The fashion and textile industry is the target of an ambitious overhaul in the European Union.
Over the summer, two new milestones were passed. Member state the Netherlands launched its long-awaited extended producer responsibility policy for textiles in July, making it the third European country after France and Sweden to hold brands responsible for clothing waste.
The new policy requires all manufacturers to provide collection points and enable sorting, recycling and reuse of the products they sell in the Dutch market, plus account for where that waste goes. Much of that will be done through a collective, with fees based upon how many pounds of textiles a company’s clothing sells in the country each year.
It’s a precursor to EPRs being implemented across the bloc. The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, put forward its highly anticipated proposals to introduce mandatory EPRs for textiles in all member states under the European Union Waste Framework Directive.
The proposed rules would mandate each EU country must launch a separate textile collection program by 2025. EPRs, similar to the Netherlands’, are intended to shift the cost of collection, sorting, and end-of-life treatment away from the taxpayer onto the brands — a “polluter pays” system which will go toward waste management or investing in recycling programs.
“It will definitely increase how much textile is collected,” said Nusa Urbancic, chief executive officer of the Changing Markets Foundation, who noted that the majority of clothing waste currently goes in with the household trash. “The level of fees will really determine whether or not it acts as a deterrent, and the behavior of these companies.”
Fees will vary according to complex calculations based on material, weight, eco-certificates achieved, and size of the company, a scheme known as eco-modulation, similar to the current French system. But looking at France as an example, the EU itself notes that “EPR fees…make a very small part of the price of the product.”
It amounts to a few cents per garment, which brands can easily pass on to the consumer.
“[Higher fees] would encourage brands to actually improve their design, to improve the kind of clothes that they’re putting on the market and make better clothes potentially,” said Urbancic.
The European Commission’s proposal is part of a basket of new regulations that the European Union is pushing under the Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, from combating green claims to how products are designed.
The overarching strategy aims to have all textiles imported into the EU to be “long-lived and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibers, free of hazardous substances and produced in respect of social rights and the environment” by 2030.
Critics of the proposed legislation say it doesn’t go far enough or address the sheer volume of stuff that brands produce each year.
While the new proposal is set up to deal with waste, there’s not much incentive at the beginning of the sales cycle of clothes that are widely dependent on these synthetics. “You have to look at the fundamental issue, which is the cheapness,” said Veronica Bates Kassatly, analyst and coauthor of “The Great Greenwashing Machine: The Use and Misuse of Sustainability Metrics in Fashion.”
She cited fossil fuel-based polyester as a major polluter all through its production and life cycle and its immediate impact on carbon outputs. “The precautionary principle requires us to do something about the volume of polyester,” she said.
The current European proposal calls for “realistic” recycling targets, without giving a concrete number, and doesn’t address the major issues that face recycling — that poly-blends are difficult to recycle, and direct fiber-to-fiber facilities simply don’t exist at scale in most places.
Much of what is currently collected is downcycled for industrial use, but only around one percent is made into new clothes, according to Changing Markets. Textiles that are recycled are turned into insulation or industrial uses — roughly about 27 percent.
Aside from a few small-scale or pilot programs, “the industry hasn’t really invested in textile-to-textile recycling. And with this legislation, we don’t really see that they have a huge incentive to invest,” said Urbancic.
Much of the current talk touts the benefits of recycled polyester, but as Kassatly pointed out, recycled polyester mostly comes from plastic bottles — not an old dress being made into a new shirt, as many consumers imagine. The current method is hotly debated as it takes plastic bottles out of the recycling stream, is energy-intensive and ultimately can’t compete on cost with pennies-per-pound virgin polyester. A tax would help level polyester’s playing field with natural fibers.
“If you had an environmental levy on all polyester that is not fiber-to-fiber recycled, it would automatically provide an incentive for someone to invest in developing it,” said Kassatly. She cited the success of recycled cashmere as an example.
The European proposal also sets out to address illegal exports of used clothes outside of the 27-country bloc, which is often labeled for reuse but results in being dumped in Ghana or Kenya, which are grappling with the sheer quantity of imported textile waste.
If Europe can no longer export its clothing or fiber-to-fiber recycle at the scale needed, “maybe that’s a great lesson that we’re going to get where we suddenly find we have these mountains of plastic clothing which nobody wants, if we suddenly find that we have to deal with our own mess and the volume that would pile up,” said Kassatly, citing photos and films of great clothing dumps from the Global South.
“It would be so beneficial if we could, through government policy and through environmental levies, increase the cost of clothing to reflect its true environmental cost,” said Kassatly. “There’s all these externalities nobody pays for when they buy an article of clothing.”
Multiple sources said the European Parliament is eager to push legislation through before next summer’s elections, even if data and targets are incomplete.
“It will give [brands] an opportunity to do better but it’s not going to change the fast fashion business model. It’s slow reform…but it is a significant step because Europe is such a big market. Lots of fashion brands want to sell here and they’ll have to comply with this law,” said Urbancic.
“Fashion has been the most unregulated industry in the world, and now it’s the first time that something is happening, finally,” said Urbancic. “I hope this will be strengthened even more, but it is a good first step.”