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Textile Industry Sees Need to Increase Movement Towards Circular Economy

Until recently, the European Commission had been mainly focusing on targeting plastic waste. Now, however, it has shifted some of its focus on the fashion industry and the move away from the typical linear economy model of “take-make-waste”. Indeed, it has started promoting a circular economy in textiles (apparel and fabrics), motivating the recycling and reusing of materials and products. A move towards recycling is felt to be essential, as nearly 73% of the world’s clothing eventually ends up in landfills.

Not only is the fashion industry being pushed by the European Commission, it is also heavily influenced by consumer perception. The industry is racing to get ahead of the issue, to avoid a potential backlash from environmentally conscious shoppers. A fashion industry report, published in May 2019, found that two-thirds of consumers say sustainability is very important. Additionally, about one-third state that they would favour a brand that has positive environmental and social practices.

Producing raw materials and using techniques such as spinning and dyeing require enormous amounts of water and chemicals. According to the environmental organisation Greenpeace, up to 3,500 chemical substances are used to turn raw materials into textiles, and around 10% of these substances are hazardous to the environment. Even after production, clothing continues to have a harmful impact on the environment due to washing in particular. Clothing production and consumption produce about 6.7% of the global climate impact, while (to compare with another major sector) aviation and shipping account for 4.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

This issue has been on the map for a while for the industry: in 2017, it committed to “lessening its environmental impact by 2020 by designing for circularity, boosting the volume of used garments collected or resold, and increasing the share of garments made from recycled post-consumer textile fibres”.

Unfortunately, according to an annual assessment published on 7 May 2019 by the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and the Boston Consulting Group, progress on sustainability in fashion has slowed over the past year. Though consumers are attracted to environmentally conscious brands, sustainability remains far from being a key consideration in purchasing decisions, since fast fashion tends to be inexpensive. Thus, though the sector is improving on the whole, it is not doing this fast enough to counter the harmful impact.

To respond to this increasing demand for a circular economy in fast fashion, on 14 May 2019 industry leaders presented a manifesto at the Copenhagen Fashion summit, the sector’s foremost event on sustainability, calling on policymakers to “co-develop a European vision for textiles in a circular economy”. The manifesto stems from a collaboration between the European Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex), the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI), the International Apparel Federation (IAF), the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), and Global Fashion Agenda (GFA).

The manifesto explains that, though a large part of the industry is committed to promoting a circular economy, “the systems and tools to support a scaled circular economy are currently inadequate”. First, the manifesto sets out some points to reframe the issue, such as considering the circular economy for textiles as a global issue and not a regional one and requesting that the whole industry be part of the discussion. The manifesto sets out the following points as the “new approach”:

  • The transition to a circular economy requires bringing together public and private initiatives;
  • All institutions need to come together at the EU level;
  • Smart regulation is needed for areas that the textile industry alone cannot target; and
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities for each actor are needed to remove existing gaps in the supply chain.

According to the industry leaders, for a circular economy to function, no part of the loop can be broken. Unprecedented collaboration is therefore required to accomplish this. The industry needs to use new technological innovations to help separate fibres for reuse and “up-cycling” (i.e., creative reuse).

“Better design and materials” are also needed says the manifesto. As seen above, all life stages of a clothing article can produce harmful impacts. Cecile Martin, a textile specialist, explains that a major part of a product’s environmental impact can be determined at the design stage. Therefore, the industry can collaborate with textile and fibre makers to check whether clothing is fit for recycling or not, before production and launch occur.

As such, the manifesto demands policies tailored to SMEs and multinational fashion brands, as well as regulations to “nudge” consumers into rethinking how they use and dispose of textiles.

Some industry leaders, such as H&M, have even taken this stage into their own hands: at one of their stores, they are reported to have installed a miniaturized version of their recycling technology to show consumers how their used clothing can be recycled.

While the textile sector is not yet subject to waste-stream legislation in the same way as, for example, electrical and electronic equipment, the abovementioned developments, and the European Commission’s own moves in that direction, need to be considered seriously by Hong Kong sellers of textiles and apparel. An EU waste law targeting such products may be in the pipeline in the not too distant future.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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