Reconciling the decisions and initiatives taken at all three levels to propel a circular economy was the crux of the debate on 23 March . The debaters highlighted a variety of issues emanating from the production and consumption of textiles globally and underlined ideal and expected actions driven by policy and regulatory reinforcements, but also changes expected from consumers.
On the one hand, the textile sector plays a consequential role as it contributes to the socio-economic fabric of different countries, including the employment of women, who make up most employees in the sector. Italy, for example, produces over 40% of EU textiles. When combined with France, Germany, Spain and Portugal, all five countries account for about three-quarters of EU textile production. In addition, the sector is predominantly composed of SMEs with less than 50 employees and account for over 90% of the workforce, explained tourism and textiles head of unit at the European Commission, Marie-Hélène Pradines.
On the other hand, Pradines underscored the urgent need to change textile consumption and production patterns in Europe, as the sector consumes large amounts of natural resources like water, and has the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change.
These challenges also brought into question the complexities of global supply chains and how it interacts with EU textile production and consumption. For instance, about 73% of fashion items in Europe are imported with the EU being the second largest importer of textiles after the United States. Accordingly, European households spend about 5% of their total consumption expenditure on clothing and footwear. Each person in Luxembourg spends an average of €1200 per year on clothing, compared to €700 in Spain or €200 in Slovakia.
But the problem doesn’t stop at the amount being spent on clothes, Pradines noted, but also the shorter lifespan of clothes today. EU consumers discard about 5.8 million tonnes of textiles each year (11,3kg per person). Globally, less than 1% of textile is recycled with a large majority that end up being incinerated.
Alternative forms of fashion consumption
Senior research associate at the University of Geneva, Katia Vladimirova, delved into sustainable consumption models in the textile sector based on research.
“Over the past 20 years, since 2000, global production and consumption of clothes has more than doubled. I would like [us] to pause for a second and just take [in] this number,” explained Vladimirova, who warned that the data must be crunched with caution as they could conceal disparities, whereas certain regions tend to over consume due to a higher purchasing power.
She went on to underscore the paradox between Gen Z-ers, who are the major consumers of fast-fashion, but also the biggest advocates for climate change. But beyond this, her key message stressed that all age groups need to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and drastically reduce purchases and repair rather than just donate items to charity organisations, which in several cases end up being overwhelmed with items while the “donor” walks away feeling liberated but ever ready to buy even more fashion items.
“When we say we over consume, we are not talking about the planet in general over consuming, we're talking about specific regions in the world and it us. It's Europe, it's North America, and its the global north… we are basically drowning in clothes
Instead of this, she advocated for more sustainable consumption practices--re-cycling, re-using, renting and repairing—but also buying ethically made local products as a key alternative to fast fashion, even though they may sometimes be more expensive. “It's better to buy one item for €100 than 10 items if it's the same kind of item.”
Local initiatives in Luxembourg
Founder of Benu village in Esch, Georges Kieffer stressed the need for big fashion brands to step away from using new synthetic fabrics and to go beyond introducing recycled fibers from plastic bottles for sustainable textiles, but also infuse old fabric in new designs and create new clothes from old fabric.
“If you want to change you have to stop the consumption of new things… I do not understand why we still import garments,” explained Kieffer who also deplored the working conditions of textile workers in some countries where imports are derived from. “Externalising costs only sends a message [across] that cheap production is possible…only donating without purchasing any second-hand doesn't bring anything to the earth nor to the people,” said Kieffer.
One of the local initiatives Benu village has organised in recent times includes a two-weeks pilot with youths to redesign jean jackets with old clothing.
He also underscored the need for “transparent transparency” in the composition of garments mentioned on the label (up to 5% undeclared) and the need to communicate “recycling” language in explicit terms to consumers.
If you really believe in change and if you’re convinced that you’re part of the change, then there are plenty of solutions but it does not include a “green” pullover from H&M… But there are awesome alternatives like swap parties, it’s not [yet] common in Luxembourg.
Key actions underway at the European level
Several initiatives on sustainable textiles have been initiated and are in the pipeline, one of the most significant being the EU strategy for textiles now expected to be adopted on 30 March.
The strategy will focus on supporting the resilience of the textile eco-system by stimulating a more sustainable and circular textile market, promoting the reuse of textiles and addressing the issue of fast fashion, Pradines explained, giving a sneak peek into the strategy.
Some of the main actions will touch on the design phase of textiles to ensure they are more sustainable, easy to re-use and repair and reduce the sector’s environmental footprint. In particular, it foresees a more hands-on role for not only producers but the entire value chain in driving sustainability and recycling efforts for textiles, following the example of France, which has already introduced recycling obligations for textile waste, a shining example Pradines says will be examined and developed as part of the zero-waste targets for 2023.
For consumers, the strategy will also look into improving information transparency so more informed decisions can be made based on the origin and composition of products. Some examples of how this could be implemented will be by exploring a labelling directive to publish specific information that match sustainable textile design standards and also introduce a digital product passport with information about the makeup of goods from design to production. On 23 February 2022, the Commission adopted a proposal for a directive on corporate sustainability and due diligence, meaning that companies of a certain size will be required to report on production conditions and sustainability standards that should be respected. The strategy also aims to ensure member states set up a separate collection of textile waste by 2025.
Alongside the adoption of the strategy proposal, a close consultation is foreseen with all sector players at European level to define other concrete actions.