In the study “A Zero Waste Vision for Fashion – Chapter 1: All We Need Is Less”, Zero Waste Europe explains why better recycling on its own is far from enough to solve the problems.
According to the study, it is likely that net-zero emissions will be an impossible target to achieve by 2050 in terms of materials extraction and processing. It will therefore be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And while resource productivity has increased dramatically over the past two decades, EU citizens still consume almost 14 tonnes of materials per person every year. And most of these resources come from outside the EU. Consumption also accounts for around half of all greenhouse gas emissions.
The circular economy aims to increase material efficiency and reduce the impact of consumption. However, this on its own will not be sufficient and there is a need to focus on reducing consumption in general. This is mainly because efficiency gains lead to more production and more consumption. Therefore, measures to improve efficiency do not automatically benefit the environment. This is the intention of the EU’s waste hierarchy, which prioritises waste prevention over all other activities. In reality, however, this does not happen. The study says that to achieve less consumption, the collective goal must be collective self-limitation. “What is required for the sufficiency transition are new values that challenge what is perceived as success today,” the study states. To achieve this, we need to eliminate the most harmful choices and create an economy based on care and well-being.
According to Zero Waste Europe, the fashion textiles sector can serve as a model for other industries. In Europe, each person buys an average of 26 kg of textiles and generates about 11 kg of textile waste per year. Only half of this amount is collected for reuse and recycling, while no recycling takes place for the other half. Most of it is exported, incinerated or landfilled. The textile industry also has a highly negative environmental impact, including generating large amounts of CO2 emissions. As the study points out, there is already enough clothing in the world to clothe the next six generations. However, growth continues, driven mainly by low prices. This is due to the use of cheap synthetic fibres made from fossil resources and production in countries with low labour and environmental standards. The business model is based on selling consumers ever new fashion trends. Overproduction is commonplace, with around 30 per cent of clothing never being sold to consumers. On the other hand, less production would require fewer workers, mostly in the global South. A broader societal shift is therefore needed. “In this respect, it’s also important to remember the failings of the current textile production system, with its global supply chains, diverse players, and tight profit margins, which fails to provide decent work and livelihoods for many and is in urgent need of an overhaul.”
The study notes that the EU has already taken a first step in the right direction by banning the destruction of unsold consumer goods. This legislation now needs to be properly implemented. It must also be ensured that there are no loopholes through exports, online marketplaces or a weak definition of ‘destruction’. E-commerce in particular poses a challenge, says the study. Free return policies encourage customers to order more than they intend to buy. The report sees waste prevention targets as an effective way of reducing the high levels of textile waste generated in the EU. The EU already requires waste prevention programmes to be set up. However, there are no targets by which to measure progress. And as the programmes have not been successful in the last decade, Zero Waste Europe proposes introducing concrete qualitative targets, starting with textile waste. The overall reduction target should be at least one third by 2040 compared to 2020. Due to a lack of data, the study suggests using an input-based indicator. It also mentions that reuse is not waste prevention.
Furthermore, the study proposes introducing resource use targets to be included in a ‘resource framework directive’. The consumption footprint developed by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission is proposed as a target. It contains 16 indicators to quantify the environmental impact of an average EU citizen.
“The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles, proposed under the WFD revision, is a first step towards holding producers accountable for the products they release onto the market,” Zero Waste Europe further states. But it also says it does not go far enough to transform EPR in the EU. In particular, the level of eco-modulated charges needs to be changed. It says EPR schemes need to incentivise better design and prevention and go beyond cost recovery. Currently, charges may not exceed the cost of providing waste management services.
Regarding fast fashion, Zero Waste Europe calls for producers to disclose their production volumes. It also says that EPR could be used as a kind of tax on the number of items put on the market. Fees could rise above a certain volume threshold. Conversely, companies could receive a bonus for putting smaller quantities of products on the market, which would reward circular business models such as leasing, repair and reuse.
The report also discusses taxes on new materials, which could reflect the real environmental cost of production. However, this instrument needs to be supported by social programmes. “In particular, the intensive use of cheap synthetic fibres, which drives the growth rates of textile production, needs to be addressed to combat the overproduction of fashion.” Such a tax could level the playing field with other fibres and help move away from an over-reliance on fossil-fuel based synthetics. “A well-designed plastic tax can change behaviour towards less usage of plastics, internalise the damage caused by polluters, and raise revenue for public spending,” Zero Waste Europe says. Such an instrument could be part of the existing tax on non-recycled plastic packaging.
Achieving sufficiency in textiles will require some policy action. With a “choice editing” approach, unsustainable products could be banned from the market, reducing the options available to customers. “Choice editing seems a rather radical measure but is, in fact, commonplace with regard to public health and safety concerns (substances, medication) and increasingly used for environmental reasons, e.g. phasing out of internal combustion engine cars and fossil-fuel-based heating systems,” Zero Waste Europe says. Another option would be to ban free returns and next-day delivery options, which could minimise impulse buying. Zero Waste Europe even suggests restrictions on advertising.
The study also states that repair and reuse must become the new norm. Support for reuse, repair, sharing, or refurbishment could be provided by reducing VAT. Public procurement directives could also support the sector. The planned EPR schemes for textiles could also help with funding.