EU policymakers are looking to patch the sustainability holes across fashion’s global supply chains.

This September, London will once again take centre stage for the global garment industry, as over 250 designers showcase their collections during London Fashion Week. Following a series of virtual editions due to the restrictions caused by COVID-19, in-person events are making a comeback in 2021, giving a hint of normality to the many designers, photographers and models who will be flying from around the world to attend this year’s events.

Normality for the fashion industry may however be short-lived. Historically, fashion has been a tool of political and social commentary, from daring political statements on the runways to cuts and styles that break away from social convention. And the fact that this year’s London Fashion Week will happen just two months before Conference of the Parties (COP26) takes place in Glasgow will certainly not go unnoticed by the world’s leading designers.

Indeed, as top UN scientists warn of ‘code red’ for humanity and increasing pressure builds on businesses to adopt bold sustainability strategies, a growing number of consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental, social and ethical footprint of their clothes. Fashion may have always been political, but it is the garments themselves which have now walked into the spotlight of debate, with politicians looking to introduce sweeping plans to address society’s love for ‘dirty’ textiles.

The true fashion victims

With each new season, we are reminded of the industry’s environmentally intensive business model. Take Fashion Week, where collections are presented up to six months before they hit the shop floors to allow mass garment production to occur. Notoriously, this largely takes place in low-income countries, where continuous scandals around working conditions, child and forced labour, and outright exploitation serve to highlight the true cost of our garments.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated once again that long-known workers rights’ issues remain unchanged. As lockdowns were introduced around the world and shops forced to close, several global fashion retailers rushed to cancel orders and renegotiate prices with suppliers, often to the detriment of garment workers in Southeast Asia. NGO Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that Asian garment workers alone are owed over $12 billion in unpaid wages since the start of the pandemic. 

On top of the human cost of the garments we buy, large-scale textile production is the world’s second largest consumer of water. The use of dyes and other materials accounts for 20 per cent of the planet’s water pollution, issues which developing countries do not have the capacity to address.

Then, after clothes are shipped or flown halfway around the world to our favourite shopping destinations, any unsold “deadstock” makes a final trip to an incineration facility, where they’ll become part of the 92 million tonnes of waste generated by the industry - 4 per cent of the world’swaste each year. Globally, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in landfills every second.

Industry leaders have not been oblivious to growing pressure for more sustainable practices and have come together to establish initiatives and commit to reform. The Fashion Pact, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, or the Ethical Fashion Alliance have all led to positive change, though these voluntary initiatives continue to be criticised for their lack of ambition.

The tide is also changing thanks to an ever-increasing amount of new sustainable fashion brands, which have largely popped-up in response to the growing consumer displeasure with the inaction of the industry’s giants. These companies are changing the industry by showing that more sustainable and conscious supply chains can be profitable and successful. New players are disrupting the ‘fast fashion’ model with innovative ways to produce garments, such as adopting on-demand manufacturing instead of bulk production, moving factories closer to their end markets and investing in the development of new and more sustainable textiles. This hints at a future in which the industry will be more diverse, with less market share for global retailers and an offering that is both more personalised and more conscious. More importantly, sustainable fashion brands show policymakers that a greener fashion industry is an achievable ambition.

Are policymakers the new trendsetters?

Fashion’s supply chain issues have not gone by unnoticed by policymakers, who must ensure all industries play their fair share in the transition towards a more sustainable world.

Brussels is taking a leading role in shaking-up the industry, by spearheading the reform of the sector as part of the EU’s overarching ‘European Green Deal’, which looks to ensure the 27 Member State bloc reaches carbon neutrality by 2050.

Before reaching carbon neutrality, policymakers recognise the need to address the disposable manner in which society treats the majority of the goods it consumes, textiles included. This was reflected in the European Commission’s ‘Circular Economy Action Plan’, whereby the institution proposes a paradigm shift in the way products are made, introducing a ‘circular-by-design’ concept that aims to create legally binding design criteria to ensure the circularity and recycling of products is a core factor in their production.

To address the growing impact of pollution on the environment, the EU is working to reform its legislation on the use of chemicals, already some of the most stringent in the world. In a ‘Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability’ published earlier this year, the European Commission stresses that it will take measures to ensure the textiles sector transitions towards the use of safer and more sustainable chemicals that will not only have a smaller impact on the environment and local communities, but also improve the recyclability of garments and reduce the industry’s waste rates.

Following increased pressure to ensure products sold in the Single Market are not responsible for human rights abuses elsewhere, the bloc is set to adopt legislation on mandatory due diligence, a proposal for which is due to be published in the autumn. This could see the introduction of a requirement for companies to establish and implement adequate processes for preventing, mitigating, and accounting for human rights, health, and environmental impacts across their operations and supply chains, as well as the establishment of an enforcement mechanism that would monitor companies' efforts. Such requirements would stretch far beyond the EU’s borders and lead to the end of some of fashion’s largest players’ links with human rights abuses, such as use of cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, famous for its exploitation and crackdown on the Uighur muslim minority.

More measures directed at the industry, and the key piece of legislation manufacturers should prepare for, is an upcoming EU strategy for sustainable textiles, due to be published by the end of 2021. This strategy is set to look directly at ways to ensure fashion moves towards circularity, introducing sustainability principles across the production, consumption, waste management and choice of raw materials for textiles. This could see legally binding targets introduced for the reuse and recycling of materials for the industry, or the expansion of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, whereby producers must bear the costs for the disposal and after-life of their products, hitting the world’s fashion houses the hardest. What’s more, with nearly 75 per cent of British textile exports heading to the EU, the UK’s fashion industry will not be able to avoid the green trend.

Incoming new rules on sustainability and social responsibility will inevitably bring extra costs to an industry already shaken by the impact of COVID-19, a double challenge which for some may prove difficult to navigate. But as political and social pressure for a more sustainable industry continue to grow, time is running out for fashion brands to jump on this trend.