By Tanya Plibersek

21 February 2024







Thank you all for joining us this morning, on the home of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And I extend that respect to all First Nations people here today.

[Acknowledgements omitted]

It is remarkable how starkly different clothing was for my parents’ generation – even for me as a young woman in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I don’t mean the styles were different – after all, that era is cool again (I see a lot of slip dresses, and bike shorts in my electorate.) But I’m talking about an extraordinary acceleration in production and consumption since the 1990s.

When I was a teen, and earlier, women often had just a couple of good dresses. Men one, maybe two suits. When I was a very young girl – I had two favourite dresses. One was a hand-me-down, the other was made for me by my Aunty. I was lucky to have a seamstress in the family. I loved those dresses – and still remember them today.

Back then, clothing was generally of high quality – and the expectation was that it would last years, if not decades.

These clothes were made by labels like Fletcher Jones – which had its factory in Warrnambool and Mount Gambier and employed 3000 people in the 1980s. They used local materials – such as the wool produced by the nearby Warrnambool Woollen mill.

Of course back then, the clothing, textiles and manufacturing industries in Australia and places like the US were protected by tariffs.

In the 1990s, this all changed with Free Trade Agreements – and the internet.

Free Trade Agreements combined with changes in technology and manufacturing processes - allowed clothing to be manufactured and imported into Australia at a much cheaper cost to the consumer.

And the internet really turbo-charged fast fashion both in terms of design and distribution.

Improved affordability of clothes is a good thing. Parents shouldn’t have to choose between a new pair of school shoes and paying the electricity bill.

But this big shift in the industry was accompanied by a surge in thoughtless design and material selection, and driven by a business model that encouraged a throwaway shopping culture.

Thankfully, following the deregulation of the 90s, some important guardrails have been introduced to improve labour practices.

But environmental standards are still woeful. So woeful in fact that the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of humanity’s carbon emissions – more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

It’s the responsibility of government and the fashion industry to examine how we can be more sustainable in design, the materials used and the role of the circular economy in extending the lifespan of a garment.

As an industry, there needs to be environmental sustainability of business models and the way products are marketed.

And for consumers – there is a role for all of us to be educated and informed on what is the true cost of our fast fashion. And to adopt more sustainable behaviour.

It helps when consumers educate themselves about the choices they make.

This is happening more and more as people seek to reduce their environmental footprints.

Let’s look at the real cost and lifecycle of one particular item – in this case a t-shirt.

We are not talking here about someone who buys a cheap t-shirt for their kids because money is tight, and the kid will wear it to death – but someone who might only wear an item once or twice before discarding it.

In this scenario, someone might be scrolling on social media and see an outfit – let’s say t-shirt and shorts they like, worn by an influencer.

They buy it with the click of a button – one of 56 items the average Australian will buy in a year.

They might wear it a couple of times before it loses its shape or becomes unfashionable.

In what they think is a good deed - they bag it up and drive it around to the local charity shop – where it is dumped outside in a plastic bag.

But this charity – like all charities – is being inundated with low-quality fast fashion. So, they end up paying to have it dumped in landfill.

Last year, figures released showed Australian charities are forking out millions of dollars to deal with donation dumping. That’s money that could go to helping needy Australians.

Charitable Recycling, a national network for charitable reuse and recycling, puts the national cost at about $18 million a year for waste management and disposal.

Once in landfill – the t-shirt then decomposes over many months if it is cotton - the dyes and the chemicals leaching into the earth. Multiply these months by years if the garment has plastic, zips or buttons in its design.

And if the garment is made from synthetic fibres, it takes around 500 years to decompose. That’s right – your yoga pants, made using fossil fuels, will outlive you by many centuries.

And the shirt we bought on impulse is just one tiny part of the 92 million tonnes of textile waste produced globally each year.

When I step back from this scenario, from normal consumer behaviour, it seems like madness. But I must admit – I am also part of the problem.

I have certainly bought things without considering the lifecycle of the product, or if I actually need it.

The problem is not that these items are low cost – it’s good that clothing costs consumers less. But we also have to reduce the cost to the planet.

We need to think twice about the outfit bought in a fog of scrolling, that is destined to be worn only once.

