Cutting fashion industry waste and pollution must be a top priority for governments around the world – that was the call from the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki this week.

53 million tonnes of both natural and synthetic fibres are now produced for clothing annually – using up huge amounts of land and fossil fuels. 12% of these fibres are wasted at the production phase and 73% of all textiles end up in landfill or incineration.

Speaking at a special side session on textiles, Eline Boon from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation described the current fashion economic model as “extremely wasteful and polluting” as based on the idea that we “take resources from the ground, make something, and then dispose of them soon after”.

Boon said clothes need to be designed better so that they last longer, and that the dangerous chemicals used in textile production, which make recycling textiles harder, should be phased out.

There were also calls for more research into how to solve the problem of the half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres which are shed into our environment when used and washed.

Daniel Calleja Crespo, Director General for the Environment at the European Commission told the Helsinki forum that that the “textiles sector is the next priority after plastics”.

The current European Commission earmarked textiles as a ‘priority’ area for action as part of the circular economy earlier this year. When the new Commission takes up office this autumn it will be under pressure to continue to investigate what new EU rules and laws could make textiles’ supply chains less polluting and wasteful.

While there are currently no minimum criteria for the sustainable performance of textiles in EU law, new EU environmental protections that were signed off by governments last year mean that countries have committed to separately collect textile waste by 2025.

But it remains to be seen whether separate collection of textiles will address the waste pile-up problem, given that consumption is still growing for the whole market.

Jouni Nissinen, President of the European Environmental Bureau, said that the textile industry has long been a “problematic waste stream” and that progress to tackle the excessive amounts of waste is “long overdue”. Nissinen said it was key to go “beyond recycling”.

Initial findings from a forthcoming European Environment Agency report into the EU’s textiles’ footprint – set for release this autumn – show that the sector is Europe’s fourth largest consumer of primary raw materials, with 1.3 tonnes per capita per year, accounting for the second largest amount of land use and the fifth largest water user.

But with textile value and supply chains spanning continents, global action to rein in the industry’s waste and pollution will be essential. Nissinen described the “‘take, make, dispose, repeat’ textiles industry as completely counter to the commitments made by 193 governments to responsible consumption & production through the Sustainable Development Goals” – the world’s ‘crisis plan’ to protect the planet and end poverty.

While new business models based on renting and sharing clothes can give people access to better quality garments, there are multiple definitions of what counts as ‘sustainable clothing’ and many alternative models fail to truly challenge the status quo.

Reet Aus, a fashion designer from Estonia, said that the “fashion industry must be totally redesigned from the beginning” so that “academia and industry work together more”.

Aus said that the fact that “we don’t see the waste problem in the EU” is a huge barrier to changing mindsets. Striking an optimistic note, Aus said it was essential “not to believe anyone who tells you it is not possible to change the fashion industry – it is a question of will”.

Speaking to campaign groups last month, Frans Timmermans, expressed his support for an EU textiles strategy that could both tackle human and labour rights’ violations in global textile supply chains, and promote more sustainable, slower fashion to reduce material consumption and emissions from the textile industry.

And there are growing public calls for political action to clean up fashion. Kiti Gjerstad from the Norwegian Consumer Council said that “if we could see the real cost to people and planet of a garment on the price tag beside the retail price we would all be more aware of the industry’s impact”. But, Gjerstad said “informing the public should not be left to campaign groups” and that “governments have a key role to play”.