The textile industry is one of the world’s most polluting, wasteful and exploitative, yet it remains largely under-regulated in the EU. With the European Commission poised to up efforts to regulate the sector through a new sustainability strategy, Emily Macintosh looks at some of the key issues surrounding it.

More textile products are being sold at a faster rate than ever before, putting untold pressure on our climate, environment, and people. Europe’s overconsumption of clothes, shoes and household textiles guzzles 675 million tonnes of raw materials every year.

On 30 March the European Commission will publish the much-anticipated (and much delayed) EU Textile Strategy. Civil society has long been calling for a strategy that takes a comprehensive approach by tackling the sector’s environmental and social problems together. With just a few weeks to go until the Textile Strategy sees the light of day, this week, the European Environmental Bureau joined 11 other civil society groups in writing to the European Commission to call for both a high level of ambition in the Textile Strategy and for the actions taken to be aligned.

The Textile Strategy is part of EU efforts to boost the circular economy, established as a priority in 2019 when the Commission launched its European Green Deal commitment to making the EU climate-neutral by 2050. With 73% of all textiles currently ending up in landfill or incineration, the industry is far from what could be described as resource sufficient – despite the many ‘sustainable’ and ‘circular’ claims made in brands’ marketing.

Better products: no time to waste

The strategy will likely put emphasis on designing textile products better through so-called ‘Ecodesign’ requirements. A ban on destroying unsold goods, plans for more product transparency, and action to address microplastics are all potentially on the table. It remains to be seen whether the Strategy will include any specific action to tackle the boom in e-commerce or phase out harmful substances used in production.

We can expect the Textile Strategy to look at how to deal with the increase in collected textiles (EU countries adopted new waste rules in 2018 which mean they must separately collect textiles by 2025). Setting rules so companies cover the waste management costs for the textile products they put on the market through a special tax is increasingly being considered (an approach known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), commonly used for packaging and electronics in some countries). A meaningful EPR scheme for textiles could go beyond setting a small fee to cover the costs of waste management and set different levels of fees that influence how products are designed and made in the first place by making the worst business practices financially disadvantageous.

Other key issues when it comes to textile collection are the need to protect the reuse sector by ensuring brands are not able to set up collection monopolies where everything gets sent to be recycled, and banning the export of textile waste that ends up in unregulated landfills outside the EU without proper waste management.

Less products but decent work

The objective of a truly circular economy must mean reducing the absolute quantity of natural resources that enter our economy in the first place, and reducing the quantity of waste coming out. And for textiles, this means recognising that it is overproduction that underpins the industry’s heavy impact on the planet, and that overproduction cannot be solved solely by increasing recycling capacity without meaningfully reducing the volume of products put on the market in the first place. We already have EU headline targets on energy and climate, isn’t it time for specific material and consumption footprint reduction targets for the textile sector to reduce pressure on the planet’s limited resources?

Poor working conditions and human rights’ violations are prevalent across global textile value chains, with these injustices compounded by the many brands who left workers without vital pay or protection as orders were cancelled when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The transition to a resource-sufficient economy must be a just one with no worker or region left behind.

This week the Commission published its proposal for new EU due diligence rules designed to make businesses accountable for human rights’ violations and environmental harm across their value chains, new rules which should also apply to the textile industry. However, early analysis of the proposal shows that the draft rules would only apply to a limited number of fashion companies and that liability could be limited through clever clauses. These due diligence proposals now need to be strengthened by MEPs and national governments.

All of the different threads which will make up the Textile Strategy must be woven together to ensure political action goes beyond putting the responsibility on consumers to make more ‘sustainable’ choices. We need strong EU laws that ban the most damaging purchasing practices and set the right economic incentives to ensure ‘fast fashion’ is no longer an attractive business model.

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