• Journal
  • Alison Ryan

Fashions Fade, Clothing Waste is Eternal

The sustainability spotlight is set to focus on the fashion industry this week with the publication of the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan. The Action Plan, one of the keystones of the European Green Deal, aims to make the EU economy more sustainable, efficient and circular in order to ensure carbon neutrality by 2050. Part of this plan will be a comprehensive EU strategy for the textile and clothing industry.

Environmental policies and regulations have been evolving significantly in Member States and the EU in recent years, but the fashion industry has not been the main target of these initiatives. Consumer awareness regarding the environmental footprint of the sector is less developed in comparison to other sectors, such as the food and drink industry for example, and demand for sustainable alternatives has therefore not been as high. But 2020 signals a sea change.

In January of this year, France introduced an anti-waste law making it illegal for fashion brands and retailers to destroy unsold clothes. The French Environment Minster also outlined plans to introduce an ecolabel for clothing, that will rank clothes from A – E based on nine sustainability criteria. Members State initiatives such as this, as well as EU initiatives such as the Circular Economy Action Plan, will force the industry to pull up its socks. If the industry engages with the Action Plan, it could provide an opportunity to engage proactively rather than reactively, as it is no longer a question of if, but rather when consumers will stop choosing brands that are not sustainable.

Fast fashion: Game changer or game ender?

The fashion industry has been growing at a rapid rate over the past three decades, propelled by the emergence of ‘fast fashion’, a business model characterised by mass production, predominantly in Asian countries, low prices and high sales volumes. The development of this model has also meant that the supply chain of the clothing and textile industry has become highly fragmented and complex. An item of clothing may begin its journey in Europe where the raw material is grown, then travel to Egypt to be spun into yarn, to China to be woven into fabric, to Spain to be dyed and finally to Morocco to be assembled into a garment.[1] In the EU, the item of clothing might only be worn a handful of times before ending its life in a landfill, as only 15 – 20% of clothing is estimated to be recycled or reused.[2]

These complex supply chains, coupled with a distinct lack of science, data and peer-reviewed research in the sector, means that it is difficult to get a clear picture of the environmental impact of the clothing and textile industry in the EU. However, what is clear is that the current business model is not sustainable. The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that the clothing and textile industry is the fourth worst category for primary raw material and water use, the second worst for land use and the fifth highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the EU.[3] If the industry grows at the rate predicted by the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), a fashion sustainability forum, these figures are set to increase. [4]

At current rates of population and economic growth, the GFA report estimates that apparel consumption could rise by 63% globally by 2030. The impact of this growth on the environment is stark. It would result in a 50% increase in water use, a 60% increase in C02 emissions and a 60% increase in waste.[5] This trajectory is clearly not sustainable, nor is it compatible with EU’s target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

The Action Plan: creating a new business model

The Circular Economy Action Plan aims to narrow this gap between the current state of the fashion industry and where it needs to be, by closing the loop in the sector and reducing the amount of waste created. The objective of the Action Plan is to strengthen competitiveness and innovation in the industry, grow the EU market for sustainable and circular textiles and promote new business models. Key measures will include the introduction of a sustainable product framework to ensure that textile products are fit for circularity and that consumers and businesses have access to re-use and repair services, providing incentives to product service models and circular materials; as well as measures to drive higher separate collection rates of textile waste in Member States by 2025.

The Action Plan intends to increase sorting, reuse and recycling of textiles through innovation and regulatory measures, such as extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR has been used by the EU in other sectors (electrical equipment, plastic packaging etc.) as a means of incentivising producers to consider the end-of-life of a product by making them responsible for the costs of its waste management. France is currently the only Member State that has mandatory EPR for textiles, so this signals a big shift for the industry, as waste management has not previously been a priority.

It is estimated that only about 1% of clothes are recycled into new garments.[6] This is mainly because the technology required to break down synthetics and mixed fibre fabric does not yet exist, nor has it been proven to be economically viable at scale. Furthermore, the materials commonly used in clothing are often not designed for recycling. Cotton, for example, which accounted for 43% of fibres used in clothes in the EU in 2015 [7], is not suitable for recycling. Like paper, cotton is made up of fibres which can only be recycled a finite number of times before they wear out and have to be downcycled. Polyester on the other hand, another one of the most commonly used materials, is suitable for recycling into new fibres but creates different challenges for the environment. The man-made fibre is non-biodegradable and it releases micro-plastics when washed. According to one report, polyester is responsible for 35% of the micro-plastics found in the ocean.[8]

If the Circular Economy Action plan is to be realised, a seismic change will be needed in the fashion industry that will require the sector to work together to find innovate solutions. Not only will new technologies capable of breaking down materials for recycling need to be developed, but the way in which clothes are designed, produced and consumed will also need to change. Circularity needs to be at heart of the industry, from choosing materials that are suitable for recycling to ensuring that the garment is correctly collected for reuse and recycling at the end of its life. As the EU sets out its plans this week for a future circular economy, the sector needs to be ready to engage to help create an ecosystem that allows businesses to thrive without costing the earth.

[1] Hope, Kate, ‘Has your dress been to more countries than you?’, BBC, 22 March 2017 [https://www.bbc.com/news/business-39337204]

[2] EPRS, Environmental Impact of the textile and clothing industry

[3] European Environmental Agency (EEA), Textiles in Europe’s Circular Economy, November 2019

[4] Global Fashion Agenda, Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2017

[5] GFA, Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2017

[6] EPRS, Environmental Impact of the textile and clothing industry

[7] EPRS, Environmental Impact of the textile and clothing industry

[8] GFA, The Pulse of Fashion Industry 2017