EU and UK developments on the road towards a sustainable and circular economy for textiles

United Kingdom

A recent research paper co-authored by WRAP and the University of Surrey[1] found that the implementation of different business models in the textiles industry (such as clothing resale businesses, clothing rental, and swapping and sharing platforms) can help to reduce the high burden on the environment as a result of clothing consumption, but acknowledged that replacing the mass consumption of fast fashion altogether with such business models appears to be a long way off. Developments at both EU and UK level are intended to drive such change forward.

The long-awaited EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles was published on 30 March 2022 (the “Strategy”), implementing commitments made in the European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan, and the Industrial Strategy, in which textiles were identified as a key product value chain with an urgent need for transition to sustainable and circular production, consumption and business models. The Strategy aims to set out a framework for this transition and forms part of the package of interlinked initiatives on sustainable products released by the European Commission, the ambition of which is to make sustainable products the norm through:

  • product design;

  • helping businesses and consumers make more informed choices;

  • ending the destruction of unsold consumer goods; and

  • the promotion and procurement of more sustainable products.

See our article on the package of sustainable product measures here.

The Strategy has bold aims, with a target of achieving them by 2030. These include that all products placed on the EU market should be durable, repairable and recyclable, free from hazardous substances and largely made of recycled fibres; re-use and repair services are widely available; and that producers take responsibility for their products along the value chain. To achieve this, the European Commission has confirmed that it will, amongst other actions:

  • Establish design requirements, such as in respect of colour fastness, tear strength and zipper quality, to increase textiles’ performance, making them last longer and easier to repair and recycle. This is to be brought forward in ecodesign requirements to be established under the proposed Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (and the adoption of further delegated acts) which will target product durability and reliability (amongst other aspects) for a range of product types including textiles. Specific attention will be paid to the cost-effectiveness and proportionality of measures, as well as the affordability of textiles.

  • Introduce clearer information on labels and a digital product passport, based on mandatory information requirements on circularity and other environmental aspects (see our article linked above for further detail on digital product passports). This will involve a review of the Textile Labelling Regulation, including a proposal for the mandatory disclosure of sustainability and circularity parameters, size and country of origin, and the potential for introducing a digital label.

  • Empower consumers and tackle greenwashing claims, in part by amending the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the Consumer Rights Directive, to ensure that consumers are provided with information at the point of sale regarding a commercial guarantee of durability and a repairability score. Certain claims will only be allowed if underpinned by recognised excellence in environmental performance such as EU Ecolabels (which the European Commission will review) and there will be conditions for making claims about future environmental performance and comparisons to other products. The European Commission also intends to focus on the accuracy of green claims made in respect of recycled plastic polymers in apparel, particularly where these polymers do not come from fibre-to-fibre recycling but from PET bottles. The European Commission recently held a webinar on the Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules for Apparel and Footwear, which helps standardise the assessment of the lifecycle of a product to avoid greenwashing.

  • Stop overproduction and overconsumption (the move away from “fast fashion”), with companies encouraged to become the “champions” of this shift through product-as-service models, take-back services, second-hand collections and repair services.

  • Discourage the destruction of unsold or returned textiles, with a proposal for a ban on the destruction of unsold products, and a transparency obligation under the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, requiring large companies to publicly disclose the number of textile products they discard and destroy.

  • Harmonise extended producer responsibility rules for textiles and provide economic incentives to make products more sustainable. There are proposals to harmonise the rules for textiles with eco-modulation of fees as part of the 2023 revision of the Waste Framework Directive, and mandatory targets for the re-use and recycling of textile waste.

  • Address the unintentional release of microplastics from synthetic textiles, through binding design requirements under the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation and the European Commission’s initiative to address the unintentional release of microplastics in the environment. Product design, manufacturing processes, pre-washing, labelling, washing machine filters, mild detergents, care guidelines, and end-of-life textile waste treatment and wastewater and sewage sludge treatment will be covered by the proposed measures. See our previous article on microplastic developments in the UK and EU here.

  • Address challenges arising from the export of textile waste - under the proposal for new rules on the shipment of waste, the export of textile waste to non-OECD countries would only be allowed under the condition that such countries notify the European Commission of their willingness to import specific types of waste and demonstrate their ability to manage it sustainably. Further, the European Commission will consider developing specific criteria to distinguish between waste and certain second-hand textiles in order to avoid waste streams being incorrectly labelled as second-hand for exports to circumvent the waste regime.

  • Publish an action plan by the end of 2022 for those in the textile sector to successfully achieve the transition. Through the plan, or “Transition Pathway”, from the second quarter of 2022, stakeholders will be invited, through a survey and workshops, to propose specific actions and work towards the objectives. A consultation on the Staff Working Document “Scenarios towards co-creation of a transition pathway for a more resilient, sustainable and digital textiles ecosystem” recently closed in June 2022 and many other proposed measures are now open for consultation.

It is reported that European consumption of textiles has the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change, after food, housing and mobility and that 88% of Europeans think that clothing should be made to last longer. Progress across the board has been slow in addressing these issues to date, but the publication of the Strategy marks a shift in gears. Its ambitions are far-reaching and, while it remains to be seen how the finer detail will be implemented, there is little doubt that significant change is forthcoming for the textile industry. EURATEX, the European Apparel and Textile Confederation, while welcoming the publication of the Strategy, have commented that the proposed Sustainable Product Regulation has an overwhelming ambition, and to be realistic, requires cooperation between institutions and business.

Whilst the transition may present certain challenges, it will offer opportunities for the development of innovative business practices and technologies, such as in relation to recyclable fibres, microplastic solutions and circular business models such as renting.

It is likely that such movement at European level will set the tone for future legislative reform in the UK and trigger change (see our previous article on the Waste Prevention Programme for England here). Whilst the publication of the government’s response to its consultation on extended producer responsibility (“EPR”) for packaging (March 2022) did not include any further announcements regarding an EPR for textiles, it is anticipated that such measures will be introduced in the forthcoming future. Increased regulation is likely to be welcomed by certain industry stakeholders. The Textiles Exchange, affiliated with WRAP's Textiles 2030 initiative, released a report in June 2022 which emphasised that more regulation is needed to raise the minimum standard and create a level playing field for brands and retailers. This position is also more likely to attract investment.

Developments at UK level have started to emerge. In Scotland, the consultation on proposals for a Circular Economy Bill confirmed that in the first half of 2022, a new £2 million Circular Textiles Fund will be introduced to support businesses to address textile waste and throwaway culture. There are also proposals for ministers to have powers to require mandatory public reporting of unwanted surplus stock and waste, focusing on food primarily, consideration is to be given to applying this to textiles also. Following a DEFRA consultation, leather will be classed as a forest risk commodity in forthcoming legislation tackling deforestation in UK supply chains (reported on here). On 8 June 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged £80 million in government funding for a 10-year Fashion Industry Sustainable Change Programme which aims to support industry in embracing new circular business models and creating recycling and sorting infrastructure.

It is key that stakeholders in the textile sector and beyond keep abreast of these developments and take account of them in their strategic planning.

[1] Reducing the Environmental Impact of Clothing: An Exploration of the Potential of Alternative Business Models by Sarah Gray Angela Druckman, ,Jhuma Sadhukhan  and Keith James (Academic Editor: Anna Mazzi) (21 May 2022) Sustainability 2022, 14(10), 6292;