Policy papers

Circular textiles: making fashion more sustainable

17 June 2021

The global fashion industry, spanning high street stores to well-known labels and haute couture designers, is the second most polluting industry in the world.

Producing just 1kg of cotton consumes some 20,000 litres of water. To put that in perspective, one single t-shirt needs around 2,700 litres, which would take the average person nearly three years to drink. Add to this the waste water generated in clothes production, and the problem of plastics used in synthetic fibres being added to the water cycle through washes, and it’s not hard to see why people are getting worried.

A new paper by Eurocities tackles this issue, calling for greater emphasis on circular textiles to ensure “sustainable design for repair, reuse and recycling.”

Profit from waste

“From 2025, cities will be obliged to ensure separate collection of textile waste,” cites the paper, which analyses the case for cities in the EU. A lot of cities across the EU have already started testing different collection systems, with many having set up extra revenue streams from this secondary textiles market.

“Some sort and directly sell the used fabric to private contractors, some give it to NGOs, others reuse or recycle it themselves,” explains the paper. However, in most cases, in part because of the decreasing quality of collected textiles, what is collected currently goes directly into landfill, or is incinerated.

Change the pattern

With this in mind, behaviour change by all of us is one of the best ways to encourage business models for sustainable consumption. The average EU citizen consumes nearly 26kg of textiles every year and throws away about 11kg, with 40% more clothes bought in the EU per person since 1996.

To address this, the paper recommends actions, such as raising consumer awareness through campaigns, “to inform consumers about the impact of their consumption behaviours”; or through better labelling of textile products to increase transparency about their footprint.

Better business

The paper by the cities network calls for more support from the EU, such as through large scale pilot projects in cities. In fact, as is the case across the circular economy, most of which is untapped, the paper points to many areas where a little boost to cities can lead to long-term benefits for all.

This would include “supporting cities to facilitate the creation of new circular businesses, invest in skilling and upskilling people into new circular jobs and test innovative economic models in partnership with local businesses, innovation stakeholders, academia and SMEs [small and medium enterprises],” reads the paper.

There are also many other ways to share the wealth of the fashion industry in a much more sustainable way. The paper sets an ambition that used textiles should be seen as a valuable resource to create new business opportunities.

Eurocities foresees actions to stimulate the secondary materials markets, (i.e. to buy, sell, and exchange reused or recycled textiles), as well as more emphasis on the design, repair, reuse and recycling of garments.

Covid 19 recovery

Eurocities’ paper on circular textiles is published ahead of the EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, planned for the end of 2021, to help the EU shift to a climate-neutral, circular economy where products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable and energy-efficient.

This strategy aims to ensure that the textile industry recovers from the Covid-19 crisis in a sustainable way by:

  • making it more competitive,
  • applying circular economy principles to production, products, consumption, waste management and secondary raw materials,
  • and directing investment, research and innovation.

You can read the Eurocities position here.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer
Louise Coffineau Policy Advisor (Water, Circular Economy, Climate)