging fruit," and one of the easiest sectors to revolutionise.
A growing consumer appetite for sustainable fashion, and a government under pressure to cut carbon emissions have created a perfect storm for a shake-up of the textile industry, says Usedfully founder Bernadette Casey.
Bernadette and her husband Peter Thompson – the company's CEO – have mapped out a scheme in which textile waste produced by New Zealand brands, corporations and businesses can be re-processed within a closed network.
Now championing sustainable textiles for over a decade now, the idea for Usedfully began in 2008 when Bernadette was running a textile business.
"I was asked by a friend of mine to write a chapter on sustainable textiles for a book he'd written on global warming," she said.
"I had just a few weeks to research and write this article. And it really blew my mind."
Bernadette discovered around 90 per cent of textiles produced end up in landfill or incineration. And while textiles only made up about 5 or 6 per cent of total landfill, it amounted to 30 per cent of landfill emissions.
She decided to completely changed her business model to focus on waste textiles.
"It was just mind opening for me and I thought 'I'm doing it all wrong' and need to start looking at that end-of-life piece."
Initially working in product development, their first client was Starbucks in the US, designing an upholstery fabric from their used coffee sacks that became a feature in Starbucks cafes globally.
After working on projects in Europe for several years, they returned to New Zealand in 2015.
Through projects reviewing the reuse of corporate wear for New Zealand companies, they realised textile waste within the country were a huge untapped resource.
Not only does New Zealand import more than 96 per cent of its textiles, but the waste was usually also dealt with offshore where it mostly ended up in landfill.
"We've tended to offshore all out solutions, or it goes into the charity bin and charities take some of it – they sell some of it for charitable purpose and the rest goes in the rubbish," Peter said.
"If you can imagine when a clothing retailer sells or manufactures, or when an importer imports, catching a bit of that value and putting it to the side to pay for the end of life."
For every 10,000 tonnes of textiles reused, there was 300 jobs created, they said.
"There's added economic value, added social value that we should be getting out of the resources that we're just letting rot," Bernadette said.
"In textiles you either have proteins – so your wools, your silks, your animal fibres. You have your cellulose fibres – so your cottons, your hemps, linens. And then you've got your synthetic fibres."
"If we think of them in those sorts of categories, you can think about where can that protein go, where can that cellulose go, where can those synthetics or plastics go."
Thompson said people had grown accustomed to the idea that plastics were bad, but often the plastics in clothing were not considered.
"People don't think of textiles as plastic," he said.
"They'll ban a plastic bag, but what about all the plastic you're wearing, that you're bringing in from overseas and then dumping in your landfill, creating three times its weight in carbon?"
With the right system and infrastructure, these resources could be reprocessed at mass scale, creating jobs and reducing environmental impact.
"Our research is all about how you take these large volumes, and they've got to go back into an industrial process because otherwise it's just boutique and its impacts are too small."
"We've got to look at it at a large scale, like a nationwide scale."
A major hurdle was that New Zealand lacked the infrastructure to support mass re-processing, they said.
"One of the stumbling blocks that's made it really difficult to move into that circular economy is there's a $3 billion infrastructure gap in New Zealand recycling across all industries."
"There's a massive infrastructure gap that prevents us from reusing resources."
The scheme is a circular system in which businesses and corporations contribute to the cost of their textiles' end of life, and then reap the benefits of accessible, reused textiles.
Corporations or businesses could opt in through a membership, and Bernadette and Peter were also calling on the Government to implement compulsory measures, including leading by example in their own textile and clothing procurement.
"When you think of government as a textile or garment procurer – you've got the police, you've got the armed defenders, you've got the defence force, you've got all the hospitals, all the prisons – they're a massive purchaser of textiles."
"If they start having on their contracts that suppliers have to have consideration to the end of life of these resources … then you can really start to invest in the infrastructure because they're such a big procurer."
A hui scheduled for September was hoped to kickstart the collaboration between government and the textiles industry.
Environment minister David Parker said the Government did not have specific plans to impose regulations for textiles.
"However, the Government is investing to minimise textile waste," he said.
"The Government has committed more than $350,000 through the Ministry for the Environment's Waste Minimisation Fund (WMF) to support textile waste solutions over the past two years."
Contrary to some perceptions, a "willing" industry was actually calling for these changes, they said.
"Over time brands have realised that there's only a limited impact a single brand can have, and to change it takes quite a lot of energy and resources.
"The individual impact has a ceiling so now we're seeing brands to start to come on board, because obviously together we can do more, and faster."
Thompson said much of the textile industry favoured compulsory implementations of sustainable changes.
"What we've heard is that they don't want a voluntary scheme, because then it's just the most progressive companies that put their hands up and then others have a competitive advantage."
"When you're talking about putting a fee on an item of clothing, it's a matter of cents against a dollar so a really tiny bit."
"But an organisation can't do that overnight. They need the pathway out there so they can see what's coming, so they can see where they end up."
And New Zealand was one of the best places in the world to trial such a close-looped scheme, they said.
"Being only five million people, you can see the whole system here and that's why New Zealand is often used as a test ground for things."
"You can see the whole system and you can trial the development of things for their rollout globally."
They said it was the perfect time for sustainable textiles in New Zealand: a government committed to the environment, a willing industry and an appetite from consumers for sustainable change.
And as the tide turned, it was a chance for New Zealand to lead the way.
"In the generations time they'll be absolutely horrified that we just put all this stuff in a hole and let it decompose."