30 Mar 2023

Written by

Joan Marc Simon, Director and Theresa Mörsen, Policy Officer

First International Day of Zero Waste: Yet another international day of ‘whatever’?

TextilesWaste Policy

Today marks the first-ever International Day of Zero Waste. As an organisation that goes almost by the same name, we ask ourselves how this relates to the different waste streams we deal with in our daily work on EU waste policy and, especially, what does this mean for one of the most wasteful industries – fast fashion?

International days are marked ‘to educate the general public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity’, according to the UN. In the case of textile waste, the public appears to be reasonably well educated about the environmental issues related to it and many have seen pictures of textile waste piling up in Kenya or Ghana, poisoning the local water and soil with chemicals and microplastics. While the management of existing waste ought to be improved worldwide to address leakage into the environment when it comes to textiles, the main environmental impact of the industry actually occurs during the production phase. Notably, the International Day of Zero Waste is supposed to ‘promote sustainable consumption and production patterns and raise awareness about how zero-waste initiatives contribute to the advancement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, clearly appreciating the significance of sustainable consumption and production patterns instead of merely optimising waste collection and preventing leakage into the environment. Recycling is silver, prevention is golden.

Buying new textiles generated about 654 kg of CO2eq emissions per person in the EU in 2017, and about 20% of global water pollution stems from dyeing and finishing textiles. Despite the high environmental impact during production, we don’t keep our clothes for very long: around 11 kg of clothes become waste in the EU per person per year. The root cause of the environmental impact of the textiles sector is not down to the carelessness of individuals but engrained in the system of production that has been dominant over the past two decades: fast fashion. Global textile production almost doubled between 2000 and 2015, while over the same period, the number of times an item of clothing is worn before being thrown away decreased by 36%. When looking at the fibre composition of the clothes produced, polyester production has doubled between 2000 and 2020, and clothes sales have outpaced GDP and population growth. It is obvious that waste management systems cannot handle this fast-paced, linear production pattern of cheap clothes discarded in high-income/high-consuming countries and that waste finds its way to the shores of the Global South.

What makes this system so successful? At the end of the value chain, consumers have been falling victim to one of the most effective marketing strategies of our time. Fashion trends make us constantly believe we need to buy new clothes. Some fast fashion marketing retailers have driven this to the extreme with new collections on a weekly basis making it sheer impossible to keep up. On the other end of the value chain, low wages and poor working conditions for garment workers, insufficient environmental standards, and, crucially, the cheap availability of polyester, the most used synthetic fibre, enable the fast fashion frenzy.

As textiles have the largest climate impact during production, this stage has to be addressed in any serious policy intervention. Looking at future scenarios, the goals of the Paris agreement allow certain carbon budgets for different sectors. Plastic production is projected to overshoot its allocated carbon budget. To stay within a safe space of climate change, plastics production, and thus also textile production for fossil-based synthetic fibres have to take a significant cut. When reducing plastic consumption, textile production must not shift to other materials that increase pressures on land and water and instead seek to reduce the production overall in line with planetary boundaries.

Currently debated EU policy options, such as setting minimum requirements for the design of clothes as foreseen by the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, fail to address this problem. While calls for better management of waste textiles are valid, material circularity has its limits as fibre-to-fibre recycling remains at about 1%. Instead, bringing the fashion industry on a sustainable pathway requires a significant shift in the way consumer goods such as clothing are produced and consumed in the economy. Measures have to touch upon the very essence of today’s consumer culture and the more-is-better production models, shifting to quality production, reduced consumption, repair and reuse which requires action from businesses, public policy and civil society.

But how to reduce production in a globally competitive environment? Surely, this is a monumental task and requires substantial changes to business models embracing non-extractivist principles. However, there are plenty of examples showing how avoiding waste and reducing consumption of ‘new’ goods can galvanise local economies and help local businesses that provide solutions such as reuse, repair, refurbishment, and sharing options. This shift takes a carefully planned pathway towards a reduction in volumes that includes garment workers and local governments and should facilitate retraining and social protection. Fast fashion brands need to undertake a reality check of their unsustainable business model and start the discussion about reducing volumes.

On the consumption side, consumers may ask themselves: how many clothes are enough? The most concrete answer we get from the Hot or Cool Institute that suggests a 72 garments sufficiency wardrobe to stay within a fair consumption space. The report also outlines that consumption by the richest 20% is the most problematic.

We need to ensure that this first International Day of Zero Waste marks the start of a global journey towards waste prevention instead of simply improving collection and building more incinerators. Perhaps we will be able to celebrate this achievement of humanity on one of the International Days in the next decade.