Sewing the seeds of change

James Beard summarises the EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, outlining measures the EU will be pursuing to improve the environmental performance of the clothing industry, directly impacting UK based companies and influencing the direction of Textile legislation within the UK.

It has long been known that the textile industry represents one of the pressing challenges of our time. The production and use of textiles continues to grow, as does the impact upon the environment. In the 15 years between 2000 and 2015, global production has doubled and the industry is recognised as having the fourth biggest impact on the environment and climate change, and the third biggest impact on water and land use.

With only an estimated 1% of textiles recycled, it was only a matter of time until provisions were put in place to tackle some of the issues.

The EU’s highly anticipated Strategy for Sustainable Textiles has been released and aims to right many of the issues associated with the textile and fashion industries. The framework of the strategy contains the following requirements:

Introducing mandatory Ecodesign requirements

This will see producers within the EU tasked with improving durability, restricting the use of hazardous chemicals and improving material blends with the aim of having textiles last longer in their first life and being more readily recyclable once they reach the end of their life.

Stopping the destruction of unsold or returned textiles

Large companies will need to make public declarations of the number of products they discard and destroy, and bans will be implemented on the destruction of unsold stock. This will include (but isn’t limited to) textiles. Digital tools will be investigated to see how they can be used to reduce the high number of returns seen via online sales channels, as these items can sometimes find themselves in waste streams.

Tackling Micro-plastics

With the rise of polyester as a fibre type, the issue of micro-plastics needs addressing. Often shed during the first few washes of new garments, they pose a significant threat to the environment. The EU Strategy aims to take this by improving product design, a requirement to include filters on washing machines, and for measures to be introduced at the manufacturing stage such as the pre-washing of textiles at manufacturing plants.

Introducing information requirements and a Digital Product Passport

Brands will be required to provide mandatory information on the circularity of their goods. This could be extended to include things such as information on product size, material blend, recycled content and information relating to the country of manufacture. It could be that textiles will be required to have digital labels which consumers can access to find this information.

Green claims for truly sustainable textiles

Accusations of greenwashing have troubled the textile industry for years, and the EU aims to tackle this decisively. Consumers within the EU are to be given commercial guarantees of durability at the point of sale, as well as information about how they can get items repaired. Claims of being “green” or “sustainable” will only be allowed if corroborated by recognised standards. Specific focus will be given to green claims made for textiles that feature recycled content from PET bottles as it is suggested that this has an increased chance of causing confusion.

Extended producer responsibility and boosting reuse and recycling of textile waste

Extended Producer Responsibility has proven to be one of the most successful levers in altering behaviours around a variety of waste, and the European Commission want to see EPR extend to textiles by 2025. Unlike other EPR regimes, however, the Commission want to see a harmonised approach across the EU with the inclusion of eco-modulation fees. This will help streamline the process whilst creating an economy for the collection, sortation, repair and reuse of old textiles. Under the proposals, significant funds would be diverted towards repair and reuse to ensure items enjoy as long a life as possible. Mandatory targets for the reuse and recycling of textiles are likely to be proposed in 2024.

Launching the Transition Pathway for the textiles ecosystem of the future

The Commission is to be involved in the co-creation of “transition pathways” that should create an agreed vision for the textile ecosystem as well as specific meaning attributed to pledges made by organisations. It is likely that this will cover commitments to circularity and circular business models, digitisation and resilience.

Reversing the overproduction and overconsumption of clothing: driving fast fashion out of fashion

It is acknowledged that reshaping established buying behaviours will not be possible without first presenting alternatives to consumers. As a result, support will be given to facilitate the creation of efficient manufacturing processes, repair, reuse and other circular business models. In addition, social enterprises already operating in the sector will be given a boost by new guidance outlining how partnerships with such social enterprises should work. Member states will be encouraged to create favourable tax environments for organisations operating in the reuse and repair sectors to facilitate their growth.

Ensuring fair competition and compliance in a well-functioning internal market

Coordination between member states will be encouraged, particularly between national enforcement bodies. The newly created EU Product Compliance Network will help with coordination across borders and an EU Toolbox against counterfeiting is to be released by 2023 to fight IP infringements from outside the bloc.

Supporting research, innovation and investments

An EU wide roadmap on technology will look to streamline Research and Development in a number of areas including textile recycling. Of particular interest will be the development of new textile fibres and new technologies focussed on collection, sortation and fibre-to-fibre recycling of textiles.

Developing the skills needed for the green and digital transitions

It is acknowledged that certain areas of the workforce will need to upskill in order to provide the services required under the strategy. In particular, the fields of innovative textile production, repair and reuse are identified as being of particular importance.

Due diligence for environmental and social fairness

Work is already underway to ensure that large European companies are required to conduct due diligence checks to ensure there are no infringements to human rights in their supply chains. This new legislation will prohibit the placing on to the market of any products that have used forced labour, and these rules will extend to textiles.

Addressing the challenges from the export of textile waste

The Commission recognises that there are challenges regarding the export of textile waste. As a result, EU nations will only be permitted to export textile waste to OECD nations, unless a non-OECD nation has specifically opted in to receive such items. In addition, the EU will set rules to differentiate between waste textiles and reuse textiles in an attempt to avoid falsely labelled shipments.

Together, these measures introduce a step change in the way textiles will be designed, sold, consumed, reused and recycled within Europe. The European Commission hopes that these measures will act as a catalyst for worldwide change, and eyes will now turn to see how the ambitions of other nations compare.

If you are involved in the textile industry and wish to learn more about the changing landscape, sign up for our event in London on 5 May.