It might just be Australia’s worst-kept secret. The nation processes neither its own wool nor cotton. In the 1990s, as tariff restrictions for the garment, apparel and footwear sectors were drastically diminished, manufacturing capabilities and technology shifted overseas, and China was able to lower costs and provide more effective ways to turn raw materials into marketable goods.

Three decades later, and after supplying 90 per cent of the world ‘s fine wool garments, all but a few of Australia’s wool manufacturing plants have closed. More than 80% of Australia’s wool clip is sent to China and over 90% of Australia’s cotton is shipped mainly processed in Asia. Innovation prospects in the local fibre sector have been stagnating.

That should come as a surprise. The emblem Woolmark is a source of national pride, sought after at Reggio Emilia’s knitting mills and Parisian ateliers. Australia has a close monopoly on fine clothing wool which could make it a profitable commodity, but there is little capacity to capitalise on it.

Last summer ‘s destructive bushfires were just embers when coronavirus struck. In June, citing the effect of the pandemic on supply chains and fears about Australian dependency on China, the National Farmers’ Federation called for the restart of food and fibre production, stating that restoring value-added manufacturing would greatly support regional economies and protect Australian farmers.

The pandemic has raised demand for local production, which is a positive change for supporters of sustainable fashion. Local manufacturing is not necessarily more sustainable, but local producers must comply with the Australian legislation on the climate and jobs.

As the manufacturing price dropped globally, the importance of doing so has increased. Fashion designers are constantly looking to share tales of authenticity. Consumers want to know where they farmed the cotton in their T-shirt and customers are able to pay higher prices for items such as non-mulesed wool. As the sweat shop crisis in Uighur exposes corporations such as Nike, H&M and Uniqlo, the industry leaders and customers both want supply chain transparency.

For Australian processing to be successful, automation and creativity would have to be adopted in niche areas. It would also need to bear in mind customer demand for goods produced along with carbon emissions, human and animal rights.

The regenerative farming of natural fibres, including wool , cotton, linen and hemp, is one of the most convincing strategies suggested. Regenerative agriculture is a broad concept that encompasses a range of agricultural activities based on regenerating healthy landscape use, with the end aim of sequestering carbon from the environment and restoring it to the soil.

Early adopters also have regenerative farming built into their supply chains. It is described by Yvon Chouinard as “the number one thing humans can do to fight global warming.” His corporation, Patagonia, aims to transition to regeneration with farmers in India, and has launched a series of regenerative cotton t-shirts.

The return of onshore production of wool and cotton should be seen as the world looks into post-pandemic life and the Australian government assesses which industries to kick-start with investment. It may only mean the beginning of an exciting era of creativity in Australian textiles and design.

SOURCE: The Guardian