Slow mode: The European Union’s vision for sustainable and circular textiles

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Estimated by the European Commission to have the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change (right after food, housing and mobility), textiles are increasingly becoming a focus of the Commission’s efforts to make the EU climate neutral by 2050. As part of its Green Deal, and in particular its Economic Action Plan Circularly, the Commission recently adopted its Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, and is in the process of seeking stakeholder input, through a consultative survey open until 15 May 2022.

In the Strategy, the Commission sets out several proposals to address sustainability and circularity in the textile industry. Looking at the entire textile product life cycle, the Strategy aims to take a new and holistic approach, by making textiles more durable, tackling so-called “fast fashion” and textile waste, and ensuring production respects human rights.

The Commission has outlined an ambitious 2030 vision with the following core objectives:

  • all textile products placed on the EU market must be durable, repairable and recyclable, made mostly of recycled fibres, free from harmful substances, and produced with social and environmental rights in mind;
  • fast fashion must be “out of fashion” and consumers should benefit longer from affordable, high-quality textiles;
  • profitable reuse and repair services should be widely available; and
  • the textile sector needs to be competitive, resilient and innovative, with producers responsible for their products along the value chain with sufficient capacity for recycling and minimal incineration and stockpiling, so that circular garments become the norm.

Below, we provide an overview of the key aspects of the Strategy that manufacturers, retailers and others in the textile supply chain will want to pay attention to as the Commission’s legislative proposals to achieve this goal are formed.

Introduction of mandatory design requirements (eco-)

In order to reduce the impact of textile products on the climate and environment, the Commission intends to introduce several mandatory product design requirements intended to improve the quality, durability and environmental performance of textiles.

The Commission’s recent proposal for a new Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (discussed earlier here), includes binding product-specific design requirements, and with respect to textiles, seeks to make them last longer to allow consumers to wear clothes longer and at affordable prices. at the same time supporting circular business models such as reuse, rental and repair, take-back services, and second-hand retail. Design aspects may also include requirements for material composition, including mandatory recycled fiber content, as well as the ability to recycle and remake textile products.

As part of the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability (discussed earlier here), the Commission further intends to address the presence of hazardous substances used in textile products under REACH. In addition, in order to achieve the ambition of zero pollution in textile production, the Commission will further consider revisions to other laws as needed, including for example the Industrial Emissions Directive.

As part of this initiative, the Commission also plans to tackle microplastic pollution. In addition to product design, actions will target manufacturing processes, pre-washing in industrial manufacturing plants, labeling and promotion of innovative materials.

Reduces unsold and returned textile damage

As a disincentive to destroy unsold or returned textiles, under the draft Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, the Commission proposes to impose an obligation on large companies to publicly report the amount of product they dispose of and destroy, including their approach to reuse, recycling, burning and stockpiling. Subject to the powers granted under the draft Regulations, the Commission may also impose a prohibition on the destruction of unsold products, including textiles that are not properly sold or returned.

In addition, the Commission will assess with industry how digital precision technology can reduce the high percentage returns of clothing purchased online, in particular by encouraging on-demand manufacturing.

Introduction of Digital Product Passport

The Commission also proposes to introduce a Digital Product Passport, which may become mandatory for textiles. These passports will allow (and do require) the provision of more information about a product to consumers and other entities in the supply chain. This may require other players throughout the supply chain, including manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, to provide and amplify information to their customers so that businesses and end consumers can make informed decisions about the products they buy.

Supports “green” claims

A growing source of concern for the Commission is the accuracy of the sustainability or “green” claims.

In this context, the Commission proposes to amend the Consumer Rights Directive to require merchants to provide consumers with information about product durability and reparability. The Commission also proposed amendments to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, including expanding the list of practices automatically deemed unfair to include making vague, overly broad or generic environmental claims, displaying ‘sustainability’ labels that have not been verified by official schemes, and designing products with a way that limits its durability (premeditated early obsolescence).

Both laws fall within the scope of the new Representative Action Directive (an overview of which can be found here), so violations of the new rules could potentially tempt collective action on behalf of European consumers in due course.

Extended Producer Liability

The Commission proposes to introduce an extended producer responsibility (EPR) requirement specifically for textile waste. Among other things, it will require Member States to establish separate collections for textile waste by January 1, 2025. The Commission proposes to use eco-modulation costs in future revisions of the Waste Framework Guidelines. It will see fees for EPR paid by manufacturers based on the product’s environmental performance, aiming to encourage the design and production of more environmentally friendly products. This strategy does not address potential fines for non-compliance that are likely to be subject to national legislation.

British developments in this area

In March 2021, the UK government announced its plans for a broad multi-sectoral Waste Prevention Programme. As part of this program, the government sets out its ambition to encourage a textile sector where goods are made durable and easy to reuse, repair and recycle, indicating among other things that the government intends to introduce an EPR scheme for textiles, supported by measures to drive better designs and information for consumers.

However, the status of this proposal is currently unclear – the government published its response to the consultation on the EPR for packaging on 26 March 2022, but made no further announcement on the EPR for textiles. It is possible that the proposal could be introduced in due course under the powers granted to the Secretary of State under the 2021 Environment Act.

It should also be noted that following the publication of its Green Claims Code, CMA has announced that it is currently conducting a compliance review of the fashion retail sector with respect to “green” claims (discussed further here). The results of this review could spark further interest in issues such as recyclable content, durability, and clothing labeling.

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