Beauty, creativity, self-expression, and social acceptability are all associated with fashion. However, the ordinary consumer is unaware that their purchases contribute to 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to McKinsey, or that practically all their purchases will eventually wind up in an incinerator or landfill, where they will break down and contaminate the air. Or that just 1% of the 100 billion articles of clothing made each year will be recycled. Between Singles Day, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, November is the world celebration of consumption. In principle, there is a justification to be made for such sales events, allowing products to be accessible for people unable to afford them at full price, many of which may be essential. This is particularly pertinent in the lead-up to Christmas, after two financially challenging years due to Coronavirus, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to mass job losses, forced businesses to close, and inflation fuelled by energy prices.
However, these sales, unfortunately, do not tend to work this way. This year, consumers spent a record of $9.12 billion online shopping during Black Friday, according to a report made by Adobe analysis. These sales unfortunately encourage overconsumption. The ability to buy garments at extremely low prices from fast fashion and now ultra-fast fashion brands has made consumers feel as if clothing is disposable, contributing to a 400% increase in textile consumption over the past 20 years, according to Eco-Age. As a result of a new generation driven by social media and new consumption patterns based on overconsumption, the fast fashion industry is expected to continue to grow, and so does its impact on climate, water, and energy consumption. By 2030, one estimate made by the UK parliament suggests that clothing consumption will grow by 63%, accompanied by the increase of 2.4 billion people into the global middle class since 2015. Additionally, a recent report made by the American Chemical Society estimated the world is on track to triple clothing production by 2050. The urgency to tackle fast fashion in the EU has led to several strategies and initiatives to be taken seriously by all the large-scale fast fashion retailers aiming to put fast fashion out of fashion.
Fast Fashion explained
Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing process focused on rapidly producing a high volume of low-price clothing to bring an inexpensive yet fashionable style to the end consumer. These cheaply made, trendy pieces have resulted in an industry-wide movement towards overconsumption and overproduction. On average, fast-fashion giants produce about 52 micro-seasons a year, the equivalent of a new collection per week, leading to massive amounts of consumption and waste. However, since 2020, fast fashion has mutated into ultra-fast fashion. Ultra-fast fashion, in the simplest way, takes the business model of fast fashion and pushes it to its limits, speeding up the process and leading to faster production cycles, faster churning of trends, and shorter use before a product is discarded.
Phase out fast fashion? The European vision
The European Commission outlined a clear vision for the future, which is to address the environmental damage done by the textile industry and the transition toward a circular textile economy, tackling the issue of fast fashion. The main vessels for this change are the EU Eco-design for Sustainable Products Regulation and the delayed proposal on Substantiating Green Claims. However, many obstacles remain.
Even now, at a time when the pushback against fast-fashion is a trending topic, the European Commission failed to set any clear definition of “fast fashion”. Without a clear definition, it is naturally more challenging to fully address the problem and its myriad aspects. For instance, human and labour rights NGOs criticise the minor role of the social dimension in the textile strategy compared to its environmental pillars.
Secondly, introducing eco-design requirements as a precondition for placing a product on the market is a tested tool on certain electronic products, but much more complex and extensive to apply to a wider array of consumer goods, considering that each product group requires targeted requirements. Therefore, even before starting to think about eco-design requirements, the Commission will need to identify clear boundaries for product groups. The eco-design proposal also introduces a digital product passport, an IT tool to trace, collect and provide information to all actors in the value chain and enable the verification of product compliance with the eco-design criteria. Costs and usability for small companies will be a key issue to solve. Also, the Commission will update the Textile Names and Labelling regulation, requiring new information and labelling rules for textile products sold in the EU (such as fibre composition or sustainability features).
To provide reliable and comparable information to consumers, the Commission is also planning a proposal on Substantiating Green Claims, requiring companies to substantiate claims they make about the environmental footprint of products by using standard Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCRs). While the Commission and stakeholders are developing PEFCRs for garments, several actors question its credibility since it doesn’t include key indicators for microplastic pollution, plastic waste, or does not sufficiently account for a circularity feature or the duration of service of the products. For example, about 8% of European microplastics released to oceans are from synthetic textiles — globally, this figure is estimated at 16-35%, according to the European Environment Agency. A clear definition of microplastic pollution and plastic waste indicators need to be recognised as key elements in the PEF score, given the significant contribution of fast and ultra-fast fashion. Moreover, the Commission is claiming that the circularity of products is already addressed by the PEF methodology, but the definition is too narrow and omits or underweights important attributes such as biological circularity. In order to have an influence on consumer behaviours and achieve the EU’s objectives, all of these issues need to be properly addressed in cooperation with industry representatives and NGOs. Failing to address them might make it easier for free riders to gain a competitive advantage to the detriment of virtuous companies and guide well-intended consumers to unintentionally purchase more rather than less unsustainable products
The complexity of the issue is also shown by yet another delay – this time to 2023 – of the publication of the EU proposal on Substantiating Green Claims, supposed to be released on November 30.
The end of fast fashion in the EU?
Fast fashion is controversial. It has democratised fashion and style, making Fashion inclusive with affordable, stylish pieces for everyone. But it is also associated with environmental damage, exploitative and abusive labour practices, as well as enhanced throwaway culture. With the rising concern over environmental and social sustainability, the European textile strategy is the first step to building a more sustainable textile industry by investing in innovation and ensuring that consumers can easily access reliable information about a garment’s environmental impact and make responsible purchasing choices. The question of making sustainable claims is clear but being able to prove them is another bottleneck. Communication about product sustainability has been challenged in the past months, for instance with the growing criticism around the Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI) methodology leading to its revision to mitigate the risks of misleading consumers. In an industry flooded with greenwashing, facilitated by brand-dominated and self-governed definitions of sustainability, the need for regulation and harmonised claims for consumers has never been more important.
If you want more information regarding the new green claim proposal, and more generally about the European environmental regulations, Lykke Advice is a boutique consultancy with experience guiding companies and associations through the latest developments in European Institutions and ensuring your voice is heard in the legislative process, do not hesitate to get in touch.