The European Union is preparing for a potentially massive shift in the fashion industry through rules designed to put a stop to ‘fast fashion.’ Fast fashion, or the knock-off, mass-produced, experimental runway and fade designs that are marketed through low-end clothing shops, has been with us for decades. Now however, the green movement has brought new scrutiny to this industry as a toxic presence on our planet, and the EU is taking steps to end it.
In March, the EU commission presented the Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles to the European Parliament. The full proposal is expected to be finished at the end of 2023 and ready for negotiation with the EU governments and the parliament, for an anticipated start date of 2024.
In a fact sheet, the commission summed up its goal: by 2030,
all textile products placed on the EU market are durable, repairable, and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances, produced respecting social rights.
The commission’s strategy is to “develop binding product-specific ecodesign requirements to increase textiles’ performance in terms of durability, reusability, reparability, fibre-to-fibre recyclability, and mandatory recycled fibre content.”
The commission also wants to ban the destruction of surplus clothing, or at least require companies to publicly disclose how many items they discard or destroy.
The final regulation could be detailed according to specific problems in the apparel industry, from colours that fade and zippers that break, to the difficulty of recycling common fabrics such as polyester-cotton blends. It may also require labels to provide a reparability and sustainability score for clothes.
“‘Fast fashion’ is out of fashion,” according to the commission.
Overall, clothing production has dramatically increased in the last twenty years, the volume doubling between 2000 and 2014, according to the consultancy McKinsey. Relative to other consumer products, clothing has become more affordable as brands offshored their production to Asia, streamlined supply chains, and increasingly used cheaper synthetic fabrics such as polyester. Encouraged by the relative affordability of the new collections rolled out almost weekly in stores such as Zara and H&M, consumers now buy 60% more clothing than they did two decades ago, and sometimes throw items out after just seven or eight uses.
This is part of ‘fast fashion:’ a business model based on high-volume sales of low-cost, low-quality apparel. But Zara and H&M are not the only culprits. High end brands commonly burn tonnes of surplus garments every year rather than sell them at discounted prices.
With clothing production faster and cheaper than ever, the industry is simply producing more clothes than it can sell, and creating additional problems along the way.
What to do with the unused, unwanted, and unfashionable clothing?
The Associated French Press reported in 2021 on the mountain of unsold fast fashion garments accruing in the Chilean desert at a rate of at least 39,000 tons a year. Municipal landfills wouldn’t accept them because they are not decomposable and contain harmful chemicals. Polyester, the most widely used textile, takes about 200 years to decompose and is one of the primary culprits for the omnipresence of microplastics, now found everywhere from oceans to the wombs of pregnant mothers.
Recycling clothing is also tricky. Processes are not well developed, nor is there a market for recycled fabric large enough to absorb the supply, according to McKinsey. It estimates that three of every five pieces of clothing produced ends up in a landfill.
The changes in regulation the EU anticipates would not only impact European consumers and fashion brands, but the clothing industry abroad. The EU is the world’s biggest clothing importer, sourcing clothing primarily from China, Bangladesh, Turkey, the UK, and India, according to Eurostat.
The Financial Times reports that clothing companies in both Asia and Europe are already preparing for a shift in the current clothing production model that the EU could force.
Nikkei Asia cited sources in the Asian textile industry that said that requirements for the recycled material content would increase production costs by as much as 50%. Some manufacturers scoffed at traceability requirements for raw materials, noting that certificates are easily forged, while others said that providing sustainability data for clothing labels would be easy.
On the surface, the efforts to create a more sustainable textile trade sound reasonable, some are sceptical of the EU’s true motives, and question whether it’s not a hidden tariff or a form of “greenwashing.”
But it appears such concern is unwarranted. The turn away from fast fashion is not an entirely top-down trend. Some brands are already responding to consumer demand for a different way of buying clothing. Increasingly, brands such as H&M and Levi Strauss are marketing natural fabrics and long-lasting garments. H&M is experimenting with in-store sites where customers can drop off old clothes for a discount on their next purchase, and told Nikkei Asia that all clothing should be recyclable by 2025.
Websites and apps for reselling clothing and household items have also taken off.
Fast fashion is not yet mainstream—the poster child for the industry, Chinese company Shein, still releases 7,000 products a week—but a strain of consumer is emerging ready for a new fashion model.