We are buying clothes at an increasing rate, and by 2030, the number of textiles we produce is estimated to grow by more than 60%. At the same time, we Europeans are throwing away 11 kilograms of textiles per person each year, creating a considerable pile of waste in one person’s lifetime. We buy and buy just to throw out barely used items to make room for the new.
It is good that European Union has addressed this problem in its textiles strategy presented in late March. It aims to making textiles durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable. The strategy is a great step forward, as textiles are the fourth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. In addition to generating emissions, textiles account for the third biggest impact on soil and water and the fifth highest consumption of raw materials in Europe.
Public talk about sustainability targets fast fashion and consumers. The European Green Deal is challenging – quite rightly – the operators and stakeholders in the textiles industry. The entire textiles industry must change, the overproduction and destruction of unsold stocks must stop, and the current raw materials must be replaced by materials that are in line with the circular economy.
The change is also needed to the purchase strategies of businesses and the public sector
The purchase strategies of businesses and the public sector must also change. Textiles are needed in countless sectors, from health care and pharmaceuticals to wellness and tourism, and from construction and interior design to the automotive industry and manufacturing. These business textiles include service experience-related textiles like sheets and towels, textiles that contribute to the atmosphere of public spaces, technical textiles hidden from the public and workwear that protects employees or the hygiene of the production line. Together they amount to a considerable number of textiles, which we could cut almost in half today.
The recycling of consumer and business textiles will not be enough to address the huge carbon footprint of the textiles industry. The entire operating model needs changing. Firstly, the number of textiles produced should be much smaller. Secondly, purchases should be based on actual needs, and we should switch from buying to the sharing economy. Thirdly, textiles should be more durable than they are now. The life cycle of textiles can be extended through maintenance, repair and reuse. On the other hand, the branding of business textiles often makes their service life shorter than the textile itself would allow. Fourthly, end-of-life textiles should be recycled and reused as raw material for recycled products and increasingly as recycled fibres for the textiles industry.
The quickest and easiest solution to reduce the environmental impact of business textiles would be to significantly increase the use of textile rental services and to replace disposable products with multi-use textile products. We can ensure a resource-wise circular economy by redirecting separate textile volumes to new ecosystems in the textiles industry.
Textiles industry operators are already actively engaging in this. What we need now is a change that encourages new purchase strategies and frees us from the sense of control that comes from physical ownership. It is time for companies to go from talking about sustainability to promoting sustainability by actions.