Fast fashion will be held accountable for the quality of clothing, toxic chemicals and waste, the EU says

Nusa Urbancic is campaign director at the Changing Markets Foundation, which works with NGOs to expose irresponsible business practices and drive change towards a more sustainable economy. Here she gives us her opinion of her on the new

Let me tell you a dirty little secret: most of the clothes on your back are essentially oil and gas. Fossil fuels are at the heart of fast fashion, its business model and mountains of waste.

The history of fast fashion ignites in the year 2000, when polyester overtook cotton as the most commonly used fiber. Affordable and adaptable, it is now used in two thirds of all fabrics. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, with the average consumer now buying 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, keeping them half as long. Because it is so cheap and difficult to recycle, most of these clothes end up as waste, burned or buried.

But fashion brands have successfully avoided regulation for decades by relying on weak voluntary schemes and other greenwash. This is about to change.

This week, the EU became the first region in the world to recognize the link between fast fashion and fossil fuels and to announce ambitious legislation to make fashion more circular.

We will have to wait until more details emerge in 2023, but at the heart of its plans is an EU-wide extended producer responsibility scheme. This will cause fashion brands, such as Boohoo, H&M, and Zara, to pay a waste tax for every item they sell.

The less environmentally friendly the item, the higher the fare.

If done right, this will increase the reuse and recycling of textiles and significantly reduce waste. As recently as the Changing Markets Foundation report shows, this tax must be accompanied by ambitious reuse and recycling targets, as well as eco-design criteria, the measures promised by EU officials will be presented in detail in 2024.

What happens to unsold items and why are they so harmful to the environment?

Officials are also looking to ban the destruction of unsold items and improve rules on textile waste exports, which reached 1.4 million tonnes in 2020. Many of this used clothing currently ends up in second-hand clothing markets in countries like Ghana.

But of the 15 million items that are shipped in Ghana every week, around 40% are estimated to be worthless upon arrival and end up in giant burning landfills or polluting the country’s rivers and beaches.

Well-meaning Europeans who donate their clothes to charity may indeed contribute to pollution problems elsewhere. Therefore, I welcome that officials will now start developing criteria to distinguish between waste and second-hand textiles and also increase transparency in the global trade in used textiles.

Greenwashing is still a big problem we face

The European Commission also promises to crack down on greenwashing, which is widespread in the fashion industry. Our survey last year showed that a shocking 59% of their ecological claims are false or misleading. So we recently launched a websitewww.greenwash.com, to follow the worst examples.

One such tactic is the growing fashion trend of turning waste plastic bottles into clothes. What they are not telling us is that this fad is a one way ticket to landfill and incineration.

Fortunately, EU officials have seen through this trick, calling it a growing concern, and will encourage brands to focus their creativity and investment on fiber-to-fiber recycling, rather than relying on waste from another industry. European start-ups like Renew indicates the way forward.

Fast fashion brands have been selling us the illusion of sustainability for too long and will likely fight this move by EU officials with everything they have.

But European consumers want better and longer lasting clothes, and European brands have the resources and the means to make them a reality.

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