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European Green Deal ‘Very Much on Track’

An “eco” label that rates the environmental footprint of a sneaker or a T-shirt. Mandatory thresholds for product durability, repairability or recycled content. Penalties for burning or shredding unwanted goods. As the European Union prepares to roll out its package of much-anticipated—if oft-delayed—measures to reduce the climate impact of textile production and create a level playing field across its member states, the question of what makes an item of fashion “eco-friendly” could soon get an answer.

All of the actions—chief among them the Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, the Sustainable Product Policy Initiative, the Substantiating Green Claims Initiative and the Empowering Consumers in the Green Transition Initiative, which frequently reference and overlap one another—fall loosely under the auspices of the Circular Economy Action Plan, itself a “building block” of the EU’s sweeping ambition to zero out its carbon emissions by 2050 and decouple economic growth from resource use.

Despite several deadline postponements by Brussels in the face of Covid-19 disruptions, the so-called European Green Deal is “very much on track,” said Jori Keijsper, communication advisor for European Commission executive vice president Frans Timmermans, who is spearheading the $2-trillion effort to establish the first “climate-neutral continent,” with far-reaching consequences for jobs and livelihoods in the 27-member trade bloc.

Despite setbacks amid the pandemic, the multinational sustainability effort is “very much on track.”

Long before any specifics could be hammered out, the EU had flagged textiles as a “priority sector” for accelerating a carbon-neutral, circular economy where products are designed for durability, reusability, repairability, recyclability and energy efficiency. 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 use and the fifth-highest for greenhouse-gas emissions, even though the bulk of those impacts happens in other parts of the world where production takes place. The average European consumes 26 kilograms of textiles—and discards 11 kilograms of them—every year, it added.

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Because the textile supply is so highly globalized, only a “coordinated and harmonized response” will be able to address structural shortcomings with textile waste collection, sorting and recycling while boosting the bloc’s ability to innovate and remain competitive, European leaders have said. According to a leaked Sustainable Product Policy Initiative draft obtained by Sourcing Journal, there is no “comprehensive set of requirements” to ensure that all products placed on the EU market become increasingly sustainable. As a result, member states have had to adopt multiple approaches at the national level, resulting in “internal market fragmentation” and “insufficient and uneven” enforcement of rules, especially for companies operating across multiple borders.

“The lack of sufficient and comprehensive internal market rules leaves room for initiatives developed by member states or by industries that impair the functioning of the internal market by giving rise to potential barriers, fragmentation and incoherent approaches,” the document said. “In addition, in the absence of a comprehensive set of requirements defining product’s environmental sustainability or ecodesign requirements, the same product considered sustainable in one member state might not qualify as sustainable in another member state.”

There is an expectation that the measures will collectively “stop fast fashion” in its tracks, said Emily Macintosh, policy officer for textiles at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental citizens’ organizations across Europe, though that might be overselling them. What is important, however, is having a “political direction,” even if the execution might be “slightly less ambitious” than is being marketed. “The textiles sector remains very unregulated but the European Commission is ramping up efforts to regulate it,” she said. “This is the first sounding of the bell that gives us an idea of the direction of travel.”

The leaked Sustainable Product Policy Initiative draft refers to digital product “passports,” a ban on destroying unsold or returned merchandise and “ecodesign” requirements to help stave off greenwashing, “premature obsolescence” and hazardous chemicals. It remains to be seen, however, if a final version or another measure, like the Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, will address additional issues that campaigners have clamored for, including microplastic pollution, extended producer responsibility, and, as Macintosh is hoping for, resource depletion through overproduction.

“It’s important from our perspective at the EEB that the circular economy is not just about greening the current business model, which is a kind of a moving-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic approach,” Macintosh said. “One of our main priorities is absolute resource-use reduction: recognizing that it’s not just about making the business model circular, it’s about making the circle smaller and reducing how much goes into the circle in the first place.”

Baptiste Carriere-Pradal, chair of the Policy Hub, a think tank founded by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Global Fashion Agenda and the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry, said that the European Green Deal is one rare area where fashion brands and retailers are urging more ambition rather than less. “It’s clear that we want to have a holistic, adequate and homogeneous textile strategy,” he said. “[When] you have every country or sometimes even every region doing their own thing, this is a complete waste of time and resources.”

Carriere-Pradal said that circularity is a headline priority for many apparel and footwear companies, yet the only way to increase textile-to-textile recycling is if there are better regulations in place to build up the necessary infrastructure. “They know that is necessary for the change,” he said.

