Textiles fourth-largest cause of environmental pressure, EU agency reports

The average EU citizen consumes some 1.3 tonnes of raw materials and more than 100 cubic metres of water a year through the purchase of textiles in clothing and home furnishings, the European Environment Agency said on Tuesday.

“A wide-scale change towards circular economy in textiles production and consumption is needed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, resource use and pressures on nature,” the EU agency said in a briefing accompanying a detailed technical report.

“Among all consumption domains in the EU, consumption of clothing, footwear and household textiles is the fourth highest pressure category for primary raw materials use and for water use, after food, housing and transport, and the fifth highest for greenhouse gas emissions,” the report states.

European Commission officials have indicated that textiles could be the next target for circular economy action, after the successful passage of legislation to limit the marketing of single-use plastic products.

While the EU executive has addressed the issue of disposable plastic items such as cups, straws and cutlery, it has yet to focus its attention on clothing, which the EEA report suggests is itself becoming increasingly ‘disposable’,

“In the past decade, the price of clothes has fallen relative to inflation, and each item is used less than in the past,” the agency noted.

However, unlike litter on beaches that catalysed the adoption of the Single Use Plastics Regulation, most of the impact of Europe's consumption of clothing, footwear and household textiles occurs outside the EU.

“This is the case for 85% of the primary raw materials use, 92% of the water use, 93% of the land use and 76% of the greenhouse gas emissions,” the EEA said.

Textiles are the fifth largest contributor to a European citizen’s carbon footprint, the agency’s analysis suggests, with annual associated greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 654kg of CO2 per person – roughly half that from food and transport, and a third that related to housing.

Stephane Arditi, circular economy policy manager at the European Environmental Bureau, said the current fashion retail model makes it “too easy for people to over-consume”, but warned that recycling alone would not solve the problem – products need to be used for longer.

“Just as they took action on single-use plastics, governments need to urgently take action to rein in the fashion industry by making options such as second-hand and renting more accessible, ensuring better information is available about what our clothes are made of, and developing design requirements for toxic-free materials that can be used again and again,” Arditi told ENDS.

Strategies to further push Europe’s economy towards a more circular model are expected to play a significant role in the forthcoming ‘European Green Deal’, which Commission officials are expected to present on 11 December, 10 days after the new EU executive takes office.

robert.hodgson@haymarket.com

Follow up: EEA briefing and technical report.

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