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Jeans, raincoats, curtains, bedlinen, shoes, sportswear... The list is endless. We all need and use textile products. Textile consumption in Europe causes on average the fourth highest pressure on the environment and climate, following consumption of food, housing and mobility.
Europe's used textile exports: what and where?
Europe faces major challenges in the management of used textiles, which are to be collected separately in the EU by 2025. As reuse and recycling capacities in Europe are limited, a large share of discarded and donated clothing and other textile products are exported.
- The amount of used textiles exported from the EU has tripled over the past two decades from slightly over 550,000 tonnes in 2000 to almost 1.7 million tonnes in 2019.
- The amount of used textiles exported in 2019 was on average 3.8 kilogrammes per person, or 25% of the approximately 15 kg of textiles consumed each year in the EU.
- In 2019, 46% of used textiles exported from the EU ended up in Africa. The textiles primarily go to local reuse as there is a demand for cheap, used clothes from Europe. What is not fit for reuse mostly ends up in open landfills and informal waste streams.
- In 2019, 41% of used textiles exported from the EU ended up in Asia. Most of these textiles are directed to dedicated economic zones where they are sorted and processed.
Our textile consumption in 2020
EU-27 estimates per person, in kilograms
Source: Textiles and the environment: the role of design in Europe’s circular economy
Textiles as a source of microplastic pollution
Over 14 million tonnes of microplastics have accumulated on the world’s ocean floor according to research estimates. The amounts are increasing every year — causing harm to ecosystems, animals and people. About 8% of European microplastics released to oceans are from synthetic textiles. Globally, this figure is estimated around 16-35%.
The majority of microplastics from textiles are released the first few times textiles are washed. Fast fashion accounts for particularly high levels of such releases because fast fashion garments account for a high share of first washes, as they are used for only a short time and tend to wear out quickly due to their low quality.
It is possible to reduce or prevent the release of microplastics from textiles, for instance by implementing sustainable design and production processes and caretaking measures that control microplastic emissions during use, and by improving disposal and end-of-life processing.