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Fashion Responds to EU’s Circular Textiles Proposals

The fashion industry greeted the European Union’s so-called “fast fashion crackdown” with a mix of praise, cautious optimism and calls for greater ambition for its proposed rules on everything from product durability to end-of-life management to unsubstantiated green claims, a.k.a. greenwashing.

The European Apparel and Textiles Confederation, better known as Euratex, for instance, questioned how the Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles and the Sustainable Products Initiative, unveiled Wednesday as part of the EU’s broader Circular Economy Action Plan, would translate into action, and what the cost for small and medium-sized enterprises might be.

The measures, which buttress the European Green Deal, represent an “overwhelming ambition” that would require a “new way of joint working” between institutions and businesses, Euratex said. “If wrongly implemented, such an unprecedented wave may cause a complete collapse of the European textile value chain under the burden of restrictions, requirements, costs and unlevel playing field,” it added. “On the contrary, the changes ahead can boom the entire textile ecosystem and create a model of successful green and digital transition in manufacturing, which starts in Europe and expands globally.”

Despite their sweeping reach, however, the proposals “failed to capture the beating heart of the textile industry—the people who make our clothes,” said Delphine Williot, policy and research coordinator at Fashion Revolution. “In categorizing the labor of garment workers as ‘unskilled,’ this strategy fails to recognize the value of the industry’s labor. The EU’s textile value chains will not be truly sustainable in the absence of efforts to guarantee freedom of association and collective bargaining, which ultimately lead to fair wages for the people who make our clothes.”

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Any efforts to tackle textiles in the bloc will require a “holistic” approach to environmental, social and commercial practices in the supply chain, not just one that focuses on the circular economy, said Tamar Hoek, senior policy advisor, sustainable fashion, at Solidaridad Network, noting that “design and buying practices have an impact on working conditions, [and] circular business models do not solve exploitation of workers and farmers, or lead to living wages and incomes.” As the strategies are presented now, the only way to improve social sustainability is through the European Commission’s forthcoming corporate sustainability due diligence directive.

Not that they aren’t a good first step, said Valeria Botta, program manager at the Environmental Coalition on Standards. “The textile sector has largely been untouched by EU sustainability policies,” she said. “[The] decision to include textiles under the Sustainable Products Initiative is a real milestone. We need clothes that are designed to be used, mended and loved for a long time, toxic-free, and produced in a fair and sustainable way. The initiatives presented can give the right impulse to transform the market, beyond European borders. If the final bill shows bold ambition, we have hopes that Europe will truly hold the textile industry to account for its huge environmental impacts.”

The EU has long regarded textiles as a “priority sector” with real potential to accelerate a carbon-neutral, circular economy. It’s something of a no-brainer: The European Energy Agency estimates that clothing, footwear and household textiles make up the continent’s second-highest pressure category for land use, the fourth-highest for raw-material and water consumption and the fifth-highest for greenhouse-gas emissions, even though the bulk of those impacts occurs in other parts of the world where production happens. The average European also consumes 26 kilograms of textiles—and tosses 11 kilograms of them—every year.

But prior efforts to nip these problems in the bud have been scattershot because of the fragmented nature of the industry. Only a “coordinated and harmonized” response, European lawmakers said, will be able to address structural shortcomings with textile waste collection, sorting and recycling that have thus far stymied progress. The EU is also suggesting digital product passports, minimum criteria for green claims and binding product-specific eco-design requirements that include mandatory thresholds in terms of substances of concern, durability, reusability, repairability, recyclability and recycled content.

‘Less money in the pocket of Putin’

If everything goes according to plan, the European Commission said, fast fashion will be “out of fashion.” Instead, all textile products placed on the European market by 2030 will be “long-lived and recyclable,” economically profitable reuse and repair services will be widely available, and producers will be responsible for their products along the value chain, including when they become waste. The circular textile ecosystem, underpinned by sufficient capacities for fiber-to-fiber recycling, will thrive, while incineration and landfilling of textiles will be “reduced to the minimum.”

“We want sustainable products to become the norm on the European market,” European Commission executive vice president Frans Timmermans said. “If I put it all together in one sentence I would say we work to end the model of ‘take, make, break, and throw away’ and support the development of circular business models. That’s the future of our economy. It’s good for our consumers. It’s good for our environment. It’s good for our climate policy. It is also good for the money you spend. You’ll be spending less money. And it’s also good for using less energy. So, less money in the pocket of Putin, more money in your own pocket. I think that is a good proposition.”

Emily Macintosh, policy officer for textiles at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental citizens’ organizations across Europe, praised the EU for naming overproduction as one of the root causes of the continent’s woes. But she also wants to see the proposals go further.

“We welcome the clear plans for binding rules on product design, targets to reuse more textile products and for more of the end of life costs of textile waste to be borne by producers,” she said. “But you can’t green fast fashion. Now we need to ensure the actions set out in this strategy are translated into real industry accountability for all companies regardless of size, and that there are no get-out-clauses when it comes to the destruction of goods and ensuring fairness for workers.”

Similarly, though Phillipa Grogan, textiles sustainability consultant at Eco-Age, deemed the proposals “pretty ambitious” with “really positive elements,” including the recognition of the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels, she would prefer to see a stronger link between petrochemical-based textiles such as polyester and the ongoing scourge of microplastic pollution.

“Whilst the strategy cites the link between fossil fuel/synthetic materials and microplastics, it does not recognize how reducing synthetic fiber production could help mitigate this. But overall, it’s a really promising outcome and it touches on several really key issues,” she said. “It will be interesting to see the penalties for greenwashing, they should be revealed in the Green Claims Initiative, currently expected to be published in July. More generally, how the plans fit together could be made clearer, but, hopefully, this will be clarified as further proposals are published.”

Baptiste Carriere-Pradal, chair of the Policy Hub, an organization founded by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Global Fashion Agenda and the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry, meanwhile, welcomed the EU’s mention of extended producer responsibility but said rules on the separate collection of textiles waste across the bloc, along with harmonized sorting criteria for reuse and recycling, could be strengthened.

“The best dishes are always those which are slow-cooked,” he said. “After having been in the making for virtually seven years, the EU Commission has released…a game-changing piece. Its foundation is solid enough to tackle the challenges facing our sector. Now, to make this work, we will need a new redefined collaboration between the industry and policymakers. Together, the environmental benefits of the taken measures need to be evaluated, all along this journey. We have one shot, let’s make the most of it.”