“[When] you have every country or sometimes even every region doing their own thing, this is a complete waste of time and resources.” —Baptiste Carriere-Pradal, Policy Hub

Another example is the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), an eco-labeling methodology that pre-dates the European Green Deal but is mentioned under the Sustainable Product Policy Initiative, the Substantiating Green Claims Initiative and others. The scheme seeks to replace the hundreds of different methodologies currently rating the environmental friendliness of materials and products, which can muddle consumer confidence.

“We are keen to have one single method for one single market,” said Carriere-Pradal, who also serves as chair of the technical Secretariat of the PEF project. “Whenever you want to know the carbon impact of a T-shirt, you only need to use one method, no matter [which brand] it’s for. So that’s really the idea behind that’s why we were, as an industry in support of creating a common method validated by the Commission and developed under the oversight of the Commission.”

Still, not everyone is in favor of the PEF as it stands. Make the Label Count, an initiative whose roster includes Australian Wool Innovation, the Campaign for Wool, Changing Markets Foundation, Cotton Australia, Fibershed, the International Sericultural Commission, the International Wool Textile Organisation and the Plastic Soup Foundation, claims that fossil-fuel-based synthetics such as polyester score as “greener” than their natural counterparts. The group would also like to see an expansion of the 16 impact categories to include factors such as microplastic shedding and durability.

Until more information is revealed, there is some ambiguity about what form the PEF will take and whether it will be mandatory or not, said Phillipa Grogan, textiles sustainability consultant at Eco-Age, which helped create the Make the Label Count campaign. “What you can say for sure is that it’s a product claim. And basically, as things start to gain traction, we’ll get more certainty and a more solid foundation to form a critique and hopefully a roadmap to make it a bit more accurate,” she said. “The intention is great, [but] it’s really important to get this right, otherwise we’ll just end up derailing any sort of potential credibility of the whole system.”

Another item Grogan would like to see in the PEF—and the European Green Deal’s textile initiatives in general—is more attention to the social aspect of fashion production. “It’s really hard to separate environmental sustainability from social sustainability because you can’t have one without the other—they’re symbiotic,” she said.

The Ethical Trading Initiative, the Fair Wear Foundation, Fair Trade International and the Solidaridad Network took a similar stance in August when they published a position paper urging the EU to make its mandatory human rights and environmental due-diligence initiative “instrumental” to the Sustainable Textiles Strategy.

“While we applaud the efforts for coherent policy-making for our industry, we would like the EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles to address potential negative impacts that new and/or circular business models may have on factory workers, producers and farmers,” they said. “The only way that the EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles can support the transition to a fully sustainable supply chain is if human and labor rights are respected and decent work principles are applied throughout all levels of the supply chain.”

Over in the United Kingdom, which split from the EU in 2020, momentum to “build back” a cleaner and fairer fashion industry is also experiencing fits and starts. An extended producer responsibility scheme, designed to “ramp up action on fast fashion and hold manufacturers accountable for textile  waste” and due to take effect next year, has been postponed indefinitely, though it will still move ahead, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Part of a broader Environment Bill, which could also see the government set minimum standards for clothing on durability and recycled content, the scheme is meant to promote the reuse and recycling of textiles and reduce the environmental footprint of the sector. It builds upon the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s Textiles 2030 plan, a voluntary agreement that brings together signatories such as Asos, Boohoo, Marks & Spencer and Primark to collaborate on carbon, water and circular textile targets.

“We are firmly committed to ending the ‘throwaway’ culture as we build back greener,” environment minister Rebecca Pow said last year. “Major retailers and fashion brands have made strides in reducing their environmental footprint but there is more we must do. That is why, through our world-leading Environment Bill and landmark reforms, we will take steps to tackle fast fashion by incentivizing recycling and encouraging innovation in new design.”

Shady green claims are also coming under scrutiny in the United Kingdom. In January, its Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) revealed that it’s reviewing the increasing number of assertions by brands that certain items of clothing are sustainable, better for the environment or made from recycled or organic materials. Infringing businesses, the competition watchdog said, will face “appropriate action” in accordance with consumer protection laws.

“Our work so far indicates that there could be issues with greenwashing in the fashion sector and that’s why we’ve prioritized this area for further investigation,” Cecilia Parker Aranha, the CMA’s director of consumer protection, said at the time. “People are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact that fashion can have on our planet. We know many shoppers are actively looking for brands which are doing good things for the environment, and we want to make sure the claims they see are stacking up. Businesses that can’t back up their claims risk action from the CMA and damage to their reputation in the long run.”

Meanwhile, Scotland is mulling its own ban on the disposal of resalable goods. “It is absolutely senseless for perfectly good products to end up in landfill,” circular economy minister Lorna Slater told BBC News in March. “Rather than being wasted in landfill or incinerated, they should be reused or repurposed. We are living in a climate emergency. When goods go to landfill without having even been used once, we don’t just waste the product, we also waste all the energy and raw materials that went into making it.”