In march 2022 the European Commission set out plans to bring more sustainability to the textile industry announcing the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. According to the European Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan (who’s commitments are contained in the Report of the EU strategy for sustainable textiles), textiles are identified as a priority sector in which the EU can pave the way towards a carbon neutral and circular economy. The clothing industry is just one of the many fields in which textiles are essential: they’re used in furniture and household textile, as well as medical and protective equipment, buildings, and vehicles.
Nevertheless, as textile product production and consumption are continuously increasing (global textile production nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015), so does their impact on climate, on water and energy consumption and on the environment. From a global life cycle perspective, textile use in the EU today has the fourth biggest negative impact on the environment and climate change, and the third highest negative impact on water and land use. In this context the fashion industry plays a very big role, since clothing utilizes the most textiles in the EU (around 81%) and trends of using garments for shorter and shorter periods before discarding them contribute the most to unsustainable patterns of overproduction and overconsumption. Fast fashion has emerged as a term to describe these trends, which persuade people to keep buying clothes of poorer quality and lower price that are manufactured quickly in reaction to the latest trends. Furthermore, rising textile demand encourages wasteful use of nonrenewable resources, such as the creation of synthetic fibers from fossil fuels.
The complex and diverse global textile value chain is also confronted with a number of social issues (child labor, exploitation, forced labor, poor working conditions, gender discrimination), which are reinforced by the urge to reduce production costs in order to meet consumer demand for low-cost goods. The latest global happenings such as the pandemic and the recent conflict in Ukraine have even worsened such issues giving a glimpse of the vulnerabilities of global supply chains.
Therefore, the EU textile ecosystem really needed a move to recover from the recent two years’ series of events and build a new strategy to face new challenges such as unexpected declines in demand, value chain disruptions, price spikes and several social issues. The aim of the initiative is to lay out the vision and concrete steps that will be taken to ensure that by 2030 the textile products sold in the EU are long-lasting and recyclable, made as much as possible from recycled fibers, free of toxic chemicals, and produced in accordance with social and environmental standards.
So let’s dive into some of the measures included in the Textile Strategy which can be an inspiration for you to improve the sustainable practices in your business.
1. Introducing mandatory Eco-design requirements
Extending the life of textile items is the most efficient strategy to effectively reduce their climatic and environmental impact, and product design plays an essential role in achieving this. Textiles are thrown away by consumers for a variety of reasons (color fastness, tear strength, quality of zippers and seams); increased durability would allow consumers to use garments for longer periods of time while also supporting circular business solutions including reuse, renting and repair, take-back services, and second-hand shopping (that are also cost-saving solutions for consumers). Other design elements that affect textiles’ environmental performance include their material composition: for example the fibers used and their blending, or the use of toxic chemicals (which can be harmful for the environment or for the garment workers who handle textiles).
Therefore working on improving product design is one of the most important steps to change the impact that textile has on the environment. But, you may be wondering, how can I do this? Well, first of all, you can take a look at the EU Ecolabel criteria for Textile Products and the EU GPP criteria for textiles products and services. These two schemes include precise criteria for good quality and long-lasting products, as well as restrictions on dangerous chemicals and regulations for environmentally friendly textile fiber sourcing. Moreover the Europe Commission is working on a Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability in order to support industries to substitute as much as possible and otherwise reduce the presence of toxic components in textile products sold in the EU.
2. Ending the destruction of unsold or returned textiles
It is a big waste of value and resources to destroy unsold or returned goods. Therefore the EU Commission has proposed a transparency obligation mandating large companies to publicly disclose the quantity of products they discard and destroy (including textiles) and their strategies regarding reuse, recycling, incineration, or landfilling. Also, bans will be implemented on the destruction of unsold products. Moreover, working on the improvement of digital tools could really help reduce the percentage of clothing returns, incentivize on-demand custom manufacturing, and thus improve industrial process efficiencies and reduce e-commerce’s carbon footprint.
3. Green claims for truly sustainable products
In other words: No More Green Washing! The EU project Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition will work to ensure that consumers are provided with correct information both on commercial guarantee of durability and on repairability score. Also, general environmental claims, such as “green”, “eco-friendly”, “good for the environment”, will be permitted only if they are backed up by evidence of recognized environmental-friendly performances/strategies. In order to give consumers reliable information environmental and social sustainability labels must either rely on third-party verification or be established by public authorities.
4. Developing the skills needed for the green and digital transition
The textiles industry requires a highly qualified workforce in order to realize the potential for the new job opportunities brought by the digital and green transitions. Eco-design, fabric development, innovative textile production, repair, and reuse are all crucial areas that need to have more experts in order to make progress. We need to promote the learning of new skills and the acquisition and transmission of green and digital skills, including knowledge on life cycle assessment and value chain assessment.
5. Constant checks on environmental and social fairness
The majority of the amount of textiles consumed in Europe are imported from third world countries. This often brings up a lot of environmental and social issues (like the ones mentioned above) on a global scale. Nevertheless, the textile industry has been identified as a sector that could make a big difference when it comes to improving working conditions as well as in gender equality (since a high percent of worldwide garment workers are women). The initiative for a Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive establishes a due diligence (an investigation, audit or review performed to confirm facts or details of a matter under examination) obligation for large corporations to identify, prevent, mitigate, eliminate, and account for actual and potential negative impacts on human rights, including labor rights, and the environment in their own operations and across their global value chains.
It seems that whether the fashion industry is ready for it or not it will need to change in order to continue doing business. We are building new foundations for the construction of a more wholesome and fairer industry, and we all play a crucial role in this process!