Members' Research Service By / May 4, 2022

Textiles and the environment

The amount of clothes bought per person in the EU increased by 40 % between 1996 and 2012

© Matthew / Fotolia

Written by Nikolina Šajn.

The amount of clothes bought per person in the European Union (EU) has increased by 40 % in just a few decades, driven by a fall in prices and the increased speed with which fashion is delivered to consumers. Clothing has the fourth highest impact on the environment of all categories of EU consumption. This impact is often felt in non-EU countries, where most production takes place. The production of raw materials, spinning them into fibres, weaving fabrics and dyeing require enormous amounts of water and chemicals, including pesticides for growing raw materials such as cotton. Consumer use also has a large environmental footprint, owing to the water, energy and chemicals used in washing, tumble-drying and ironing, and microplastics shed into the environment. Less than half of used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling when they are no longer needed, and only 1 % are recycled into new clothes, since technologies that would enable clothes to be recycled into virgin fibres are only now starting to emerge.

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Various ways to address these issues have been proposed, including developing new business models for clothing rental, designing products in a way that would make re-use and recycling easier (circular fashion), convincing consumers to buy fewer clothes of better quality (slow fashion), and generally steering consumer behaviour towards choosing more sustainable options.

The European Commission laid out its vision for the textiles sector for 2030 in the March 2022 EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. The Commission has proposed a regulation on ecodesign requirements for sustainable products and a directive on empowering consumers for the green transition. The package will aim to make all products on the internal market more sustainable, while providing consumers with information on sustainability. The application of these rules to textiles will be specified in delegated acts, largely planned for 2024.

Something in the water?

This briefing expands on and updates a 2019 EPRS briefing Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry: What consumers need to know.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Textiles and the environment‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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