A recent briefing by the European Environment Agency (EEA) analyzes the impact that textile production and waste have on the environment in Europe–and how the system can be changed for the better. According to the paper, from the perspective of European consumption, textiles have on average the fourth highest negative life cycle impact on the environment and climate change, after food, housing and mobility.
One of the most important measures, the EEA says, is circular design of textiles to improve product durability, repairability and recyclability and to ensure the uptake of secondary raw materials in new products. This would need technical, social and business model innovation, as well as behavioral change and policy support.
The amount of textile consumption
European households consume large amounts of textile products. In 2019, as in 2018, Europeans spent on average €600 on clothing, €150 on footwear and €70 on household textiles (source: Köhler et al., 2021; Eurostat, 2021b).
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic, involving stay-at-home measures and the closure of companies and shops, decreased textile production and demand overall (source: Euratex, 2021). As a result, the consumption of clothing and footwear per person decreased in 2020, relative to 2019, while the consumption of household textiles slightly increased. Average textile consumption per person amounted to 6.0kg of clothing, 6.1kg of household textiles and 2.7kg of shoes in 2020.
Design as an enabler of circular business models
To reduce the overall impact of textile production and consumption the EEA states that circular design is an important component of circular business models for textiles. While it is important to enable the recycling and reuse of materials, life-extending strategies, such as design for durability, ease of reuse, repair and remanufacturing, should be prioritized. Preventing the use of hazardous chemicals and limiting toxic emissions and release of microplastics at all life cycle stages should be incorporated into product design.
Longevity and durability
The first pathway to circularity would be to ensure the longevity and durability of textile products through circular design. At the design stage, careful selection of materials increases the longevity, durability and repairability of textiles. Several underlying design principles increase the durability of garments, including technical requirements for color fastness and fabric resistance, and practical requirements that clothes are multifunctional and fit for purpose and that repair kits and/or spare parts are available.
In addition to introducing durable and eco-friendly materials, it is important to bring about behavioral changes in consumers. Here, the focus should be on timeless design (slow fashion) to counter fast-moving fashion trends, and on providing product care information and offering repair services (e.g. in-store repair in retailers or partnerships with local repair shops).
Furthermore, it needs policy enablers to support longevity and durability. They include eco-design requirements, harmonized extended producer responsibility schemes, economic instruments (such as taxes on certain uses of unwanted materials) and support for desirable production processes (source: ETC/WMGE, 2019, 2021a; EuRIC, 2020; OECD, 2017).
Optimized resource use
The second pathway is optimizing resource use to reduce pressures. Companies in the textiles sector are focusing on reducing and optimizing water and energy use, air emissions and water pollution by using safe chemicals and diversified biodegradable materials. Also access-based business models (instead of traditional ownership) could have the potential to increase the use of products while reducing the use of new materials and textile waste.
At the production stage, eco-design principles have been identified to optimize resource use. These include reducing emissions, waste and inputs such as water, chemicals and energy, and producing fibers from renewable sources and/or recycled content. Design requirements certifying a minimum content of recycled material could also optimize resource use.
Again, the measures need to be supported by policy. These policy enablers then need to support the successful adoption of access-based business models, define regulations on ownership, transport and trade of textiles (including waste streams) and promote regulatory incentives (such as VAT reductions or extended producer responsibility).
Collection and reuse
The third pathway in which design plays a role is the collection and reuse of textiles. Currently, only about 20% of consumers regularly buy pre-owned clothes, according to a 2020 ING survey. Online platforms for buying and selling clothes are increasingly popular, and some brands and retailers have introduced take-back services and pre-loved collections. Still, the success of these alternative business models depends on factors such as brand image and the style and quality of products (source: Hemkhaus et al., 2019). Moreover, the product type has an impact on the potential for reuse.
To successfully adopt circular business models that enable collection and reuse, specific regulations on the transport and trade of collected textiles are necessary. Targets and regulatory incentives for reuse activities and extended producer responsibility schemes are ways forward that support investment in collection, reuse and recycling capacities (source: ECOS, 2021; ETC/WMGE, 2021a).
Recycling and material reuse
While the previous pathways focused on ‘slowing down the loop’, the last pathway on recycling and material reuse ‘closes the loop’ by turning waste textiles into raw material for new textiles or other production chains.
But because of specific functional needs (e.g. stretchiness), aesthetic reasons (e.g. use of prints or layers) or economic reasons (e.g. mixing natural fibres with less expensive synthetic fibres), other considerations in the design process are often given priority over design for recycling. This results in almost one third of all textile waste being unsuitable for fibre-to-fibre recycling (source: Köhler et al., 2021). Textile products should be labelled with the materials and chemicals they contain and whether they are pure or mixed, as textile recycling processes have different input requirements.
Designing and making a product for recycling is effective only if the loop is actually closed. Until now the majority of used clothing and household textiles in Europe are still disposed of in mixed municipal waste streams. Mandatory collection of textiles will be introduced in the EU in 2025. Possible areas for enhancing the recycling rate of textiles include policy support in the form of tax incentives for textile products containing recycled content or tax penalties on conventional products.