EU takes steps to legislate sustainable fashion. It will work.



The EU has created a strategy to promote sustainable and circular textiles. Experts agree that it is a solid starting point. However, sustainability legislation should also consider social impact.

The EU hopes textile products by 2030 will be durable, recyclable, free from hazardous substances, and made with respect for people and the environment. The days of fast fashion are over. Repair and reuse will replace disability. Producers will also be responsible for their products long after being sold. Clothes won’t be destroyed or incinerated anymore, and any garments that consumers incorrectly classify as waste will be disposed of.

Is there any way to make this a reality with new legislation?

Last week, the EU presented a series of proposals to change fashion’s business model and bring it into line with sustainability measures. This strategy tracks the supply chain, from design through production to end of life. It draws on existing frameworks and initiatives and highlights areas that need further study. In addition, the EU will be working alongside the European Green Deal. This plan aims to make growth sustainable and climate-neutral, energy- and resource-efficient and also the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan. EU’s textile and clothing industry is composed of more than 160,000 companies and employs over 1.5 million people. It generated a turnover of EUR162billion in 2019, according to Euratex.

This proposal is part of a worldwide shift towards sustainable fashion legislation. It includes garment workers’ rights (Senate Bill 62) in California, greenwashing (with the UK undertaking reviews in 2024), and brand responsibility (New York Fashion Act). Many applaud the EU for acknowledging fashion’s environmental impact and calling for legislation to stop it. However, it is still unclear if it goes far enough. However, critics claim it relies too heavily on bold existing strategies.

“We are currently in a climate emergency, and urgent change is needed. Amina Razvi is the executive director of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a global non-profit organization that challenges sustainability strategies, commitments, and slogans. Kutay Saritosun is the head of marketing communication at Blue Sign Technologies. “Voluntary acts don’t cut it anymore.”

What will the EU regulate?

These proposals were developed in consultation with key stakeholders from the fashion industry. They focus on making products more durable, repairable, and recyclable.

The voluntary Ecolabel (or Green Public Procurement) criteria were established in 2014 and 2017. Companies are encouraged and supported to follow these criteria. These criteria are not the only ones. The EU will develop urgent requirements for ecodesign by 2024. This will improve durability, reusability, and repairability, fiber-to-fiber recyclability, mandatory recycled fiber content, and fiber-to-fiber recycling. This initiative will address microplastic pollution, which was identified as a significant area of concern.

The EU deferred to the “Reach” regulation for hazardous substances in textile production. This regulation seeks to minimize the use of dangerous substances and encourages alternative methods to animal testing. It redirects companies to the Industrial Emissions Directive and the Textiles Industry’s Best Available Techniques Reference document. To separate the textile sector’s economic growth and textile waste, producer responsibility will be increased. Waste legislation will be reviewed by 2024.

The EU will create a digital product passport to allow textiles that meet the EU’s mandatory standards for circularity and sustainability to be transparent. The EU will also review textile labels, including information on circularity, sustainability, and size, as well as animal parts and fiber composition. In addition, this commission will crackdown on greenwashing and make it more difficult for brands to claim “green,” eco-friendly, or suitable for the environment. In the second half of 2024, the Green Claims Initiative is expected to be presented.

For garment workers, upskilling is also possible. The strategy states that “the textiles ecosystem needs a highly-skilled workforce to unlock the potential for employment opportunities brought about by the digital and environmentally-friendly transitions.” The EU Pact for Skills aims to scale up training programs focusing on eco-design and fiber development, as well as innovative textile production, repair, and reuse.

What could be done to make the strategy even more effective?

Critics point out that there are many glaring gaps in social sustainability. Sebastian Boger, the managing partner and director at Boston Consulting Group, says that the strategy lays out the “what,” but it is very limited in the “how.” On the other hand, it’s in line with the commitments many brands have made, and there weren’t any surprises.

Kerry Bannigan is the Fashion Impact Fund’s executive director. She was also the founder of the Conscious Fashion Campaign. Bannigan also serves as the UN Sustainable Development Goals Media Zone executive producer. He says the measures have little social impact and emphasize digital transformation. It fails to recognize that many people do not have reliable internet access or electricity. She adds that we cannot exclude people dependent on the fashion industry because we want to accelerate change for good.

Maeve Galvin is the global policy and campaigns director for Fashion Revolution. She suggests that the EU borrows from Senate Bill 62. This garment labor law was passed in California last year. It secures a minimum wage for workers and holds brands responsible for any violations with third-party suppliers.

Muriel Treibich, global advocacy organization, Clean Clothes Campaign, says that the proposal doesn’t cover SMEs. The company scope is too narrow. It also ignores unfair purchasing practices that allow brands to set low prices and alter orders at the last moment, thereby affecting both the environment and human rights within the supply chain.

“There are questions over how the EU will assess sustainable textiles and garments,” said Dalena White (the International Wool Textile Organisation) and spokesperson for Make The Label count, an international coalition working against greenwashing in Europe. “The EU will use the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), which does not currently include biodegradability, renewability, biodiversity, or microplastic pollution.

Fashion Revolution produces an annual transparency index based on the sustainability information brands share publicly. It says that there is potential for the EU’s strategy to address the issue of overproduction. Galvin explains that only 14 percent of brands have information about how much they produce.

We need to see a more fantastic range of changes.

Experts agree that the EU needs to acknowledge its broader context and need for better infrastructure in fashion if it wants its proposals to be successful. However, this raises what this means for companies operating outside the EU and how it can be connected with other efforts to regulate fashion in other countries.

Boger, Boston Consulting, says that “there is a need to create and improve recycling infrastructure and financial support to scale up recycling technologies faster.” The commission encourages member countries to provide reuse and repair companies tax incentives.

Bannigan, Fashion Impact Fund’s Director of Finance, says that fashion is still global, while it’s great to see legislation being enacted in different regions. “We need unity between governments and trading nations. To realize this vision, we need to work together more and cooperate. This cannot be a top-down government policy.

Tamara Cincik is the founder and CEO of the Fashion Roundtable. She raises concerns about the implications for the UK post-Brexit and other EU countries. She explains that businesses outside the EU who depend on trade with EU member countries will face additional costs. “I fear that the UK may fall behind in sustainability legislation and businesses will leave the UK, if they don’t receive government support to comply with the EU’s new requirements.”


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