In the European Union (EU) alone, the 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 , and , 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?