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

In the Strategy, the Commission sets out several proposals to address sustainability and circularity in the textiles industry. By looking at the whole lifecycle of textile products, 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 aims:

  • all textile products placed on the EU market should be durable, repairable and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances, and produced with respect to social rights and the environment;
  • fast fashion should be “out of fashion” and consumers should benefit longer from high quality affordable textiles;
  • profitable re-use and repair services should be widely available; and
  • the textiles sector should be competitive, resilient and innovative, with producers taking responsibility for their products along the value chain with sufficient capacities for recycling and minimal incineration and landfilling, so that circular clothes become the norm.

Below, we provide an overview of the key aspects of the Strategy that manufacturers, retailers, and others in the textiles supply chain will want to watch closely as the Commission’s legislative proposals to achieve these aims take shape.

Introduction of mandatory (eco-) design requirements

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 enhance the quality, durability and environmental performance of textiles.

The Commission’s recent proposal for a new Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (discussed previously here), includes binding product-specific design requirements, and in respect of textiles, seeks to make them last longer in order to enable consumers to use clothing for longer and at the same time support circular business models such as reuse, renting and repair, take-back services and second-hand retail. Design aspects may also include requirements as to the material composition, including mandatory recycled fibre content, as well as the ability to recycle and re-manufacture textile products.

As part of its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (discussed previously here), the Commission further intends to address the presence of hazardous substances used in textile products under REACH. Additionally, to achieve its zero pollution ambition in the production of textiles, the Commission will further consider necessary revisions of other legislation, including for example the Industrial Emissions Directive.

As part of this initiative, the Commission also plans to address microplastic pollution. In addition to product design, measures will therefore target manufacturing processes, pre-washing at industrial manufacturing plants, labelling and the promotion of innovative materials.

Reducing the destruction of unsold and returned textiles 

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 on the number of products they discard and destroy, including their approach to reuse, recycling, incineration and landfilling. Subject to the powers granted under the draft Regulation, the Commission may also introduce bans on the destruction of unsold products, including as appropriate unsold or returned textiles.

Additionally, the Commission will assess with industry how digital precision technologies could reduce the high percentage of returns of clothing bought online, in particular by encouraging on-demand custom manufacturing.

Introduction of a Digital Product Passport

The Commission also proposes introducing Digital Product Passports, which may become mandatory for textiles. These passports would enable (and indeed require) provision of more information about a product to consumers and other entities in the supply chain. This is likely to require other players throughout the supply chain, including manufacturers, distributors and retailers, to provide and substantiate information to their customers so that both businesses and end-consumers can make informed decisions about the products they purchase.

Substantiating “green” claims 

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

In this context, the Commission is proposing to amend the Consumer Rights Directive to oblige traders to provide consumers with information on the durability and reparability of products. The Commission also proposes amendments to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, including an expansion of the list of practices which are automatically deemed to be unfair to include making vague, excessively broad or generic environmental claims, displaying ‘sustainability’ labels which have not been verified by an authorised scheme, and designing products in a way that limits their durability (planned early obsolescence).

Both pieces of legislation fall within scope of the new Representative Actions Directive (an overview of which can be found here), so a breach of any such new rules could potentially tempt collective actions on behalf of European consumers in due course.

Extended Producer Responsibility

The Commission proposes to introduce extended producer responsibility (EPR) requirements specifically for textiles waste.  Among other things, these will require that Member States establish separate collections for textile waste by 1 January 2025. The Commission proposes to use eco-modulation of fees in the forthcoming revision of the Waste Framework Directive. This would see fees for EPR paid by producers based on the environmental performance of products, aiming to incentivise the design and production of more environmentally-friendly products. The Strategy does not address potential fines for non-compliance which are instead likely to be subject to national laws.

UK developments in this space

In March 2021, the UK government unveiled its plans for a broad, multi-sectoral Waste Prevention Programme. As part of this programme, the government set out its ambition to encourage a textiles sector where items are made to last and easy to reuse, repair and recycle, indicating among other things that it intended to introduce an EPR scheme for textiles, supported by measures to encourage better design and information for consumers.

However, the status of these proposals is now unclear – the government published its response to consultation on EPR for packaging on 26 March 2022, but has made no further announcements regarding EPR for textiles. It is possible that proposals may be introduced in due course under the powers granted to the Secretary of State under the Environment Act 2021.

It is also worth noting that following the publication of its Green Claims Code, the CMA has announced that it is currently conducting compliance reviews into the fashion retail sector in respect of “green” claims (discussed further here). The outcome of this review could trigger further interest in issues such as the recycled content, durability, and labelling of clothing.