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Improvements in the textile sector for a more sustainable value chain

EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles
Jack Turner

Jack Turner

Expert Consultant in the field of Environment

Textiles are a fundamental aspect of everyday life in clothing, furniture, medical equipment, construction and manufacturing. And while not as present in the public consciousness, the associated flows of materials, capital and energy are staggering in both scale and impact.

In 2021, the EU accounted for 30% of the global textile market, importing €106 billion and exporting textiles and clothing worth €58 billion. Clothing manufacturing employs 1.7 million people in the Member States and generates an annual turnover of €147 billion.

In addition, the average European spends ¤490 per year on clothing, and consumes 26 kg of textile products per year, of which 12 kg are discarded. The production of these products requires 400 m2 of arable land, 9,000 kg of water and 391 kg of raw materials and emits 270 kg of eCO2 per year. Due to this intensive use of resources and land, the textile and clothing industry is the third largest water polluter and cause of land degradation in the EU, releasing 121 million tonnes of eCO2 into the atmosphere.

The 87% of the clothes and textiles used 87% is sent to landfill or incinerate, and only 1% is recycled into new garments. The production is currently in boom is the acceleration of the product life cycles and fast fashion cycles, which have fed the growing demand for raw materials and energy, to the time they have generated more waste, and have made addressing the sector’s systemic problems a priority for the European Commission.

EU contribution to improving the textiles sector

Recognising the importance of the challenge this poses, the European Commission has developed several strategies to promote sustainable and circular practices for the textile industry. The Vision 2030 for the textile sector brings together elements of the European Green Deal and the new Circular Economy Action Plan and Industrial Strategy to deliver on sustainability commitments.

Measures will be designed and implemented for all aspects of the value chain, from the sustainability of raw material extraction to hazardous processing practices to consumption patterns (e.g. renting vs. buying).

Specific rules will be set out in delegated acts, starting in 2024, and will include proposals for increased producer responsibility, separate collection, waste export limitation and digital product passports.

In addition to the proposed regulatory measures, the EU intends to promote positive incentives for innovation in the sector by funding research and development of solutions that improve competitiveness and circularity. The breadth and diversity of the sector means that the range of calls for proposals is much wider than it might at first appear, affecting the entire value chain.

Some Horizon Europe calls directly address textile circularity. These are CL6-2024-CircBio-01-2: Circular solutions for textile value chains based on extended producer responsibility; and CL6-2024-CircBio-02-1-two-step: Circular solutions for textile value chains through innovative sorting, recycling and design for recycling.

While CL4-2024-TWIN-TRANSITION-01-01: Biointelligent Manufacturing Industries sets the reduction of microplastics in clothing as an explicit challenge to be addressed.

A further step in the sector’s search for solutions

However, issues that go far beyond the scope mentioned above may involve circularity solutions for textiles. For example, calls for reduction of polluting chemicals targeting any of the 228 carcinogenic, mutagenic and/or reprotoxic substances found in recirculated textiles, those for digital product passports or enhanced traceability that inform consumers’ decisions to buy recycled rather than new products, and the digital transition that transforms the textile ecosystem by improving predictability of consumption patterns and eliminating excess waste.

In addition, innovative consumption models already exist to some extent that rent expensive garments instead of selling them and can take advantage of new digital tools to increase market access. The significant economic, environmental and energy use externalities associated with the textile sector also make it a prime target for calls aiming to reduce waste and improve Europe’s carbon footprint in line with global commitments.

Pulling the thread of what may at first appear to be a limited and specific sector reveals the enormous number of activities and solutions that can be improved to weave a more sustainable value chain. From the input and treatment of raw materials, through processing and transport, to marketing and recycling models. All offer opportunities to break with current convention and differentiate into greener and more sustainable solutions for the long term.

Zabala Innovation’s commitment to improving sustainability through innovation has driven us to consider the wide range of projects that address this challenge and to explore new opportunities in the sector. That is why we work with companies to produce tailor-made solutions that deliver results and transform the market as we know it.

Expert person

Jack Turner
Jack Turner

Barcelona Office

Expert Consultant in the field of Environment

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