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Europe is making it easier to find and buy sustainable clothing

Photography By Burberry, Daniel Farò, Stella McCartney
Published 27.05.22

Sustainability sells – and brands know it.

Think about how often you see words like “conscious”, “eco” or “earth-friendly” used to describe brands or products. It’s great when the product in question is legitimately doing good for the environment. But the truth is, that’s not always the case.

In the marketing world, these descriptors can mean a lot, or…nothing. That’s because there’s no universal definition for green claims (or rules for when companies can and can’t use them). This makes life difficult for people who want to support brands doing right by the planet.

On a more positive note, this looks set to change in the textiles industry, with new laws being drafted around the globe that will separate the brands taking legitimate climate action from the fakes. 


Where sustainability regulation is starting to come into effect  

In the UK, lawmakers have cracked down on misleading information with the
Green Claims Code – a set of rules businesses must follow to ensure eco claims are consistent with consumer protection law. Mandatory climate disclosure rules that force companies to report on climate risks and impacts were also recently adopted.

In America, the proposed New York Fashion Act would require brands to map their supply chains, disclose climate impacts, and set (and meet) targets for greenhouse gas emissions. But perhaps the most comprehensive effort to regulate the textiles sector is underway in Europe where a suite of new laws aims to overhaul the way clothes are made, consumed and disposed of.

The European Commission’s new Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles is a closed-loop proposition for the fashion industry. It lays the framework for new laws to improve the way clothing is made, with more detailed policies and binding requirements to be introduced from the end of 2022.  

In short, it envisions an industry where recycled fibres are mandatory, repair and reuse are widespread, producers take responsibility for the full life cycle of garments and waste is designed out of the system. Basically, an industry that makes truly sustainable clothing easier to access.  

“We expect that by 2030 textile products placed on the EU market are long-lived and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances and produced in respect of social rights and the environment,” a commission official told RIISE. 

With many of the world’s most influential brands operating out of Europe, these changes could bring about enormous structural change for the fashion industry. Here’s how.


Long-lasting, reusable and recyclable materials will become mainstream

The strategy outlines
plans to introduce mandatory design requirements by the end of 2022. Under the laws, clothes will need to be designed for durability, reusability, repairability and fibre-to-fibre recyclability. There will be compulsory recycled fibre content requirements for textiles and measures to reduce the use of harmful and polluting chemicals. The use of synthetic fibres that shed microplastics will also be restricted.
These rules mean brands will have to consider a product’s full life cycle at the design phase. It is also likely that blended fibres, which are tricky to recycle (and often derived from petrochemicals), will need to be replaced with high-quality natural alternatives. Brands will also need to set up schemes to recover products for recycling when they are no longer wearable (more on that later).   
On the consumer side, durable clothing and repair services mean the garments you invest in will last longer. Plus, you won’t have to worry about tiny pieces of plastic coming off your clothes in the wash.  
Material science pioneer and fashion label Stella McCartney is a great example of how the industry might embrace alternative materials. In addition to using natural fibres across its collections, the company works with researchers to get innovative fabrics, like spider silk, mushroom leather and plant-based fur, out of the lab. Air Slides are Stella McCartney’s latest invention – shoes made from recycled manufacturing waste sourced directly from the factory floor that prove sustainable materials can spark creative genius. 

Stella McCartney

It will be harder for brands to greenwash you 

The European Union wants customers to have clear information on the sustainability credentials of products and companies. To boost transparency, it plans to introduce a digital product passport with mandatory information requirements on circularity and environmental impacts. In the future, customers will simply have to glance at a garment’s digital passport or product label for a detailed breakdown of why it’s sustainable.  

Green claims made on labelling will also be strictly controlled. “General environmental claims, such as ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘good for the environment’, will be allowed only if underpinned by recognised excellence in environmental performance,” the European Commission explains.

Brands making these statements will also need to be backed by a third-party certification (B Corp, Cradle to Cradle, etc.) or belong to an authorised government scheme like the voluntary EU Ecolabel for clothing and footwear.

We’re already seeing brands adopt measures that align with this legislation. Several start-ups and major luxury houses are working on technologies that will give garments their own digital identity or NFT (non-fungible token). Chloé, Burberry, Giorgio Armani and Stella McCartney recently committed to rolling out digital IDs for their products as part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative’s Fashion Taskforce. This system supplies customers with a QR code that shows information about a product’s supply chain, the materials used to make it and how it could be repaired or recycled.

Producers will take responsibility for their waste  

The European Union will introduce new extended producer responsibility (EPR) rules for the textiles industry by the end of 2023. This will establish a system for collecting, reusing and recycling clothing (including access to kerbside recycling services) and incentivise brands to design more circular products.

By 2025, all municipalities in the EU will be required to have a separate collection stream for textile waste. This is already underway in France, one of the first countries to adopt an EPR scheme which requires clothing producers to collect, sort and recycle their products. Since this legislation was implemented, France’s rate of textiles recovery has increased by 13 per cent.

What happens next?

The EU is still in the process of working out the details of this legislation, including mandatory requirements for brands and effective measurement frameworks to track environmental impact. While many of the proposed changes are still years away, the laws could drive demand for sustainable products in Europe and incentivise brands around the globe to take stronger environmental action.


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