EU Is Working On A Roadmap For A Sustainable Textile Industry

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The European Union’s focus on a sustainable textile industry is more pronounced this year.  Climate neutrality and product circularity will be the main goals, where the industry will be encourage to design products that are more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable and energy-efficient.

On 5 January 2021, a roadmap setting out the EU strategy for sustainable textiles was published. The initiative, launched by the European Commission, notes that the strategy is aimed at shifting the EU to a climate neutral, circular economy where products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable and energy efficient.

The focus of the strategy is the textile industry, with a view to ensuring its recovery from the Covid 19 crisis in a sustainable way, and also by making it more competitive, applying circular economy principles to production, products, consumption, waste management and secondary raw materials. In consequence, the initiative is likely to lead to legislative measures including in the realm of waste textile products (e.g., extended producer responsibility provisions). The European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) and the Industrial Strategy have all identified textiles as a priority sector in which the EU can pave the way towards a carbon neutral, circular economy.

Textiles and clothing make up a diverse industrial ecosystem, covering different value chains and types of products. Within the EU alone, the industry employs 1.5 million people, spread across more than 160,000 companies, most of which are SMEs. Although there appears to be a growing social trend for sustainability in the EU textile and fashion industry, Europeans are said to consume on average 26 kg of textiles per person per year. A significant portion of these are imported from third countries. There is a growing concern that each item is used for short periods, resulting in 11 kg of textiles discarded per person per year.

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EU actions will strengthen environmental protection standards
It is acknowledged that the textile sector is resource intensive, with significant climate and environmental impacts. Textile consumption is apparently the fourth highest pressure category in the EU in terms of use of primary raw materials and water (after food, housing and transport), and fifth for greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the pressure and impact linked to clothing, footwear and household textiles in Europe occur in other regions of the world, where a major part of production takes place. The recycling of waste textile products is also considered to be appallingly low: it is estimated that less than 1% of all textiles worldwide are recycled into new textiles. In addition, the presence of hazardous substances creates obstacles to high quality recycling. It is strongly felt that a lack of EU action would undermine effective environmental protection EU wide.

Apart from the environmental impact, textile value chains are seen as long, globalised and diverse. In consequence, the European textile and clothing industry is perceived as facing an uneven playing field due to the often lower production costs and environmental and social standards in place in non EU countries where production takes place. Once again, a lack of EU action would, it is felt, jeopardise the possibility of creating a level playing field for textile businesses.

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The European Commission’s initiative, which is intended to boost the EU market for sustainable and circular textiles, may lead to the setting of targets, in order to significantly increase reuse and recycling efforts as well as green public procurement in the EU. Actions will be proposed for a greener textiles environment, addressing weaknesses in sustainable production, sustainable lifestyles, and the presence of hazardous substances. Proposals will also be made to improve waste textiles collection and recycling in the Member States.

In seeking to present its future proposals, the Commission will identify textile specific and horizontal actions along the whole textile products value chain. Thus, there could be approaches in the pipeline for improving the design of textile products with a view to enhancing sustainability. This could be done by ensuring the use of secondary raw materials and tackling the presence of hazardous substances. Voluntary approaches will also be promoted, such as the EU Ecolabel.

The role of extended producer responsibility in promoting sustainable textiles and the treatment of waste textile products will also be considered. In this respect, the implementation of the legal obligation to introduce separate collection of waste textiles by 2025, pursuant to the EU’s Waste Framework Directive, will be endorsed.

As part of the proposal launching process, the Commission will consult stakeholders including all industry players. These will include fibre, yarn, fabric or clothing manufacturers, SMEs and global companies, as well as suppliers, retailers and other service providers. Hong Kong companies will therefore also have a chance to provide their input as part of any future consultations. The current initiative has a feedback deadline of 2 February 2021.

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How supplier countries will be impacted by EU strategies
According to a recent study, the overall impact of EU circular fashion policies on producing countries will be positive. Their economic, social and environmental situation could be improved by: new job opportunities; a lower adverse impact on the environment; better education; better (true) prices; and improved quality, durability and industry resilience.

In the short-term, there could be a temporary downturn in the textile economy of producing countries as they adjust to a new model, reflecting the costs of the transition. Some measures might be hard to implement too. This is because of, for instance, a lack of infrastructure or technical knowledge and a low level of understanding of the new economic model and policies.

Social conflict, poverty and civil unrest in producing countries resulting from revolutionary changes in more circular value chains for the fashion and textile industry should be avoided. Experts have suggested that the EU needs to develop a specific agenda around this, with accompanying measures. In addition, international cooperation between policy makers is needed to clarify and align circular economy policies.

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