The European Union’s (‘EU’) transition to a circular economy is one of the principal building blocks of the EU Green Deal. A circular economy is essentially an economy wherein resources are kept in use for as long as possible (use, regenerate, re-use), in comparison to a linear economy which tends to have a finishing line (make, use, dispose).

This concept, without a doubt, also applies to the fashion industry. It has been estimated by the European Parliament that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions (‘GCE’) – and to put this into perspective, this amounts to a percentage higher than the emissions produced by international flights and maritime shipping put together. Additionally, according to the European Environment Agency, textile purchases in the EU in 2017 generated approximately 654 kg of CO2 emissions for each individual.

The fashion industry is predominantly linear, thus, the production line terminates with clothes being discarded in a landfill. Nowadays, fast fashion brands produce about 52 “micro-seasons” a year. That means one new “collection” a week. Clothes can easily be donated/re-sold at thrift stores or what have you, however, the majority of people still opt to throw away unwanted clothes. It has been noted that 87% of textiles purchased by Europeans have been incinerated or landfilled. These facts alone, make it evident that a complete revamp of this system is desperately needed. The fashion industry must transition from a linear to a circular system.

The ultimate goal behind the EU Green Deal is to reach climate neutrality by 2050. In other words, this means a carbon neutral, environmentally sustainable, toxic-free, and fully circular economy. Achieving a circular economy would amount to a complete overhaul of thought on how we view our possessions. We urgently need to shift away from the ‘take-make-dispose’ way of life.

Back in March 2020 shortly after the outbreak of the Coronavirus, the European Commission adopted a new circular economy action plan. This also includes an EU strategy for textiles, which is aimed at stimulating innovation, rigid recycling rules and binding targets for material use and consumption by 2030. Members of the European Parliament (‘MEPs’) are discussing several initiatives and rules in relation to factors such as improved durability of products, strengthening consumer rights, more transparency on the environmental impacts of a product when purchasing such product, proposals against greenwashing, measures against microfiber loss, stricter standards on water use, and rules on packaging to ensure that it is economically reusable.

With specific reference to water use in the fashion industry, it has been estimated that to produce one cotton t-shirt, 2,700 litres of fresh water are required – this is equivalent to a person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years. In addition to this, textile production is estimated to be responsible for around 20% of water pollution from the process of dyeing and finishing products. Not to mention the dangerous synthetic and unnatural chemicals and materials that are being used all in the name of bringing the supply chain closer to the consumer.

This brings us to the focal question behind this article – how can a single individual help push towards a circular economy with their fashion choices? Here are a few examples:

  • Donate your old clothes to charity shops;
  • Re-sell at car-boot sales or over apps such as Depop;
  • Pass on to family members (younger siblings, cousins) and friends;
  • Reduce trend buying and avoid impulse buying;
  • Support the sustainable fashion movement; and
  • Support local businesses which offer textile repair services.

We are tackling this topic from an environmental perspective however it goes without saying that there are several topics surrounding fast fashion which must also be addressed, including pressing issues such as insufficient or unequal pay for garment workers, as well as the dangerous conditions they are exposed to.

In order to move towards a circular economy, the fashion industry must make a conscious effort to adapt. The EU is prepared to push this transition and in doing so, has introduced measures to decrease textile waste on the environment. Here, ‘RESYNTEX’ comes to mind. This is a research project using chemical recycling, which could provide a circular economy business model for the textile industry.

Transitioning towards a circular economy is undoubtedly something that requires global effort and thus all individuals must play their part. Our society’s obsession with consumerism may make it hard, but alternatives are out there. Slow fashion offers mindful consumerism, manufacturing, fair and humane labour rights, natural materials, and lasting garments. Here at Green Deal Malta, we will be collaborating with a number of stakeholders in the slow fashion movement, and it is encouraging to know that there are brands, communities, and individuals out there fighting for the planet.