Every year, over 500 million kilograms of global textile waste ends up as landfill. Annie Thompson wants to change that. As the founder of Worn Up, she works to convert non-wearable uniforms and upcycles them to create a range of new things such as furniture, building materials and soft items such as pet beds.
Annie, who is currently completing her Masters in Sustainability at Macquarie University, is also the founder of Sustainable Schoolwear, which produces ethical and sustainable uniforms.
After years of working for Sustainable Schoolwear, Annie has shifted her focus to waste, resulting in the start of Worn Up after identifying these non-wearable uniforms as a great resource for upcycling. Worn Up is now working towards a fully circular future and aims to collect, divert and upcycle 100 tonnes of Australian textile waste by the end of 2021.
We spoke to Annie to find out more about how she started Worn Up, the challenges and highlights, and what she’s got planned next.
First of all, can you tell us what inspired you to start Worn Up? How did it go from just an idea to actually making things happen?
“Worn Up came from wanting to deal with our own uniforms at their end of life. We started to take them back when we realised that they would probably end up in landfill. Worn Up grew from there to take-back all school and work uniforms from any supplier, just so we can keep them out of landfill. Most have polyester in them and that doesn’t break down for about a hundred years.”
“We had to design a collection, clean and reformation process and get the pricing right. We charged a small collection fee to stop dumping and also, so people perceived these as a raw material and not ‘waste’. It’s a perception issue – we are all too used to letting others deal with our waste and I think we need to take more responsibility for it. “
What have been the biggest challenges for Worn Up to date?
“Financial challenges. We didn’t receive any form of funding from the state government even after some very promising conversations. It is hard to develop products, hire and invest into employee learning, buy our own machinery and do marketing without financial support. So, it’s tough but worth it, and we have an amazing team. We haven’t taken it out to the market for investment as it’s an unproven process – we are almost ready to do that now.”
“We have had to use our savings and some to fund Worn Up as we know it’s worth the investment but that means the whole family has committed to it. We also had to learn how to collect, clean and process the non-wearable corporate and school uniforms into a raw product that can be reformed into a range of items.”
“We could collect, rag and sell that offshore the same as recyclers – but choose not to. We call that ‘strip and ship’ – the footprint is crazy and not fair to the countries it’s sold to. We also don’t ‘burn for energy’ as that’s obviously not environmentally friendly.”
You’ve said that Worn Up is working towards a fully circular future. Can you share with us why this vision of the circular economy is important to you and why others should care?
“Circular is about taking responsibility for our discarded items and creating new ways to make them useful instead of discarding them. In some ways we are at the end of an era of high, meaningless consumption and we are learning that consumption can’t be linear, as that’s extremely bad for the planet and future generations.”
“We can innovate and create new products from old that help in designing things we need. An example is a polo shirt. If a business buys a cheap shirt it is very likely to be made from short fibres which can’t be reformed as they aren’t as durable. If that same polo is made with better fibres - doesn’t have to be all natural - we can determine what products it can be made into at the end of life. It becomes a resource.”
“In Europe some bigger chains are now able to take fibre back to fibre – but that’s new and expensive.”
“We want to see that but can’t afford the machinery – it still means that we can do what we can in the interim of that becoming the norm and be ready when that technology is available. That’s why we chose to get non-wearables out of landfill as a first step and experiment in reforming it into a range of products including furniture, building products and soft items such as pet beds – that’s within our capability. That’s key I think that we all just do what we can, and the collective effort will deliver change.”
“We also launched our Dress-to-Desk Pilot last year and in collaboration with NSW Circular and UNSW SMART Centre, created the first school desk from discarded textiles and other upcycled materials.”
Can you share with us the pivotal moment in your career, or personal life, that led you to realise you’d be changing the world in the way you are now?
“When my 26-year-old son called me a ‘boomer’ and said we were responsible for the high cost of living and house prices which meant he basically will have limited opportunities to secure the things we have and his future earth is bearing scars of our era! Similarly, when a third-grade student gave a presentation and said his school shorts saved water and didn’t use petroleum – he then asked his teacher “what do your pants do”. It made me realise that we need to catch-up to our kids and the way they think to create a world they want to be part of.”
“Another moment is when I realised that fashion doesn’t take responsibility and the margins for disposable, cheap clothing is simultaneously making some people rich and famous and creating a poorer world for many others. Yes, I am anti-fashion and seasonal overproduction.”
What has been your proudest moment to date working with Worn Up?
“There are many - doing my first Textile Dumpster Dive to rescue a pile of offcuts from a Marrickville maker, having my daughter working with me, winning some funding from AMP, being invited to work from an Incubator and getting out of a Kennards 3x3 cubicle to work in. Being able to use every inch of learning from my Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Development to apply to my business, getting my first customer, and finally, getting my specially designed processing machinery, or shredder, for my sixtieth birthday.”
Annie, you have said you are aiming to collect, divert and recreate 100 tonnes of Australian textile waste by the end of 2021. How are you tracking with your goal, and we can’t help but wonder, what do you have for Worn Up next?
“We are tracking well with great interest and seven tonnes already. Created a desk, pet beds and upholstery products from the raw materials.”
“We are also working with schools from all over Australia and are talking to Councils about how we can help them work with schools in their area to collect uniforms straight from schools so it doesn’t clog up bins and kerbside waste.”
It’s so great to see you are working towards a fully circular future. Can you describe the very first moment that you realised your work at Worn Up is making a real impact?
“I think that the first moment I realised that Worn Up could significantly change Australia’s perception of textile waste was when I first started manufacturing. Whilst we try and reduce our waste in every way we can, the volume of offcuts piled up. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This made me do some research and found that our schools were collecting up to 100 kilos of non-wearable uniforms a year, or in a uniform-changeover, up to 300 kilos! When you extrapolate that out to all the schools in the Sydney metropolitan area it equated to 134 tonnes.”
Before we leave you for today, we’d love to know, what advice do you have for other people wanting to get involved with Worn Up, or just wanting to do their bit for the environment?
“Firstly, check in on the Worn Up website. Secondly, think of the future – change in the present and don’t buy the packaging. Do the little things that you can each day. It all counts.”
“Pressure your company or business to change their habits as that also creates change in larger volumes which has a terrific impact.”
“Overall, put a dent in climate change. Australia can rethink manufacturing, so we can create new products from our discarded of textiles. We can leverage our reputation for science, innovation and being eco-orientated to find a better way to reform textile waste and build new manufacturing capabilities in line with this.”