When sustainability expert Lars Mortensen tried to work out how European lifestyles were damaging the environment, he found three big problems lawmakers were trying to tackle: The homes in which we live, the food on our plates and the cars and planes we use to get around.
But it was the fourth — the clothes we wear — that had escaped their attention for decades.
Textiles have not been regulated in detail, said Mortensen from the European Environment Agency. "Most textiles are produced outside Europe, which means the majority of the impacts happen outside Europe."
The European Union is now pushing to clean up the fashion industry — and the standards it sets could force retailers to fix dirty supply chains in other parts of the world.
By 2030, it wants all clothes sold on its market to be durable, repairable and recyclable. Labels will have to be clearer. More clothes will have to be made from recycled fibers. "Fast fashion is out of fashion," the European Commission said in the strategy it announced last year.
But with greenhouse gas emissions rising, and ship after ship of unwanted clothes landing in ports across Africa and Asia, experts fear the industry is actually moving in the opposite direction.
To stop the planet heating 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F) — the level world leaders said they would work to achieve — the apparel sector would have to emit 45% less by 2030, according to a report from the environmental nonprofit World Resources Institute. Instead, it is set to emit about 55% more.
Recycling is rare
The global clothing industry pumps out 2% of the gases heating the planet each year. Most of these comes from production. It also uses fossil fuels to make synthetic fibers and scarce land and water to grow plants like cotton.
Many of the biggest retailers, like H&M and Zara, have based their business model around mass-producing cheap clothes and bringing out new styles on a weekly basis. Newer entrants like Shein have ramped that up with new styles coming out every single day.
Some companies, under pressure from customers and investors, have brought out collections they market as sustainable and set targets to clean up their business. Fast fashion giant H&M, for instance, plans to cut emissions 56% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2040. Inditex, the owner of Spanish retailer Zara, aims to get there in the same year.
But cutting environmental damage while sales rise is a tall order. After being worn — and sometimes without even that — most clothes end up in landfills or incinerators. Data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity pushing to cut waste, suggests only 13% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled in some form. Less than 1% is used made into new clothing.
Consumption is "the elephant in the room," said Eliot Metzger, head of sustainable business at the World Resources Institute. "Not a lot of companies are ready to acknowledge that they can't just keep selling more stuff to more people forever."
Waste piling up
The average European consumes 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of textiles each year, including non-clothing items like curtains and industrial fabrics, and sends about a quarter of it abroad, mostly to Africa and Asia, according to a report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) in February. Clothes are collected voluntarily, often by charity shops, then resold.
In the last two decades, Europe's exports of used textiles have tripled to nearly 1.7 million tons. But their fate is "highly uncertain", the EEA found. "We simply don't know what happens," said Mortensen, who co-authored the report.05:21
In Africa, where Europe sends 46% of its used textiles, there is a market for cheap, second-hand clothing. But a large and unknown fraction ends up in landfills, or litters streets and rivers. In Ghana, which is one of the biggest recipients, one study estimated 40% ends up as waste. Traders in the capital Accra say some of the clothes are made too poorly to be worn again.
In Asia, where Europe sends 41% of its unwanted textiles, exports are more likely to be sorted and processed. The big recipient countries, like Pakistan and United Arab Emirates, act as shipping hubs to the rest of the world.
The fabrics are often downcycled. This can mean making waste clothes into industrial rags or building insulation. Clothes that don't get treated are often burned, sometimes in industry, or sent to landfill.
With little sign of production slowing, the amount of clothing shipped abroad is set to rise — and efforts to tackle waste could increase it further.
Today, only about one-third of the EU's textile waste is collected for reuse and recycling. From 2025, however, member states will have to collect all of it. Retailers will be partly responsible for funding the system.
But without a big push to boost the continent's recycling capacity, Europe will not be able to process all the clothes it collects. Nor will the countries to which it exports, said Mortensen. "Incineration is the most obvious destiny for textiles," he said.
There are some efforts to fix this. The EU plans to restrict shipments to countries that are not part of the OECD, a group of mostly rich countries, if they can't handle it sustainably. It wants to force companies who export waste to check that the facilities receiving the clothes handle it in an environmentally sound way.
The strategy also tries to address the underlying issue with the fashion industry: too many clothes that are not made to last. The EU wants to make it easier to repair clothes, design them for a longer life and fight greenwashing with better labeling. Campaigners have criticized fashion brands for highlighting small efforts to cut their environmental footprint while profiting from unsustainable practices.
If a business model is based on overproduction, "having one line of t-shirts made from organic cotton doesn't really do the trick," said Theresa Mörsen from campaign group Zero Waste Europe. "The most sustainable thing is not to buy anything."
Ajit Niranjan is an Environment and Globalisation Reporter at Deutsche Welle
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Deutsche Welle and is published by special syndication arrangement.