The German textile industry: the circular economy is coming
Textile recycling will be the next hot topic in the sustainability trend. As the amount of textile waste increases every year, politicians react with new legislation at both, national as well as EU level.
Societal actors are also becoming active and the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles recently founded an expert group to develop guidelines for a more circular economy in the textile industry. As the trend grows so do the opportunities for businesses.
Creating a recyclability label, coherent standards, or supporting legislation which fosters sustainability will all help paving the way for a circular economy and, at the same time, are sound business decisions – especially in light of the current popularity of the Greens and their chances to become part of the next German Federal Government after the 2021 elections.
The environmental impact of old textiles and textile waste
The clothing industry is one of the biggest environmental challenges on Earth. While producers are starting to apply better standards, the environmental impact of textile manufacturing is still high. Too often, clothing is not made to last and cannot be repurposed at the end of its life-cycle, adding to the enormous amount of waste. With fashion becoming faster, more clothes are consumed – and discarded in even shorter time frames. In 2018, 1.3 million tons of clothing were given to textile collections in Germany. Of these 1.3 million tons, which do not include the estimated 19% clothing directly disposed in bins, only about 62% can be used for second-hand and only 12% can be recycled. 14% get downcycled to cleaning material, insulation and car clothes, and the remaining 12% are either burned or dumped in landfills (according to the Bundesverband Sekundärrohstoffe und Entsorgung e.V. (bvse)). Numbers vary, but EU Stats estimated in 2016, that 317 thousand tons of textiles were burned or dumped in Germany alone, with numbers rising. This is a huge environmental burden, a burden that does not go unnoticed by the people – or politics.
The reaction in politics
The need for a more circular economy in the textile industry has been recognized. In 2018, the EU adopted a new directive resulting in new circular economy legislation in Germany which took effect on 29th October 2020. Among others, producers are now obliged to do everything in their power to prevent the destruction or disposal of new products. The implementation of legislation for each industry is still pending. Furthermore, the public sector now has to consider environmental impact when purchasing. More importantly, starting in 2025, there will be an obligation to collect textiles separately. The recycling quota for household waste, including textiles, will be increased from 50% in 2025 to 65% in 2035. Lastly, private and public waste collectors will have equal rights of utilizing what they collect which will result in stronger competition. More legislation on this topic will follow at EU and national level.
The way forward: possible solutions
Businesses have to react to growing environmental concerns. While using recycled material is one step in the right direction, producing products that can be recycled at the end is the next important step towards a circular economy. The Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (Bündnis für nachhaltige Textilien), which unites politics, the textile industry, NGOs, trade unions, and certification organizations, has started an expert group on the matter just recently in October 2020.
The goal of this expert group is to develop guiding principles and provide best practices to the industry. The group will address the question of how to design clothing more sustainably, share best practices for repairing and recycling, analyze alternative business models, create tools to reduce packaging, and provide a dialogue platform for different stakeholders. However, this is not enough to promote the needed change.
There are many opportunities for companies to support a more circular textile economy – either alone or united by establishing a new initiative. Firstly, aside from changing the design of the products, their recyclability could be improved by addressing the issue together with other actors of the textile and recycling industry. Creating common standards for the collection and processing of old clothing, such as ensuring easy recognition of used materials, would further improve the recycling quota. Secondly, a new label could be created guaranteeing the recyclability and durability of clothing. This would not only create awareness but also impact the purchase decision of the next generation – a generation which is already extremely engaged in fighting for better environmental conditions. Thirdly, the competitive advantage of already producing recyclable clothing could be enhanced by supporting legislation for extended consumer responsibility. This is already practiced in France and would mean that producers cover the costs at the end of the life-cycle of each textile they have produced. Recycled or recyclable clothing costs less which gives a monetary advantage to the producers.
Legislation will come and considering the current political power of the Green Party in Germany, it will probably come sooner rather than later. It is on each business to decide whether they support the goal of a sustainable future or end up being forced to do so by legislation.