Executive Summary

The fashion industry is one of the most prejudicial sectors to the environment, having between 2% and 10% of the EU’s impact attributed to it. Its effects are especially notorious in water consumption and pollution, carbon emissions and energy spending.

However, most of its problems reside in three main areas: fast consumption rhythms, unsustainable production and lack of re-use and recycling of garments.

In the past decades, the commercialization of clothing has undergone a complete revolution: production was astoundingly accelerated, consumers started buying more and more clothes and the average number of wears per garment decreased significantly. Nowadays, this speed is killing our planet and there is an urgent need to find ways to slow down the fashion cycle

This requires that both consumers and companies change their perspective on textiles and clothing and adopt more sustainable behaviours.

In order to respond to the increasing demand, producers were forced to take on methods that would allow them to put garments on the market frequently and at low prices. This resulted in excessive farming of raw materials and in the adoption of extremely polluting processes. As such, technology has been trying to find alternatives to both these issues.

Lastly, although clothing production exploded, reuse and recycling did not, and were even hindered by the industry’s new methods. Consequently, most garments end up in huge landfills. So that this problem can be mitigated, governments, companies and consumers need to own up to the responsibility of taking better care of textiles and clothing, including those at the end of their life cycle.


In the European Union (EU) alone, the textile and clothing industry had a turnover of €181 billion in 2017, comprising 176 400 companies and having employed over 1,7 million people, despite having lost about half its workers and turnover having been reduced by 28% between 1998 and 2009. This decline in European textiles manufacturing followed the phasing-out of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) textile quotas. After this liberalisation in the textiles trade, the share of imports in European clothing consumption increased from 33% in 2004 to 87% in 2012. As of January 2019, most products on the internal EU market are manufactured outside of the EU, often in countries with lower labour and environmental standards, such as China, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Nevertheless, the EU textile and clothing industry remains a leader in world markets.

Unfortunately, the weight of the fashion industry remains equally hefty on an environmental level as it is on an economic one, with clothing accounting for between 2% and 10% of the environmental impact of EU consumption. This impact is, however, often largely felt in third countries, as most production takes place abroad. The industry produces 10% of all of humanity’s carbon emissions, resulting in a bigger percentage than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Furthermore, if the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, this share of the carbon budget is predicted to jump to 26% by 2050.

The clothing and textile industry is also the second-largest consumer of water worldwide since cotton is a highly water-intensive plant. Producing a pair of jeans takes enough water for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years.Fashion causes water-pollution problems, too. Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers.

What is more, on average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000, but they only kept the clothes for half as long. This was driven by a fall in prices and the increased speed at which fashion is delivered to consumers. In fact, clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000. In Europe, high fashion companies went from an average offering of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011. Some brands offer even more, as is the case with Zara, that puts out 24 collections per year. Consumer use has a large environmental footprint as well, due to the water, energy and chemicals used in washing, tumble drying and ironing. Moreover, this results in 500,000 tons of microfibers being released into the ocean each year. Many of those fibres are polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments, that does not break down in the ocean. Lastly, less than half of used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling when they are no longer needed, and only 1% are recycled into new clothes since technologies that would enable recycling clothes into virgin fibres are only starting to emerge. This leads to 85% of textiles to go into landfills each year.

Considering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the goals number 8,9 and 12, it is an understatement to say that change in the fashion industry is not only far overdue but also urgent. The question that remains is: will the EU lead this path, or be the last one to walk through it?


The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation that aims to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and achieve international cooperation in solving problems of concern to the entire world. One of its main priorities is to promote sustainable development worldwide, including in the fashion industry and its global trade chain. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the voice for the environment within the United Nations system. UNEP acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is the specialized agency of the UN that promotes industrial development for poverty reduction, inclusive globalization and environmental sustainability.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements, thus establishing a system of trade rules and settling trade disputes.

The European Commission (EC), through its ability to propose legislation, has exclusive competence on the establishment of competition rules necessary for the functioning of its internal market, on the common commercial policy and, occasionally, on the conclusion of international agreements. Additionally, it also shares with its member states the responsibility of legislating on topics such as the internal market, the environment and consumer protection.

The EU’s Member States can legislate, on a national level, in the policy areas of the internal market, the environment and consumer protection, if no legislation is adopted at EU level. Furthermore, they have comprehensive decision power in industry-related matters.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an international economic organisation that focuses on establishing international standards and finding solutions to a range of social, economic, and environmental challenges. Its main goal is to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

Fashion companies are the entities responsible for making and selling clothing, therefore corresponding to the supply side of the fashion market. Several of the environmental effects of the industry derive from their action, and, as such, any efforts to mitigate them would affect fashion companies heavily, either by forcing them to revolutionise their business model or by suffering significant economic losses.

A consumer of fashion is a person that buys clothing or fashion accessories for personal use or as a gift for others. They represent the demand side of the fashion market, therefore influencing it heavily through their shopping choices.

Legal Framework

The EU’s newly-adopted Circular Economy Package has marked a paradigm shift in legislation concerning the textile and clothing industry. Most significantly, it includes a new EU Strategy for Textiles, which intends to strengthen industrial competitiveness and innovation in the sector. With this new set of measures, the EU expects to boost the EU market for sustainable and circular textiles (including the market for textile reuse), address fast fashion and drive new business models. Although its implementation is set for 2021, this strategy will include a new sustainable product framework, a better business and regulatory environment for sustainable and circular textiles in the EU, guidance for separate textile waste collection and means for increased recycling and re-use. Furthermore, other directives in this package, although not specifically aimed at the fashion sector, could also help mitigate its impact, such as the Packaging Waste Directive and the Landfill Directive.

