The Australian Circular Textiles Association estimates that 30 per cent of clothing is never sold. With stores closed due to COVID, McKinsey & Company estimates that a massive €140 billion to €160 billion ($220-250 billion AUD) in excess inventory is currently sitting in warehouses around the world. These mountains of clothing could make their way to landfill or even be incinerated, with global retailers exposed for burning 'dead stock' in the past.
While major brands have way too much clothing, members of the public often don't even have access to the essentials. In Australia, an estimated 3.24 million people live below the poverty line. That is one in eight adults and one in six children without the resources to cover their basic needs, including the ability to purchase new clothes for work or school.
Australian not-for-profit Thread Together is tackling both problems by redistributing excess retail stock to those in need. The organisation gives disadvantaged Australians the opportunity to shop for new clothing, an experience that restores a sense of autonomy and dignity for people who are doing it tough. In addition to generating social benefits, this service helps to close the loop within the wasteful linear system of clothing production.
We sat down with Thread Together's Partnerships, Communications and Marketing Manager Alyce Krowitz to talk about bringing circular solutions to the communities that need them most.
"We are the number one ethical solution for fashion waste in Australia. We capture large volumes of excess stock and then redistribute that back into the community.
Thread Together solves two problems with one solution. The first problem is that there's a huge amount of excess clothing that goes into landfill. The second is that there are a huge number of vulnerable people in need of clothing in Australia. We take excess clothing, sort it, and distribute it to communities in need, so there's an environmental factor that we solve and a community factor that we solve.
We receive clothing donations from over 500 fashion partners including The Iconic, Bendon, P.E. Nation, General Pants Co. and Tommy Hilfiger, to name a few. All this new clothing would have ended up in landfill, been shredded or sat in warehouses for many years and actually cost the companies a lot more. We move that fashion out of landfill and back into circulation through giving it to people in need. We want to dignify people who are in very difficult situations by being able to choose clothing that best represents themselves — to shop like anyone else would shop."
"We believe that people deserve their best during their darkest times and there's such a huge amount of new fashion going to landfill that we focus in on finding a purposeful use for excess stock.
We are on a mission to clothe 1 million people by next year 2022, which will be our 10-year anniversary. To date, we have clothed 500,000 people and we're looking to close that gap by next year to hit that 1 million people.
In order to do that, we have moved into a new warehouse to allow us to be able to store the volumes of clothing that we receive and distribute it out through our mobile wardrobes, online services and clothing hubs."
Clothing is the forgotten need of people who are vulnerable. You think, okay, if someone's in need, they need shelter and food, but you forget about the dignity that clothing provides somebody and how putting on a new pair of underwear, a fresh bra or a beautiful dress makes you feel.
"When we receive items, we vet them to make sure they are brand new with tags. We then distribute them in one of three ways. The first is our online store which can be accessed by charity partners or caseworkers who shop on behalf of or with their clients. The second is our mobile wardrobe service which is essentially a big van fitted out like a wardrobe. This allows us to give people a shopping experience in the comfort of their own environment because not everybody can leave their environment.
We use mobile wardrobes to bring our service to communities that invite us into their spaces, such as women's shelters. We also do a regular mobile wardrobe at Hope Street in Woolloomooloo where we clothe 70 people in three hours. That's a really lovely experience, we make it very dignified — there's tea and coffee, we try to avoid lines, it's more of a gathering. Individuals are called up when it's their turn so that we're able to style them appropriately, engage with them and ask them what they need.
A lot of these people live on the streets or they live in housing and they don't feel comfortable leaving — that's their community and that's where they feel safest and we're able to bring our mobile wardrobes to them.
The third way we distribute clothing is through our fashion hubs. These are permanent spaces where people can come and have a shopping experience. We currently have hubs in Darlinghurst, Kensington, Canberra, Adelaide and we're launching one in Ballarat at the moment.
We are continually trying open up new fashion hubs and mobile wardrobes around Australia so that we can reach people in remote communities. That's why the mobile wardrobes are so vital to what we do. All the mobile wardrobes are also volunteer led.
We work very closely with our charity partners to understand their needs and understand what their clients are facing. If we just take a step back, a vulnerable person isn't just that person who's sleeping rough on the side of the street. It could be somebody escaping domestic violence, somebody who has just left jail who doesn't have any clothing and is trying to make a fresh start from themselves, somebody living in affordable housing looking for a new job who can't afford a suit and would really like to make a good impression. It's children living in difficult situations, it's school students who can't afford new school shoes.
Vulnerability takes so many different forms, shapes and sizes. So being able to loop in with our charity partners, really understand the populations they work with and make sure that we're tailoring to them is vital to the success of the organisation."
"Thread Together currently clothes over 2,000 people a week through our online store and clothing hubs around the country. Since 2012, we have also diverted over a million items of clothing from landfill. That equates to over 1000 tonnes or about the weight of a cargo ship.
The logistic process we've set up in our new warehouse has been a huge win to get us to a point that we can really grow from in a scalable way. Another amazing achievement has been that we've grown in different states. We've got a fleet of mobile wardrobe vans now — three in Sydney, one in Wagga Wagga, one in Brisbane, two in Adelaide, one in Perth and soon one in Melbourne, which is a huge achievement. We've got clothing hubs around Australia as well. So that's allowed us to widen our service and reach more people in need. We also operate online which has enabled us to reach people nationally.
The next stage of our development will focus in on environmental impacts. We will look at the clothing that we can't move, say if we have a huge amount of swimwear that there's not a huge need for, to make sure that we can do something valuable with that. We're in talks with other groups at the moment about upcycling these items to create furniture or other items and keep them in that circular loop."
"Get involved, be a part of our family, be a part of our community and support people who are doing it tough.
If you're a fashion brand, please connect with us, donate your excess clothing and partner with us. If you're a citizen, volunteer with us and donate to us. If you're able to set up a regular donation, we value that hugely. We need financial donations to continue our operation and we really appreciate them."
Head here to learn more about Thread Together's work.