By Arianna Angilletta and Chiara D’Onofrio
Nowadays, the textile sector represents the second most polluting industry in the world after the oil industry and is responsible for 20% of global water waste – due to the various processes the products undergo such as dyeing and finishing – and 10% of carbon dioxide emissions (more than all international flights and shipping combined).
According to the European Commission’s action plan for a new circular economy, textiles are the fourth highest-pressure category for the use of primary raw materials and water (after food, housing, and transport) and fifth for GHG emissions.
It is estimated that the production of a single cotton T-shirt requires approximately 2.700 liters of water, corresponding to the water needs of a person for 2.5 years. Even more, it is estimated that about 10.000 liters of water are needed to manufacture one pair of jeans.
In terms of water pollution, the washing of synthetic garments (polyester, acrylic, etc.) releases 0.5 million tons of microfibers into the sea each year: for instance, a single load of polyester laundry can result in the release of 700.000 microplastic fibers.
Furthermore, over the last 20 years, international clothing sales – which accounts for more than half of all textiles – have doubled, thanks in part to online sales and, at the same time, due to the boom of ‘fast fashion’, the lifespan of clothes has almost halved, leading to a dramatic increase in textile waste.
As for many fashion companies, destroying unsold products is still a common practice. Particularly for luxury brands destroying such products has always ensured preservation of the value linked to their brands’ exclusivity. Besides, in many countries, such as the United States, it is much cheaper to destroy unsold products than to reuse or recycle them. In addition to firms being able to claim tax credit, this approach is also due to the fact that within the fashion industry many products are not designed and manufactured with the aim of being reused or reassembled, thus once discarded, they need to be disposed of.
In recent years, such way to manage waste and inventories caused many famous brands to be strongly criticized or even be subject to smear campaigns on social networks.
The underlying issue seems to be the lack of solutions at sectoral level to efficiently manage unsold products, returns and/or damaged goods, but also the increase in online sales, as well as the overproduction practice (i.e., the excessive production of products compared to actual market demand).
Given the above, the importance of the textile sector in the challenge towards an ecological transition is therefore clear and tangible. The use of recycled material and the commitment to circular economy projects aimed at making the fashion industry more ethical, environmentally friendly, and sustainable (i.e., eco fashion, slow fashion, or conscious fashion) have become a priority.
At European level, the new circular fashion strategy will tackle the fast fashion issue by providing guidelines to achieve a good level of textile waste sorting. According to Directive (EU) 2018/851 on waste, Member States are required to set up waste sorting for textiles by January 1, 2025.
Besides, within the promotion of circularity principles in production processes, the EU Commission pursues the objective of adopting measures to support circular materials and production processes, ensuring the use of secondary raw materials by limiting the presence of hazardous chemicals and helping private consumers to choose sustainable textile products and have easy access to reuse and repair services.
It is also interesting to note that at European level it has been introduced an EU Ecolabel for products and services that meet high performance standards and also comply with ecological criteria, ensuring a limited use of harmful substances and reduced water and air pollution.
Many European countries are planning to develop a regulatory framework for a more responsible management of discarded garments. Among others, in August 2021, the so-called “Climate and Resilience Law” was adopted in France, leading to the creation of new rules in terms of environmental impact and waste management, which will also have a great impact on the fashion industry.
In particular, as of January 1, 2022, manufacturers and importers of goods destined to the French market will have to inform consumers of products’ environment-related qualities and characteristics, including the incorporation of recycled materials, the use of renewable resources and aspects of sustainability, repairability and reusability. Such information will have to be accessible, also by electronic means, to consumers at the time of purchase. Producers and importers will also have to display the ‘Triman logo’ to indicate that recycling legislations and obligations are applicable to their products. Finally, it is groundbreaking that from 2022 in France producers, importers, and distributors of goods such as textiles, clothes and shoes will have to refrain from destroying unsold items.
At Italian level, it should be noted that, in transposing the Waste Directive through Legislative Decree no. 116/2020, the Italian legislator has adopted more restrictive provisions than the European legislation, establishing that a separate collection system for the textile section of urban waste should be set up by January 1, 2022.
At the same time, the National Recovery and Resilience Plan devised by the Italian government envisages investments of EUR 221 billion, of which EUR 68.6 billion is earmarked for the national strategy for the circular economy, to be adopted by June 2022.
The plan pays particular attention to the Italian textile sector and focuses on regenerating 100% of textile waste over the next few years, by strengthening the network of separate collection and involving ‘Textile Hubs’, new plants for recovery, reuse, and treatment/recycling.
The Italian strategy will include eco-design, eco-products, blue economy, bio-economy, critical raw materials into the areas of intervention, and will prioritize efforts on tools, indicators and monitoring systems to assess progress in achieving the defined objectives.
To rethink the fashion of the future and to create innovative, trendy and environmentally friendly products (so-called ‘circular fashion’), it is therefore necessary to work on strengthening collection, sorting and recycling plants, as to reduce dependence on foreign markets for these activities. Investment is also needed in research and innovative technologies for recycling and sorting synthetic fibers. In addition, eco-design will have to become more widespread, together with the design and production of garments that are easy to disassemble and repair and are also made of quality fibers.
This is a major challenge for firms operating in the sector and especially for Italian companies (mostly SMEs), which find themselves having to take a leap, or perhaps more than one, with regard to devising new items to be ‘unstitched’, to research, technological development and quality, but also in terms of adapting to the new guidelines dictated at European and national level to deal with the environmental crisis. How can this transition towards a more circular fashion be made? A cue can be taken from the initiatives of some brands, such as Burberry, which has opted to donate its products and leftover raw materials to fashion schools and charities and has begun to invest in research activities and repair and replacement services.