Changes in manufacturing and consumption since the 1990s are seismic and have had a huge impact on volume.

Volume in the amount of clothes we own, the amount of clothing in the world, the amount of styles of clothing, and of course the amount of clothing going into landfill.

Even shifting a small part of this churn of fast fashion – from factory to landfill – has the potential to have a positive impact on the planet.

As Minister for the Environment, my job is to advocate for something that doesn’t have a voice: the natural world.

The natural world that provides the 2700 litres of water – more than one person drinks in three years - and more than 6kg of carbon to make that one t-shirt.

And sadly – the beautiful, natural world that has become a dumping ground for clothing that can’t even be called pre-loved anymore – because our relationship with many of our garments is so fleeting, that we cannot call it love.

There is a large corner of the fashion industry that is too reliant on encouraging a throwaway shopping behaviour. But there are alternatives.

The circular economy provides some neat solutions to the excessive waste produced by the fashion industry. Something gets made, but its lifecycle is extended, as the garment is repaired, on-sold or repurposed.

Part of that is up to us as consumers; to be more conscious about what we buy – and how we use the products, and for how long. Can we mend clothes, or chose clothes more prudently – so that less waste shows up in landfill? Can we swap clothes, rent them or embrace thrifting – as my kids and so many others have done?

The Mistra report on sustainable fashion says increasing the life of a t-shirt by a factor of three (i.e. going from 20 wears to 60) reduces the water and carbon footprint by 66 per cent and 65 per cent respectively. As someone still wearing things I bought in the 1980s and 1990s, that appeals to me enormously.

But we should not have to rely on consumer preferences alone to change the way we consume fashion.

If it’s the fashion industry that makes the profits, then it must be responsible for doing better by the environment. That’s why it’s so good to see parts of the fashion industry leading the way on adopting circularity.

That starts with taking responsibility for design. And given that up to 97 per cent of clothing sold in Australia is designed and manufactured overseas, that means importers and retailers must be more accountable for the products they sell and their effects on nature. Are the clothes they sell destined for landfill after a few wears?

And for those who manufacture in Australia, it means thinking hard about what they can do to create and sell products that have a longer shelf life, while still being affordable. To design a product that could be re-used, repaired or recycled rather than buried or burned.

Some brands have already lifted the bar. With better design and more responsible materials, come things like using less water to make jeans or t-shirts made from recycled fibres.

My jeans can be returned to the shop for repairs. My exercise gear can be returned to the shop for recycling. I have suits from an Australian designer that uses lots of remnant fabrics that would otherwise end up in landfill. And purchases are often packed in recycled paper and cardboard.

Internationally too, we are seeing more and more affordable brands and retailers using better environmental design and sourcing, and taking responsibility for their products when the buyer is done with them.

Government is not sitting on our hands on this issue. The federal government has put the fashion industry on a watch list - signalling our strong expectation that industry needed to take action to reduce clothing sent to landfill.

In response, the Australian Fashion Council designed a Clothing Stewardship Scheme called Seamless. Seamless aims to create a circular clothing industry by 2030, where responsible stewardship and citizenship are embedded across the entire clothing lifecycle.

Seamless will:


  • create programs to incentivise clothing design that is more durable and recyclable,
  • foster new circular business models,
  • close the material loop, and
  • expand clothing collection, sorting and recycling.

I was pleased to launch the Seamless program in June 2023.

I will continue to monitor the progress of Seamless in the lead up to June of this year and very much hope to see more brands and retailers signed on or in discussion with the Seamless management team about participating.

Well done on an expanded membership in recent months.

Shoppers: if you do not see the name of your favourite brand sign up – ask them why.

And let them know that Australia is watching and waiting to see if they answer the call.

I repeat what I said in June last year. I am watching. If I am not happy with industry progress, I will step in and regulate.

The second-hand market has a crucial role to play to ensure that we are using and reusing what is already made.

eBay is a great enabler of circularity by supporting this second-hand market thrive, and in backing in innovators to grow circularity further.

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, more than 500 billion in US dollars of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling.

I look forward to hearing the winners of the cash prizes announced after this speech.

Together we can all make a difference. We see that through the work of eBay, Seamless and the Australian Fashion Council.

I look forward to a thriving fashion industry – but not at the expense of nature.