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European Environment Agency Publishes Report on the Place of Textiles Within the Circular Economy

On 19 November 2019, the European Environmental Agency (the EEA) published its report on “Textiles and the environment in a circular economy”, presenting the latest evidence on environmental and climate impacts from the consumption of textile products ranging from clothing and footwear to carpets and furniture in the EU. According to the EEA, circular business models in textiles — such as leasing, sharing, and take-back and resale — need to be scaled up with the support of policies addressing materials and design, production and distribution, use and reuse, collection and recycling.

As Hong Kong’s clothing sellers will certainly be aware, the textiles market is highly globalised, and millions of producers and billions of consumers across the world are involved in so-called linear value chains. These chains — from raw material extraction to production, transport, consumption and waste — include little or no reuse or recycling. Since 1975, the global production of textile fibres has almost tripled and, today, 60% of textile fibres are synthetic.

The report noted that, in 2017, the EU produced 7.4 kg of textiles per person while consuming nearly 26 kg, and EU consumers discarded about 11 kg of textiles per person per year. The export of used clothes — primarily to eastern Europe, Asia and Africa — is significant and increasing, however, used clothes that are not exported are mostly incinerated or landfilled, and the recycling of textiles remains low. There are high environmental, climate and social costs from textiles that occur in every phase from production to distribution and retail, use of textiles, collection, sorting and recycling, and final waste management. The different pressures from the textiles system, include the use of resources, land and chemicals, and the emission of greenhouse gases.

The consumption of clothing, footwear and household textiles in the EU uses about 1.3 tonnes of raw materials and more than 100 cubic metres of water per person annually. These textiles represent the fourth highest pressure category after food, housing and transport and are also the fourth highest pressure category for water use. Additionally, this same product group causes the second highest pressure on land use (after food), which predominantly occurs outside the EU, and causes a considerable amount of chemical and water pollution. It is estimated that about 20% of global water pollution is caused by dyeing and finishing textile products and that about half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres are released into the ocean annually from washing plastic-based textiles.

The reports states that the adoption of circular economy policies and principles, such as eco-design and reusing, holds potential to mitigate the environmental and climate impacts of textile production and consumption.

Hong Kong traders will want to know that the European Commission has identified textiles as a ‘priority product category for the circular economy’ in its Working Document on Sustainable products in a circular economy — Towards an EU product policy framework contributing to the circular economy. Furthermore, the new President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced in My agenda for Europe that she ‘will propose a new circular economy action plan focusing on sustainable resource use, especially in resource intensive and high-impact sectors such as textiles’.

According to the EEA, the circular economy is one in which circularity is ensured in all phases of the lifecycle, including materials, eco-design, production and distribution, consumption and stock, and waste. The choice of materials and the design influence the environmental and climate impacts of textiles and the end-of-life options available in the future. In this regard, circular business models should be systematically scaled – and supported by policies - to enable sustainable sourcing of synthetic and natural fibres, including recycling and reuse of materials. The EEA report also holds that resource taxes on new fibres could potentially increase the demand for used fibres and, in the use phase, business models should encourage collaborative consumption and longer use, e.g. by supporting leasing rather than buying, sharing platforms, take-back and resale, and second hand stores, and by revaluing repair and maintenance. Economic policy instruments — e.g. in the form of taxes, levies or value-added tax (VAT) adjustments — offer an opportunity to reduce virgin material use per capita and influence market dynamics in favour of sustainable textiles and repair services.

Additionally, the EEA report suggests that increasing the use of green public procurement of textiles could pave the way for scaling up circular business models and increased awareness in society. The education of consumers and the use of labelling plays an important role in encouraging more sustainable textile use, such as reduced consumption, longer use and better maintenance. Finally, in the collection, recycling and waste treatment stages, the report calls for investment to ensure that circular business models enable recycling and reuse. It notes that EU policies oblige Member States to collect textiles separately by 2025; and ensure that waste collected separately is not incinerated or landfilled.

In short, Hong Kong traders will need to be aware that the new European Commission has identified the textiles industry as a priority for the circular economy, and that the European Environment Agency is strongly pushing for circular business models to be supported by regulations and other policies in order to spur systemic change within the whole textiles system.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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