Europe’s fashionwear manufacturers and importers may face stricter environmental rules under a push to clean up textiles production.
In a fresh sign of the European Union’s ambitions to expand its green regulatory footprint around the globe, the bloc’s environment chief vowed to zero in on the apparel industry to ensure that it avoids using harmful chemicals and wasting water.
Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius called textiles the “new plastic” when it comes to trash. Draft EU rules will aim to require information on clothing labels about the resources used in manufacturing and set sustainability obligations for producers seeking access to the 500 billion-euro ($567 billion) European single market for textiles and apparel, he said.
“We’ll definitely go into labeling,” Sinkevicius said in an interview in Brussels where he announced a wide-ranging action plan on Wednesday. “But a major thing is product policy — what is sold on the EU market.”
Already vowing to lead the worldwide fight against greenhouse gases blamed for climate change, Europe is gearing up for a parallel crackdown on earthbound pollution.
The EU announced in December an unprecedented “Green Deal” to become the first climate-neutral continent through an economic overhaul that will affect industries ranging from energy to agriculture.
The new “circular economy” initiative covers industries ranging from textiles and construction to electronics and batteries. It sets the stage for months of work by the European Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm, on detailed proposals that EU lawmakers would need to approve in a process lasting many more months.
The portion of the plan dealing with textiles has the potential to affect numerous apparel companies that rely on low-cost Asian countries including China, Vietnam and Bangladesh as production sites.
It would be a further example of how the EU, the world’s most lucrative single market, deploys its rule-making authority to exert soft power over businesses across the globe. A previous landmark example of this occurred in the mid-2000s when, during three years of deliberations, the EU pushed through tougher chemical rules over the resistance of the industry and trade partners.
The 29-year-old Sinkevicius downplayed the prospect of conflict with textile manufacturers and importers, saying many companies now see business opportunities in tighter environmental regulation.
“We will need to work with the companies and work with their value chains,” he said. “Companies need to change their value chains. That’s the most important.”
Sinkevicius, who comes from Lithuania, said that EU national governments would have to step up enforcement of any new environmental legislation covering the textiles industry to ensure the bloc’s credibility. “The commission will be very vocal on implementation — on filling the implementation gap,” he said.
Sinkevicius signaled that the future EU labeling framework for textiles would resemble decade-old European “eco-design” legislation for improving the energy efficiency of household appliances like refrigerators and televisions. These rules, which include labeling requirements, have helped cut EU electricity consumption by the amount of power that Italy uses annually, he said.
“Many companies claim that they give you green textiles and so on, but we will try to say what is really green,” Sinkevicius said. “It’s about consumers making smart choices.”