Sawing machines in small family run sleppers factory, Podhale, Poland

Time to move the needle on pollution and waste from the textile industry

The global textile industry uses 53 million tonnes of natural and synthetic fibres every year, 73% of which end up incinerated or in landfill. Emily Macintosh takes a look at the environmental impact of the clothes we wear and asks whether Europe is in need of a wardrobe change.

This article first appeared in the printed edition of META.

Soaring global levels of production and consumption of textiles have resulted in huge amounts of pollution, waste, and carbon emissions – 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 a year to be exact. And without transformative change, by 2050 the sector could be responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Yet in the EU, laws targeting the sector are patchy.

While new environmental protections signed off by EU governments last year mean they have committed to separately collect textile waste by 2025, for Stéphane Arditi, EEB Policy Manager for Circular Economy, Products, and Waste, “it is crucial to look beyond separate collection of textiles and recycling and prevent the excessive amounts of textile waste being produced in the first place”.

With the outgoing European Commission earmarking the sector as ‘the next priority after plastics’, Arditi said that “the new Commission must investigate what EU protections and incentives could ensure that clothes are designed to be long-lasting and repairable, and move business models away from increased production volumes”. He added that “we need proper implementation of the polluter pays principle with incentives for sustainability in EU law”.

The challenges are huge, and manifold. Hazardous chemicals used in textile production lead to safety concerns for workers and water pollution, and they are seldom tracked. Plastic microfibres released from synthetic clothes during washing pass filters and waste treatment plants and end up in rivers and the sea. Another key problem is that there is a proliferation of ‘green’ certification schemes and labels all using different ‘sustainability’ criteria.

The criteria used for giving textile products the EU’s own ‘Ecolabel’ certification could soon be up for review. The EEB’s Ecolabel expert Blanca Morales said: “There is always room for improvement, but the Ecolabel’s criteria on the restriction of hazardous substances and durability are some of the strictest. We need the Commission and EU governments to promote more uptake of the label through public procurement or tax incentives and increased public awareness of the Ecolabel. The more it is used, the more industry will be under pressure to back up sustainability claims by getting EU Ecolabel certified. The EU Ecolabel’s textiles’ criteria could be the basis for future legally binding standards for the whole market, not just the best performing ‘greenest’ products.”

And an ongoing review of environmental standards on the maximum amount of energy and hazardous chemicals used in 360 production facilities located within the EU could have an impact globally, with the EU often viewed as a “standard bearer”, according to Jean-Luc Wietor, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Industrial Emissions.

“It’s crucial to have high environmental standards for production waste, pollution, emissions, and transparency of information in the textiles industry in the EU, but with 90% of all clothing imported into the EU, at the same time we must put due diligence requirements on importers to ensure that textile products entering the EU market are subject to the same standards,” said Wietor.

With so many challenges facing the sector, in the coming months, campaigners and fashion industry insiders alike will be looking to the new European Commission to come up with policy solutions to both slash the industry’s environmental and climate footprint – and its human and labour rights’ violations.

And with growing public calls for political action to clean up fashion – just as for single-use plastic – a wardrobe change for the industry could soon be on the cards.