In recent years, the EU has also laid down European environmental standards relating to textiles and clothing. The EU Ecolabel, a voluntary certification programme, establishes ecological criteria guaranteeing limited use of substances harmful to health and environment, reduction in water and air pollution, as well as criteria for extending the lifetime of clothes.


Consumer use

The rise of fast fashion in the recent decades, with its endless offer of new styles to buy, has led to a 36% fall in the price of clothing between 1996 and 2012, relative to the EU consumer consumption basket. Nevertheless, the share of clothing in household consumption remained largely unchanged. This means that there has been a significant rise in the number of clothing items bought. In fact, due to their low price, consumers nowadays see garments as perishable goods that are “nearly disposable” and can be thrown away easily, even if only worn a few times.

Raw materials

The majority of the materials used in the production of textiles and clothing are extremely detrimental to the environment, with natural fibres having the biggest impact. Silk contributes tremendously to the draining of natural resources, wool to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and cotton to water scarcity. As a matter of fact, cotton is especially worrisome, since it accounts for more than 43% of all fibres used for clothing in the EU market, and its farming requires huge quantities of land, water, fertilisers and pesticides.

On the other hand, polyester accounted for 16% of fibres used in clothes. It has a lower water footprint, more environmentally friendly care needs and can be easily recycled. However, one load of laundry of polyester clothes can discharge 700 000 microplastic fibres into the oceans, which release toxins and can end up in the human food chain.

End of life cycle

There is a prominent lack of clarity regarding the collection and re-use of clothing in the EU. Firstly, there appear to be large differences between Member States, with estimates showing that only 11% of used clothing and textiles were collected in Italy in 2015, but that this percentage was higher than 70% in Germany in 2011. Moreover, it is uncertain what proportion of the clothes collected is reusable. Nonetheless, supply largely outstrips demand in the EU second-hand market.

If the collected textiles are non-reusable, they could be recycled. However, globally, less than 1% of clothing materials is recycled back into clothing. The main source of this problem lies in the lack of technologies for sorting the collected garments, separating blended fibres and fibres from chemicals (such as colouring), and even establishing which chemicals were used in the production in the first place. This results in most clothes being recycled mechanically (they are cut up and shredded), which means they are usually down-cycled into an insulation material, wiping cloths or mattress stuffing, therefore losing around 75% of their value.

Measures Ahead

Changing the way consumers view clothing

One of the most efficient ways to reduce the environmental impact of clothes is to persuade consumers to make small behavioural changes. For example, if the number of times a garment is worn is doubled on average, GHG emissions would decrease by 44%. Additionally, adopting conducts like reducing washing temperature, washing at full load, avoiding tumble-drying, purchasing eco-friendly fibres and donating clothes would also reduce the impact of the industry significantly.

On the other hand, some fashion companies have been investing in new ways of doing business, which alter their customers’ perception of clothing and extend the longevity of their products:

1. Slow fashion is an attempt at convincing consumers to buy fewer clothes of better quality so that they keep them for longer. It relies on trusted supply chains, small-scale production, traditional crafting techniques, local materials and trans-seasonal garments. However, it is not supposed to be a marketing stunt to sell even more clothes. This means that, unless customers are willing to pay higher prices, the economic survival of clothing producers could be threatened. 

2. Fashion as a service uses principles of the sharing economy to increase the number of wears of particular items. Offering clothes as a service consists of leasing clothes, instead of selling them. Clothing subscription services also fall under this business model.

3. Some brands are also improving the collection of their products for re-use, repair and up-cycling. For example, some are selling their used clothes in their regular shops to make buying second-hand easier. Others offer long-term warranties or repair and upcycling instructions.

4. Smart and instant fashion would reduce waste dramatically. Smart fashion could use technology to adjust clothes to the wishes of the consumer (e.g.: by changing colours), therefore reducing the need to produce multiple versions of the same garment. Moreover, instant fashion would enable on-demand production at the point of sale (e.g.: through 3D printing), consequently avoiding overproduction.

Sustainable materials and processing

In recent years, several “environmental-friendly” versions of classic materials have been created and popularised, with the aim of reducing water consumption and pollution, such as bio cotton, biobased polyester, recycled polyester and manmade cellulosics (MMCs). Another alternative is to increase the use of natural fibres that require less water, fertilisers and pesticides, like hemp, flac, linen and nettle.

Nevertheless, to achieve circular fashion, clothes need to be recycled when they are no longer suitable to wear. For this to be possible, products have to be designed to have multiple life cycles and be suitable for disassembly. This could be attained through integral knitting, different cuts, computer-controlled tools for pattern making (which allows using more of the fabric with fewer cut-offs), bonding or glueing (instead of sewing), etc.

Moreover, the production of textiles and clothing could still be made more sustainable by reducing the consumption of chemicals, using dye controllers and machinery that require less water, water recycling or using CO2 as the dyeing medium instead of water.

Improving Collection and Recycling

Producers and importers can be made legally responsible for ensuring that used clothes are reused or recycled through extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. This would oblige companies to organise their own programmes (e.g.: in-store collection) or to contribute financially to an accredited collectively responsible organisation.

Regarding recycling, new developing technologies have been the main catalyst for change, with the development of ways to separate cotton and polyester, enable mechanically recycled cotton to be mixed with polyester or MMCs and chemically recycling polyester and nylon.

Topic Podcast

Essential Reading

The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion (Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj)

episode of the Netflix series, in which comedian Hasan Minaj breaks down the fashion sector and its harmful effects in a stand-up and comedy sketch format

Eco Warriors (Fashion No Filter Podcast) 

podcast episode consisting of conversations with experts in fashion sustainability

Putting the brakes on fast fashion (UN environment programme) 

story about the fashion industry and its possible ways-forward