The EU has proposed new measures with hopes of putting an end to fast fashion by 2030. At the end of March, the European Commission announced a much-needed expansion of rules in which clothes sold in Europe must be longer-lasting and more eco-friendly. The EU governing body want to ensure that “almost all physical goods on the EU market are more friendly to the environment, circular, and energy efficient throughout their whole lifecycle from the design phase through to daily use, repurposing and end-of-life.”
These new rules include measures to “prevent and stop the destruction of unsold consumer goods”, meaning companies will be held responsible for the waste they produce. This is a key move forward for regulating the environmental effect of the fashion industry, as shockingly, the Ellen Macarthur foundation found that “every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill”. The reason for this is partly due to the overproduction of garments, as well as the fact the textiles used are difficult and expensive to recycle. The fabrics used in clothing are a complex mix of fibres and accessories, some natural, some man-made, some plastics and metals. This makes our clothes difficult to recycle as they must be sorted into separate materials in order to be recycled, which is a costly and labour-intensive process. Most companies therefore opt to burn their waste items or send them to landfill, as the cost to recycle them is higher.
The EU strategy for circular and sustainable textiles aims to “transform this sector and change not only textile design but also boost circular business models and reduce textile waste”. In effect, this will mean that companies should consider the life cycle of their textiles and make sure that they are recycled and repurposed wherever possible. It is intended that the new rules will also benefit the consumer, providing them with better quality products, more information about environmental impact, and easier access to repairs. This involves “favourable taxation measures for the reuse and repair sector” as an incentive for the industry to produce more sustainable products and services. Additionally, there will be stricter restrictions on Greenwashing, a marketing tactic used by companies to appear sustainable and eco-friendly to consumers without actually reducing their environmental impact. Brands such as Primark, H&M and Missguided have been accused of using this tactic, releasing so-called “conscious” lines, despite their notoriously bad reputations for pollution and human rights violations in their supply chains.
The EU’s new measures come at a time when the fast fashion industry is booming, with China-based e-commerce giant Shein being valued at $100bn just weeks ago, overtaking both H&M and Zara. Shein’s business model is based on scouring social media for micro-trends and producing up to 10,000 new products a day. As Dilys Williams writes in the Guardian, “the designer is obsolete and, instead, engineers and sophisticated software allow the production of clothes that are fit for the screen, designed for obsolescence, destined for landfill”. It is estimated that 92 million tons of clothes-related waste is discarded every year, much of which is low-quality, cheaply made and not recyclable. Most of Shein’s returns are dumped in a landfill because it is more expensive to put them back in circulation and micro-trends move on so quickly, making the returned clothing worthless to them. As the Los Angeles times points out, “volume-based business models simply cannot become sustainable”.
It is hoped that the EU’s new measures will not only force the fashion industry to make drastic changes to their environmental output, but also encourage the UK and other countries to take similar action against fast fashion. According to Zero Waste Europe, Nusa Urbancic, Changing Markets campaigns director, said:
“The polluter should pay. That is an important part of European law, but fashion brands have escaped. They don’t pay for the mountains of clothing that are burned or buried or dumped in developing countries, so the rest of us have to. If set high enough, a disposal charge on brands would reverse this sorry situation and force the fashion world into an entirely new look, one that super-charges the production of sustainable, high-quality clothing.”
While the EU’s crackdown is a hopeful step forward in reducing fashion’s environmental impact, there will also be a need to adjust the consumer’s mindset around fashion if we are truly to end fast fashion. The Guardian reports that “one in three young women, the biggest segment of consumers, consider garments worn once or twice to be old”; a result of the aggressive marketing tactics of fast fashion giants. As governments work on strategies to regulate fashion’s waste problem, we must collectively work to undo the damage that has been done to our outlook on fashion and style. It is important to reduce the demand for cheaply made, throwaway items which are only worn once, and decide to be more mindful of what we consume. This means wearing more of what we already own, and when shopping, looking for long-lasting pieces which will withstand the current, completely unsustainable, 52 micro-season trend cycle.