From China to India, Asia braces for EU plan to kill fast fashion

BENGALURU/HONG KONG/HO CHI MINH CITY — European regulators have declared war on ‘fast fashion’, forcing a rethink of the disposable culture that has dominated the clothing industry in the 21st century and promising to reinvigorate retail chains. apparel supply that penetrate deep into Asia .

The European Union’s proposed rules would force companies to revise their clothing designs to meet a long list of criteria governing everything from how long a garment lasts to how much recycled yarn it contains.

The aim is to reduce the environmental impact of the industry by increasing sustainability. It could mean the end of shoddy synthetics, shoddy stitching and other production shortcuts – and clothes that fall apart in the wash. In other words, the decline of fast, cheap, mass-produced clothes.

“The impact on the environment is not directly visible. It is accumulated by a thousand – or a million, a billion people,” said the director of the Institute for the Development of the Circular Economy, Nguyen HongQuan. Under EU rules, he hopes the high-volume business of fast fashion will give way to a production model that keeps resources flowing through reuse. “You can do anything [of] beauty from recycled materials.”

In recent years, the EU has tried to use its weight as a big market to advance many green goals, from a border carbon tax to extended producer responsibility for e-waste and plastics. Its textile strategy, which the European Commission (EC) presented to a parliamentary committee on May 17, is the latest in these efforts.

In its strategy document, the EC said it would introduce rules to tackle “the overproduction and overconsumption of clothing”. It targets an industry that has been completely disguised by criticism for pollution in landfills and in the air, thanks to greenhouse gases emitted during the manufacture of finished garments and polyester.

Fast fashion refers to a modern disposable clothing industry built around rapidly changing consumer tastes. It’s backed by both fashionistas, who are willing to wear a one-time purchase, and manufacturers, who rely on low-cost materials and labor for a quick turnaround before the next trend ignites.

Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, a period in which the average person bought 60% more clothes but kept their items for half as long, according to management consultancy McKinsey.

Over the past two decades, prices have fallen as companies shifted to fossil fuel-based synthetic fabrics, which tend to cost less than cotton, and moved production to Asia, which is become the leading exporter of clothing to Europe and the rest of the world. .

Brands like Decathlon, Uniqlo and H&M say they are working with Asian producers from China to India to prepare for the new rules from Brussels, but not everyone agrees. “It could cause confusion and lead to delays,” a Guangzhou supplier of major retail brands told Nikkei Asia. “Making here is all about being cheap and fast.”

Textile workers sew at a factory in Savar, Bangladesh. © AP

Industry supporters say the EC’s plans would level the playing field by steering the entire sector towards sustainable clothing.

“Industry-wide policies should help companies decouple growth from the use of virgin resources,” said Pernilla Halldin, head of public affairs at H&M Group. She said all H&M products should be designed to be recycled by 2025 and welcomed the “granularity” of the EC’s plans, which also covers other textile products, from shoes to carpets.

The proposal, called the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, promises “binding, product-specific ecodesign requirements” citing issues that shorten product lifecycles: colors are fading; zippers break; the blend of polyester and cotton makes the fibers difficult to recycle.

This level of specificity suggests that the EC will introduce detailed criteria – down to the zipper – that companies will have to meet in order to sell to EU consumers. Details are pending and will need to get approval from the European Parliament and EU member governments before coming into force, which the commission says will happen in 2024 for the most important rules. But the three main changes being considered are clear.

First, the strategy document says there will be standards for “durability, reuse, reparability, fiber-to-fiber recyclability and mandatory recycled fiber content.” Second, companies will have to print related data, such as a repairability score, on clothing labels. Third, the EU can ban businesses from throwing away unsold goods or require them to declare how much they throw away.

Uniqlo said it was already compiling data, including on carbon emissions and traceability. The Japanese casual wear maker is following the EC proposal and plans to work with Asian suppliers on implementation.

“As part of the effort to allow customers to purchase our products with confidence, we are also working to consolidate information on the protection of human rights and to measure [the] the environmental impact of our supply chain,” a spokesperson for Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing told Nikkei Asia.

While the textile strategy focuses on the environment, the EC said it will be combined with social initiatives. For example, in February the commission said it would introduce supply chain rules requiring companies to eliminate “adverse human rights impacts from their activities, such as child labor and ‘exploitation of workers’.

Allegations of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province prompted the United States to seize a shipment of imported Uniqlo shirts it suspected contained cotton from the province. (The company said it did not find slave labor in its supply chain.) Some other buyers have severed their ties with Xinjiang.

In the textile sector, Asian factory sources expect costs to rise under EU rules, with the Guangzhou garment supplier estimating up to a 50% increase to switch to certified recycled materials. Some manufacturers note that the movement of raw inputs is opaque and certificates are easily tampered with, while others say adding sustainability data to labels would not be difficult.

Clothing labels are beginning to promote the use of recycled materials. McKinsey claims that less than 10% of global textiles are made of such materials. (Photo by Lien Hoang)

Skeptics wonder whether EU rules are a cover for protectionism or amount to “greenwashing” – where brands make empty claims of environmental friendliness.

“You have to look very carefully at whether this is a genuine environmental concern or whether this is a form of tariff barrier,” said Rahul Mehta, a veteran of the clothing industry and a member of the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India. He told Nikkei that “materials need to be replaced, processes need to be reworked, new technologies may need to be adapted.”

The EU is the world’s largest clothing importer, with its top five sources being China, Bangladesh, Turkey, the United Kingdom and India, according to Eurostat.

In Vietnam, another major exporter, sportswear brand Decathlon and the Vietnam Textile and Clothing Association are among groups urging factories to adapt in anticipation of EU rules. Only 5% of the domestic industry currently meets the criteria, state broadcaster VTV reported.

Criteria for increasing sustainability also support “reuse, rental and repair, take-back services and second-hand retail,” says the EC’s textile strategy.

Quan of the Institute for Circular Economy Development, based at Vietnam National University, said shoppers want these options but currently lack them. Retailers have only recently started testing options to extend the life of their merchandise: in some H&M stores, customers can drop off old blazers for a discount on their next purchase. Uniqlo offers on-site mending of on-site mended pants at select locations.

A display at a Uniqlo store in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district shows how clothes are made from recycled plastic bottles. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

Fast fashion is not yet an endangered species. The space queen bee, China’s Shein, still releases up to 7,0000 products a week, more than Zara does in a year. But more broadly, the mood of buyers is changing.

“Consumer attitudes are changing in the wake of the pandemic as many take a ‘less is more’ approach,” McKinsey said in its annual State of Fashion report, saying its survey showed that 65% of shoppers “planned to buy more sustainable products”. , high-quality items, and overall consumers rated ‘newness’ as one of the least important factors in their purchases.”

The consultancy warned companies “need to decouple from current volume-driven measures of success,” moving to stocks that have higher margins or are more likely to sell. He cited case studies from Reebok, which finalizes products based on consumer votes, to Louis Vuitton, which is increasing its make-to-order business. The change in tactics is aimed at reducing the stock that ends up being parked on shelves or sent to landfill.

“People see the waste in landfills, in the ocean, in the rivers, but they don’t see their responsibility,” Quan said in a video call. “This is the problem.”

From Vietnam to India, companies expect the pursuit of profit to compel them to adopt EU standards.

“This is how the world is going, whether we like it or not,” said Indian industry veteran Mehta. “And I guess if we’re going to stay in the market, we have to follow the needs of buyers.”

Additional reporting by Rurika Imahashi in Tokyo.

Comments are closed.