The end of “fast fashion”? Textile industry to face increased regulation to curb waste and reduce environmental impacts

England

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ("DEFRA") has recently announced its intention to "ramp up action on fast fashion" and to "hold manufacturers accountable for textile waste"[1]. For some, this is long awaited and is the first tangible step towards achieving greater sustainability in a sector that is often accused of promoting a throwaway, linear culture. Those businesses who are already taking significant steps towards operating more sustainably are likely to welcome affirmative action and the creation of a more level playing field, whilst others will need to stay alert to the forthcoming changes and incorporate them into their future strategies.       

Waste Prevention Programme (England) Consultation

The Government’s plans form part of a consultation on a new Waste Prevention Programme for England (the “Consultation”) (open until 10 June 2021), which includes proposals targeting a range of industry sectors: construction, textiles, furniture, electronics, vehicles, food, and plastic packaging. Having identified textiles as a key sector, the Government aims to address the industry’s environmental impacts by encouraging more sustainable product design, improved consumer information, new business models and better recycling. Stakeholders are invited to provide their views on whether the various proposals will achieve the overall aim of maximising the value of resources and minimising waste and its impact on the environment.

Key proposals:

Extended Producer Responsibility

Building on the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy for England, which identified textiles as a priority waste stream, the Consultation confirms that DEFRA will consult stakeholders on a proposal for Extended Producer Responsibility ("EPR") for textiles by the end of 2022. By making producers responsible for the costs of managing and recovering waste they produce, the aim is to incentivise the reuse and recycling of textiles, thereby reducing the amount of textiles going to landfill and incineration, and to encourage sustainable design and material use. If the Government’s current proposals on EPR for packaging are any indicator (which require producers to meet the full net cost of recovery for packaging placed on the market), the textile industry could expect to see significant changes and associated costs in this regard.

Resource efficient design

In addition to EPR for textiles, the Government has indicated that it will also look at other measures such as a landfill/incineration ban, separate textiles collection requirements (likely to be funded by income generated by EPR), and, notably, new measures on eco-design and consumer information.

Industry is to be encouraged to set effective standards on resource efficient product design, but in the absence of sufficient voluntary action, DEFRA intends to prescribe such standards (including minimum standards on durability and recycled content for clothing). Design requirements, which are currently being explored by the Government include resistance to abrasion, dimensional stability and colour fastness in order to improve the durability and reduce the environmental impact of clothing. It is not clear, however, how quickly such measures will be introduced and therefore how soon businesses will need to start adapting their designs and supply chain requirements.

The Consultation indicates that DEFRA is also looking at ways to improve the labelling of textiles and provision of information for consumers, for example, giving consumers more information on recyclability and recycled content. Again, there is a lack of detail as to the scope of such measures and when and how they would be introduced, suffice to say that it is an indicator of the likely direction of travel and something therefore that businesses should start to plan for if they have not done so already.

Textiles 2030

WRAP's Textiles 2030 initiative, due to launch in April 2021, is highlighted by DEFRA as a means by which it intends to galvanise ambitious industry action. The initiative, which builds on WRAP's Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 Commitment, is a voluntary agreement under which signatories commit to:

  • accelerating progress towards a circular economy for textiles;

  • adopting a transparent approach to reporting goals, calculating impacts and modelling scenarios to reduce the impact of textile products placed on the UK market; and

  • engaging consumers to buy, use and dispose of clothing and textile products in new ways that reduce climate impact and resource use.

It is envisaged that the commitments will be achieved by taking action to measure emissions and product circularity, setting targets to reduce impacts and increase circularity; reporting progress to WRAP annually and influencing consumers to engage in more sustainable behaviour. So far, a number of influential brands and retailers in the industry have made the commitment to the initiative as founding partners and members.

EU Developments

Businesses operating in the European Union (“EU”) should be aware that legislative changes at EU level are also forthcoming - the textile industry having been identified as a priority sector in the European Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan. The European Commission’s Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, which is due to be adopted later this year, will establish a framework for setting targets for reuse and recycling; proposing measures to make the textile ecosystem fit for a circular economy; improving the sustainability of production processes; implementing EPR for the treatment of textile waste; and introducing a legal obligation for the separate collection of waste textiles by 2025.

Comment

The Environmental Audit Committee’s ("EAC") pivotal report "Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability" (February 2019), made a number of key recommendations on ways to address fast fashion and drive sustainability within the industry. Following the Government’s rejection of the majority of these recommendations, talk of legislative reform in the textiles industry seemed to go quiet for a time with little or no progress being made. However, with the launch of a follow-up inquiry by the EAC in October 2020 and the Consultation, there appears to be a renewed focus on the sector and signals of a shift in policy. Whilst this will be welcomed by many stakeholders, for some, the pace of regulatory change in the UK is too slow, particularly compared to some of our European counterparts. France, for example, has had an EPR scheme for textiles in place since 2007.

Businesses in the textile sector should keep abreast of the forthcoming developments at UK and EU level. Engagement with Textiles 2030, the Consultation (and future consultations in the UK and EU) could prove an effective means of achieving this and influencing relevant policy. Companies should also start to consider the potential changes that could be required (both internally and within their supply chains) to respond to future standards on resource efficient product design, labelling and the introduction of EPR for textiles. At a time where consumers and investors alike are increasingly engaged with sustainability, failure to keep pace with such developments could lead to unwelcome financial, regulatory and reputational risks.