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A vision for an environmentally sustainable, circular EU textile sector

International environmental organisation ECOS has welcomed the European Commission’s initiative to set out an EU vision for an environmentally sustainable, circular EU textile sector that delivers on EU zero pollution objectives and climate neutrality targets by 2050 and addresses the environmental and social impacts of textiles.

The European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) and the Industrial Strategy have identified textiles as a priority sector in which the EU can pave the way towards a carbon-neutral, circular economy and therefore announced an EU Strategy on textiles that will help the EU shift to a climate-neutral, circular economy where products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable and energy-efficient. It aims to ensure that the textile industry recovers from the COVID-19 crisis in a sustainable way by making it more competitive, by applying circular economy principles to production, products, consumption, waste management and secondary raw materials and by directing investment, research and innovation.

“The EU has the opportunity to take significant steps towards making textiles truly circular, making sustainable products the norm and inspiring the rest of the world,” read ECOS statement. “It is urgent to turn this vision into action since the important climate and environmental impacts of the textile sector continue to grow within the current linear system.”

Textiles and clothing make up a diverse industrial ecosystem covering different value chains and types of products. Today the industry employs 1.5 million people, spread across more than 160.000 companies in the EU, most of which are SMEs, with an EU annual turnover of 162 billion euros in 2019. Despite a growing social trend for sustainability in the EU textile and fashion industry, Europeans consume on average 26 kilograms of textiles per person per year – a significant share of these coming from third countries. Each item is used for a shorter period, resulting in 11 kilograms of textiles discarded per person per year.

The textile sector is a resource-intensive sector with important climate and environmental impacts. Textile consumption is the fourth highest pressure category in the EU in terms of use of primary raw materials and water (after food, housing and transport) and fifth for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Moreover, it is estimated that less than one per cent of all textiles worldwide are recycled into new textiles. The presence of substances of concern hampers future high-quality recycling and pollutes water and soil and textile waste collection rates and recycling capacities are low to medium in the EU.

ECOS has welcomed the fact that textiles are recognised as a key product value chain by the European Commission and it is also pleased to hear that mandatory and hopefully ambitious, measures are foreseen to move away from the buy-use-throw away pattern towards a real circular model.

However, the EU Strategy for Textiles could go even further. ECOS firmly believes that the strategy should be more ambitious to boost a shift towards circularity and ultimately discourage the EU textiles sector to maintain a linear economy. It needs to better promote upstream solutions including prevention, better design, re-use and overall improve the environmental performance and impact of products put on the market instead of focusing mostly on the recycling/post-consumer phase. Measures presented in the strategy should follow a real circular economy hierarchy, where value retention is prioritised and where prevention strategies to avoid material consumption in the first place are adequately valued.

The strategy should also include the need for an absolute reduction of global textile production and consumption to significantly reduce the overall environmental footprint of the sector while ensuring that enhanced sustainability standards for textile products will contribute to a just transition that ensures the fair distribution of prosperity across the value chain.

Finally, the textile industry today is linear, with synthetic fibres produced from finite resources accounting for two-thirds of the material input for textile production. There is an urgent need for a regulatory framework ambitious enough to contribute to deliver on EU zero pollution objectives and climate neutrality targets by 2050 and this aspect is currently missing from the roadmap.

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