What the EU Textile Strategy means for the UK fashion industry

The latest EU policy aims to tackle environmental and social challenges across the global textile value chain. How does this implicate the UK fashion and textile industry in a post-Brexit world?
illustration of boot with a map of the UK

On 30 March, the European Commission published the anticipated EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles as part of its Green New Deal. In a bid to make sustainable products the norm, the objective of the strategy is to “make textiles more durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable, to tackle fast fashion, textile waste and the destruction of unsold textiles, and to ensure their production takes place in full respect of social rights”, according to the European Commission’s official statement. 

How the UK’s 34,000 businesses employed in the UK fashion and textile sector are meant to comply with these rules following the official departure from the Union in 2020 remains a grey area. Uncertainty could threaten progress on environmental sustainability as well as incur costs for the SMEs that make up 99% of the UK’s fashion industry. 

The strategy has been designed to drive circularity and support citizens throughout the green transition as the global economy moves to decarbonise. This is especially important for Europe, one of the largest importers of clothes, which reached a value of €154bn (£130bn) in 2019, according to Eurostat. 

The introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) within the strategy is set to make producers responsible for the waste their products create and incentivise design decisions that would make garments easily recycled, deconstructed or repurposed at their end of life. This is vital given that approximately only 1% of global textiles are recycled. 

EPR has been welcomed by environmental campaigners given the huge negative externalities associated with textile production where brands and manufacturers, many of whom are British, flaunt £1 bikinis or 5p dresses online and do not pay the true environmental and labour costs associated with a garment. George Harding-Rolls, campaign adviser for the NGO, Changing Markets Foundation argues that the promise of the EPR “could have far-reaching effects, both by making brands pay for the waste they create and by creating investments in end-of-life management for products”. 

The strategy’s review of labelling regulations and the use of digital product passports (DPPs) is another positive development. DPPs store essential product data on materials that can be used by stakeholders in the textile ecosystem. If all regulated producers were to have DPPs it could facilitate repair, recycling and the tracing of harmful substances across the supply chain and reduce waste. DPPs in the form of digital IDs are being created by EON, a retail platform working alongside The Prince of Wales’s Sustainable Markets Initiative Fashion Taskforce, to bring this to UK household names that include Burberry and Stella McCartney. 

 I worry about the UK being left behind on the global stage in our sustainability ambitions

Elsewhere, the Commission recognised the intrinsic link between fossil fuels and textiles when it stated: “The growing demand for textiles is fuelling the inefficient use of non-renewable resources, including the production of synthetic fibres from fossil fuels.” The shedding of microplastics was mentioned too, but Harding-Rolls does not believe this goes far enough. “The strategy falls short of recommending reducing these fossil-fuel derived fibres as a way of cutting microplastic shedding,” he notes. 

Greenwashing was also cast into the spotlight to comply with consumer protection laws on green claims between the UK and Europe. UK fashion businesses have already been working to adjust communications to guidance on environmental claims under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) Green Claims Code, released in September 2021. early 2022. The urgency of doing so is highlighted by the research from the Changing Markets Foundation which found that 59% of all green claims by European and UK fashion brands from the 2021 Spring/Summer collections were misleading. 

For UK brands, adapting to the requirements of the strategy will be no small feat. Primark is in the throes of reviewing how to align its business and sourcing decisions to new guidance. Lynne Walker, director of Primark Cares, comments: “Primark welcomes any proposals that level the playing field and create the potential to drive industry-wide change. We are currently reviewing the EU proposal in detail but look forward to playing our part in conjunction with our ongoing work and commitments towards becoming a more sustainable business”. 

Similarly, a spokesperson from the John Lewis Partnership says that the EU’s Textile Strategy, Circular Economy Action Plan and Sustainable Products Initiative “will do a great deal to normalise ethics and sustainability within business practices”. The retailer’s 2020 Partnership Plan and inclusion of take-back solutions by 2025 and commitments to use recycled and sustainable materials highlight how they are working to align their operations to the EU Green Deal. 

Industry commentators have reacted with cautious optimism to the strategy, arguing that social due diligence remains largely ignored. Harding-Rolls sees that the “strategy ignores workers in the supply chain and does not create any more ambitious requirements on supply chain visibility and transparency”. 

It’s not just NGOs that think the strategy could have gone further. Bernice Pan, founder and creative director of Deploy, a UK-based sustainable brand, adds that the stakes must be higher to disincentivise retailers on overproduction and waste generation. “It should be tangibly pushed forward to include a ban on sending unsold merchandise to landfills and incinerators. France has introduced a levy of penalty charges or taxation on companies who do so,” Pan says. 

If France can do it, why shouldn’t the UK? Binding measures to incentivise an absolute reduction in material use, for example, through a tax on virgin materials and environmental impact, are missing from the EU Textile Strategy but need not be missing from UK regulations on fashion and textiles. 

While progress within Europe is welcomed – many are scratching their heads as to where exactly it leaves the UK fashion industry following Brexit. Trading relationships are critical given that the UK clothing industry is the third-largest in Europe and the fashion and textile industry contributed approximately £20bn to the UK economy as of 2020, according to the UK Fashion and Travel Association. 

Tamara Cincik, founder of Fashion Roundtable, a UK-based think tank focused on fashion, expresses deep concerns about the divergence between the UK and its EU trading partners. “I worry about the UK being left behind on the global stage in our sustainability ambitions. Brexit also means added costs and impacts,” she noted. 

The UK’s fashion economy has experienced increased friction from Brexit trading complications such as a rise in customs and freight duties. Cincik highlights that of the 34,000 businesses operating in the UK fashion and textile sector, 99% of these are SMEs, and the impact incurred due to misalignment throughout Brexit is not something they can afford. 

Deploy’s Pan shares her experience as a founder of a British brand that lacks the human resource to dedicate to research and adaptation of changing import-export regulations. She states: “Brexit has eroded favourable conditions between the UK and EU. It has made it challenging for companies to navigate complex, divergent agendas, whilst staying competitive and weathering the pandemic storm.” 

Alongside an increase in costs, the UK cannot afford to fall behind on environmental progress, especially in mitigating textile waste as our landfill capacity continues to rapidly diminish. A 2020 study by Labfresh found that the UK is the fourth-largest producer of textile waste in Europe. 

Textile waste was addressed in the EU strategy, stating that by 2024 disclosure from brands on the number of discarded products will be mandatory and the destruction of unsold textile goods will be banned. 

For any strategy to work both in the UK and EU, it must go beyond voluntary initiatives.

The UK Fixing Fashion Report, published in 2018, was rejected by the government on all 18 clauses that put forward ideas like the introduction of a 1p garment levy to tackle fast fashion. Two years later, in October 2020, the Environmental Audit Committee stated it would reopen the case but tangible advancements are yet to be made. 

Successful future policies require a holistic approach, incorporating environmental, social, and commercial factors coupled with legally binding targets. What remains certain is that progress to create long-term sustainability cannot stop at the border of the EU, given the globalised nature of the textile value chain.