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Textiles Come into Focus of EU Circular Economy Strategy

EU officials, environment experts and industry representatives suggest making textiles the next priority for the EU circular economy strategy. The EU wants to explore potential measures for making textiles more sustainable and to change the ways European consumers use their clothes. However, Member States’ plans for extended producer responsibility for, and in-store collection of, discarded textile products are slow in the uptake: for example, on 18 June 2019, the UK government decided against introducing mandatory measures on clothing manufacturers related to textiles recycling.

In May 2019, EU officials, environment experts and industry representatives met to discuss the circular economy strategy in Vienna at the forum on ECO-innovation. At the forum, the European Environment Agency (EEA) presented the initial findings of a study into textiles. The study investigated the environmental effects of textiles throughout their life cycle and identified high impacts, particularly at the production stage.

According to the study, textile products, particularly clothing, footwear, bags and other accessories, are the fourth largest polluter, the first three places being taken by housing, mobility and food. The textile sector is the fourth largest consumer of primary raw materials. Textiles also account for the second largest land use and fifth largest water use. Globally, clothing and footwear account for an estimated 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation, in comparison, accounts for only 2%.

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 EEA’s estimates, the number 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 named textiles as a priority product category in a Staff Working Document, and it continues to investigate the environmental footprint caused by the textile industry. There are several distinct problematic aspects to consider, which differ according to the raw material and manufacturing methods.

In the case of natural fibres such as cotton or wool, the intense use of agricultural resources (land and water), and the use of pesticides as well as chemicals used in dying, are the biggest issues. 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. The environmental impact is felt most strongly in third countries (i.e., outside the EU) where most of the production takes place.

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 the 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.

In the UK, 300,000 tonnes of clothing are reported to be burned or landfilled every year, with UK shoppers buying more clothes than in any other EU country. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (the EAC) recently presented a report which found that the fashion industry’s current business model is unsustainable, and has called for change.

The EAC suggested, among others, introducing an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles. EPR is a policy approach where producers are assigned financial and/or physical responsibility for the collection and treatment or disposal of products they put on the market. Generally, EPR aims to provide incentives for waste prevention at the source, to promote ecodesign and to support better recycling and materials management.

In this case, the EAC suggested a tax of one penny per garment. According to the EAC’s proposal, the amounts raised would then be reinvested in setting up better clothing collection and sorting systems. Further suggestions included a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled, reducing VAT on clothes repair services and teaching classes at school on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes.

However, on 18 June 2019, the UK Government rejected the EAC’s suggestions, reluctant to introduce mandatory measures before 2025; coincidentally, the deadline for setting up separate textile collection under the Waste Framework Directive. For now, therefore, there will only be voluntary measures for the industry.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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