The textile sector covers a wide range of activities, which includes the transformation of both natural and synthetic fibres into fabrics and yarns; and the production of various products such as bed linens, industrial filters and clothes (European Commission, n.d.). Natural fibres occur in our environment and are derived from animals and plants. Examples of commonly used natural fibres are cotton, flax and wool. Synthetic fibres are man-made and do not occur naturally, this includes fibres such as nylon, polyester, and acrylics, which are fossil-based (Jhanji Dhir, 2022). While these natural fibres are bio-based, there are also various man-made bio-based fibres on the market, for example, fibres from bioplastics that are derived from natural oils (Henkel, 2021).
Figure 1, Overview of the EU textiles sector and production process, own image.
In recent years, the share of natural fibres in textile production has decreased significantly. This is partly due to the exponential growth of polyester production. Between 2008 and 2018, synthetic fibre production rose from 41 to 72 million tonnes per year (Townsend, 2019). As of 2021, 64% of global fibre production is synthetic, 28% is plant-based, 6% is man-made cellulosic and 2% is animal-based. The plant-based, animal-based, and man-made cellulosic fibres (MMCF) are bio-based, as they are manufactured from renewable raw materials. Of all bio-based fibres, the most commonly used is cotton. Cotton accounted for about 78% of global plant-based fibre production and 61% of bio-based fibre production by weight (Textile Exchange, 2022).
European households consume large amounts of textiles, with an average textile consumption of 15 kg per person per year, of which 6 kg consists of clothes. This amounts to an estimated total consumption of 6.6 million tonnes of textile products per year in Europe. European households spend on average 600 euros on clothing a year, as well as 150 euros for footwear and 70 euros for household textiles (Waterkamp, 2022).
On average, clothes are discarded after being worn seven times (Nizzoli, 2022). Between 2000 and 2015, it is estimated that clothing production doubled, while in the same period the number of times a garment is worn decreased by 36% (Harmsen & Bos, 2020). The increasing consumption of textiles, as well as the declining clothing utilization rate, are largely due to the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon. Fast fashion has led to a quicker turnaround of new styles with more collections offered per year. Fast fashion goods often have lower prices and inferior quality (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.). The fast fashion industry is dependent on cheap synthetic fibres which has caused a spike in the demand for fibres such as polyester and polyamide (Ethical Consumer, 2021).
The EU textiles and clothing sector plays a big role in the European manufacturing industry. The EU textiles and clothing sector employs 1.7 million people and has an annual turnover of over 166 billion euros (European Commission, n.d. d). In 2019, there were about 160,000 companies in the sector, which are mostly small businesses. Of the EU textile workforce, 90% is employed in companies with less than 50 employees. The EU produced 6.9 billion tonnes of finished textile products in 2020, as well as intermediate products for textiles, such as fibres, yarns and fabrics. The textile and clothing sector is very globalised, with the global market accounting for 38% of EU turnover. Between 2010 and 2019, EU textile and clothing exports increased by 58% and imports by 43%.
The biggest producers within the EU textile sector are Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. These five countries together constitute about three-quarters of the EU production. While Southern European countries contribute more to clothing production, Northern European countries contribute more to textile production, especially technical textiles (European Commission, n.d. d). Technical textiles are used in different sectors and are primarily used for their technical performance and functional properties, rather than aesthetics (Expafol, n.d.).
The textile sector is also quite labour-intensive. Worldwide, the textile sector is the third largest employer, after food and housing. Most of the textile production takes place in Asia, where lower costs of production have been known to come at the expense of the workers’ safety and health (European Environment Agency, 2023). In 2013, a garment factory in Dhaka (Bangladesh) collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 1132 people. This event served as a wake-up call for the global fashion industry to operate in a more sustainable manner, which does not only focus on the environment but also on social impacts (AllThings.Bio, n.d.).
The consumption of textiles has been identified as the fourth largest impact on the environment, after food, housing and mobility. Textile consumption inflicts the third largest pressure on water and land use and is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion (Waterkamp, 2022).
Figure 2, Environmental impacts of the (global) textiles sector, own image.
Both the production and consumption of textiles can have significant impacts on the environment. These impacts range from the production phase to its end-of-life phase. During production, the cultivation of natural fibres such as cotton can cause problems regarding the use of land and water, and also with fertilizers and pesticides. The production of synthetic fibres has its own environmental impact, for example, with regard to energy use and chemical feedstocks. The manufacturing process of textiles requires large amounts of energy and water and might use a variety of chemicals. The distribution and retail of textiles can lead to transport emissions and packaging waste. The maintenance and use of textiles can lead to the release of microfibres and chemicals into wastewater and to significant amounts of textile waste (European Environment Agency, 2023). Fibres from textiles have traditionally been difficult to recycle. It is estimated that less than one percent of textiles worldwide are being recycled into new textiles. Another 12% of textile waste was reused but for other, lower-value applications, such as insulation materials or mattress stuffing. However, the far majority of textile waste ends up in landfills or incinerated.
Especially natural/bio-based fibres have shown to be difficult to recycle, as traditional mechanical recycling methods lead to major reductions in fibre length, resulting in fibres that are too short to be spun into a yarn with proper strength. The increasing use of mixed fabrics has also made the recycling more difficult, as many different types of fibres are used that need to be sorted and separated.
As such, one of the major challenges of the textile sector is the need to be less wasteful and use less resources. In order to contribute to more sustainable operations, the recycling of textiles, as well as the use of renewable raw materials are important, namely the use of natural and other bio-based fibres and their recycling processes (AllThings.Bio, n.d.).
In order to minimize these environmental impacts in the textile sector, there are several sustainability practices that can be applied. The EU has launched its strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, which includes the promotion of more durable, repairable, and recyclable clothes, that are to a great extent made from recycled fibres, are free of hazardous substances, and respect social rights and the environment (European Commission, n.d. e). Additionally, there are various sustainability certifications and standards available for textiles. These standards range from environmental impacts, organic content, recycling, animal welfare, and fair labour practices within the textile sector.
In order to assess the environmental impact of materials, products and services, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can be used. LCAs can be used in the decision-making process towards sustainability and can be applied to a wide range of sectors, including the textile sector. The importance of both bio-based fibres and innovative recycling processes that tackle the problem of recycling fabrics of mixed fibres, will be highlighted in the ALIGNED Project. An LCA will be applied to an innovative recycling process of work clothing, made from a mixed polyester-cotton fabric.
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