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Spanish Clothing Giant Commits to Environmentally Sustainable Fibres, As Textiles are Prioritised for the Circular Economy

Spanish retail giant Inditex, best known for its brand Zara which accounts for 70% of the group’s sales, recently announced concrete initiatives within the framework of its commitment to ethical and sustainable fashion. The initiative comes at a time when green schemes are a trend within the fashion industry and when the European Commission has announced its intention to focus on textiles as a priority product category within the circular economy.

In the EU, clothing has become very affordable in the last few decades. This is mainly due to mass production and large sales volumes (so-called ‘fast fashion’). According to the European Environment Agency, the amount of clothes bought per person in the EU increased by 40% between 1996 and 2012, and spending on clothing represents approximately 5% of household expenditure.

Due to these numbers, the European Commission is, according to a Staff Working Document, to focus on textiles as a priority product category, while it continues to investigate the environmental footprint caused by the textile industry.

Inditex, a Spanish retail giant and now one of the world's largest fashion retailers, today has eight brands, namely, Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho, Zara Home and Uterqüe. It sells both online and in over 7,000 stores. During its Assembly General meeting held on 16 July 2019, Inditex pledged that, by 2025, 100% of the cotton, linen and polyester used by its eight clothing brands will be made from organic, sustainable or recycled fibres.

On a global scale, only 1% of textiles are recycled back into textiles, while about 75% are landfilled or incinerated. In the EU, separate collection of textiles will be mandatory from 2025 onwards under EU Directive 2018/851 (the Waste Framework Directive) which is part of the circular economy package.

Hong Kong traders of textiles may be familiar with the Waste Framework Directive, which targets textile waste (along with other waste-streams) specifically. It states that Member States must encourage the re-use of products and the setting up of systems promoting repair and re-use activities, including in particular for textiles (among others). The Directive also requires that separate collection for textiles be set up by 1 January 2025.

In the meantime, the EU continues exploring possible measures for making textiles more sustainable. Measures under discussion include introducing better ecodesign (e.g., a required minimum content of recycled fibres), better labelling, extended producer responsibility and fiscal incentives for manufacturers, as well as advocating for more sustainable options such as clothing rental, circular fashion and slow fashion (fewer clothes of higher quality) for the consumer.

A recent study from the European Environment Agency (EEA), investigating the environmental effects of textiles throughout their life cycle, identified high impacts, particularly at the production stage. Natural fibres such as cotton or wool cause issues with regard to the intense use of agricultural resources (land and water) and the use of pesticides. Synthetic fibres (such as polyester) use less land, but are reliant on fossil fuels and cause microplastic shedding which can end up in the environment, e.g., the oceans.

Cotton is said to be the most important raw material used by Inditex. As a resource-intensive crop, sustainability is key in its production. Inditex therefore claims to promote the use of more sustainable solutions, i.e. organic cotton and recycled cotton. Organic cotton seeds are GMO-free, and grown without fertilisers or chemical pesticides. Inditex cooperates with global initiatives Textile Exchange, the Better Cotton Initiative, the Organic Cotton Accelerator initiative and a manufacturer of high quality sustainable lyocell fibres made from cotton waste.

Polyester and nylon recycling reduces the consumption of natural resources, including energy, oil and water, and significantly cuts down on waste to landfill. The global initiative Textile Exchange is said to promote recycled polyester and nylon as preferred fibres among its members.

Inditex has also stated its aim to no longer send anything to landfill from its own headquarters, logistics centres, stores and factories by 2025.

Inditex has a special label, the “Join Life” label, which designates garments that have, it is pointed out, been produced using the best processes and more sustainable raw materials. Inditex revealed that its “Join Life”-labelled garments will account for 25% of the total number of garments that it sells by 2025.

According to Executive Director Pablo Isla, Inditex is determined to advance towards meeting the most demanding sustainability standards while preserving the efficiency of its long-standing business model. Mr. Isla explained that “sustainability is a never-ending task in which everyone here at Inditex is involved and in which we are successfully engaging all of our suppliers; we aspire to play a transformational role in the industry.”

The news comes at a time when sustainability criteria for textiles are coming into focus at the European Commission. Indeed, it has started promoting a circular economy in textiles (apparel and fabrics), motivating the recycling and reusing of materials and products.

The fashion industry is also heavily influenced by consumer perception. A recent fashion industry report found that two-thirds of consumers say sustainability is very important to them. Additionally, about one-third stated that they would favour a brand that has positive environmental and social practices.

The industry is racing to get ahead of the issue, to avoid a potential backlash from environmentally conscious consumers. Other large retailers such as H&M have introduced their own green programmes in order to modify their “fast fashion” image.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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