Is extended producer responsibility the key to creating a more circular fashion industry?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
WRAP predicts around £140m worth of clothing goes to landfill each year

Fashion is big business. We buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe – and consequently discard around a million tonnes of textiles each year.

Much of what we wear follows a linear pattern with large amounts of non-renewable resources extracted to produce items that are worn for relatively short periods of time. According to WRAP, £140m worth of clothing goes to landfill each year despite high donation rates to charity shops.

In February the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published the findings of its inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, given its emphasis on disposability and cheap materials that can be hard to recycle.

The report, Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability, concluded that the industry was ripe for circularity. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is one lever that could kickstart more circular thinking – and the EAC made several recommendations in this respect.

These include: a levy of 1p per garment on producers to raise £35m for investment in better clothing collection and sorting schemes; tax breaks for fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts; landfill/incineration bans on unsold stock that can be reused or recycled; and research – possibly funded through the £35m pot – into materials innovation such as new techniques for chemical recycling or solutions to reduce microfibre shredding and pollution.

Trewin Restorick, CEO of environmental charity Hubbub, says the EAC report is an important one. “For the first time it illustrates to the fashion industry that the environmental and social impact of the sector is now in the policy spotlight. The industry has been on a treadmill creating a growing addiction to fast fashion – the recommendations from the EAC might start to put a brake on this trend.”

Alan Wheeler, director at the Textile Recycling Association, welcomes the EAC’s call for an EPR review sooner rather than later. “When the Resources & Waste Strategy came out, it said we couldn’t have the review for EPR on textiles taking place until 2025. Why not?

"What’s the barrier? I’m not saying EPR is something that we definitely want – what I am saying is we need to have that review and take a serious look at it. Then we can make an informed judgement.”

The 1p garment levy was the call to action that grabbed all the headlines. Wheeler says it is important to not view the tax purely as a recycling or reuse incentive, but rather as a stimulus for broader circularity. “That to me has to be the emphasis, it should be used to fund this complete circular package. There’s got to be an incentive for manufacturers and retailers to help them get on board.”

A return on investment?

If producers are asked to finance textile takeback schemes, they will want to see a return on their investment, says Fran Witthuhn, an EPR consultant at The Sower Environmental. “A successful scheme would return valuable materials into the system and producers would expect fees to decrease in line with any profit made from materials recycled and reused.

"This in itself is an incentive for producers to support future textile compliance schemes, and collection methods they themselves have some sort of control over.”

This could have consequences for the charitable sector, however. Witthuhn says there is a risk that charities may lose out if textiles start getting collected by local councils or compliance schemes. On the flipside, consumers may decide to donate their best-quality used items to charity shops while binning lower-quality garments in their kerbside boxes.

“The charity sector must be an important stakeholder in this process,” Witthuhn maintains. “Consumers must be given a clear idea of what options for textile disposal are in future – it can’t be as simple as ‘just introduce another bin to weekly collections’.”

France currently operates a mandatory EPR scheme for textiles, which could serve as a useful case study in this respect. “Charities were an important stakeholder in the set-up of the scheme and they manage part of the 42,000 collection points across the country,” Witthuhn says.

EPR won’t be enough by itself, however. According to Jo Godden, founder of ethical swim- and activewear company RubyMoon, innovation further upstream in the supply chain will be needed as well to encourage a more circular approach to textile production and remanufacture.

“Circular economy redesign is the answer to this problem, combined with tax incentives. If we employ circular strategies so that textiles are reused over and over we can instantly reduce carbon emissions as well as reduce waste and the need for virgin materials, mainly petrochemicals,” she says.

Changing attitudes

Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is changing consumer attitudes and behaviours. “On its own EPR cannot tackle throwaway fashion as there are far wider societal pressures at play,” says Restorick. He points to research by Hubbub that shows many young people will not wear the same outfit twice if it has been seen in their social media feeds.

“We know that the move to online shopping is encouraging people to select a number of products and then return those they don’t like, creating waste and environmental impact.The EPR can shift the way that the industry operates, but it will only truly change if customers alter the way they buy and value clothing.”

That may mean a greater focus on reuse. David Roman, chair of the WISH Textile Forum, maintains the textile reuse economy is achieving more environmentally than existing open loop recycling solutions, and hopes any future EPR scheme would recognise that.

“It would be great to see a joined-up system that recognises the role of different reuse and recycling options and puts in the appropriate funding for an improved outcome. It would be a tragedy if there was a race to the lower end of the waste hierarchy in order to improve quantifiable recycling rates,” he says.

The textile reuse sector does need to improve standards, however. The WISH Textile Forum is currently working on a joint audit process around responsible business, health and safety, and good employment practices. “For reuse to continue to flourish, we need best practice to become standard practice and we need to have a long-term vision that maximises domestic reuse and professionalises the supply chain,” he says.

Another area that EPR could potentially influence is sustainable production. Wheeler questions whether an element of producer responsibility could be used to remediate the wider environmental impacts of fibre sourcing, production and shredding.

Over-irrigation of cotton, pollution caused by fabric dyes, and the release of microfibres into waterways, are just three examples. “Recycling per se doesn’t address the microfibres issue – it’s how the garments are produced that effect this. And that’s what EPR should be used to look at,” Wheeler says.

This will likely involve a greater understanding of the cotton versus synthetic fibre debate when it comes to issues like circularity, carbon, water intensity and ocean health. The equation is a complex one, but Charles Ross, a specialist in sustainable sportswear design, thinks greater use of synthetic fibres should ultimately benefit UK textile recyclers.

“PET can always be looped whereas applying circularity to cotton produces a weaker fibre that will wear out faster,” he says. “Once we have proper fibre-to-fibre recycling for recycled PET in this country, then keeping the items looped is a lot easier.”

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