EU fast fashion smartens its recycling act
The European Commission said making and selling cheap clothes with a short lifespan is 'highly unsustainable'
In a warehouse on the outskirts of Barcelona, women stand at conveyor belts, manually sorting T-shirts, jeans and dresses from large bales of used clothing — a small step towards tackling Europe's towering problem of discarded fashion.
Within a year, the sorting centre run by garment re-use and recycling charity Moda Re plans to double the volume it handles to 40,000 tonnes annually.
Partly funded by Zara owner Inditex, Moda Re will expand sites in Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia, in some of the first signs of a planned ramp-up in garment sorting, processing and recycling capacity in response to a barrage of new EU proposals to curb the fashion industry.
Also in Spain, rivals including H&M, Mango and Inditex have created a nonprofit association to manage clothing waste, responding to an EU law requiring member states to separate textiles from other waste from January 2025.
Despite such efforts, less than a quarter of Europe's 5.2-million tonnes of clothing waste is recycled and millions of tonnes ends up as landfill every year, the European Commission said in July.
Fast fashion, making and selling cheap clothes with a short lifespan, is “highly unsustainable”, the commission said, adding that the textile industry is a major contributor to climate change and environmental damage.
Inditex, which in March said it placed 10% more items of clothing on the market globally last year than in 2021, aims to use 40% recycled fibres in garments by 2030 as part of sustainability goals announced in July.
“The main problem we are facing is overconsumption,” said Dijana Lind, ESG analyst at Union Investment.
Lind said she had been engaging with adidas, Hugo Boss and Inditex about the need for them to increase their use of recycled textiles.
Between €6bn and €7bn (about R122bn-R142bn) will be needed by 2030 to create the scale of textile waste processing and recycling that the EU is aiming for, consultancy McKinsey estimated in a report last year.
Lind said companies had introduced some first steps but “more needs to be done”.
Inditex said it would invest €3.5m in Moda Re over three years and had recycling containers in all its Spanish stores.
H&M said it recognised it was “part of the problem”.
“The way fashion is produced and consumed needs to change — this is an undeniable truth,” H&M said.
The EU has not set specific targets for recycled content in garments, but by 2030 aims for all textile products sold in the bloc to be "to a great extent" made of recycled fibres, as well as being durable, repairable and recyclable.
Almost half the clothes donated to Moda Re are shipped for resale in African countries including Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal. Moda Re says the clothes it exports can be reused.
According to UN trade data, the EU exported 1.4-million tonnes of used textiles in 2022, more than twice as much as in 2000. Not all those clothes get reused, and exports of used clothes from Europe to Africa can lead to pollution when clothes that can't be resold end up in dumps, the EU has said.
Moda Re said it aims to reduce the volume of clothes it sends to Africa.
Only 8% of the donations are currently resold at Moda Re's second-hand shops, the method widely seen as the more efficient way of reusing old clothes. A similar amount ends up as European landfill.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.