Column inches and social feeds have been full of chatter about the latest womenswear collections at autumn fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris.

But now it is the textile industry’s environmental impact facing scrutiny as representatives from European governments, industry and NGOs start reviewing the environmental standards that aim to curb pollution from textile production processes – eight years after talks were supposed to start.

The environmental standards review takes place under a wide-reaching piece of EU law that covers over 50,000 industrial installations in the EU – the Industrial Emissions Directive. The scope of the law is to prevent and reduce emissions, promote resource efficiency and curtail the use of hazardous chemicals by setting agreed standards for different industrial activities. Pollution limits from different industrial sectors are periodically reviewed but the current environmental benchmarks for the textile industry are based on information dating back to 2001 and are outdated.

For Christian Schaible, Industrial Emissions expert at the European Environmental Bureau, updating the benchmarks is a “golden opportunity” to tackle the industry’s environmental footprint:

Pretreating and dyeing textiles involves the discharge of huge amounts of water which is often polluted with hazardous chemicals and other micro-pollutants. These talks are a chance to protect the environment and people’s wellbeing by setting best practice techniques for the EU textile and shoe production industry that can move us towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the supply chain.”

In recent decades the apparel industry in Europe has declined as major brands shifted production to emerging economies where looser safety and environmental rules – and low labour costs – have allowed them to sell clothing at often rock-bottom prices.

Schaible says that the impact of the EU update of textile standards could also be felt beyond Europe’s borders:

“European law is essential for protecting human health and the environment from harmful pollution caused by industry. And with EU industrial standards viewed as standard bearers globally, ambitious new rules in Europe could have an impact elsewhere in the world. It is crucial that brands are required to implement the new minimum environmental standards globally – wherever production sites are located.

It’s a long and complicated journey through the industrial supply chain from the harvest of raw fibre to the sale of a piece of clothing in a shop. The different industrial stages include pre-treatment, dyeing, printing, finishing and coating, and not forgetting washing and drying. And that’s all before the textiles are even transported to factories to be sewn up into garments. Each stage of the process can cause severe environmental damage, in particular water pollution from hazardous chemicals, air pollution, resource consumption and waste generation.

According to the Greenpeace DeTox campaign, up to 3500 chemical substances are used to turn raw materials into textiles, and approximately 10% of these are hazardous to human health or the environment.

While 23 global brands have already signed up to a voluntary Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals initiative which aims to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile and footwear supply chain by 2020, the textile pollution law revision will include the publication of a binding blacklist of pollutants that brands will not be allowed to use in the supply chain.

The NGO ChemSec has identified a series of pollutants of high concern to human health and the environment that are still commonly used in textile production. They include Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), amines, phthalates, organotins, per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs), heavy metals, azo dyes, dimethylfumarate, formaldehyde, and flame retardants.

80 billion garments are now made globally every year – a 400% increase compared to just two decades ago. This so-called ‘fast fashion’ model was brought to the forefront of public consciousness in Europe on 24 April 2014 when 1134 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory fire in Bangladesh while producing clothing for well-known brands selling cheap clothing in Europe and around the world.  

Schaible adds that improving environmental standards for industry could also have a positive impact on labour standards:

Removing the use of certain dangerous chemicals or ending harmful processes is not only good for the planet – it can lead to safety improvements for workers in the textile industrial supply chain too.”

Last April, worker exploitation in the fashion industry’s global supply chain was discussed in the European Parliament when Spanish MEP Lola Sánchez Caldentey’s report calling for binding rules to guarantee that products sold on European markets do not violate the dignity and the rights of millions of workers was adopted.

Lola Sánchez Caldentey said:

We cannot turn a blind eye, if our clothes are made at the cost of vast human suffering.”

But vast swathes of the textile supply chain remain subject to little regulation, with traceability and accountability a challenge.

EU rules on textiles mean that the fibre composition of a product must be labelled at all stages of the commercial process, but the rules don’t cover country of origin. Research conducted by campaign group Fashion Revolution into how much information 100 of the biggest global fashion brands disclose shows that none of the brands analysed publish their raw material suppliers so there is no way to know where the cotton, wool, or other fibres used in textiles come from.

Turning the spotlight on the harmful pollution from textile production processes as part of the environmental standards review could dispel some of this mystery around the industry. The talks will take place in Seville and should be wrapped up in 2019 – a decade after they should have been finalised.

Experts and volunteers from NGOs with knowledge on the textiles and shoe production sector who wish to contribute to the technical discussions on the environmental standards review should contact christian.schaible@eeb.org and blanca.morales@eeb.org before 10 November 2017.