European Union Lays Out New Textile Strategy

LONDON — To date, governments have mostly left individual corporations to deal with fashion’s environmental impact. But the European Union wants to step in and start proposing legislation that will help the industry control its waste issues better.

Following the European Green Deal in 2019, policymakers have identified fashion, and in particular the textiles industry, as a priority area to pave the way for a carbon neutral and circular economy. The first step is the creation of a new Textile Strategy, which will frame the areas the new legislation will focus on over the next few years.

“The EU Textile Strategy is the only major opportunity we have over the next decade to create the incentives we need to make change. Without regulation and economic incentives, it’s extremely unlikely that we are going to reach the key sustainability goals. This is it,” said Michael Schragger, founder and executive director of The Swedish Textile Initiative for Climate Action at the Fashion Future digital conference that kicked off Stockholm Fashion Week, earlier this week.

Through legislation and economic incentives, the new Textile Strategy will aim to boost the European Union markets for upcycling and sustainable textiles; address fast fashion, and support business models that promote more circular consumption models.

Given the scale of the European Union’s textiles and clothing industries — they employ around one and a half million people split across 160,000 different companies — and fashion’s overall contribution of over 10 percent of global emissions, there’s an urgency for policymakers to step in.

“Those figures are huge,” said Alice Bah Kuhnke, a European Union Parliament member and one of the champions of the new Textile Strategy. “If we keep to the script we have now, we won’t be able to turn the ship around until 2070. It can’t be more serious than it is.”

The strategy is still in development, but Bah Kuhnke highlighted that the EU wants to adopt a holistic approach that engages manufacturers as much as retailers and small enterprises. “We really need to look at this as a whole system with different parts. You can’t just change one part because it’s interconnected in a chain. We need to look at the whole puzzle,” she added.

Another key point to consider is that most of Europe’s environmental impact occurs in countries outside the EU where the majority of production takes place. “This is one of the big problems that has been brought up by many stakeholders afraid of competitiveness. The strategy will address the problem by taxing imports on products coming from countries that don’t follow Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement. We need to face the fact that we cannot consume natural resources in the way we have,” said Bah Kuhnke, adding that the work of entrepreneurs and innovators who propose new business models and new ways of consumption is just as crucial as the legislation.

“It won’t be a politician who comes up with these new ideas,” she said, adding that policymakers can step in to help new sustainable businesses with the necessary economic incentives.

“We are basing our lifestyles and our livelihoods on things that need to change. So we need to make it possible to get a salary from these new businesses,” added Schragger. “It’s the elephant in the room: This issue of overconsumption. We’re trying both to keep jobs and profitable economic development and also reduce our resource use by the amounts that science is telling us.”

For Bah Kuhnke, the answer lies in reducing the amount of new textiles being produced and working with existing resources.

“If we don’t address the fact that we need to consume less or in a whole new way than we have been doing, this strategy won’t work,” said Bah Kuhnke.

“It’s crucial that we understand how much financial investment is needed to make a serious go at this. We had another discussion where it’s 300 billion over 10 years or more for innovation, 500 billion for implementing green electricity. So we have to be serious about the scale of the investment.

All the companies we work with clearly say it’s a simple equation: until it’s economically better for us to do the right thing, we’re going to continue to do business as usual. So I would hope that the legislation understands it’s a financial equation here that makes the difference.”

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