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.

In the last few decades, the textile industry has evolved towards a “fast fashion” approach: inexpensive clothes, made of cheap materials, to be worn only for one season or less and then discarded. The production and consumption of textiles cause significant pressures on the environment and climate change. These can range from the land and water used to produce the fibres and the energy and chemical dyes used in its manufacturing and production, to its retailing and disposal.

Our assessments show that, compared with other consumption categories, textiles consumption in the EU caused in 2020 the third highest pressures on water and land use, and the fifth highest use of raw materials and greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, worldwide, the textiles sector is the third largest employer, after food and housing, with almost 13 million full-time equivalent workers employed worldwide in the supply chain to produce the amount of clothing, textiles and footwear consumed only in the EU-27 in 2020. Most production takes place in Asia, where low production costs often come at the expense of workers’ health and safety.

Circular business models and design can reduce the negative impacts of textile production and consumption by retaining the value of textiles, extending their life cycles and increasing the usage of recycled materials. This requires technical, social and business innovation, supported by policy, education and changes in consumer behaviour.

  • In 2020, each person in the EU consumed on average 14.8 kg of textiles, including 6 kg of total clothing, 6.1 kg of household textiles and 2.7 kg of shoes.
  • Between 60 to 70 % of textiles are made of plastic (mostly polyester), which is made of oil and gas. The remainder is made of biobased textiles, including cotton and wool.
  • Per average person in the EU, in 2020, textile consumption required nine cubic metres of water, 400 square metres of land, 391 kilogrammes (kg) of raw materials, and caused a carbon footprint of about 270 kg. Most of the resource use and emissions took place outside of Europe.
  • In 2017, it was estimated that less than 1% of all textiles worldwide are recycled into new products, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
  • 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.

Given the huge environmental impact of the textile industry, the European Union has launched a strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. The philosophy behind it is that "fast fashion is out of fashion" and consumers benefit longer from high-quality affordable textiles.

The EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles addresses the production and consumption of textiles, whilst recognising the importance of the textiles sector. It implements the commitments of the European Green Deal, the new circular economy action plan and the industrial strategy.

Along with plastics, textiles are one of the material flows the EEA works on with the aim to better understand Europe's progress and challenges towards a circular economy.

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.

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