Should we put fast fashion in the recycling bin? In this episode of The Road to Green we shop with sustainable fashionista Deimantė Bulbenkaitė, get insight from Vinted’s Adam Jay, explain the EU’s QR clothing passport, and witness ancient wool recycling.
The textile industry is one of the most polluting in the world. It thrives in brightly lit stores and shopping malls: cheap clothing and fast fashion. Production has exploded worldwide, and along with it the sector’s toxic emissions and devastating environmental impacts. So is it time to rethink everything we wear? Join Cyril Fourneris on his latest travels towards a circular economy in The Road to Green.
Dress to impress, but at what cost?
According to the European Commission, in 2022, Europe’s consumption of textiles has the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change, after food, housing and mobility. The textile industry is the third largest consumer of water and land and ranks fifth for the use of primary raw materials and greenhouse gas emissions.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation published a report in 2017, estimating that the sector uses between 792 to 931 billion cubic meters of water per year in textiles production – from cotton farming to dyeing and treatments. This is the equivalent of 4% of all freshwater extraction globally.
We’re buying more and more clothes, but they last half as long. They often end up in landfill sites, far from Europe, out of sight and out of mind. In Europe, Less than half of the used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling when they are no longer needed, and only 1 % end up being recycled into new garments.
This leaves a big question: is a sustainable paradigm shift still possible?
Italy’s ‘textile town’: a leader in wool recycling
The Italian city of Prato is no stranger to wool recycling. Located just a few kilometres from the Renaissance capital of Florence, it has been a European textile centre since the middle ages and it is also a circular economy hub.
Due to an old law prohibiting the import of raw wool, the city has become a leader in recycling the material, producing 15% of the world’s recycled textiles.
The Italian company Comistra is a leader in wool recycling. This century-old, business gives a new life to tonnes of used rags, which arrive in this warehouse every day.
“60% of raw materials are destined for re-use. Around 35% will be recycled and around 5% will be thrown away or thermo-valorised. The clothes arrive in these bags and are sorted by hand. That’s how we decide what’s going to be reused or recycled,” says Alice Tesi, Comistra’s head of Marketing.
Once sorted by colour, the wool is reduced to fibre and regenerated by machines. After returning to the raw material state, it will be blended to make yarns and fabrics that will reappear in new clothes. Added bonus, the water used in the process is recycled and reused, closing the loop.
The circular economy is at the heart of the European Union’s sustainable textile strategy, which aims to impose the use of recycled fibres and encourage eco-design.
For Fabrizio Tesi, CEO of Comistra, this policy is the way forward to being more responsible with our clothing production.
“When we design a garment, we have to think about it in such a way that when its life ends, it can be easily repaired, recycled and reused. It’s what we call the magic circle of the circular economy. Today, we have a great opportunity. The Green Deal and Europe are showing us the way. Sending equipment to the recycling sector could provide a lot of work to many people,” he says.
How is the EU tackling Textile related pollution?
But people still need to buy clothes that are truly sustainable.
The EU is studying the idea of a QR-code-based ‘passport’ which would help combat ‘greenwashing’. It will provide information such as recyclability and environmental impact.
Known as the Digital Product Passport; it would enable sharing of key, product-related, information that is essential to the sustainability and circularity of products. The initiative is part of the proposed Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation and one of the key actions under the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP).
Niccolo believes that the purchase of a garment should be motivated by its history, not its price tag. He is the founder of Rifo, a start-up that favours natural fibres such as cotton and wool and recyclable designs made from recycled, single materials.
“Today, most fabrics on the market are bought at low cost and are not recyclable, and that’s a problem. Because the best way to make a product profitable is to mix natural and synthetic fibres. Some technologies allow fibres to be separated, but not yet at an industrial level. We will have to introduce a recyclability criterion at some point,” he says.
The European waste framework directive is about to be revised. Industrial polluters are expected to pay for the selective collection of used textiles. In Prato, a new textile sorting hub will be built next year. The aim is to double the number of fabrics collected and modernise the recycling sector.
Sustainable production is good, purchasing less is best
Many experts believe buying less should be the priority, but is that really possible? To find out Euronews went to Lithuania, the home of the famous secondhand shopping app, ‘Vinted’, to meet with fashion journalist, Deimantė Bulbenkaitė.
“On one hand fast fashion provides a lot of people with the opportunity to dress themselves. So, in one way it makes sense. But on the other hand, the amount of clothes they produce is quite catastrophic. They produce a lot more than we can or even should use”.
Fast fashioning is a term used to describe cheap clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.
In 2018, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe published a report stating that 85% of textiles end up in landfills. This represents 21 billion tonnes a year.
Eurostat estimates that in 2020, EU citizens bought 6.6 million tonnes of clothing and footwear – 14.8 kg per person: 6.0 kg of clothing, 6.1 kg of household textiles and 2.7 kg of footwear.
One way of buying less, mass-produced clothing, is going to thrift stores such as ‘Humana.’ Everything it sells costs four euros and the items are of good quality.
Deimantė still prefers to shop on Vinted. The famous second-hand shopping app, created in Vilnius 15 years ago, boasts 50 million users.
Vinted claims that it is helping to curb textile overproduction. In its first Climate Change Impact Report published in 2023, Vinted asserts that buying second-hand avoided the release of 1.8 kgCO₂e per item.
“Of the hundreds of millions of transactions that have taken place via Vinted, 40% meant that a new product has not been purchased. This means that the new product does not need to be manufactured. But only 14% of clothing fashion transactions are second-hand. So, we still have a long way to go before second-hand becomes the default way of buying,” says Adam Jay, Ceo of Vinted Marketplace.
Furthermore, more and more fashion designers are looking to upcycle old textiles into something new. One such brand is ‘Behind Curtains.’
Monika Vaisova, a designer at the company, explains, “The fashion for the masses is too big and it’s growing a lot. We don’t need it. We can re-use things.”
Their message is clear: take fast fashion out of fashion and buy something that can be remade.