Policymakers, industry representatives and their associations, civil society, youth and academia assembled on 16 May 2024 to reflect on how to shift the textile sector towards more sustainability and circularity. At the high-level event “Threads of Change: Systemic Transformation of the Textile Sector”, co-hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU, participants heard perspectives from across the textile value chain on the systemic change required to tackle the environmental footprint of the sector.


 

“Cheap and disposable clothing has taken over the world and it is clear we have become addicted to fast fashion. Clothes being discarded in the Global North are ending up in the rivers, oceans and some of the poorest communities in the Global South. These throwaway models are exacerbating the triple planetary crisis - the crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste - and why we need to tackle this challenge head on and create a more circular, sustainable textile sector that serves everyone's needs,” explained Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, in her opening keynote speech.

“What we need is nothing short of a paradigm shift towards a circular and just textile sector” stressed the Belgian Minister of Climate, the Environment, Sustainable Development and Green Deal. “Sustainable and circular textile production is an often overlooked but crucial building block of an economy that is in harmony with both people and the planet, where no one is left behind.”

The textile sector creates livelihoods and opportunities for millions of workers, generating $1.5 trillion in revenue while providing products essential to human welfare. At the same time, it struggles to address its adverse impacts on women, vulnerable workers and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), as well as the environment. Built on a model of overconsumption and overproduction, every year, the sector:

  • Emits 2-8% of the world’s greenhouse gases
  • Uses the equivalent of 86 million Olympic-sized swimming pools of natural water resources.
  • Is responsible for 9% of the microplastic pollution in our oceans, as well as hazardous chemicals and resource use.

Policy priorities and needs

The event aimed to share perspectives from across the value chain, including from both the consumer and the producer side, on the work required to move towards a sustainable and circular textile sector.

An expert panel featuring representatives of countries, industry and SMEs reflected particularly on the priorities and needs that policies at the EU and global level can help address. This included looking at both upstream production impacts and how to shift patterns of excess consumption, while ensuring that livelihoods of those involved throughout the global value chain are considered.

Global policy coherence

The event recognised that tackling the challenges of the textile value chain requires a systems level approach. It highlighted the sector’s importance in implementing significant multilateral environmental agreements, such as the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and the Global Framework on Chemicals.

The EU is currently the frontrunner regarding sustainable textile policies and legislative proposals, which will considerably impact production countries, particularly developing countries, once implemented. The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles calls for all textile products placed on the EU market to be designed, produced, used, and repurposed in a sustainable and circular way by 2030.

The event outlined that global collaboration will be crucial. Given the sector’s complexity, there is a need for an unprecedented level of policy coherence and coordination across countries and between stakeholders. A youth forum on sustainable fashion consumption closed the event, with voices amplified for both their power as consumers, in demanding change and in redefining social values.

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