Sustainable fashion cannot stop at the EU border

“It's time to end the model of ‘take, make, break, and throw away’”, said EU commissioner Frans Timmermans last week as he presented the new package of Green Deal proposals to make sustainable products the norm in the EU. An EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles is part of the proposals, targeting one of the most polluting industries globally and infamous for human rights abuses. The strategy is ambitious, but falls short of thoroughly incorporating external dimensions, to tackle both environmental and social abuses in the textiles supply chain.

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      An ambitious green plan

      Clothes, footwear and other textiles are responsible for huge amounts of water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and landfill. To make a single cotton T-shirt, 2,700 litres of fresh water are required, enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years. This is egregious when you consider that only 1% of textiles are currently being recycled into new textiles. The situation is only getting worse, as ‘fast fashion’ continues to fuel demand. The amount of clothing an average person buys in the European Union has increased by 40% in just a few decades.

      With the new EU Sustainable and Circular Textiles Strategy, Europe has an ambitious plan to make the textiles ecosystem more sustainable. The strategy has a mix of legislative and voluntary measures together with initiatives to create an environment advantageous for circular businesses.

      To incentivise circular businesses, the European Commission proposes mandatory criteria for green public procurement, as well as circular design and production through ecodesign requirements, providing some of the crucial ‘carrots and sticks’ needed to drive sustainable and circular textiles. At the same time, a Digital Product Passport empowers consumers to make greener choices. It would contain information about the composition and production of a product, functioning like a list of ingredients.

      Supporting workers in supply chains

      While the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries, it is also typically characterised by poor working conditions and workers’ rights violations. Many garment workers in Ethiopia earn a paltry sum of $26 a month, far from enough to cover just the basic needs of food, housing and transport.

      The EU textiles strategy has fallen short of fully addressing the glaring human rights abuses rampant in textile value chains. It does highlight the recent proposal for a Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, but does not go much further. What is most obviously missing are measures to address unfair purchasing practices in the textiles sector such as short lead times, unilateral changes and below-cost prices.

      Purchasing practices could be incorporated in the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, or the Commission could consider an EU directive against unfair purchasing practices that already exists for agriculture and food. Without addressing the vast inequality of power between different actors in the value chains, exploitation of workers and suppliers, particularly in low-income textile producing countries, will continue.

      Social dimensions could be better integrated in other policy instruments as well. Mandatory green public procurement, for example, could be extended to also include social criteria. Similarly, the Digital Product Passport is announced to only include information on circulatory and other environmental aspects, while companies could be required to also provide information related to social sustainability.

      Promoting circular production beyond EU borders

      While the strategy provides a clear set of policy measures to promote sustainable production and consumption in the EU, more concrete actions are needed to incorporate external dimensions. The EU’s transition towards sustainable textiles cannot end at the Union’s borders. Afterall, the EU is the largest importer of clothing globally, and with a 62% increase in value of clothing imports over the past decade.

      Let’s take the example of ecodesign requirements, a cornerstone of the strategy. The proposal for a regulation on ecodesign for sustainable products extends the existing ecodesign framework to include the broadest possible range of products, including textiles. This means, requirements that make textile products more durable, easier to reuse, repair and recycle are mandatory for all products placed on the EU market, including exports. While this incentivises circular production and design in textile producing countries, significant skills and investments would be needed to comply with the new requirements.

      The forthcoming Transition Pathway for the Textiles Ecosystem is an opportunity to support compliance beyond the EU border. Specific actions and commitments needed to accompany the transition will be identified, including specific investment opportunities. This could usefully include initiatives to support innovative business models in third countries.

      Kenya’s Closing the Loop on Textile Waste is an innovative and award-winning circular business model from Africa. They convert fabric waste into virgin-quality fibre for use in new clothing. Such fibre-to-fibre recycling is encouraged by the European Commission to truly close the loop for textiles.

      Investing in recycling infrastructure abroad

      Zooming back to Europe, citizens there throw away about 11 kg of textiles every year per person. Exports of textile waste outside the EU is significant and growing steadily in the past few years. The European Commission has delivered on its promise to propose measures to curb harmful textile waste exported out of the EU. Under the recent proposal for new EU rules on shipment of waste, textile waste would only be shipped to non-OECD countries if they allow it and can demonstrate their ability to manage it sustainably.

      This is a positive development, but not enough. Crucially important is the need to support investments in recycling/repair infrastructure in third countries. Yes, exporting textile waste that goes to landfills needs to stop, but we need to think a step further and support countries to upgrade their capacities to recycle and repair clothes. This can extend the life of products and provide affordable clothing, not to mention the opportunities for job creation and development.

      The Commission will also consider developing EU level criteria to distinguish between waste and second hand textile products. This is laudable, as developing such criteria for different types of textile products, as well as tracing the exports of used textiles and textiles waste is no easy feat. What is needed though is working with third countries to align, mutually recognise each other’s standards and work towards harmonised standards at the global level. Stakeholders from countries supplying textiles to the EU can also be involved in the criteria developments.

      What’s next?

      Much is yet to be seen as policy measures proposed in the strategy are developed and rolled out in the next few years. The European Commission now needs to translate the proposals into concrete and ambitious action. We encourage the European Parliament and EU member states as co-legislators to not water down the measures announced in the strategy but rather aim for more integrated policies. Complex sustainability challenges of the textiles supply chain require holistic solutions that extend beyond the EU’s borders, addressing both social and environmental concerns. Only then can we drive fast fashion “out of fashion”, as EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, put it.

      Re-watch below the EU-Africa Business Forum 2022 session on ‘Exploring circularity in fashion and apparel trade and investments within African and EU Partnerships’, organised by ECDPM and Msingi, which on 1 April 2022 became part of the integrated Gatsby Africa organisation.

      At ECDPM we continue to work on this topic, including in the context of a project with Msingi and Solidaridad focusing on circular textiles in East Africa. For more information, please contact Jeske van Seters:

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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