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Addressing fashion’s plastic problem: The EU’s role in the shift to lower-impact materials

Elizabeth Kuiper , Ella Andrew , Victoria Geaney , Monica Buchan-Ng

Date: 03/06/2024

As the fashion industry’s widespread use of plastic-based materials continues to negatively impact the planet and people’s health, EU policymakers should support the shift towards lower-impact materials more explicitly.

Fashion and textile consumption in Europe has, on average, the fourth highest negative life cycle impact on the environment and climate change, after food, housing and mobility, and is estimated to be responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions. With the backdrop of the climate crisis and environmental degradation, fashion brands are starting to explore alternatives to materials derived from plastic. However, the use of plastic-based materials in the fashion industry still prevails.

Virgin plastic production relies heavily on scarce non-renewable resources and contributes to the release of greenhouse gas emissions. The use and end-of-life management of plastic-based materials in fashion also pose problems for society and the environment. According to the UN, 2,400 chemicals associated with plastics are of concern to health and the environment. Exposure to microplastics and nanoplastics can occur through eating contaminated food or through drinking water. Furthermore, the presence of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) nanoparticles in the body can lead to respiratory problems, such as asthma, chronic pneumonia or allergies. 

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is also associated with significant health issues, and many key components used in PVC manufacturing are recognised for their toxicity. Research suggests that PVC “is the most environmentally damaging type of plastic, and safer alternatives are available for virtually all uses of PVC”, highlighting the need to transition away from PVC use in fashion. PVC production and use have contributed to mercury contamination in waterways, ozone depletion, and negative impacts on marine life.

In addition to this, existing methods for managing PVC waste are incapable of meeting current production and disposal rates. Plastic can take decades to decompose, so garments made from plastic-based materials can remain in landfills for generations. Meanwhile, plastic-based materials sent to incinerators release heavy metals and toxins. This highlights the detrimental impacts of the production, use and end-of-life management of plastic-based materials in fashion and the need to reduce the use of these materials to ensure that the fashion system better protects both people and the planet.


Plastic-based materials in fashion and textiles

Polyester is the most widely used plastic-based material in fashion and textiles, making up 54% of total global fibre production in 2022. PET and recycled PET (rPET) are two forms of polyester, alongside PVC, which are key contributors to fashion’s plastic pollution problem.

Current production processes for plastic-based materials in fashion typically require the extraction and use of non-renewable resources. PET, or polyester, is produced by extracting natural gas and crude oil, releasing methane (a greenhouse gas), and petrochemical and water waste. The PVC production process shares some parallels, such as extracting natural gas, petroleum, seawater and rock salt, and releasing methane and other waste outputs

Recycled polyester or rPET uses pre- and post-consumer polyester, rather than requiring the production of new plastic. Through the “repolymerisation” process, existing polyester is sorted, cleaned, shredded, and transformed into pellets, which can then be converted into yarn for use in the fashion industry. Although this makes use of existing materials, it typically involves energy- and water- intensive processes, such as water baths for the separation of plastics. Further research and development are underway into advanced recycling techniques, exploring ways in which less energy-intensive recycling can be maximised.


A greener, more competitive fashion and textiles sector

In 2019, the European Commission released its vision for a climate-neutral economy, the European Green Deal The Circular Economy Action Plan is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal, introducing initiatives across the product lifecycle from design to waste prevention, as well as suggesting the need for a specific strategy to boost the market for sustainable and circular textiles. This led to the release of the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles in March 2022, which aims to implement the vision of the European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Zero Pollution Action PlanThe Strategy outlines a series of legislative initiatives, that hope to create a greener, more competitive fashion and textiles sector that is more resistant to global shocks. This includes:

  • The Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation: Sets design requirements for product durability, reparability and recyclability, outlines product sustainability information requirements, and bans the destruction of unsold goods. It stipulates the rules on information sharing, including the possible introduction of digital product passports. Sector-specific requirements, including for textiles, will be defined by secondary legislation.
  • Revision of the Waste Framework Directive: Introduces mandatory and harmonised Extended Producer Responsibility schemes for textiles in all EU Member States to support separate collection, sorting, reuse, and recycling of textiles waste.
  • Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive: Requires large companies to identify, prevent, mitigate, and bring to an end actual and potential adverse impacts on human rights and the environment in their own operations and across their value chains.

Eliminate problematic plastic fashion products

There is great potential to build on the existing framework of legislation in the EU to tackle the use of plastic-based materials in the fashion sector. In its next institutional cycle, the EU should encourage the shift away from plastic-based materials in fashion and textiles by supporting product teams to make better-informed design choices, holding industry leaders to account, and improving transparency on synthetic production and use.

The negative impacts of PET and PVC production and use on human and environmental health are clear from existing research. With the fashion industry still heavily reliant on these materials, there is limited evidence to suggest that a voluntary transition away from these synthetics will occur any time soon. As such, the EU should mandate a phased removal of these materials from fashion supply chains, starting with large brands and retailers. This should be complemented by requirements for brands and retailers to report their annual material usage by fibre type, to support a more considered approach to material selection.

As brands transition away from plastic-based materials, a stopgap measure is required to ensure that PET and PVC manufacturing practices are more responsible and sustainable. New manufacturing standards need to be developed to guarantee worker health and safety and to support brands and retailers to opt for coal-free facilities in third countries exporting to the EU.

The European Green Deal initiatives and complementary legislation on dangerous chemicals (i.e. the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals regulation) go a long way toward tackling the negative impacts of fashion and textile operations; however, the use of plastics in fashion needs to be addressed more comprehensively in the next mandate of the EU institutions.

In recent years, brands and retailers have introduced targets to increase their use of recycled materials. However, fibre-to-fibre recycling infrastructure is still limited in its capacity, meaning the majority of garments made from plastic-based materials are still sent to landfill or incineration. The anticipated Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles will support a rise in collection and sorting in the EU.

However, the EU must invest sufficiently in fibre-to-fibre recycling infrastructure and technologies to ensure that used textiles are not exported to third countries. The revised Waste Shipments Directive is expected to facilitate the movement of waste across the Union to be treated in a circular way while reducing waste exports to third countries Consequently, the increase in the Union-wide supply of textile waste would incentivise investments in recycling facilities, provided that the treatment facilities apply the best available techniques and that the law is strictly enforced.       

Product teams play a vital role in ensuring that garments are designed and made in line with circular design principles. Although larger brands and retailers have started to educate their product teams on the role of circularity, SMEs often face limited capacity and budget to engage in upskilling. As SMEs make up 99% of all businesses in the EU, it is essential to ensure that their teams are supported with accessible learning opportunities, to support the industry-wide adoption of circular design practices.

Reduce the EU’s reliance on plastic

As we approach the 2024 European elections, the opportunity to build on the ambition and legacy of the European Green Deal is clear. The fashion and textiles sector should become a more strategic player in fighting against the EU’s reliance on plastic. This will support the EU and its fashion businesses in becoming frontrunners in the transition away from plastic fashion, a vital shift for supporting the fashion system to value people’s health and the planet better.



Elizabeth Kuiper is Associate Director at the European Policy Centre.

Ella Andrew is Knowledge Exchange Manager (Sustainability) at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London.

Victoria Geaney is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London.

Monica Buchan-Ng is Head of Knowledge Exchange (Sustainability) at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London.  


London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London

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Photo credits:
Karina Tess via Unsplash

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