Green and clean is ‘in’– a tough trend for the textile industry

This black Friday, fashion retailers will be counting on their attractive deals to clear out the piles of stock that stood untouched due to COVID-19 – from the raincoat you no longer need on your work from home commute down the stairs, to the swimsuit you didn’t buy for that holiday abroad you didn’t take.

If anything, the pandemic has kicked the industry into the future. The economic shutdown didn’t leave the sector untouched – the sale of textiles, clothing, and footwear took a hit, with over 50% fewer sales in May of this year when compared to 2019 across the Eurozone. Though less in volume, sales were channelled to online stores, with UK online retailer ASOS reporting a quadrupling in profits this year.

But while consumers enjoy the new comforts of buying through mobile apps and next-day deliveries, the way textiles are produced remains slow to catch up with modern-day expectations. Fear not, however, as the EU has spotted this lagging trend and is sketching out an industry make-over.

Step aside London, Paris, and Milan! Next year, it will be Brussels dictating the trends. Here’s how:

Green for spring

Fashion took great benefit from globalisation. With cross-continent supply chains allowing for profits to stretch, the industry has thrived, with clothing production roughly doubling in size since the year 2000. Yet, while the average consumer buys 60% more clothes now than they did 20 years ago, they also dispose of them in half of the time.

This fashion boom comes at a cost: the industry is responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions, is the world’s second-largest consumer of water, and responsible for 20% of the planet’s water pollution through the use of harmful chemicals that feature in its dyes.

Low prices have turned garments into disposable goods, that end up in landfills once they no longer serve a purpose. Globally, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in landfills, every second.

Cross-industry voluntary commitments to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint must be recognised, such as the Kering-led Fashion Pact. Brands have taken steps to add a touch of green to their supply chains, with many rolling out sustainable-labelled collections. But more still needs to be done.

Roll in fashion’s latest trendsetter, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President. When in 2019 the European Commission pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050, change became inevitable for the industry. Throughout 2020, Brussels acted swiftly to propose a re-think of how Europeans use and dispose of everyday products.

The Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan proposes action to foster the recycling and circularity of products, introducing a “circular-by-design” concept that aims to create legally binding design criteria to ensure circularity and recycling are considered right from the first production step.

The recently published chemicals strategy for sustainability points the finger at the textiles industry and introduces the ambition to transition the sector towards safe and sustainable chemicals that will improve the recyclability of textiles, thereby reducing fashion waste.

The closing look of the Commission’s show will come next year, when the institution is expected to launch a comprehensive textiles strategy, proposing targeted policies to address sustainability in the sector.

Clean – it’s goodbye to fashion crimes

The 2013 Rana Plaza accident, when a building housing five garment factories in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over one thousand workers, was a defining moment for the industry.  Since then, brands were swift to address the due diligence and corporate responsibility skeletons in their closets. Reports of garment workers being underpaid, overworked, and sometimes even underaged, were dealt with through the establishment of industry commitments on more transparent practices and bigger scrutiny over the policies of subcontracted garment factories. Here too, more needs to be done.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the sudden drop in consumption that followed, led several global fashion retailers to rush to cancel orders and renegotiate prices with suppliers, often at the cost of the livelihood of garment workers in the Global South.

Business aside, the sector is also known for its blurry track record in human rights protection. It took years of campaigning against the industry’s wide use of cotton from Uzbekistan – a country known for its slavery and forced labour practices in cotton harvesting – for the industry to boycott the Uzbek crop until such practices are eradicated.

Just recently, again, some of the industry’s biggest names, including H&M and UK-based Stella McCartney, stated they could not rule out links between their supply chains and the forced labour involved in the harvest of cotton in China’s Xinjiang region, a feature of the country’s reprehensible treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

This is a trend the Commission wants in the past. Industry should expect enhanced scrutiny when the EU launches its proposals for a mandatory due diligence mechanism in 2021. In the European Parliament, MEPs want to ensure that products sold in the EU do not originate from situations involving human rights violations and consider a mandatory due diligence legislation a powerful trade tool to better help the bloc in protecting human rights across the globe. Companies will need to undertake comprehensive audits – under EU-dictated criteria – of their supply chains to ensure these do not support polluting, exploitative, or abusive situations for all those involved, or have their products barred at EU borders. Without change, it will be hard for fashion brands to make the cut.

Inevitably, the sheer importance and size of the European market mean Brussels’ policies will have a global impact. London’s catwalks should be particularly alert: with the end of the Brexit transition period looming, the UK government will be free to set its own regulatory plans for the future of the industry. But with nearly 75% of British textile exports heading into the EU, British producers will need to fit into the EU’s measurements.

All in all, the changing regulatory environment is expected to bring increased costs and pressure across the textile sector. For the sake of the planet, and our ethics, the era of the £1 t-shirt may be coming to an end.

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients in the European Union, the UK and beyond. For more information on our EU work, please contact our Director of European Affairs, Viviana Spaghetti at