Waiting for the new leadership of the European Commission, H+K Brussels’ Greta Gietz, Ellen Hof and Eva Bille discuss the implications of the circular economy strategy for the textile industry.

Under pressure from climate protests amid ubiquitous news stories and Greta’s taut sails, the private and public sectors alike are increasingly finding that vague sustainability commitments no longer cut it. The European Union’s Circular Economy Action Plan of December 2015 has already led to waste reduction and recycling targets. In 2018, the plan rolled out a Plastics Strategy to reduce single-use plastics, packaging and microplastic pollution.

With the new European Commission entering into office this November following May’s European Parliament elections, we can expect an acceleration of the EU’s drive towards a more Circular Economy. After first targeting plastic packaging, the approach has broadened to include microplastics. In this context textiles and clothing are under increasing regulatory scrutiny for their environmental impact, from production to consumption. As a consumer or a business even tangentially associated to or reliant on textiles, we recommend paying close attention to these developments.

Textiles leave an environmental footprint at all stages of the value chain, during production, use and end-of-life. For clothing, an item’s entire lifespan raises sustainability concerns: the pesticides and resources needed to grow raw materials; the energy used for spinning fibers and weaving fabrics; the chemicals and water used for dyeing; the water, energy and chemicals used in washing, drying and ironing; the microplastics shed into the environment when washed; and low reuse and recycling rates. In addition, consumer behavior contributing to trends such as “fast fashion” puts the responsibility not exclusively on corporate actors.

The growing understanding of and increased policy attention to the environmental impact of textiles raises pressing questions. How and how quickly will the EU act and which companies will pay the price?

There’s a consistent message from the European Institutions that the EU will become more active on textiles. Earlier this year, a European Parliament briefing underlined that addressing sustainability in the clothing industry is a key priority for the EU. During the October confirmation hearings for the new European Commissioners, Executive Vice President Timmermans – responsible for the newly created “European Green Deal” portfolio – told the European Parliament that he would work on a new circular economy action plan focusing on “high impact sectors” such as textiles. The Commissioner-designate for Environment and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevicius also mentioned microplastics and textiles, further confirming the topic as a top policy priority for the coming legislative term. At the same time, EU environment ministers have called in October for action to “promote circularity” in key sectors, such as textiles, transport, food and construction.

The chemicals used during production, types of materials and microplastics are all possible areas that may become subject to new policies with far-reaching impact across the value chain.

Last year the European Commission had already set new limits for potentially harmful chemical substances used in clothing, textiles and footwear under the REACH framework –the overarching regulation on the use of chemicals – moving quickly from the feedback period in February 2018 to its adoption in October 2018. The impact of this regulation has already been felt by textile producers as well as manufacturers of sporting goods, watches, toys and the textile recycling sector. We should expect these limits to become even stricter.

When it comes to types of textiles, both “natural” fibers (cotton, wool, linen and silk) and synthetic fibers (acrylic, nylon, rayon, acetate and spandex) have an environmental footprint and face sustainability challenges. Moreover, the latter are cheap, extremely versatile and have unique characteristics – stretch, warming and cooling, breathability and water-resistance to name a few. Natural products are not a perfect alternative.

While the impact of microplastics on the environment and human health is still subject to research, every day we hear about their presence in our oceans, even in the most remote areas. This is putting pressure on policymakers to reduce microplastics entering the environment from different sources. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has proposed a restriction on intentionally-added microplastics, as found in personal care products, and is now shifting its attention to unintentionally-added microplastics generated during the life-cycle of products, such as those stemming from textiles: one study estimates that synthetic fibers are the source of 29% of microplastics found in the marine environment.

Synthetic fibers primarily leak into the environment when washed. This raises the question: who will be held responsible? Will it be the clothing industry? Washing machine manufacturers? Wastewater treatment plants? Or consumers?

The EU may target the textiles industry under its Circular Economy Action Plan in many different ways. This makes it challenging for companies that need to anticipate and react to these measures. But a lot of questions remain unanswered on how the sector can reach new sustainability standards, opening doors of opportunity to those who can provide innovative solutions. Stella McCartney’s call for consumers to stop washing their clothes will probably have difficulty gaining traction.

To prepare for and mitigate the impact of impending regulations companies should consider:

  • proactively looking into the reduction of microplastics and the environmental footprint of their production practices;
  • revisiting their sustainability plans, audits and reporting;
  • developing a vision on what workable regulation should look like, in line with the EU’s goals and rooted in data;
  • establishing contacts with the Commission, European Parliament and Member States – making friends before you need them;
  • preparing industry associations for the storm and collaborating with them, and
  • monitoring developments closely.

Last year, we saw how quickly the ban on single-use plastics moved through the legislative machinery – it only took one year for all 28 Member States to agree and adopt the directive. Where there’s political will, there’s a way to get things through at breakneck speed. It’s very likely that the Commission is planning something similar for textiles: quick action with high impact.

Guided by the waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse, recycle – the EU won’t hesitate to regulate the textiles sector until it fits into the vision for a Circular Economy. Blink and you may miss it.