Textile transparency issues will not vanish with upcoming EU’s strategy

With only 340,000 tonnes of cotton produced in 2018 - representing only 1% of world production - the EU market is importing 55% of the needed quantity of this commodity from extra-EU countries. [SHUTTERSTOCK/GORODENKOFF]

This article is part of our special report Exploring farming sustainability options.

The European Commission’s plan to guide and support the EU textile industry in emerging from the COVID-19 crisis might fall short when it comes to the traceability of textile raw materials.

The forthcoming strategy on sustainable textiles will be rooted in the objectives of the EU Green Deal but will be based on input from the industry and other stakeholders.

For this very reason, an open public consultation was launched in May and closed in August, also supported by a series of dedicated workshops. The adoption of the initiative is foreseen in the coming months.

Contacted by EURACTIV, a Commission source explained that the strategy’s primary goal is to help the transition of the textile ecosystem in line with the principles of climate neutrality and circularity.

In a nutshell, products need to be designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, and recyclable. The production process should also be more energy-efficient and sustainable.

From this preliminary background, the Commission does not seem to have much in the pipeline regarding the traceability of the supply chain for textile raw materials, such as cotton or wool.

Fashion brands at the test of setting sustainable standards

Consumers’ craving for ever-increasing sustainable products is leaving its mark on the textile industry, creating a shift toward a ‘greener’ manufacturing process that requires new ways to assess its impact on the environment.

Sustainable, but how?

If not farmed sustainably, cotton can affect land-use efficiency and lead to soil degradation with a considerable impact on the environment regarding pesticide and water use.

This impact can be reduced with conventional techniques, like cover crops and no-till farming, and modern tools such as precision agriculture, GPS, and drones.

Some initiatives are now trying to help retailers meet this increased demand from consumers for certifiably sustainable cotton.

But while brands want more transparency over the whole supply chain, collecting reliable and quantifiable data on the environmental impact of cotton production remains challenging.

According to Tara Luckman, co-founder and director of the Flourish CSR consultancy, active in sustainability, recent examples of consumer claims put in force by regulators are too generic.

“Consumers lose trust in the whole system. There’s growing fatigue and disillusionment trying to make good choices,” she said, adding that, as a consequence, sustainable labels cannot be trusted.

“Once the reputational damage is done, it is very hard to pull back.”

'Farmer-friendly' data collection sets the stage for sustainable solutions

With a growing demand for sustainable products, reliable data is key for farmers to improve their production practices and prove their green credentials. But how can this be done in practice? EURACTIV takes a closer look at one protocol putting this into action.

Where does this cotton come from?

According to the Commission’s source, the textile strategy’s primary focus will be on applying circular economy principles to production, products, consumption, waste management, and secondary raw materials.

EU countries only produced 340,000 tonnes of cotton in 2018 – representing only 1% of world production – therefore, the bloc is importing 55% of what it needs from non-EU countries.

Turkey, Pakistan, India, and China account alone for 43% of all cotton imports into the EU.

In the past five years, both the US and Japan increased their share of cotton imports in the EU, a market that is entirely free for cotton – in the sense that there are no import duties or export subsidies.

“However, brands’ awareness of how much US cotton is in their supply chain is low,” Tara Luckman told EURACTIV.

The EU is importing US cotton in indirect (and unquantifiable) ways as finished products since the five biggest major textile producer countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, India, and Turkey – are the US largest export markets.

For this reason, it is impossible to define the exact percentage of US cotton present in the EU market.

“If companies don’t know where cotton is coming from, the return on investment is hard to figure out,” Tara said.

Technology’s  added value

It is unlikely, at the moment, that the Commission will address the complex transparency issue in its textile strategy. However, it is expected to take into account the strengths and vulnerabilities of the EU textiles ecosystem.

Improvements in technology are believed to have a significant impact on driving sustainability in the sector over the next decade, according to the respondents of a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

Blockchain, in particular, was one of the most mentioned technologies in terms of improving the traceability of raw materials.

A sustainability protocol called the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol launched on the other side of the Atlantic uses the blockchain platform TextileGenesis to track shipments and consumption by the members of the protocol.

In this case, blockchain is combined with a consumption system that measures sustainability progress against sourced raw materials.

But the absence of a unique consumption accounting system for sustainability might lead companies to pursue their own initiatives and create their own consumer-facing measuring tools. A consequence of this approach would leave consumers with no comparable labelling or other measurements, leaving them unable to shop consciously.

Sustainability protocols key tool for encouraging next generation of farmers

Farming sustainability protocols can be an invaluable tool for farmers to tell their story and keep farms economically viable so it can be passed onto future generations, US farmer Aaron Barcello told EURACTIV in an interview.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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