Textile consumption in Europe causes significant pressures on the environment and climate. Part of these pressures comes from returned and unsold textiles that are destroyed and never used for their intended purpose. A new European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing looks at the issue and estimates the share of returned and unsold textiles that are destroyed in Europe and options to address this challenge.

The EEA briefing ‘The destruction of returned and unsold textiles in Europe’s circular economy’ provides an overview of existing knowledge on returned and unsold textiles in Europe. The briefing is underpinned by a technical report by the EEA’s European Topic Centre on Circular Economy and Resource Use.

Although data are scattered, best available evidence suggests that around 4-9% of all textile products put on the European market are destroyed without ever being used for their intended purpose. According to the EEA briefing, processing and destructing returned or unsold textiles can be estimated to be responsible for up to 5,6 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, a figure that is slightly lower that Sweden’s net emissions in 2021.

Recent studies indicate that about 20% of clothing and 30% of footwear, bought online in the EU, are returned by customers. About 70% of these returns are caused by poor fit or style. However, the EEA briefing notes that only about 3% of the environmentally harmful emissions from textiles come from distribution and retail, which means that even a long and complicated return process is most likely beneficial for the environment, if it leads to the product being resold and used.

The EEA briefing states that both regulation and targeted policies, as well as soft information measures, are needed to reduce customer returns and unsold goods. At the same time, addressing the systemic problem of overproduction and destruction in the textiles industry is needed and could be tackled with both circular business models and policies. A positive step has been recently taken with the EU agreement to ban the destruction of unsold apparel, clothing accessories and footwear (with certain exemptions for small, micro and medium sized companies), as part of the Ecodesign ´Sustainable Products Regulation´.

The EEA and its European Topic Centre on Circular Economy and Resource Use (ETC CE) have previously published several products addressing textiles in Europe’s circular economy, including on textiles and the environment, design for circularity, microplastic from textiles consumption, exports of used textiles, and bio-based textiles.

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