April 18. 2024. 1:02

The Daily

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A new revolution for EU fashion and textiles


With textiles and clothing among the most wasteful and polluting sectors in the EU, it’s time for a total rethink. Ahead of World Consumer Rights Day on 15 March, Virginjus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, makes the case for a new beginning – from design and production to recycling and disposal.

Two centuries ago, the industrial revolution brought mass-produced fabrics within everyone’s reach. For generations, clothes came to mean affordable comfort, convenience and style. But at the turn of the 21st century, a massive acceleration began, with textile production doubling between 2000 and 2015. With the arrival of fast fashion new problems emerged, and all too often, soulless, mass-produced clothes meant waste, pollution, and an enormous depletion of resources. Now it’s time for a new revolution. It’s time for sustainable textiles.

With massively industrialised garment production, the latest designs are just one click away. Fast fashion garments might look great, but they don’t hold their value. They can’t be repaired, and they end up in landfills, incinerated, or shipped off to faraway places. It’s a model of overproduction and overconsumption, and it’s spiralling out of control.

It’s led to a situation where EU citizens throw away 5.8 million tonnes of textiles and clothing every year, equivalent to more than 11 kg per person. These individual items are cheap to produce, but the cost to the planet is huge. The textiles industry is the third highest user of water and land, and it’s in the top five for raw materials use and greenhouse gas emissions. And as we move to de-carbonise our economy, nearly 70% of textiles still contain materials derived from fossil fuels.

It’s time to reset the trend. We need to fundamentally change the way we produce and consume textiles to bring down the environmental footprint of the sector. That’s the thinking behind the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles.

If we want our fabrics and garments to last longer, they have to be designed with time in mind. They need to be made of materials that do no harm to the planet, and can be repaired, recycled, or upcycled to make something new. We need to value once more the artisanal skills that make that possible, which is one core aim of this European Year of Skills.

We also need young people on board. Making this new, sustainable textile revolution a reality will require the power of youth, both as responsible consumers and as future designers and producers. The fashion sector is already filled with numerous young role models, working to change mindsets about the life-cycle of textiles – many of them are supporting our efforts to transform the sector through the ReSet the Trend – #ReFashionNow campaign which is now under way. Some 98% of the EU textile sector is SMEs, many of them small and eco-savvy, staffed by energetic young entrepreneurs, bravely competing with wasteful multinationals.

At the Commission, we are looking to boost the resilience of a sustainable, circular textile sector, and to make life easier for these visionary SMEs. The final decisions are still to be made, but they should include training and upskilling through the Pact for Skills, support for second-hand markets, tax breaks and other incentives for repairers and artisans.

Trends change, and fast fashion will be no exception. Right now, as part of the Textiles Strategy, we’re using three different mechanisms to try and speed the change.

The first is a new approach to design. If we want to extend the life of textiles in a sustainable way, design is the best place to start. If we want to reduce microplastics in the marine environment, we have to stop putting them into products in the first place, and that starts with design. That’s the thinking behind new EU legislation like the Ecodesign for sustainable product regulation, which will bring in new rules to increase sustainability across the board, including in the textiles sector (right now, we’re consulting the public on which sectors should be first in line – follow this link to have your say).

The second strategy is giving consumers more reliable information. Many of these garments are imported from outside the Union, and we want to raise awareness of the conditions in which they are made. This should go far beyond labelling that simply indicates a place of origin – it could also include much richer information about materials, the quantity of water used in production, and options for disposal. This also includes a more rigorous attempt to stamp out greenwashing, with new rules for companies now on the way.

Lastly, in many people’s minds, fast fashion means poor labour conditions that are kept out of sight. This too is now being addressed, and in February last year, the Commission proposed new rules to ensure that manufacturers and suppliers who want to sell their goods in the EU market respect high EU human rights and welfare standards. The proposal is now being discussed between the institutions, and I hope to see it soon on the EU books.

That first industrial revolution was the rise of the machines – heartless, ruthless, and bad for the planet. Resetting the trend takes a different approach, putting humans back at the heart of the process. We wear our clothes next to our skin. Isn’t it time to put some humanity back into their touch?